Apparently, a defense of McCarthy, Birch, and Populism
Perhaps the most influential political essay of the 20th century is Columbia professor Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first given as a BBC lecture in 1959 (as “The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style”) and then published in Harper’s in 1964. The essay’s argument is simple: right-wing politics has become mired in paranoid conspiracy theories, particularly at the extremes.
Since its publication in Harper’s, the essay has been studied, reexamined, and repurposed ad nauseum; its contribution to the political lexicon — “paranoid style” — has been elevated to catechism among the elite. The essay is a wily response to a book published two decades previously, James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which argues that a deep state had formed in the U.S. and this corporate-state alliance was beginning to dominate the nation’s power structures and subvert the nation’s institutions. The battle between the mutually exclusive arguments of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and The Managerial Revolution unfolded in the 1950s — from Senate hearings and FBI raids to CIA assassinations and the pages of National Review. The “paranoid style” argument has had many victories, largely due to co-opting much of the Right and expanding its control mechanisms. The election of Trump was the first clear victory for Burnham’s argument since its publication in 1941, and the increasing and open acknowledgement of a “deep state” is beginning to expose the true purpose of Hofstadter’s argument.
“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” devotes most of its space to providing examples of political “paranoia” and the ways in which such paranoia serves as substance of political discourse and fuel for political action. Any decent student of history would recognize that such “paranoia” is often justified, and, as such, isn’t paranoia at all but rather hypotheses that seek to explain observations yet lack definitive proof.
Hofstadter spills much ink on the supposed paranoia of 19th-century Free Silver populists, apparently ignorant that bankers, politicians and others were bribed in order to maintain the gold standard; some historians have gone so far as to publish copies of the checks used to bribe government officials. The supposed paranoia of the pro-silver populists was fueled by their observations that their positions were both popular and economically sound, which raised questions as to why the government opposed them so viciously.
Hofstadter also devotes much space to the paranoia of McCarthyism, yet doesn’t reveal that a small battalion of government officials — including in the Pentagon and State Department — were proven to be on the Kremlin payroll. Hofstadter takes a swipe at those who suggest Alger Hiss was a Kremlin employee, despite the preponderance of the evidence — available in the 1950s and substantially greater now — that Hiss was an agent of Soviet military intelligence (GRU).
Hofstadter spends even more space on Adam Weishaupt, the creator of “Illuminism” (of Illuminati fame). He refers to Weishaupt as “a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt” and Illuminism as “another version of Enlightenment rationalism … somewhat naïve and utopian.” Hofstadter’s argument is simple: those who are focused on the “Illuminati” are paranoid and perhaps even mentally ill. Hofstadter is conveniently silent on several facts. First, Weishaupt was terminated from the University of Ingolstadt because his “version of Enlightenment rationalism” seemed to many to be some kind of pagan cult (it was). Weishaupt then fled his home country (Bavaria), fearing that his new pagan cult had created many enemies (it had). There was fairly widespread agreement that Weishaupt’s “Illuminism” was some kind of gnostic cult — perhaps akin to modern Scientology — and even George Washington agreed that “Illuminism” should be stamped out. Weishaupt did attempt to spread Illuminism through Masonic lodges, with some success. And Illuminism was sometimes blamed for the extremes of the French Revolution, in large part because Illuminism seemed more pagan-cult than Christian Enlightenment.
Hofstadter then turns his pen to the general public’s suspicion of the Masons. And yet he barely conceals his low opinion of his readers when he admits that “Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry,” yet follows with “What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. …the author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was ‘not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man. . . . It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.’” A historian (of any stature) recognizes the words of a polemicist; history is replete with them. Polemicists make statements not of pure fact (asserted or believed) but rather as rhetorical strategy to move opinion (not necessarily to build consensus or persuade). There’s only about three thousand years of polemics, and it’s often deployed by a minority group attempting to breech the walls of the majority narrative or by the majority to justify an oft unjust action. If polemics is paranoia, then every minority group for the last few thousand years is just paranoid and every political call to action is simple paranoia.
Tellingly, Hofstadter conceals the reason for the public’s revolt against Masonry. The first third-party in the America was the Anti-Masonic Party, founded in 1828. Given his credentials and stature, surely Hofstadter would know that the Anti-Masonic Party wasn’t opposed to some “version of Enlightenment rationalism.” To early Americans, Masonry wasn’t some odd foreign cult as much as it was a secret congress of oligarchs. The Masons courted and served each city’s elite — bankers, well-connected lawyers, the wealthiest of businessmen, and powerful politicians, from New York’s governor to the President. The Anti-Masonic Party wasn’t opposed to Masonry-the-cult; it was opposed to Masonry-the-cabal. As such, the Anti-Masonic Party was a genuine, grassroots populist party founded in the then-hinterland of upstate New York. And all this started when an ex-Mason wrote a book “exposing” Masonry and, in response, the Masons murdered him before it was published. To many, the Masons were deadly serious about maintaining their secrecy and power.
Hofstadter then turns to Robert Welch and the John Birch Society as prime evidence of the modern political paranoia of the right. First, it’s revealing that Hofstadter’s prime evidence for right wing paranoia — Robert Welch and the John Birch Society — is a person who and a society that most people have never heard of. If paranoia were a prominent feature of the rightwing, one would think he’d produce evidence of a more enduring quality. It is perhaps noteworthy that Welch — supposed chief lunatic of the rightwing fringe — did not dwell in a mountaintop hideaway, spending his days decrypting cyphers on sheepskin and his nights cursing the moon. Welch attended the Naval Academy and Harvard, and joined his brother in the candy business, launching such candies as Junior Mints and Sugar Daddies. Welch’s company was sold to Nabisco in the 1960s, and his brother was on the Nabisco board for 15 years. Welch spent most of his adult life in the Cambridge area.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Welch was consumed with the idea of Communist infiltration of Western governments, as Hofstadter notes. While Welch seemingly may have gone too far at times, it’s not disputable that the Kremlin had thoroughly infiltrated Washington, D.C. at the highest levels. But by the 1960s, Welch had turned his attention is what he theorized was a conspiracy of globalist bankers, large corporations and governments that sought to control the flow of money and information. This cabal was what Welch generally referred to as the “Illuminati.” So was Welch a paranoid conspiracy theorist, or was Hofstadter “somewhat naïve and utopian” for deriding the idea that the West was festering with apparatchiks and bankers scheming for power?
It’s no coincidence that Welch turned to a “paranoid style” at the same time as the U.S. security state accelerated its covert shenanigans. Perhaps Welch suspected that the CIA was involved in the Guatemalan coup of 1954 that started with CIA psyops, false flags, bombings and murders and ended with a decades-long civil war. Or perhaps Welch had heard the rumors that the FBI produced forged and tampered evidence to frame Alger Hiss. (Welch would have still believed Hiss guilty of being a Kremlin asset, but he wouldn’t doubt that Hoover’s FBI would have forged evidence.) Or maybe Welch witnessed the CIA’s early 1950s shadow war in Vietnam or the CIA’s 1953 Iranian coup. Or maybe Welch wasn’t paranoid at all but rather recognized that new state security apparatuses intended to frame narratives and control history by pen or by sword, if necessary. In January of 2017, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer belatedly endorsed the “paranoid style,” warning Trump that intel agents “have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Welch just seems like an early adherent to the Democratic Leader’s advice.
In March 2008, William F. Buckley reminisced about his plot to discredit Welch. In 1962, Buckley was the public face of genteel conservatism, and in that year he convened with several other leading conservatives at the Breakers in Palm Beach not to plot Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president (as Russel Kirk presumed) but rather to plot Welch’s demise. Kirk referred to Welch as a man “disconnected from reality,” and Buckley called Welch’s ideas “wild.” As evidence — the only evidence — Buckley offers in his 2008 reminiscence is that Welch thought Eisenhower weak on Communism, perhaps a communist sympathizer, maybe even a Kremlin asset. Both Buckley and Hofstadter agree: Welch’s assessment of Eisenhower was unhinged.
And yet, how to explain why Eisenhower, who had come to office promising to be more resolute than Truman in resisting global communism, was strangely weak on communism, particularly in Asia? Eisenhower always seemed to do as little as possible to resist communism, usually by permitting the CIA free-reign but restraining the Pentagon. And Welch couldn’t forget Eisenhower’s complicity in forcing anti-communist Russians and Europeans to death camps under Soviet control. Welch considered Eisenhower complicit in Soviet war crimes; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, among others, concurred. The evidence for Eisenhower’s tepid communist policies is abundant, and Welch’s analysis was perhaps improbable but empirically possible. Most historians agree that Eisenhower was determined — perhaps to a fault — to get a peace dividend from WWII even if it meant ignoring the Kremlin’s global domination efforts, and Eisenhower viewed the presidency more as a working vacation than another job. After WWII, Eisenhower didn’t want another real job.
Similarly, it wasn’t communism, per se, that drove McCarthy to commit suicide-by-vodka. On numerous occasions, Congress discovered vast spy networks in D.C. only to further discover that the U.S. security state — usually the FBI — had been aware of them for years. In one case wherein a Kremlin spy ring had purloined thousands of classified documents, the FBI white-washed the entire affair to, it seemed at the time, conceal their embarrassment. In perhaps the most famous case, Robert Oppenheimer — the father of the atomic bomb and head of Los Alamos Laboratory — was revealed to be a member of the communist party and regularly employed communists at America’s most sensitive research lab. Most surprisingly, U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of these issues when they granted Oppenheimer a security clearance. It wasn’t until years later, in 1954, that Oppenheimer’s communist sympathies were publicly revealed, at which point he was terminated from his position at Los Alamos and his security clearance was revoked.
Was the FBI incompetent or complicit? How, then, to explain the FBI’s seeming sans souci attitude toward Kremlin infiltration and laissez-faire attitude toward communists? Were the FBI fellow travelers? These questions haunted McCarthy, just as they haunted Welch.
Buckley ends his 2008 essay with “The wound we Palm Beach plotters delivered to the John Birch Society proved fatal over time. Barry Goldwater did not win the presidency, but he clarified the proper place of anti-Communism on the Right, with bright prospects to follow.”
To best understand the source of Buckley’s repulsion, we must first consider the source of the anti-communist argument of the 1940s and 1950s. It all started in earnest when the chair of NYU’s philosophy department, James Burnham, published The Managerial Revolution in 1941. Burnham, who until very recently had been a communist, described the soft communism of management apparatchiks who funneled power to a new oligarchy. The mechanisms of power and control were identical to communist mechanisms, though the legal and narrative framework were refurbished to make such mechanisms tolerable in the West. For Burnham, this was a revolution in the truest sense of the word; it was a radical, undemocratic seizure of power. Burham’s ideas were further developed by others and by the late 1940s, it became clear that reality was confirming Burnham’s hypothesis: power was being concentrated by an unholy alliance of state and corporation, and the lower priests of this new temple — the managerial class — kept the parishioners on the pew side of the altar. Whittaker Chambers wrote in Life magazine in 1953, “there is a strong family resemblance between the Communist state and the welfare state. The ends each has in view have much in common.” Chambers and others observed that when one grind downs civilization to its secular bureaucracy, all that remains are the material values and the processes to achieve them, and such a secular elite profits from the gaucheries of consumerism and endless wars (against communism, for democracy, against poverty, for freedom, against viruses … it hardly matters). McCarthy, Welch and others were exceedingly dangerous precisely because they struck at the heart of the new elitism. Senator McCarthy sensed the radical takeover of the managerial elite but dispossessed of the language or conceptual framework to understand it, he defaulted to “communism” whenever he saw it, though his rhetoric was consistently that of an antiestablishment populist. Eisenhower, in his famous “military industrial complex” exit speech, references this new proto-deep state reality. It is against this arising awareness that Hofstadter had to erect an echo chamber.
Burnham and many others with similar ideas were in Buckley’s inner circle, so Buckey was entirely aware of these ideas. So what explains his reflexive disgust at Welch? Ironically, Welch was more east-coast elite than Buckley could ever hope to be; Welch was vastly wealthier and lived his adult life in the New York-Boston corridor. But Welch did something Buckley despised; he talked to the shopkeeper in Des Moines, the Texas truck-driver, the alienated Phoenix housewife. Buckley aspired to be the king and kingmaker of coastal intelligentsia; National Review was written for the aspirational intelligentsia of New York and D.C. The shopkeeper in Des Moines wasn’t worth talking to. And so, in some combination of professional jealousy and political inadequacy, Buckley elevated Welch to Enemy #1. (In his continued efforts to destroy populism, Buckley aligned with the big government globalist neo-cons a decade later; there was no principal too great that could thwart Buckley’s elitism. This, of course, is also why the Never-Trumpers would align with anyone who wasn’t a populist. Like Reagan, Trump was a populist, but unlike Reagan, Trump meant it. Trump of course, had his own paranoid style.)
Buckley’s great contribution, cocktail-hour conservatism, is limping along as Never-Trumpers. His National Review has withered into irrelevance. “Paranoid-style” modern Birchers have had more political success recently and now effectively control the House. Buckley could ignore the first Church Committee, but it seems America finally couldn’t. Of course, perhaps Buckley was so defensive about the security state because he was a CIA operative.
Hofstadter reveals none of these facts to his hapless Harper’s readers, who, as leftist coastal elites, want nothing more than taxonomic warfare wrapped in confirmation bias. Hofstadter was erecting the echo chamber that would quarantine the new elites from the masses and assuage their pseudo-intellectual needs with a pseudo-psychological label. The echo chamber becomes evident when the Democrats launched into a manager-led swamp war only to discover that the shopkeeper in Des Moines is a bit annoyed and confused as to why his son died in some place called the Mekong Delta. As the shopkeeper’s eyes wander across the newly purchased global map from Des Moines to Mekong to try to conjure what kind of sky his son saw as he slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God, the taxonomic war broke out and he learned he was homophobic, racist, sexist, and many other dreadful taxonomies despite the lack of evidence, for it’s all systemic.
And while Buckley didn’t exactly desire full agreement with these managerial soft-communists, he did want to be invited to their Christmas parties and July 4th barbecues, so he was never going to expose their secret handshakes and solemn oaths.
Die Neue Gnostics
One must wonder why anyone would be so credulous as to believe an elitest crank like Hofstadter, even if one is an aspiring elitest in search of an echo chamber. The answer lies in the epicurean Gnosticism that has gripped the west since the Victorian era (today often called ‘scientism’), as evidenced by the late Victorian popularity of seances, mystics, phrenology, and satanism, though all these made the mistake of not deploying enough pseudo-intellectual terminology and hiring salesmen with disarming mid-European accents, fake or otherwise. (Hofstadter conveniently provides a definition for an epicurean-Gnostic leader: “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.… He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”)
Gnosticism gains its power from painting the world as illusion and promising revelation. Enter the temple, swear an oath, and slowly you’ll learn the ways of the new priesthood. While everything from the 19th century Masons to Mormons and Scientology feeds from this power-by-revelation trough, the most enduring forces were those that had fungible political and financial ends, such as Marx and Freud (substantially via his nephew, Bernays, the supposed inventor of mass social engineering). The gnostic revelation — an invitation into the inner temple — is potent, and those who are primed by their alienation from eternal truth are easy targets. (Alienation-priming is the purpose of post WWI education.) Hofstadter, by revealing that the enemy of the coastal elites are, in fact, insane, accredited and normalized the label and obscured the leviathan feasting in the swamps from D.C. to Vietnam.
When is a conspiracy not a conspiracy? When it’s a hypothesis supported by some observation. It may not be proven, but it’s clearly based on reality and not some subversion of one’s basic cognitive functions. In contrast, Gnosticism is a religion that requires suspension of disbelief and unwavering devotion; it is not an hypothesis born from observation. The American revolution, for example, was founded on hypothesis, not paranoia.
In Boston, 1760, the local merchants filed a lawsuit against the Crown that alleged a conspiracy of the government to terrorize merchants who supported lower taxes. The case went to the king’s attorney, James Otis. As the king’s attorney, Otis worked on the inside and knew exactly what was going on. So, when he walked into the courtroom for the trial in February 1761, he changed sides and argued on behalf of the merchants. The conspiracy, Otis proved, was entirely true.
And a few years later, Otis and Sam Adams alleged a conspiracy by the ministry in London to send British soldiers to patrol Boston. Other supposed conspiracy theories ensued, including one that alleged the prime minister was conspiring to assassinate Otis. All proved true. Otis was, at times, labelled “insane,” and yet he was the indispensable philosopher of our nation. Had Hofstadter written in the 1760s, he would have informed us of Otis’s “paranoid style” and dismissed criticism of Diderot (“just another version of Enlightenment rationalism”) in his role as leviathan obscurantist. The lede on Hofstadter’s essay — perhaps written by a Harper’s editor and not Hofstadter because it is suspiciously accurate — is: “It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it — and its targets have ranged from ‘the international bankers’ to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.” Not much revision is required to convert that into a summary of the philosophy of America’s Founding Fathers.
Intellectuals and similar elites leverage the poor to overthrow the old guard, because the intelligentsia aren’t about to get their hands dirty. The poor are assured their rights have been trampled and their treasure stolen to justify doing the intelligentsia’s dirty work. The intelligentsia then form a rigid, ever-increasing, unmovable bureaucracy and fill it with social-engineering managerial globalists who, through jackboot and propaganda, convince the poor that things are — or will — get better. But it doesn’t matter if the lies aren’t believed; the old guard is gone and the poor are helpless under the unrelenting social engineering of the bureaucracy. This happened in Russia in 1918 and unfolded there throughout the 1920s. This also happened in the U.S. starting in the 1930s, as James Burham articulated. This is what Welch and the Birchers realized. Buckley despised Welch precisely because Welch knew Buckley was but a crypto-cheerleader for the new intelligentsia and its bureaucracy, shaking his pom poms fortnightly in the National Review.
Wars are the mechanism to transfer wealth from the old elite to the new elite, who owe their allegiance to the managerial globalists who enabled their rise to power. Welch was very aware of this. He lived it. The world was becoming globalized into managed fiefdoms — NATO, the U.N., etc. One only has to observe the tremendous wealth around the D.C. suburbs to know that Welch was correct.
Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist agent who, by the late 1940s, was doubtless another abuser of the paranoid style, wrote in 1952, “I saw that the New Deal was only superficially a reform movement. I had to acknowledge the truth of what its more forthright protagonists, sometimes defiantly, averred: the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking. In so far as it was successful, the power of politics had replaced the power of business. This is the basic power shift of all the revolutions of our time. This shift was the revolution.”
While Buckley preferred genteel antipathy without resistance, others were aware of a new and growing oligarchy-by-social-engineering that manufactured docility and consent and was allied with corporations, universities and foundations, the mass media, unions, and other bureaucracies. The Masons were much-hated because they were creating an American caste system; the new Masons, the managerial class and their temples of regulation, were creating a new caste system, protected by a social engineering leviathan. Many exposed and opposed this new gnostic front. And Hofstadter called them paranoid.
Massachusetts royal governor Bernard believed in a docile, subservient relationship between the royal powers and the people. But by the mid-1760s, he was wondering why the people no longer trusted their government. James Otis responded that “the times were altered; they now knew what their rights were, then they did not.”