When Everyone Really Is Out to Get You (More Thoughts on Paranoia on the Right)

by Neil H. Buchanan

In a recent Dorf on Law post (and its companion Verdict column), I discussed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories among Republicans in this country.  Built upon the foundation of Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," I described how unfalsifiable paranoid assertions have moved from the right and left fringes of society to dominate political discourse on the mainstream right.  Indeed, many discussions among Republicans and conservatives are no longer about why their preferred policy views are correct, but instead focus on an unshakable belief that hidden cabals of Democrats are conspiring to harm the country and the world.

As I readily conceded, I am not the first to observe that Hofstadter's analysis is especially relevant to today's Republican Party.  Given that much of my time is spent writing about taxes and the Internal Revenue Service, however, I do see more of this full-on craziness than I might otherwise have reason to observe.  (There is strong overlap between conspiracy theorists and their pet beliefs, of course.  The "Obama is planning to take away your arms, so that a defenseless populace can never revolt against him" idea is distinct from the belief that the IRS is being used to punish the president's political enemies, but both arguments certainly fit into the current conversation on the right.)

To be sure, there are still people with whom I strongly disagree who do not resort to the paranoid style.  The point is simply that more and more people on the right have started to rely on that kind of thinking, not that all of them do.

In my Dorf on Law post and Verdict column, I put strong emphasis on a quote that I drew from prepared testimony that had been submitted to a U.S. Senate committee, written by a supposed health care expert at the leading (and, by the current standards of American politics, completely legitimate and mainstream) libertarian think tank.  The witness warned darkly of "political corruption and abuse of power at the IRS that goes beyond what any of us have seen in our lifetimes," asserting that "the IRS first pledged and ultimately spent taxpayer dollars on a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar contribution to the re-election campaigns of members of Congress who enacted, and a president who signed, a law that voters and Congress otherwise would have scrapped as unworkable."

In my Dorf on Law post discussing that testimony, I considered the possibility that the witness actually believed what he wrote in a literal sense, and I pointed out that the literal version of that claim (that the IRS had donated money to Democrats' electoral campaigns) fit the paranoid style perfectly, because the lack of evidence that such a thing had happened would merely prove that the perpetrators of the corruption were especially good at hiding their evil deeds.  Later, I updated that post to note that there certainly are non-literal readings of that part of the witness's testimony, but that none of those readings make things look much better.

One loyal Dorf on Law reader (who, based on off-line communications with me over the years, clearly identifies as left-of-center) responded to my post as follows: "[T]he testifier is not off-the-charts crazy, by today's standards, merely normally crazy, for a right-winger. He doesn't agree with various IRS interpretations, so he labels them violations of the law."  He then offered this "[d]iagnosis: normally insane, not to mention normally disingenuous, irresponsible, and destructive of the values of a civilized society."

Although offered as a disagreement with my assessment, however, there is nothing in that statement that is disagreeable.  Indeed, my point is that this kind of crazy talk has gone mainstream, so that there is nothing there that seems especially odd, if one is merely being swept along in the daily give-and-take that has come to dominate U.S. political discourse.

The best that one could say, I suppose, is that there is no way to know whether this particular witness is actually paranoid, because he might merely be trafficking in paranoid conspiracies in order to appeal to people who are open to that kind of argumentation.  But his immediate audience for this testimony was a group of U.S. senators, and he was a witness for the Republicans on the committee.  Hofstadter's "diagnosis" was not that Barry Goldwater was clinically paranoid, but only that he was engaged in a style of non-argumentation that is especially corrosive of political discourse.  That is what is happening here.

The witness's full testimony, which runs to less than four pages (including footnotes), is littered with the language of paranoia.  For example, the witness urges the committee to "investigate how the IRS came to tax, borrow, and spend tens of billions of dollars" in violation of the Affordable Care Act's "clear limits."  The best that one can say about any substantive, non-paranoid claim is that political appointees of the Obama Administration intervened to force the IRS to interpret the Affordable Care Act in ways that are inconsistent with the law's text (and that thus figuratively "contribute" to Democrats' campaigns by misdirecting money to left-leaning voters).  Yet here, we have the witness saying not merely that the IRS is interpreting a version of the law such that the government spends tax dollars on subsidies for people whose coverage comes through a federal exchange, but that the IRS is also "taxing and borrowing" in violation of that law.  Treating the individual mandate as a tax is, of course, unpopular on the right, but it is not a statutory argument, and it is certainly not the IRS's doing.  (And who knows where the "borrowing" thing comes from?)

More broadly, the testimony readily refers to "an out-of-control IRS."  Describing the IRS as being out of control, however, has not been limited to claims about the machinations of political appointees, but instead is based on the claim that the IRS's civil service employees are "jack-booted thugs" who prey on God-fearing Americans.  (This is the tale that was spun in the 1996 Roth hearings in the U.S. Senate, which featured flat-out lies about the IRS's supposedly out-of-control agents.)  The idea has never been that the IRS has merely been politically captured, but that the agency itself is out to get us.

Yet all of this is, in the end, arguably an over-analysis of one particularly unfortunate source.  Yet such is the nature of the argument.  The broad assertion that supposedly responsible sources on the right have begun to exhibit Hofstadterian paranoia calls for supporting examples. This is but one particularly rich example.  For those who want to read more about the increasingly detached nature of the conversation on the right, a recent essay by Bruce Bartlett (former top staffer to Republican presidents, and current apostate) is especially interesting: "How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics."  Then, for some real fun, read how some on the right have responded to Bartlett's analysis: http://www.wnd.com/2015/05/fans-of-fox-rush-wnd-accused-of-self-brainwashing/.  Hold your nose.