The Contradictions of Paranoid Nationalism

We’ve come to an odd pass in American politics. The people who have the deepest suspicions about the way government works are increasingly enthusiastic about the use of government power. 

Somehow, many of the same folks who say that government authorities shouldn’t be trusted to make sure vaccines are safe or that elections are fairly conducted also say that we should have the government set industrial policy, regulate speech on the internet, or even engineer the size and shape of American families. How can institutions so corrupt as the ones described by right-wing nationalists be trusted with the power to administer matters far more complicated than testing vaccines or counting ballots?

That’s not to say that one cannot criticize the government unless he or she favors limited government. Progressives tend not to see any contradiction between decrying the failures of governments while simultaneously demanding massive increases in government authority. The tension is not apparent to them because progressives are systematizers who believe that when the proper protocols and settings have been determined, government will be a responsible custodian of nearly limitless power. Indeed, we saw this when left-wing skepticism about vaccines developed by the same companies and overseen by the same regulators under then-President Donald Trump turned into enthusiastic support when Joe Biden became president.

So certainly some of the frothy paranoia about vaccines and ballots on the right today is just partisanship passing itself off as philosophy. If a re-elected Trump were out daily touting the best, most beautiful vaccines, we would probably see a measurable shift in the politics of vaccine anxiety. And even though Trump in 2016 claimed massive fraud in an election he won, it’s easy to see that a Trump victory in a similarly close election last year would have produced no similar meltdowns. We can write off a lot of this crazy business as just stuff people say. But not all of it.  

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