The Contradictions of Paranoid Nationalism

Suspicion of authority is an old and important part of American conservatism. But so too is respect for righteous authority and tradition.

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.  

Suspicion of authority is an old and important part of American conservatism. But so too is respect for righteous authority and tradition. Ongoing efforts on the right wing to discourage Americans from getting vaccinated against coronavirus and to overturn the certified results of an election held nine months ago tell me that things have gotten pretty badly out of whack between those competing impulses of suspicion and tradition.

On the nationalist right today, there is something of Jo Stoyte, the central character of Aldous Huxley’s 1939 After Many a Summer Dies The Swan. Stoyte, a paranoid mogul of the William Hearst kind, encourages a young subordinate to be a cynic, and especially “cynical about all the actions and feelings you’ve been taught to suppose were good. Most of them are not good,” he sneers. “They’re merely evils which happen to be regarded as creditable. But unfortunately, creditable evil is just as bad as discreditable evil.”

Stoyte’s sneering contempt for “solemn twaddle that’s talked by bishops and bankers and professors and politicians and all the rest of them” is a staple of the new American right. Or maybe you’d rather another cynic from literature, Holden Caulfield: “If you sat around there long enough and heard all the phonies applauding and all, you got to hate everybody in the world, I swear you did.”

Part of this is perhaps a logical extension of the initial line of defense for the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump: “Who are you to criticize?” There was quite a lot of utility in these arguments, which were often called “whataboutism” by their many detractors. Ad hominem, the attack ad of argumentation, may be a dodge, but very often an effective one. “Who are you to call Trump a liar/clown/crook/demagogue given what Obama/Bush/Democrats/the media did?”  

The Trump movement pulled together several strands of the political right in an effort that was less about defending the candidate (and then president) than it was about discrediting the myriad mainstream institutions and individuals that were working around the clock to oppose him. Anti-anti-Trump sentiment drew on longstanding conservative disdain for elites and conventional wisdom and merged it with an apocalyptic kind of negative partisanship. The political establishment is so bad, the reasoning went, that the country is a shambles. Why should we listen to any of the people who ruined our once great nation criticizing an outsider boldly seeking to save it? “Question everything” used to be just left-wing claptrap. Now it finds a home at the extremes on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

How much or how little the government does is, of course, gradient and conditional. The choices aren’t between authoritarianism and anarchy, and how much authority we grant the government depends on the circumstances, like war, pandemic, etc. It’s also true that expansions of government power undertaken during exigent circumstances are sometimes never surrendered. Exposing and decrying abuses of power, corruption, and incompetence should be vital work for all Americans, regardless of ideology or partisanship. Indeed, our institutions frequently fail and merit a highly skeptical attitude about the expansion and use of government power. That was, in fact, the central tenet of American conservatism for more than a century. Suspicion of government power mandated some humility about expanding those powers.

These cynical nationalists could argue that when they and their fellows are in total control that government might merit the kinds of powers to determine how people work, live, communicate, and procreate. But that would really just be right-wing progressivism.