The US is mired in a period of fitna — a term used in the Islamic tradition to describe eras of socio-political tumult. It began before Trump took office. And it will outlive him.
When Trumpian insurrectionists besieged the US Capitol building earlier this month, many American commentators bemoaned that the scenes resembled those from Afghanistan, Iraq, or some other troubled foreign land.
The insinuation that the assault – which was aimed at thwarting certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory – was un-American is true in one sense: it marked a break from America’s exemplary tradition of the peaceful transfer of power, which has spanned two centuries. But the ideas and, indeed, the culture of violence behind the insurrection are very much American.
The insurrectionists, a militant motley crew of Trump supporters united under the farcical “Stop the Steal” campaign, are the latest manifestation of a broader dynamic in American political culture termed by historian Richard Hofstadter as “the paranoid style.”
The Paranoid Style in American Politics…
Writing in 1964, Hofstadter defined the paranoid style as: “the feeling of persecution…systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy…against a nation, a culture, [or] way of life.” While the American political experiment is exceptional in many ways, both Hofstadter’s study and current history make clear that Americans do not possess some magic immunity to political extremism. They are no less vulnerable to mistruths and irrational appeals to fear than other human societies.
America has seen many waves of the paranoid style since its founding. These include the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s and the anti-Communist McCarthyites of the 1950s and John Birch Society of the 1960s. A common thread uniting past and current movements is the claim that America is threatened by a traitorous cabal within the power elite controlled by an external force, such as the Catholic Church, the Soviet Union, or the Muslim Brotherhood.
The propensity of the American political system to self-correct has generally led to the eventual marginalisation of such malign political forces, though 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater flirted with the John Birch Society, whose membership around that time had reached 100,000.
America’s ability to self-correct has eroded over the past three decades, in large part due to the onslaught on the country’s civic culture by a right-wing media ecosystem that promotes a radical anti-statism, siege mentality, and militant devotion to the cult of the gun. The relentless onslaught of hyper-partisanship, along with the war on terror, has generated a massive fear industry and mainstreamed the paranoid style in America.
Conservative media outlets have pounded a fear of the other and of the bureaucratic state in the heads of white Americans, leading to a paranoid, rejectionist political culture. For example, during a stretch of the Obama era, Fox News evening programming would invariably revolve around three — unsurprisingly, racially tinged — topics: ISIS, Ebola, and illegal immigration.
Day after day, prominent radio talk show hosts like Mark Levin — aptly described by NPR contributor Annalisa Quinn as a man who “speaks in the unmistakable tenor of a man experiencing road rage” — tell viewers that the Democrats aim to subjugate them under some kind of authoritarian socialist rule. Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and the cast of characters on Fox News foster hate of Democratic politicians, focusing on women, and in particular, women of colour, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Increasingly, white American conservatives live in a bizarro intellectual cul-de-sac curated by right-wing media outlets, conditioned to live without a sense of responsibility toward others but in perpetual fear of and indignation toward those dissimilar to them. Told that “big government” is coming for their guns, they stockpile weapons and oppose gun control, despite the epidemic of mass shootings. Asked to wear masks to stop a pandemic, many refuse, despite the deaths of over 400,000 Americans due to Covid-19.
This pathology of fear and indignation, backed by corporations and billionaire donors, paved the way for the Tea Party Movement and then Donald Trump, and conditioned many to be susceptible to conspiracy theories like QAnon and the myth of the stolen 2020 election.
Can Biden bring an end to America’s ‘Fitna’?
Biden alluded to the paranoid style at Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony. He referred to American history as a “constant struggle” between the country’s founding ideals and “racism, nativism, fear, and demonisation.”
Though he pledged to devote his “whole soul” to “bringing America together,” he appears to be approaching the challenge with a sense of realism, recognising that “the battle” against regressive forces is “perennial” and “victory is never assured.”
Biden’s task of uniting America is an uphill one. America is mired in a period of fitna — a term used in the Islamic tradition to describe eras of socio-political tumult. This American fitna began before Trump took office. And it will outlive him.
A large segment of the American population feels aggrieved. Most Republicans cling to the false belief that the election was stolen from Trump. Naturally, most Democrats and independents reject those baseless claims. Though centrist politics wins in many areas, America today is polarised along partisan, geographical, racial, and educational lines. And the gulf between its pluralistic urban areas and more insular, monoracial rural regions will grow as the country progresses toward becoming a majority non-white country.
Good leadership can go a long way. Biden’s skills as a retail politician equip him to tackle the paranoid style and bring more white Americans back to the political centre. But ultimately it has been the widespread adherence to political norms and virtues that’s given America the ability to contain the paranoid style during the course of its history. And those virtues have been swept aside by partisan media outlets funded by shadowy donors and disseminated by unaccountable platforms like Facebook, whose amoral algorithms serve as conveyor belts for conspiracy theories, hate, and falsehood.
To succeed, Biden will need his Republican colleagues to take a stand against the destructive, paranoid populism that has swept their party. But most are unlikely to muster the courage to stand up to the mob. Seventy-four million Americans, or 47 percent of voters, choose Trump. And the Republicans gained ten seats in the House. The paranoid style pays. And until it does not, America’s fitna will see no end.
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