If St. Hofstadter lived today, he would probably amend one of his books The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) to "The Lunatic Style..." In the year 2015, our national mentality has gone from paranoia to full-blooded howl-at-the-moon madness. Mark Liebovich offers a preliminary diagnosis of the Lunatic Style and ultimately concludes that it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored. If this is a (fair & balanced) virtual visit to Bedlam, so be it.
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Should We Fear The Political "Crazies"?
By Mark Leibovich
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The melee began, as they often do in politics, with simple umbrage. ‘‘This performance with our friend out in Phoenix is very hurtful to me,’’ Senator John McCain told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. He was referring to a massive rally that Donald Trump held a few days earlier in July to protest illegal immigration. McCain then followed with the kill shot. ‘‘What he did,’’ he said of Trump, ‘‘was he fired up the crazies.’’ In the annals of political deprecation, McCain’s charge of rallying the ‘‘crazies’’ was not terribly inspired. It was a far cry from, say, Teddy Roosevelt’s remark that William McKinley ‘‘has the backbone of a chocolate éclair’’ or Winston Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee, the British prime minister, as ‘‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing.’’ This was not even a Top 5 effort by McCain, who will sometimes refer to reporters as ‘‘Trotskyites’’ (often with affection) and last year dismissed protesters who interrupted a Senate hearing as ‘‘lowlife scum’’ (without affection). McCain is not so much a put-down artist as he is gifted at caricaturing entire sectors and viewpoints by way of dismissing them — in this case the border hawks who turned out for Trump.
But let’s pause on ‘‘crazies.’’ The word goes to the crux of how divisions are playing out in this peculiar campaign cycle among Republicans and, to some degree, among Democrats too. It is a slur that invites philosophical questions: Exactly who is crazy and who is not in today’s political environment? Are ‘‘crazies’’ an ascendant class in opposition to the same-old political traditions and tropes: Clintons, Bushes and McCains? Can ‘‘crazies’’ be worn as a badge of honor?
Of course, McCain never intended ‘‘crazies’’ as a compliment. ‘‘We have a very extreme element within our Republican Party,’’ he said in the same New Yorker interview. To McCain, ‘‘extreme’’ equals ‘‘crazy.’’ Their position falls well beyond the American mainstream in addition to emanating from unhinged minds. The word was a variant of the more colorful ‘‘wacko birds’’ that McCain deployed in 2013 to describe the Republican senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul after they began a filibuster over the nomination of the incoming C.I.A. director, John Brennan. Taking vocal and often contrarian positions (or, if you prefer, grandstanding) can be a publicity magnet for any attention-hungry pol, no matter where he or she resides on the spectrum, political or otherwise. ‘‘It’s always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone,’’ McCain observed. This is true, although it’s also true of someone that tosses around quotable terms like ‘‘wacko birds.’’
In saner times — we had those once, I think — ‘‘crazies’’ could be more easily dismissed as irresponsible, sinister and maybe dangerous actors. The fringe elements have also been known variously as ‘‘hard-liners,’’ ‘‘wing nuts,’’ ‘‘wackadoodles,’’ ‘‘zealots,’’ ‘‘ideologues,’’ ‘‘die-hards,’’ ‘‘radicals’’ and ‘‘true believers.’’ ‘‘He is out there, out of the mainstream,’’ George Bush [the Elder] said of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, during his 1988 presidential campaign. Along this line of rhetoric, deviating too far from the political middle can be likened to insanity.
There are many ways to cast an opponent as being mentally unwell (or as an ‘‘invalid,’’ as Ronald Reagan once called Dukakis). You could suggest a certain ‘‘crazy’’ is driven by narcissistic rage and a willingness to do harm to a person’s putative allies. When House Republicans were debating whether to let the government shut down in 2013 over their opposition to Obamacare, Representative Devin Nunes of California ridiculed more adamant elements of his caucus as ‘‘lemmings with suicide vests.’’ Nunes elaborated that ‘‘jumping to your death is not enough.’’ It’s not enough, either, to write off your opponents as suicidal. They don’t die, and they tend not to go away easily.
A common weapon for bludgeoning a ‘‘crazy’’ is to insinuate paranoia by consigning them to ‘‘the black-helicopter crowd.’’ The term implies a taste for conspiracy theories, especially those tied to powerful institutions (i.e., the U.S. government) against targeted civilians (i.e., them). The image of black helicopters gained currency among antigovernment and militia enthusiasts in the mid-1990s. The Republican congresswoman Helen Chenoweth said in 1995 that federal agents had been seen landing black helicopters in her rural Idaho district.
Black helicopters have become a proxy for dismissing as delusional anyone, usually on the right, who is hostile to any kind of government action. In 2013, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that a suggestion that guns need to be registered ‘‘raises all the black-helicopter-crowd notion that what this is all about is identifying who has a gun so that one day the government can get up and go to the house and arrest everyone who has a gun.’’ For good measure, Biden tacked on that ‘‘they’ll cite Nazi Germany and all that.’’ And all that.
Where to begin with the ‘‘all thats’’? My favorite corner of the black-helicopter universe is the so-called ‘‘tin-foil-hat crowd,’’ a term that plays on historical paranoia about electromagnetic radiation and the dubious belief that metal headwear might offer some protection. Sometimes, there is an occasion in American politics to use the phrase almost literally: In May, after the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee warned of ‘‘threats from an electromagnetic pulse from an exploded device that could fry the entire electrical grid and take the country back to the Stone Age,’’ you could hardly blame Salon for hailing him in a headline as ‘‘A President for the Tinfoil Hat Crowd.’’ (As a point of style, getting the term ‘‘crowd’’ into a put-down always lends an extra beat of dismissiveness.)
But the word is usually far more metaphorical and can be applied to each side. After a debate in 2012, liberal bloggers were accusing Mitt Romney of gaining an unfair advantage over Barack Obama by sneaking a cheat sheet onto his lectern. Romney supporters accused the other side of planting the story, and the Obama campaign wanted no part of this conspiracy. ‘‘We’ve never casted our lot with the tinfoil-hat crowd,’’ Ben Labolt, a spokesman for Obama, said.
Each party has always had passionate elements whom its leaders and candidates have decried as loony tunes. But as times change, so do notions of mainstream and loony tunes. Establishment candidates can wind up absorbing people into their coalitions that they might privately consider to be ‘‘crazies’’ or adapting their views to suit their campaigns. Hillary Rodham Clinton has run a far more liberal campaign to this point than she did in 2008, in part to tap into (or placate) an energized progressive base that helped sink her candidacy seven years ago. Could an actual socialist, Bernie Sanders, be a threat to her? How crazy would that be?
You could argue that these are crazy times and there are thus worse things to be called than a ‘‘crazy.’’ The affiliation suggests an admirable passion and less risk-aversion, a willingness to disrupt. In fact, many of the same Republicans that make up McCain’s ‘‘very extreme element’’ were part of the same movement — known as the Tea Party — that helped the G.O.P. win a congressional majority in 2010. They also might throw a primary scare into McCain when he seeks re-election in Arizona next year.
Trump is embracing it all. There is a thrilling quality to watching him. We tune in for the same reasons that pro-wrestling fans always watched Piper’s Pit. What will happen today? What will Rowdy Roddy say next? Crazy can make great box office. And as Trump is proving, there are clear benefits to being aligned with the crazies, especially in a Republican field so crowded that it can be difficult to get separation.
While party leaders have criticized Trump for his ‘‘tone,’’ he flouts this very criticism as emblematic of a political status quo. Not only is he correct about that, it’s arguable that the political status quo is itself a big bag of calcified crazy. The same ‘‘tone’’ — cautious and hyperdeferential — has dominated politics for a long time and yet our politics haven’t improved. Politicians are so fond of invoking that clichéd definition of insanity that has been variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain: ‘‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’’ And yet those same politicians keep coming back year after year, repeating the same old talking points and following the same unspoken rules.
Lindsey Graham recently referred to Trump as a ‘‘wrecking ball,’’ a term he borrowed, if not from Miley Cyrus, then from his friend McCain, who once derided John Kerry with the same metaphor in criticizing Kerry’s diplomatic forays as secretary of state. McCain was once viewed as a kind of wrecking ball, too, back in 2000, when he first ran for president and was driving his party establishment nuts. He nearly knocked off the overwhelming front-runner, George W. Bush. He spearheaded a bill, McCain-Feingold, in 2002, that overhauled the nation’s campaign-finance system (at least until the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to that). His tone was blunt, he appeared to be making it up as he went along and he took contrarian positions. He was derided as dangerous and disruptive, even crazy, though he preferred a different term: ‘‘maverick.’’ Ω
[Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, based in Washington, DC. He also writes the Times magazine's "Your Fellow Americans" column about politics, media, and public life. Liebovich has written three books: The New Imperialists (2002), This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital (2013), and Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion (2014). Ne received a BA (English) from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.]
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