This is about traitor paranoia, and the origins of a sub-culture. Back in U.S. history’s dark age, when “southern minority” meant slaveholders, not blacks, a culture of personal distrust threaded through the south. Historians William Freehling and George Frederickson agree that slaveholder faith in other people’s reliability declined after 1800. Even in the Deep South, a white majority didn’t own slaves, so their alliance with plantation owners lacked economic credibility. Slaveholders enforced these whites’ allegiance with violent ideology: anyone who doubted the patrician slave-based order was branded an abolitionist, a lynching charge. Any break in white unanimity seemed to threaten slavery, since slave-owners knew national and international norms were moving towards emancipation.
Slave-owners worried whether ordinary whites were secretly anti-feudal capitalists who dissimulated their faith in slavery. Yet when slave-holders punished suspicious whites, it only made the lordly planters suspect ordinary yeomen even more, since threats made people hide true feelings. But whether the white non-slaveholder majority pretended their love of the slavery system, or bought into it authentically, they feared slaveholder power, and loathed African-American competition.
Slaves were a bigger slaveholder dilemma. By the 19th century’s second decade, abolitionism gained northern traction. The British debated shutting the international slave trade, and in North America, an evangelical minority preached emancipation. In response, slave-owners claimed slaves acquiesced to their condition, and as patricians their responsibility was to rule an inferior population. For evidence, they demonstrated, and thus demanded, acquiescent slave behavior in public. Back stage the rules were compelled with whippings and torture, peppered with discordant bits of reward. Officially powerless, slaves flexed their identities to survive. They could act subservient, feign sickness, or hang tough as opportunity afforded. In the privacy of African-American community, masks dropped. Stories mocked owners, real-world knowledge was collected, plots hatched.
Slaveholders might dimly recognize blacks’ bifurcating identities, or see clearly that subservience was usually an act; in either case it transformed owner psychology. They told each other that slaves had doubtful character, but what that really meant was the slave’s intentions were hidden.
Surrounded by subjugated blacks who pretended humility to survive, and white commoners who might fake their politics to avoid ostracism, slaveholders felt adrift in interpersonal distrust, unanchored to solid interpersonal facts. The mass of other people hid revolutionary thoughts, whispers, and activists. Slave-owner paranoia was only partially a reaction to organized slave insurrections. A much greater psychological impact came from personal threats, unknown until executed by apparently subservient helpers. Sudden death from mysterious sickness after tea, or from a broken wagon wheel or hunting fall, supposedly random 19th century events, increased as slaves were forced to act like servants.
To keep sane, when common-sense logic suggested slaves could murder their tormentors quite rationally, slaveholders pretended to believe their own propaganda: they opined trust in patrician order, with authentic slave subservience its real result. Yet they were actually far from certain. Plantation owners wanted to deny slave complicity in accidental deaths, because admitting slave agency revealed their patrician power wasn’t substantial enough. But big house wives, educated yet subordinate, knew better.
This sowed deep paranoia, not of mass movements, but of hidden agency. Slave-owners scanned for secret revolutionaries, who might exist behind the most appealing or subservient mask. This habit of fearing hidden traitors with secret threats began as a psychological adaptation to slaveholders’ immediate conditions. But if stimulated by context, once learned and spread it entered culture, passed by intimate osmosis between generations, and became a way of understanding the world.
Secret Traitor Paranoia Modernizes
After the Civil War, the south itself feigned national subservience, while it reasserted white supremacy in daily life. This balancing act between slavery and freedom, succession and nationalism, bottled up slaveholding culture regionally. Populist southern demagoguery showed that southern society remained ripe for interpersonal distrust, as political bullies blamed all on traitors. But the American economic engine chugging west was too hopeful for nation-wide paranoia.
Post World War II southern out-migration changed the picture. Northern industrial centers found new neighbors. The blacks were different, their motives difficult to unlock. Southern whites provided keys, which warned that friendly behavior could mask murderous intent.
Southern whites also moved southwest, to the sunshine reaches of Arizona, Texas, and California. Although historically anti-immigrant, these areas had relatively fewer African-American concentrations. Yet conservative south-westerners Nixon, Goldwater, and Reagan brandished the threat of secret traitors. They used it as a tactic, rather than from fear (although Nixon’s paranoia was fierce). Their goal was to maintain social order, based on ethnicity and ideology, and denouncing hidden enemies served this purpose.
McCarthy rediscovered how to profit from hidden identity paranoia. The threat was no longer abolitionists, but communism. Communist agents threatened a “way of life”, as did abolitionists in the antebellum south. Like slaveholders, McCarthy used fear to establish apparent order. Like slaveholders, he wasn’t concerned about attacking innocents; his purpose was to set examples, not serve justice.
The Manchurian Candidate, a best-seller about a presidential operative brainwashed by communists, represents this with classic cold-war themes. Subtract a century, move the tale to South Carolina, and have the political pretender brainwashed by abolitionists in Boston, and much dialogue and action could remain the same. Even America’s commander-in-chief could be a revolutionary agent, as the big plantation’s most trusted slave could secretly murder his or her true master.
Whether from intuition, logic, or advice, southwest conservative politicians recognized alignments between southern culture and their immediate political projects. They sought to govern southwestern publics that paid attention to the Cold War, but some of whom had emigrated west with an inherited belief in secret traitors. To multiply these fears purposefully, anti-communism offered limited targets. The State Department “turncoat” accused of communist sympathies was rarely intimidating in person. It was the idea that a trusted servant stabbed the nation in the back that connected with tradition. This followed the Nazi strategy of targeting inoffensive looking Jews, by labeling them dissimulating murderers.
Goldwater and other conservatives were as serious about minority subservience as anti-communism. Goldwater titled towards white supremacy, Nixon towards white victimization, and Reagan played on the connection between racism and anti-intellectualism. The McCarthy model appealed to all three politicians. Part of the southwest’s ethnocentric culture had roots in Mexican-American competition, but part shipped west on the Southern Pacific, the paranoia of southern reactionaries. Goldwater and the others knew that hidden communists symbolized secret threats. With civil rights movements rippling through the nation, the latent culture of hidden paranoia was primed for action.
Cold War Traitors Lose Power …
As the Cold War threat receded, black equality proceeded. Goldwater lost his presidential effort by a landslide, signaling Cold War and Jim Crow politics national strength flagged. Within two years, the south’s peculiar Jim Crow equilibrium was finished, but that unleashed double-barreled blow-back. Southern whites had to rub shoulders with blacks they’d oppressed for centuries; who knew what secret retributions they planned? Northern whites noticed black populations had not assimilated, and if whites didn’t understand or like blacks, they assumed blacks felt the same in return.
Minority populations did harbor some sixties revolutionaries, though not hidden. Yet time passed and revolution faded. Northern blacks succumbed to poverty or rose to the middle class, and northern white fears turned to safety and crime. Young black men were potential muggers, not traitors. In the south, whites re-segregated schools by sending their children to affordable Christian academies. Race war failed to materialize.
Nixon and Reagan turned the south Republican by knocking civil rights and black culture. Reagan coalesced a Republican majority with a heady mix of nostalgic anti-communism and pre-civil rights era attitudes. But if his success was helped by racist supporters, and Reagan succumbed to racist views, his was a hopeful candidacy with a positive leitmotif, not a paranoid one. Being anti-communist and white was what the U.S. was good at, by golly, so what’s the problem?
Reagan managed to side step social controversy, by focusing on economic change with his “voodoo” supply-side message. His primary opponent and eventual running mate George H.W. Bush insulted Reagonomics with this African origin term (voodoo); which may have meant more than just “crazy”. Voodoo is popularly viewed, in the U.S., as a form of charlatanism. After decades fraught with scary civil rights conflicts, communist subversives and nuclear war fears, Reagan got elected by asking people whether they were better off than they used to be. It was a line used by itinerant preachers offering spirit-derived riches. Clinton distilled this to “its the economy, stupid,” which ridiculed Reagan’s voodooism while grasping its essence. Ethnicity, foreign events, and culture conflict mattered, but majorities voted for economic prosperity. They seemed to view Presidents as economic priests, with mysterious power to cause economic change. The secret traitor fear was not dead, just buried under a cargo-cult mentality.
America’s two dominant parties, left and right, incorporate contradictory interest groups. The left includes a manufacturing class that wants to stop foreign competition to American business; anti-corporate types who hate US corporations the way right-wingers hate the US government; intellectuals who fear the rabble; people in the rabble’s rubble who want better; moms concerned with local education; college students concerned with foreign wars; etc.
The right includes extractive industries who want government benefits, not laws; rural communities who depend on government laws to fill their prisons; quiet employees with few hopes; internationalists with empire dreams; soldiers who want order and respect; libertarians who refuse to respect order; evangelicals who want to change society; traditionalists who like things as they used to be; etc.
Reagan and Clinton used economic vitalism to pull together various factions. Both benefited from extraordinary demographic and technological transitions that combined to increase productivity and consumer demand. Anti-black sentiment still bubbled up importantly, whether as welfare reform, opposition to Haitian intervention, or when Reagan objected to authorizing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It was just below the surface, held there by good economic vibrations.
Interpersonal Paranoia Reemerges
The fear of secret traitors, rooted in slaveholder psychology, reemerged when economic excitement tumbled and Obama rose. The capitalist transition now concerns China, not technology, and demography no longer propels American demand. Obama ran on hope and his future goals are linked to opportunities, not profits. The right-wing has no Reagan, not because similar people don’t exist, but because Reagan-era conditions no longer exist.
So the Republican party’s internal factions threaten to splinter. In response, politicians can use fear to cut across contradictory interest groups and mobilize linked political action. Thus the slaveholder paranoia once again appears: no one wants exposure as a secret traitor, even if the charge is false. The far right rediscovered the Goldwater playbook, replaced communist with Islamic, correlated Muslim with Obama, rekindled the theme of equating liberals and anti-American, and went on the attack.
The return of paranoia is not just because of economic trouble. The far right’s greatest concern is that demography will trump ideology. America’s future will be progressively less white, and new interests will dominate public debate and elections. Today’s power-centers will shift, a dangerous threat to conservatives. Barack Obama’s election signals this future.
The far right looks to interpersonal paranoia as a potent tactic to shore up public support of policies that actually serve an owner-class minority. A black president is so visibly different, old-school paranoia comes naturally to many traditionalists. Like slaveholders, who pretended in public that slaves were no threat, but feeling strongly otherwise, today’s right-wingers claim they’re not racist, but feel in their guts that a man named Barack Obama is not American. If the less reactionary public gets the message, they might also pretend otherwise but vote paranoia.
Paranoid Fears, Still Irrational and Strong
To see centrist legislators cowed by right-wing attacks helps us understand how most southern whites opposed succession, but failed to voice it. The centrist health care reform bundled legislation American majorities support, that Republicans themselves once proposed, but no centrist wants to touch. They expect far-right assaults to challenge their patriotic loyalty. In 1840, slaveholders backed their verbal threats with tar and feathers; today’s right-wing deploys attack ads that are as demeaning.
I’ll end hopeful: if slaveholders win battles, they lose wars. Fear is self-destructive and undermines alliances. Short term political success fueled by paranoia results in policies that poorly fit a political party’s majority. Struck dumb by fear, few challenge their extremist peers, so political success comes without genuine consent. A temporary despotism results, with policy unchecked by internal disagreement.
Not only do such poorly vetted policies risk failure, they lack intrinsic backing from the party’s multiple interest groups. Fear maintains order, but undermines change. Failed policies, rejected by poorly consulted supporters, divides a party. The story of today’s far-right resurgence will not end with mid-term elections; from a historical perspective, their success may even doom Republicans in years to come.
Federalists acted against the 1812 War with extremist intent; their apparent perfidy gave Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party almost sole command for a decade, until Federalists disappeared. Twenty years later, southern Whigs became extreme slavery supporters, and Andrew Jackson’s more moderate Democrats gathered far more power, until the Whig party vanished. Destruction came quick, in both cases less than a decade after the now-forgotten party held the White House. In both cases the doomed party’s moderates were swept away with extremists. Extremism is a dangerous long-term strategy. Nota, quod aliquis dicitur perdere quod numuam habuit — Mark, a man can lose that which he never really owned.