I was looking through my personal library this past weekend, lost in my thoughts as to how we’ve come to this present pass in American politics, and came across a book I haven’t read in 20 years, but have clung to. The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement by David H. Bennett, was published in 1988 and revised in 1995. It makes for grim reading.
It’s a sad truism of the United States that we as a people are ahistorical. We have no memory of what happened last week, much less in the last century. If we were to remember our history, we might be better prepared for when it invariably rears its head again, the passions and bigotries of the past roaring out of the dark id of the American psyche. We fight the same battles over, because the causes of those battles are never fully addressed.
In his book, Bennett catalogs this “party of fear” as being born with the American experiment from its inception. It sees America as an Eden threatened from all sides; but, most insidiously, threatened from Others within its midst. The Tea Party battle cry of “taking back our country” is not new; it has been screamed out at every great turning point in our country’s history. Every wave of immigration, every social upheaval, every revolution in politics has brought a sharp reaction, a counter-revolution from this party of fear. From anti-Catholic riots in the 19th century to the Red scares of the 1920s and 1950s, when the country roils through demographic and ideological change, the forces of reaction strike back, seeking to wrench the nation back to a prelapsarian state, before the Fall, pure, unsullied, in communion with God.
Religion being such a central facet of the American experiment, religious language and imagery are major driving forces of this party of fear. Those who threaten Eden are not merely political opponents, but servants of Satan, seeking to undo the New Jerusalem. When Ronald Reagan spoke of the United States as the “City on a hill”, he wasn’t merely cribbing a nice turn of phrase from John Winthrop; he was signalling to his evangelical storm troopers that he saw the struggle as they did, a religious one, where there could be no compromise, for compromise would have to be with what they saw as the fores of darkness. It is this view of America as a sacred land, blessed by God and doing His work, which informs the party of fear. One wonders how God can fail; but that fear of failing God runs through everything done by the forces of reaction. Jesus won’t return unless the ground is prepared for him. Whether this means rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, or creating a Godly “paradise” in the United States is immaterial. We are talking about the politics of Armageddon.
This politics of Armageddon is zero-sum. It is an absolute, pure, clear politics. You can’t even call it a “politics”, really, as it doesn’t have the aims of normal politics. Normal politics operate in a sphere of give and take, of deals made, of backs scratched. No one gets everything they want, but they get some of what they want. Armageddon brooks no compromise. It merely is, and must be acceded to. We may think that on the other side of Armageddon lies mere death; to the party of fear, glory awaits.
We have been building towards this politics of Armageddon in earnest since the first GOP government shut-down. It accelerated with the messianism of the the G.W. Bush administration, with its black-and-white view of world and domestic politics. And the election of Barack Obama sent the politics of Armageddon into its final stage. Obama is seen as the anti-Christ, the one who threatens the Edenic image of America held by the party of fear. He represents the outcasts, the untouchables, those who don’t fit within that image, an image which hasn’t changed since the founding of the country. History is the enemy; Eden doesn’t need history. Historical change cannot impinge on that which is eternal; if it dares to, it must be beaten back, by whatever means necessary.
This is the party of fear’s last stand. It knows it must win this battle, or be swept aside and lose the war. These are the stakes for which it is playing. We must meet the moment with the same desperation.