The Paranoid Style: From Reagan to Trump

Photo: A young Donald Trump shakes hands with President Reagan.

For many years Robert Welch warned his readers about the conspiracy (italics his) that was plotting to merge the United States and Soviet Russia. His big idea was that repeated exposure could ultimately stop the “socialist nightmare with its perpetual shortages of everything and with its regimentation of individual human lives like that of barnyard animals.”

As editor of The John Birch Society Bulletin, Welch was a resilient advocate for racism and sexism decades before Donald Trump’s Reality TV reboot. Welch opened each issue with his personal “reflections on the news” — usually an essay on how US leaders and people like Ralph Nader were destroying the family and civilization. The rest of the small, austere publication was devoted to reports like “United Nations – Get US Out,” priorities like a windfall profits tax and stopping the Equal Rights Amendment, and turgid notes from Birch Society meetings.  

Welch couldn’t decide who he disliked more, anti-nuclear activists or Rockefeller Trilateralists. As a result, he cast them as partners in a massive plot. It was a highly paranoid theory, but by no means the only one that polluted the political bloodstream in the run up to Ronald Reagan’s election.

In fact, by 1980 the claims of Birchers were less sensational than those of other groups. Take the New Christian Crusade Church, which promoted unbridled racism in a tabloid newspaper, Christian Vanguard, or the US Labor Party, which served up doomsday scenarios about “controlled disintegration,” orchestrated by agents of the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds.

And let’s not forget the Moral Majority, a compulsive user and critic of mass media, which saw the forces of evil everywhere, but masked its extremism by bemoaning the decline of the family and shouting incessantly about its right to free speech. Anti-abortion, anti-ERA and pro-tax cut hallelujahs were artfully inserted into Moral Majority news releases that read like compasssion-free sermons.

All this might be a topic of mere historical curiosity had these groups and others like them not basically succeeded, their ideas and agendas largely incorporated into the Reagan platform. Moral Majority Report did everything it could short of outright endorsement. “If turning back the clock means the restoration of some of the freedoms that Americans traditionally enjoyed,” announced a typical writer, “I’m all for it.” He was referring to the Republican platform.

Like Donald Trump, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Christian fundamentalist movement had an intense love/hate relationship with the media. After all, it had all begun on TV with Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. By 1980, the movement’s tabloid paper was turning Falwell’s radio and TV pronouncements into syndicated columns, while its reporters gloated about the growing attention. At the same time, however, they also despised the “immoral” television networks.

For these pioneers of political fundamentalism, the real “insiders” were purveyors of “smut” and degenerate lifestyles, a vast group that included most “non-Christian” media and members of the press. Their basic message, which read like a newsy catechism, was that the “moral” can clean up the media by exerting control over it. That meant boycotting specific outlets or supporting only Christian media.

Through insistent propaganda, the Moral Majority turned ignorance into strength and sexism into a virtue. Sound familiar?

Still, the electronic fundamentalism of Falwell’s empire sounded almost moderate in contrast with the outright Aryan arrogance of Christian Vanguard. “Specifically compiled for the Elect,” this religious house organ was obsessed with one enemy, the Jews. This was a bullish racism, punctuated with articles like “Sadistic Jewish Slaughter of Animals.” 

Pretending to intellectual rigor, one article attempted to prove that the enemy was plagued by a “devastating sense of inferiority.” In another report, covering an Aryan Nations Movement conference, the publisher of a sister publication, Zion’s Watchman, came out strong against humanism, Marxism and “the seed of the serpent.” Guess who he meant. 

Yet the Aryans remained hopeful, according to another contributor, because “the various right wing movements will come together, and unite as never before once we understand the importance of rallying under the Law of God, making what we call Germany’s WWII ‘Nazism’ seem tiny in comparison.” Scary stuff.

Like many movement publications of the era, Christian Vanguard had a clearinghouse for books, with listings under headings like “secret societies,” “the money question,” and “the Jewish world conspiracy.” Another heading covered “self defense and survival,” and included books on explosives, combat and surveillance. It was an early sign of the survivalism to come. Clearly, the “Elect” were prepping for action. Reading their paper also offered solid proof that Nazism was alive in Louisiana and other southern states in the Reagan era.

Decades later, many far right groups continue to believe in some sort of conspiracy aimed at destroying their “way of life.” Specifically, they remain united by a fanatical fortress mentality and the belief that their rights as individuals are under attack. Before Reagan’s election, the U.S. Labor Party, led by perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, was already predicting that economic “disintegration” was just around the corner. Meanwhile, Christian Vanguard warned about “race mixing” and the Moral Majority emphasized a war on family values. Taken together, these threads provided a template for the Tea Party and Trump-ism.

Each of these groups had its own crusade and main enemy. Their modern equivalents are much the same. What most of them lack, however, is any vision of a better future. Instead, the paranoid right seems to draw its strength from alienation, using prejudices and frustrations as catalysts for unity.

Shortly before Reagan’s election, this was exemplified in a pamphlet from Americans for Nuclear Energy, a so-called “citizens group.” Their pitch, in the main text and a fundraising appeal, concentrated on the enemy. In this case, it was “coercive utopians,” led by easy targets like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, a power couple exploited and demonized much like Bill and Hillary. Their goal, warned the group, is raw power “to control each of our lives.” 

Each day, “the coercive utopians march closer to their repressive goals. The battle is for freedom in America.” And what was freedom? In this version, abundant energy through nuclear power. Without it, America faced a “second stone age.”

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But if the paranoid style ever prevails, we could end up in a stone age whether we use nukes or not.

Greg Guma is an author, editor and the former CEO of Pacifica Radio. He lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media.