The Steve King Style of American Politics

tags: Steve King

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2012, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. He is the author of  “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

In 1963, the historian Richard Hofstadter delivered a landmark address at Oxford University, titled “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.” Writing against the backdrop of the Cold War and the recent memory of McCarthyism, Hofstadter argued that the hypertensive zeal and conspiracy-mongering that attended McCarthy’s anti-Communism was not a departure from the tradition of American liberalism but a regular feature embedded within it. At various points, movements bearing a familial resemblance to McCarthyism have assailed the hallucinatory menace of anarchists, Catholics, Freemasons, and, at the outset of the Republic, clandestine British loyalists. As Hoftstadter wrote:

The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plot here and there in history but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take but an all-out crusade.

We have had, on too many recent occasions to count, reason to revisit Hofstadter’s exploration of American neurosis. We have come to expect history to be, in some way, repetitive. And so the striking thing about the Trump era is not the clanging echoes of the past but the fact that they have sounded with such fidelity and symmetry. A hundred years ago, America’s entry into the Great War, raging in Europe, attended a spike in paranoid hostilities toward immigrants believed to be sympathetic toward hostile powers. That fear found legislative expression in the Espionage Act of 1917, which greatly enhanced the federal government’s capacity for domestic surveillance. It’s worth recalling that J. Edgar Hoover’s career with the Department of Justice began that same year, with his work ferreting out alleged subversives as part of the Alien Enemy Bureau. The war had not created this nativist impulse; it had simply added a national-security rationale for its existence. The resuscitated Ku Klux Klan—given a transfusion of energy by the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation”—spread across the country and, unlike the earlier version of the organization, became more ecumenical in its hatreds, targeting Jews, Catholics, and immigrants generally. It is difficult to look at ice raids or hear Trumpian arguments that immigrants are dangerous because of what their American-born children may do and not see the shadow of the Palmer Raids, which a century ago targeted Russians, Jews, and especially those who fell into both categories. In short, that paranoid, racialist, xenophobic past seems to an amazing degree to have been superimposed upon the present. There is a sense that we are living inside some future history dissertation.

For this and reasons like it, Congressman Steve King’s comments last weekend about the demographic future of the United States can’t be dismissed as the random Twitter ravings of a paranoiac—though admittedly we’ve gotten into the business of taking these types of statements quite seriously in the weeks since the Inauguration. King tweeted in support of the right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders that “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t rebuild our civilization with someone else’s babies.” King defended himself from ensuing charges of racism by pointing out that his tweet said nothing about race. It didn’t have to: the phrase “someone else’s babies” did all the heavy lifting. The tweet, with an amazing degree of economy, channelled the racialist themes that figured prominently in the Trump insurgency last year. It also pointed to another commonality between the past and present. The 2016 election would have looked familiar to Hofstadter in part because the conspiratorial and reactionary politics of the early twentieth century were driven by demographic fears of the exact sort King invoked.

Between 1890 and 1914, roughly fifteen million immigrants entered the United States—almost as many as had entered the country in its entire history to that point. Theodore Roosevelt, who opposed Japanese immigration out of a fear that they were too different from whites ever to be assimilated into American society, also lamented that too few “Anglo-Saxon” women were having children. Nativists demanded new laws restricting immigration and specifically sought to increase the nation’s German and British stock. In 1916, the lawyer and provocateur Madison Grant published “The Passing of the Great Race,” a treatise that argued that American greatness was tied directly to a particular strain of Nordic whiteness, which was now at risk of being diluted by the influx of lower-quality whites from elsewhere on the Continent. When King referenced “culture and demographics,” he was not talking about two distinct concerns but rather harking back to a tradition that saw the former as the invariable product of the latter. As the historian Matthew Guterl described Grant’s thinking, “the white Nordic working class needed to have its race-consciousness awakened if the greatness of America was to survive.” While this era also witnessed the emergence of a “melting pot” ideal of acculturation, it was also commonly thought that this process happened far more quickly and efficiently for Western Europeans than others. ...

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