Whether it’s Newt Gingrich pressing the notion that Obama is the “Food Stamp President,” Sarah Palin’s Facebook pronouncements about “death panels,” Glenn Beck’s teary-eyed warnings about communist infiltration of the White House, Herman Cain’s denouncement of “creeping Sharia,” or Mitt Romney’s condemnations of class warfare and income redistribution, an awful lot of contemporary political discourse is crafted to tap into voters’ tribalism, xenophobia, racism, envy, and resentment of their own diminished status in a topsy-turvy world that confuses, offends, and seemingly excludes them. It does it by evoking a primal narrative: that all was well until “they” came along and ruined things, “they” being both the impoverished immigrants and minorities, who are stealing the jobs that nobody else wants, and the billionaire elites, cosmopolitan Jews, and supercilious “progressives,” who have made off with everything else—protected, enabled, and even coddled by a government that has forgotten and betrayed its true citizens.
In my new book I call it the “New Hate”: a toxic brew of nativism, Gilded Age economic ideas, and chauvinism that’s been whipped up to a froth by the election of America’s first biracial president. Its most salient feature is its sameness across time and space—when you look into history, you swiftly discover that there’s very little that’s really new about it; almost all of its themes have been sounded before. The paranoid style, in Richard Hofstadter’s memorable phrase, has been a more or less constant feature of American political life since colonial times.
Past and present, the demagogues who exploit it speak in sweeping, global generalizations about the unalterable characteristics of whole classes of people—and often back up their claims with dubious science. Fear mongering about the Illuminati in the 1790s sounds almost exactly like fear-mongering about Communists in the 1950s—or about ACORN, Saul Alinsky, and the Muslim Brotherhood today. Today’s Tea Partiers, anti-Jihadists, so-called racial realists, marriage defenders, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style anti-Semites all have their counterparts in earlier eras; any number of historical speeches, essays, and books could be adapted into blog posts for World Net Daily, Storm Front, Alex Jones’s Info Wars, or Pam Geller’s Atlas Shrugs with only superficial changes.
“My hates have always occupied my mind much more actively and have given greater spiritual satisfactions than my friendships,” the journalist Westbrook Pegler (whose anti-Semitic writings got him booted out of the John Birch Society) memorably declared. The following slide show showcases a number of other 100-proof haters (some of whom, to be fair, later changed or moderated their views). Some of their names (three generations of Adams, two generations of Morses, and eight U.S. presidents among them) might surprise you.