It did not take long for conservatives to once again see the state as their enemy. Bush was so universally disliked by the end of his second term, and the financial collapse and his socialist response were so staggering, that even the right began to buckle in its support for his regime by late last year. The rise of Obama, who hit the ground running with a trillion-dollar spending package and a wish list of leftwing government goodies, has turned most of the right into loud dissenters on domestic policy.
But it goes further than criticizing Obama’s management. The right now speaks about government in philosophical terms. Its radio spokesmen say government cannot solve the recession or manage the economy. They sometimes even recommend the economic tracts of Hazlitt and Mises and share airtime with libertarians in mutual horrified protest as the nation moves quickly toward socialism.
What’s more, it is personal. The pundits complain about the right being shut out and worry about being shut down. Sean Hannity even said the other day that he worries those who dissent will be punished by the IRS.
It is like the 1990s, when conservatives could often sound quite radical and passionate about the threat posed by the Clinton government. It was a danger to our liberty, they seemed to understand. They even sometimes fundamentally questioned federal taxing and such federal policing as was seen at Waco.
The mainstream media jumped on this rightwing fear of the state and called it paranoia. Conservatives who feared Clinton’s Brave New World were mocked. The administration’s real victims were ignored. The Oklahoma City bombing was blamed on rightwing uneasiness with big government.
The national government was at the time itself a little paranoid. Hillary Clinton was ridiculed when she whined about the vast rightwing conspiracy.
One last great moment from the rightwing’s last era of distrusting the state was the confirmation hearing for John Ashcroft. He had said the Second Amendment was meant to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Senator Ted Kennedy found it obscene that anyone would call the U.S. government tyrannical.
Then, with Bush freshly in power, 9/11 happened. Bush’s government became much more tyrannical than Clinton’s was. Now it was Ashcroft defending the government and denying it was despotic. And it was Kennedy condemning the power grabs.
The left became increasingly critical of the warfare and police state being built by Bush and his crew. Their criticisms were sometimes radical, invoking the traditions of Western law and the U.S. Constitution. Unchecked executive power was a threat to the people’s liberties, most liberals would say.
Conservatives, meanwhile, nearly stopped seeing the state as anything but their protector from foreign dangers and even the liberator of all the people it conquered. It could do no wrong. The idea that the U.S. government — the same one whose ATF, FBI and IRS the right feared in the 1990s — could pose a real threat to our liberty became seditious. It was wrong to question the government and president at wartime. The most virtuous U.S. government was categorically incapable of torturing innocents, we were reassured.
The conservatives ignored the victims of the state — the bombed innocents; the peaceful protesters assaulted, spied on and blacklisted from commercial flight; the people indefinitely detained without trial. It was absurd to even think the American government would hurt its own people.
Now they are sounding paranoid again, distrusting of the national agenda, out of step with the central plan, dubious of the state’s foreign and domestic ambitions. Most of this regards economic policy, but there is a deeper dynamic at play. The right knows how much power was built up under Bush, and it knows that the left now has it all.
After eight years of waiting, the left is back and some fear it is payback time. This follows a familiar pattern. One administration punishes its political enemies from the past. Those out of power are called paranoid, whether they were the rightwing peace activists who feared FDR, the leftwing peace activists who feared the House un-American Activities Committee, the conservatives who feared Clinton or the liberals who feared Bush. And now it has turned again.
But unfortunately, the right is still not paranoid enough. Most conservatives have not atoned for their full support of the Bush regime. And they are even challenging Obama to prove his toughness in foreign relations, to provoke hostilities with Iran, to maintain and expand the war on terror.
Some go so far as to say that Obama will sell us out to the enemy — radical Islam. This particular paranoia is completely absurd, but they now think it possible that the U.S. government’s democratically elected leader would do something in foreign policy contrary to America’s interests. They worry about being censored in their dissent, but when others dissented from Bush’s policies that truly did harm America, they said the complaint was un-American. They want the freedom to condemn Obama for talking to Muslims, but when Bush’s wars empowered Iran and radicalized the Middle East, it was taboo to point it out.
The conservatives have better instincts when they are out of power, but they still do not want to let go of their love of the warfare state. Even as they think Obama’s foreign policy might be a disaster, their main problem with it is it is not belligerent enough. And of course a Republican president would silence much of their criticism.
The problem with rightwing paranoia is thus its inconsistency. If the right distrusted war as much as domestic socialism, and Republican power as much as Democratic power, its fears would not be far off base. Then again, in such circumstances, it would not really be the right anymore.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Berkeley, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.