The Paranoid Style

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Let me explain why I remain genuinely baffled by the framework of the current discussion of the IRS scandal. There is little doubt, after the Inspector General’s report, that the Cincinnati office in charge of 501 (c) 4 scrutiny unfairly and unreasonably – even outrageously – seemed to apply political criteria for screening such groups. The question remains why they did this, what their motivations were, to what extent scrutiny of such groups was actually an important task to accomplish, how far that got distorted, and how far up the chain this decision went. These are very important questions, which is why I hope hearings can uncover more evidence than the actual report – and hold specific people accountable, apart from the resignation of the acting head of the IRS (which nonetheless has occurred).

But here’s where I do a double-take, which is roughly what happened as I was curled up on the couch last night watching Bill O’Reilly argue – with no evidence whatsoever – that the Obama administration had decided after the 2010 mid-terms to target Tea Party groups by using the IRS as a politicized bludgeon. This utterly unsubstantiated claim (see above) is now the dominant meme, the working assumption of the propagandists at Fox News. When pressed to defend this extraordinary reach, O’Reilly admitted he was purely speculating – or in his weasel words, “educated speculation.”

Then I read Mitch McConnell arguing that the GOP and its donors are “intimidated” by the Obama administration – because of its desire to see that those exercizing explicitly political speech after the Citizens United decision actually be identified by name. It’s funny, but “intimidated” is not the first adjective that springs to mind when contemplating the Senate Minority Leader. For McConnell, the First Amendment includes protection for extremely wealthy people’s total anonymity even as they funnel unlimited funds toward a political campaign. And the idea that the House Republicans or the Tea Party or the 501 (c) 4s or Karl Rove were in any way seriously intimidated does not seem, shall we say, to be reflected in their extravagant expenditures in 2012 and their evident joy in attacking their sinister, coffee-colored pinata one more time right now. And it’s worth pointing out that getting that 501 (c) 4 approval was not necessary for the entities to spend their money from the get-go. Which they did. To little avail.

Then we hear pundits like George Will and Peggy Noonan actually bring up Watergate as the closest historical analogy – which is, to put it bluntly, deranged. Remember, for example, that this scandal was not exposed by Woodward and Bernstein (although anecdotal complaints were aired in the press at the time) – but was exposed by the IRS itself. The IRS moreover also attempted to end this practice, and when that failed, set up an Inspector General report into the outrageous screening. In such an investigation, the Obama administration properly maintained an ethical distance for fear of seeming to affect the investigation’s findings. Watergate? Are they out of their fricking minds? Or cynics trying to gin up a story in a not-so-great season for ratings?

Then comes the Wall Street Journal with the coup de grace: because the White House kept itself scrupulously distant from the IG report, there is, apparently, no accountability in government:

Alexander Hamilton and America’s Founders designed the unitary executive for the purpose of political accountability. It is one of the Constitution’s main virtues. Unlike grunts in Cincinnati, Presidents must face the voters. That accountability was designed to extend not only to the President’s inner circle but over the entire branch of government whose leaders he chooses and whose policies bear his signature.

What you immediately notice is that under this scenario, Obama cannot win.

If he had interfered with the IG investigation, we would have a shit-storm of major proportions as he would be accused of unethically and improperly meddling in an investigation designed to be independent. Yes, the president runs the executive branch including, say, the Justice Department and the IRS. But his political relationship to those ideally neutral bodies is rightly constrained. And how could the president have intervened before the facts were fully known and weighed by an independent investigation anyway? He’s damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Which is why his legal counsel was well advised to maintain that wall before the evidence was fully known.

This then becomes, in the eyes of the Washington Post, “shielding” Obama, as if this affair were about plausible deniability, as opposed to ethical government. The very attempt not to interfere is described as some kind of illicit political interference. In the pincer movement from Fox and the WaPo, there is no way Obama himself can come out shining.

I don’t get it. But then I am not working from a conclusion to a premise. I do not believe that the Obama administration is some kind of terrifying left-wing tyranny, exercising lethal political powers to punish its opponents, rifle through their tax returns, and take away everyone’s guns. But for some, all this is a given. Michelle Malkin knew all of this as far back as 2010, when she published her tract, “Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies.” If you point out that the first Obama term had a historically minuscule numbers of “scandals”, they will presumably just reply that it’s because they are so brilliant at never getting caught.

The paranoid style is not new in America. But it finds its locus in exactly those populations who feel marginalized by the tectonic cultural and social and economic shifts in the Obama era. And the syndrome is not new. Here’s a passage from Richard Hofstadter’s classic definition of the pseudo-conservative in America:

The restlessness, suspicion and fear manifested in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the real suffering which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics for the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world — for instance, in the Orient — cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.

Fox News has made pseudo-conservatism very lucrative, and as I watched the pure cynicism of Bill O’Reilly, making even more millions from yet another “book”, and wrily winking that he knows this is all paranoid bullshit, but, hey, it’s what he gets paid for, I felt little but nausea.

Let’s keep the government honest. Let’s get to the bottom of it. But let us not descend into the pseudo-conservative mindset that assumes Watergate-style malevolence purely because it feels good and makes money.

Update from a reader:

I agree 100% with your post. I’ve made the same general argument about Malkin with friends. However, your 2010 date for her book was the paperback edition. The original came out in July 2009, SIX MONTHS AFTER HE TOOK OFFICE. A minor point, perhaps, but it remains stunning to me.