Policy Series 2021-2: Leo Ribuffo and “the “Paranoid Style” in American (Intellectual) Politics”14 min read

Leo Ribuffo should be writing this reflection on the four years since Donald Trump’s election.  Diane Labrosse kindly asked me to contribute after reading my 2017 remarks celebrating Ribuffo’s pathbreaking 1983 The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  Andrew Hartman put together the roundtable that took place just weeks before Ribuffo unexpectedly passed away and made sure the papers, including Ribuffo’s, were published.  But Labrosse’s kind invitation to contribute to H-Diplo gave me a chance to revisit the Old Christian Right, Ribuffo’s 2017 essay on Donald Trump and the uses and abuses of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” and what I wrote less than a year into the Trump Administration.[1]

H-Diplo | ISSF Policy Series
America and the World—The Effects of the Trump Presidency

Leo Ribuffo and “the “Paranoid Style” in American (Intellectual) Politics”

Essay by Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Loyola University Chicago
Published on 14 January 2021

PDF Version

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

https://issforum.org/to/ps2021-2

Leo Ribuffo should be writing this reflection on the four years since Donald Trump’s election.  Diane Labrosse kindly asked me to contribute after reading my 2017 remarks celebrating Ribuffo’s path-breaking 1983 The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  Andrew Hartman put together the roundtable that took place just weeks before Ribuffo unexpectedly passed away and made sure the papers, including Ribuffo’s, were published.  But Labrosse’s kind invitation to contribute to H-Diplo gave me a chance to revisit the Old Christian Right, Ribuffo’s 2017 essay on Donald Trump and the uses and abuses of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” and what I wrote less than a year into the Trump Administration.[1]

Rereading Ribuffo’s work offered a reminder that wit, style, and rigor have been and remain missing from scholarly and journalistic understandings of American politics.  Weeks after the 2020 election, when voters once again defied pollsters and the Trump Administration came to a violent end with the looting of the Capitol on 6 January 2021, understandings of the Far Right’s complexity and its relationship to more mainstream, respectable conservatives seems painfully, if not dangerously, simplistic.  Yet the work done and the assault on Congress continue to raise concerns about Ribuffo’s warnings of an overblown Brown Scare, a phrase that he carefully chose in the early 1980s to link 1930s fears of Far-Right intellectuals to New Left scholars’ reconsiderations of McCarthyism and other anti-Communist crusades.  Words can lead to violence, which has broken and continues to break bones, not just with sticks and stones but the bullets that killed peaceful protesters in Kenosha, WI.  Many commentators emphasized that the police reluctantly used force against a largely white, male crowd invading the Capitol.  Racialized indifference and brutality was endemic to U.S. politics before the president terrified reporters and scholars by asking the Proud Boys, a Far-Right white supremacist men’s group, to “stand back and stand by” in the first 2020 presidential debate.  Mainstream media sources finally covered the savagery that intellectuals’ and politicians’ ideas can inspire.  Yet it still seemed too little and too late after Trump’s tweeted promises of a “wild” “big rally” where he urged the crowd to march to the Capitol while lawmakers ceremonially counted Electoral College votes that many Republicans promised to challenge.  Even so, the press continued to oversimplify the Far Right and the breadth of U.S. politics, perhaps best symbolized by Democrats, one African-American and the other Jewish, triumphing in once deep-red Georgia’s Senate run-offs the day before the failed coup.[2]

Ribuffo decried ongoing misperceptions of conservatives and radicals throughout his career and faulted Hofstadter’s famous argument of American politics’ paranoid style in his 2017 essay.  Ribuffo insisted that “famous catch phrase…should be buried with a stake in its heart.”[3]  Truer words have never been written, at least in the fields of U.S. intellectual and political history.  Ribuffo’s 2017 essay is as much a tour de force as his famous article, “Why is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About It,” a comprehensive, stunning, and hilarious rebuke to Alan Brinkley’s “The Problem of American Conservatism” in the same 1994 American Historical Review special issue.  Ribuffo’s response unfortunately inspired many historians studying the Right, particularly after the so-called 1994 Republican Revolution, to cite Ribuffo’s Old Christian Right in footnotes listing work on conservatism.  Yet, as both he and I reminded everyone at the 2017 panel honoring him, his book focused on the Far Right, both deeply intwined with and attacked by the young men (like William Buckley) who endeavored to make conservatism respectable after World War II.[4]

Ribuffo’s 2017 essay went a step further to show the consequences of liberal, pluralist intellectuals, like Hofstadter and the other contributors to Daniel Bell’s 1963 Radical Right, which is as frequently cited and rarely read as Hofstadter’s 1967 Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays.  But Ribuffo read them both carefully and understood the larger context in which they dabbled in psychology and laid out an understanding of American politics based on a clear left, right, and center.  He also pointed out the criticisms that their work received at the time and in subsequent decades as scholars reconsidered American populism and nineteenth-century Populists.  That research did little to stop “a term of art with some theoretical and empirical basis” from deteriorating “into an unexamined catch phrase” by 1980, when Hofstadter had been dead for a decade and Daniel Bell had joined Ronald Reagan’s winning coalition.[5]

“Allusions to a mere paranoid style to describe Trump,” Ribuffo emphasized in 2017, “seem almost mild.” Sales of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here had skyrocketed, academics and public intellectuals openly conflated Trumpism with fascism; and psychologists publicly proclaimed him mentally unfit for office, breaking the famous “Goldwater rule” that exemplified the use and abuse of psychology in the Radical Right. Ribuffo did not expect better “from the self-congratulatory mainstream media” or “politicians and activists [who] pick up any available rhetorical stick to clobber an opponent.”[6]

But Ribuffo rightly wanted more from scholars, especially those who had become public intellectuals.  They, after all, should have recognized in 2016 and 2017 that many of the conspiracies that energized the president and his supporters did “not fit Hofstadter’s core criterion, a conviction that history itself is a conspiracy.” Such analysis would require a real effort at the hard work of understanding the president and his die-hard fans, or “stans” in the lexicon of social media.  That kind of effort, “no easy task” as Ribuffo admitted, would also have highlighted that “the latest ‘extremists’ on the right are not hermetically sealed off from temporarily less volatile conservatives—including most congressional Republicans.”[7]

That point highlighted how salient Ribuffo’s work has been and remains.  “Rescuing the 1930s” was central to The Old Christian Right, whose rich portrayals of William Pelley, Gerald Winrod, and Gerald L.K. Smith excavated their lives, writings, and evolving anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic convictions.  Their ideas represented an important, misunderstood part of American intellectual and political traditions that defy postwar pluralist proclamations of a left, right, and, what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. considered, a vital center.  Fascism, as Ribuffo emphasized, was but one facet of Far-Right politics in both Western Europe and the United States.  Moreover, Pelley, Winrod, and Smith had important connections to mainstream politicians and businessmen, such as Henry Ford, and enough followers to have a real chance of winning elections, much to the alarm of the FBI, Congress, and the Roosevelt Administration.  Ribuffo insisted that historians “try to do better” than fall back on Hofstadeter’s misunderstood catchphrase in 2017, after the GOP had earned the Party of No nickname and Republicans had already dutifully lined up behind newly-elected President Trump.[8]

Ribuffo’s warnings seemed almost prophetic weeks before and after the 2020 election.  Senate Republicans had refused to pass additional COVID-19 relief and rushed Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation.  Journalists covered Senator Mitch McConnell’s obstinacy and opportunism whilst simultaneously fretting over the president’s remarks about the Proud Boys and linking politicians to QAnon conspiracy theories.  Democrat Joe Biden’s triumph did not satisfy Trump or his followers, whom the president begged to help him “stop the steal.” Judges and state election officials ignored a rallying cry that energized Americans outraged enough to travel amidst a deadly pandemic to rally before Trump and then break into the Capitol.  Insurrectionists, many wearing Trump campaign paraphernalia, gleefully took pictures of themselves carrying Confederate flags, destroying property, and sitting at lawmakers’ desks.[9]

Those images and the entire Trump presidency have only left me more convinced that Ribuffo rightly warned about reporters’ and historians’ mischaracterizations of the Far Right but wrongly considered the Brown Scare exaggerated.  The Old Christian Right highlighted forgotten FBI investigations, hearings, lawsuits, and jail sentences, all affronts to the civil liberties that Americans hold dear, including those in Ribuffo’s scholarly cohort who reexamined Communist witch-hunts.  Those historians have shown that anti-Communist crusades ruined, and sometimes ended, the lives of actors, teachers, union organizers, and ordinary Americans so often aspiring for the equality now guaranteed by law but painfully rare in practice.  Some of those radicals highlighted the violence perpetrated by the Far Right, which has been poorly covered in histories of the many struggles for political, economic, and social justice.  Journalist, lawyer, and anti-fascist crusader Carey McWilliams, for example, offered a searing portrait of the radicals who were lynched while trying to organize the many white, Black, Latinx, and Asian laborers struggling to survive the Golden State’s Factories in the Field (1939).  California farmlands were soaked with blood decades before the Oklahoma City bombing started to draw attention to increasingly common acts of domestic terrorism.  Homegrown white supremacist groups, as the Department of Homeland Security only recently noted, have been more likely to plan and carry them out.[10]

Leo and I actually talked at length after the roundtable, somewhat about why our perspectives differed on the threat that the Far Right posed then in 2017 and in the past. He and I had only occasionally emailed before this roundtable even though he had been close to my graduate advisor and spent his career in the D.C. area, where I was born shortly before the Old Christian Right’s publication.  But I grew up a veritable world away from the high-minded scholarly circles in which Leo thrived.  I had up-close, personal exposure to the Far Right and its violent fantasies and conspiracies before the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1999 Columbine massacre that convinced a friend to stop wearing a black trench coat to our Northern Virginia high school.  Leo marveled that he never would have guessed from reading my work on Barry Goldwater, American conservatism, or the Sunbelt where the small Far Right defied pollsters’ predictions and played a pivotal role in upending state, local, and party politics decades before Ross Perot’s ill-fated run reportedly inspired Trump.[11]

I like to think that high praise reflects how Ribuffo and I both recognized before voting in the 2020 election began: “Trumpism is not going away—especially if he looks like a martyr driven from office by cosmopolitan elites.” Even the predicted, much hoped for “blue wave” could not have been able to wash something away that more Americans voted for in 2020 than in 2016.  The Far Right has been and remains too complex to be reduced to one man, simply labeled fascist, or assumed to be separate from mainstream conservatism or a Republican Party divided over whether or not Trump should have been impeached or neutralized via the 25th Amendment after inciting the siege on the Capitol.  As such, the challenge of excavating the Far Right’s past, understanding its present-day varieties, and considering its future implications should be an interdisciplinary undertaking beyond “reductionist and bizarre psychoanalytic undertakings” or economic “rational expectations” models since, as Ribuffo reiterated, “human beings are more complicated than they think they are.”[12]

I’m just relieved that he admitted that sometimes “blowing off steam” can be helpful to the most serious of scholars.  Leo even ended his witty, thoughtful 2017 remarks by reminding us all in his New Jersey vernacular, that “President Trump is a stuck-up bigot, bully, blowhard, and con man.” I can think of many academics who would agree.  I just wish they’d stop themselves from tweeting it. There’s enough “covfefe” out there already distracting Americans from the monumental task of making this country a more perfect, democratic union.[13]

 

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.  She has written about U.S. labor, politics, and capitalism in op-eds, academic articles, and scholarly books, including Sunbelt Capitalism (2013) and The Right and Labor, a 2012 edited collection done with Nelson Lichtenstein.  Harvard University Press’s Belknap Press will be publishing her history of the student loan industry, Indentured Students, in August 2021.

[1] Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far-Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983); Leo P. Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style’ in American (Intellectual) Politics,” H-Diplo/ISSF, Policy Series: America and the World—2017 and Beyond, 13 June 2017, https://issforum.org/ISSF/PDF/Policy-Roundtable-1-5AN.pdf; Leo P. Ribuffo, “Retrospective Roundtable on Leo Ribuffo’s Old Christian Right: Final Entry from Ribuffo,” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, 9 December 2018, https://s-usih.org/2018/12/retrospective-roundtable-on-leo-ribuffos-old-christian-right-final-entry-from-ribuffo/; Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Retrospective Roundtable on Leo Ribuffo’s Old Christian Right: Entry 4 from Shermer,” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, 8 December 2018, https://s-usih.org/2018/12/retrospective-roundtable-on-leo-ribuffos-old-christian-right-entry-4-from-shermer/.

[2] Nate Cohn, “What Went Wrong with Polling?  Some Early Theories,” New York Times, 10 November 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/10/upshot/polls-what-went-wrong.html; Neil MacFarquhar, “Suspect in Kenosha Killings Lionized the Police,” New York Times, 27 August 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/us/kyle-rittenhouse-kenosha.html; Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Trump’s Debate Comments Give an Online Boost to a Group Social Media Companies have long Struggled Against,” New York Times, 30 September 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/30/trump-debate-rightwing-celebration/; Kathleen Belew, Why ‘Stand Back and Stand By’ Should Set Off Alarm Bells,” New York Times, 2 October 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/02/opinion/trump-proud-boys.html; Haley Yamada, “Some GOP Senators Reverse Objections to Electoral College Certification after Protestors Storm Capitol,” 6 January 2021, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/gop-senators-reverse-objections-electoral-college-certification-protesters/story?id=75099780; Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Jonathan Landay, “Trump Summoned Supporters to ‘Wild’ Protest, and Told Them to Fight. They did,” Reuters, 6 January 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-protests/trump-summoned-supporters-to-wild-protest-and-told-them-to-fight-they-did-idUSKBN29B24S; Rebecca Tan, Peter Jamison, Carol D. Leonnig, Meagan Flynn, John Woodrow Cox, “Trump Supporters Storm U.S. Capitol, with One Woman Killed and Tear Gas Fired,” Washington Post, 6 January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trump-supporters-storm-capitol-dc/2021/01/06/58afc0b8-504b-11eb-83e3-322644d82356_story.html; Richard Fausset, Jonathan Martin, and Stephanie Saul, “Democrats Win Both Georgia Races to Gain Control of Senate,” New York Times, 6 January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/warnock-loeffler-ossoff-perdue-georgia-senate.html.

[3] Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style,’” quoted 1.

[4] Leo P. Ribuffo, Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything about It?, The American Historical Review 99:2 (April 1994): 438–449, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/99.2.438.

[5] Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style,’” quoted 12.

[6]  Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style,’” quoted 13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.; Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right; Michael Grunwald, “The Victory of ‘No,’ ” Politico, 4 December 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/republican-party-obstructionism-victory-trump-214498.

[9] Emma Green, “The Amy Coney Barrett Hail-Mary Touchdown,” The Atlantic, 26 October 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/10/amy-coney-barrett-supreme-court/616865/; Jacob Jarvis, “QAnon Linked to at Least 44 Election Candidates in 2020—and Some Could Win,” Newsweek, 21 September 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/qanon-candidates-2020-election-win-1532853; Susan Davis, “Senate GOP COVID-19 Relief Bill Fails,” NPR, 10 September 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/10/911414284/senate-gop-covid-relief-bill-fails-prospects-of-bipartisan-deal-before-election-; Ann Gerhart, “Election Results Under Attack: Here are the Facts,” Washington Post, 5 January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/interactive/2020/election-integrity/; Carlie Porterfield, “Capitol Under Siege: Pictures of Pro-Trump Protestors on a Rampage,” Forbes, 6 January 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2021/01/06/under-siege-encouraged-by-trump-protestors-breach-capitol/?sh=7870d9354f29.

[10] Shermer, “Retrospective Roundtable on Leo Ribuffo’s Old Christian Right;” Jenny Gross, “Far-Right Groups Are Behind Most U.S. Terrorist Attacks,” New York Times, 24 October 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/24/us/domestic-terrorist-groups.html.

[11] Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Jonathan Martin, “Ross Perot and Donald Trump,” 9 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/09/us/politics/ross-perot-presidential-candidate.html.

[12] J.T. Young, “So Much for the ‘Blue Wave,’ ” The Hill, 6 November 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/524796-so-much-for-the-blue-wave; Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “Republicans Splinter Over Whether to Make a Full Break from Trump,” New York Times, 7 January 20201, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/us/politics/trump-republicans.html; Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style,’ ” quoted 14.

[13] Ribuffo, “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style,’ ” quoted 14; Matt Flegenheimer, “What’s a ‘Covfefe’?” New York Times, May 31, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/us/politics/covfefe-trump-twitter.html.