The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.

In 2003, columnist Charles Krauthammer coined the term “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to be: “The acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.”

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.

Given the emotional nature of our brains—emotions usually come first, reason a decided second—it’s almost impossible to avoid at least a little disgust at “the other guy.” All too often reason’s job is to find a post hoc rationale for the outcome emotional we wanted to support anyway. This is called motivated reasoning by social psychologists and it’s a very useful skill to learn to recognize it in yourself, and to mitigate its effects, to the degree that’s possible. (Example: I personally believe Michael Palin has reasonable grounds to sue for defamation of character simply by sharing a last name with a certain former Vice-Presidential candidate…. Edit: See this for Michael’s gracious take on Sarah, starting at about 7:45. At least he’s a class act.) It is, essentially, a function of the body much like many other functions we don’t like to talk about, like… well, you know about those so I don’t need to talk about them further. So if you’re feeling an excess of emotion—of any sort, positive or negative—right now, don’t feel too bad, as it’s hard to avoid. There are people who spend lifetimes working on the skill and let me tell you there are few things nastier than the studiously passive-aggressive conflicts among Zen Buddhists.

… the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.

No, the true “presidential derangement syndrome”—Krauthammer was overly specific in his terminology—is a longstanding part of the political scene of America, fitting in very nicely to the the “paranoid style” of American politics so neatly outlined in an article by Richard Hofstader in Harper’s in 1964 (from which all the above quotes are taken). To be sure, it infects everyone else’s politics as well, even more than in the USA most places. Taking the time machine back to the 1990s provides a very useful reminder: Much of the excessive anger the left exhibited towards George W. Bush had fine parallels in the right’s excessive anger towards Bill Clinton, with its crazy stories about Vince Foster’s suicide (or was it murder?) and so forth. Both men were able to inspire vituperative hatred in a non-trivial number of people, in no small part because the hard core partisans of both sides viewed their elections as being fundamentally illegitimate. Lo and behold, witness many of the things that have been said about Obama, or about “the media not being tough enough on Obama,” the quadrennial Republican fearbabe ACORN, and God knows what else. Actually former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has a nice little piece on this on Nov. 5.

In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.

Now the “paranoid style” in American politics has existed for a long time. It’s not—despite what certain partisans so desperately want to believe—the province of the left alone. Instead it has shifted around back and forth between left and right depending on their political fortunes. Lest we forget, the 1950s was the heyday of the John Birch Society, epitome of right wing paranoia, and Richard Nixon was quite adept at playing a simplified and more accessible version of the tune, a Kenny G compared to ‘Trane, as it were. Basically, for some people being on the “out” side is so horrible an experience that they fall into a nearly mindless rage. The paranoid style, in its most extreme form, is manifested by oppressed out groups. Think the Arab street or some of the really paranoid thinking in groups like Nation of Islam or white supremacists, but you can see it in slightly milder forms among many other groups, African-Americans, white guys who think affirmative action screwed them, taxi drivers who won’t shut the hell up, etc. Irrespective of the truth of one’s grievance—and make no mistake, many of the groups subject to “paranoid” politics have been screwed royally—the grudge is nurtured and due to the very strong need for a narrative our brains seem to possess, a good paranoid story just “works” emotionally. To quote some Young Earth Creationists I saw on TV once, who were ham-fistedly “debunking” Darwin, “Isn’t it just easier than all this Darwinism?” And the web seems to have made faceless exercise of rage more possible.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.

So, coming soon to a Diehard Republican—and, I think even more likely, the sorely disappointed “bake sale bomber” type progressives when Obama fails to deliver on the impossible things they’ve projected onto him—near you:

Obama Derangement Syndrome…

Ask for it by name…

Accept no substitutes!

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If you want practical advice, take a “news break.” I remember reading about this in one of those newspaper columns by Oprah’s favorite doctor before Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz arrived on the scene, Dr. Andrew Weil. Whatever else you might think about the good Doctor’s advice, this one is spot-on: Stop reading news for a while, say a week or two, or even a month and get yourself involved in other things that don’t constantly remind you of the stimulus that bugs you. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to start but how effective it is in the long run. In a nutshell, it’s cognitive behavior therapy for your overactive political brain.

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