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Political Hysteria: American as Cherry Pie

While most readers do not recall political history back to “I Like Ike,” I certainly do, and I am, thus, appalled (but not surprised) by the fever-pitch of “hysteria” that has been ongoing for at least three years. Hysteria is defined as “…overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess.” Synonyms are “frenzy, rage, fury, rampage, uproar.” The term is extreme but appropriate. One feminist book entitled Rage Becomes Her shows why women should ignore biology and history.

Political hysteria in modern America

All political/cultural wars are two-way events, and this one is no exception. It began even before the 2016 election and escalated when the new President began insulting nearly everyone in sight and then indicated that the world order we all know and love is finished. He then lied 10,000 times, according to “fact checkers” (who cannot lie). Many lies were told throughout the Vietnam War, also; the difference being around three million deaths, mostly Vietnamese (1955-1975). Politicians and diplomats lie, but some lies have greater consequence than others. W Bush lied about Iraq’s WMD; sixteen years and  about 300,000 deaths later (mostly Iraqi), we’re still there.

The backlash against Trump came from nearly all the print and TV media (Fox excepted) in what can only be described as an all-out, to-the-finish assault meant to remove him ASAP. Trump may as well be a foreign agent with few distinctions drawn between himself and Vladimir Putin. Trump has even been identified with Adolf Hitler (despite a Jewish son-in-law and converted daughter, with no “Gestapo” to execute reporters).

Hysteria fits. Of all the tens of thousands of examples of this “assault,” perhaps my favorite is one from a nationally-known reporter (anonymous) who confessed that “…once I’m awake, a gravitational pull takes hold and I am once more bedeviled by our preposterous president.” That’s hysteria!

I can remember disliking many of our Presidents, but when I awoke I first brushed my teeth (I controlled my rage until lunch). Would “preposterous” apply to the Vietnam War, Iraq, or having sex in the Oval Office with an intern (and then lying)? Politics in the recent past has been, to be sure, acrimonious, but “level heads” usually prevailed.

Today, reason seems to be missing, on both sides. Nixon broke the law and went quietly. Ford said that “Poland was free,” but it wasn’t, and Jimmy Carter warned against “malaise.” Reagan was often labeled a “cowboy” but is now sorely missed.  Bush forgot to remember his script (“read my lips …”); Clinton was impeached, and his ratings soared. Bush II won thanks to Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, while Obama got a “free ride” from the media.

In the Trump presidency (so far), his personality and character are the only real issues. Emotions dominate. Tariffs and NATO rarely invoke emotions, but the emotional discharges about children in “cages” (like Rachel Maddow crying on-air) is directed against Trump alone, not the root cause of such mass migration itself (tyrannical regimes).

By and large, America is at peace, and there are no national protests against war (unlike Vietnam). By most indications, Trump wants to remove American soldiers from war zones. The economy is getting better every day (unlike the recession). On the surface, things seem tranquil. Malls are crowded, highways are jammed, factories are working, the press is free (extremely free), and any “emergency” is beyond the border.

Still, in some quarters, any emergency is outright denied. Denial has also infected the political campaign. The recent Democratic primary debates came off as “Econ 101,” Capitalism vs. Socialism. The country’s more important policies, national security, tariffs, for example, were simply left alone. The most critical issues involved what happened half-a-century ago: Senator Harris was bused to kindergarten and Senator Joe Biden “colluded” with long-dead southern Democrats (he should have hit them over the head with a cane, as one did in 1860).

Question: What is it about politics that arouses such seemingly irrational behavior? Athletes fight each other then embrace. Soldiers honor enemies who just tried to kill them. Germany and Japan have been American allies going back after World War II. We are now on good relations with Vietnam. Nixon was a hero for aligning with Communist China (a regime that killed sixty million of its own, the most in history).

Trump is accosted by the press for cordial behavior toward North Korea, Russia and other world tyrannies. Should he ignore or threaten them (he’s put sanctions on Russia)? Should we break relations with the over 175 dictatorships in the world? Franklin D. Roosevelt called Josef Stalin “Uncle Joe,” and was revered while Mikhail Gorbachev had twelve (yes twelve) summits with Reagan/Bush. Everybody laughed when Clinton was photographed arm around a drunken Boris Yeltsin.

Political hysteria in early America

Is there something in the character of politics that makes it illogical, a “blood sport”? Is that why it is called an “arena”? Perhaps a brief look at early American history might give a clue.

From the beginning, Americans were fiercely independent, passionate, but deeply divided. Only about one-third supported the revolution; the majority were either neutral or remained loyal to the British (“Tories”). A fierce internal terrorist campaign raged throughout the war between these two groups of Americans. So intense was the divide that a British Chaplin was moved to write that,

These Americans, so soft, pacific and benevolent by nature, are here transformed into monsters, implacably bloody and ravenous; party rage has kindled the spirit of hatred between them, they attack and rob each other by turns, destroy dwelling houses, or establish themselves therein by driving out those who had before dispossessed others. [Note the word “rage.”]

With the revolution over, the country settled down, but the acrimony went on. No one was spared, not even the “father of the country.” In 1795, President Washington signed a treaty with Britain (“Jay Treaty”) that gave concessions to Britain on the high seas in return for the British withdrawal from certain forts in North America. The treaty was so divisive that another war seemed likely. Washington himself became an overnight villain in many quarters. There were calls for impeachment, charges of treason. Newspaper cartoons showed Washington being marched to a guillotine. Revolutionary war veterans infamously “toasted” Washington, “A speedy death to General Washington.” A slogan by anti-treaty partisans declared “George Washington – down to the year 1787. And no farther.”

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson resigned in protest, and his followers demanded that all private papers of the treaty be made public. Several newspaper columnists claimed that Washington had been bribed by the British. A pro-treaty paper lamented that, “Washington has been classed with tyrants, and calumniated as the enemy of his country. Weep for the national character of America, for, in ingratitude to her Washington, it is sullied and debased throughout the globe.” Privately, Washington noted that “infamous scribblers” were calling him “a common pickpocket, in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero.” Washington’s wife, Martha, claimed later that the hatred  hastened his death.

The treaty passed and America survived.

If this all sounds familiar, it may be that it is generic, as the comment, above, noted to the “national character of America.”

After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what they had produced. His reply, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

After all these years, the jury is still out.

Read more by Dr. Tierney