The Strange Gods of Fearful Americans: FDR, Obama, and the Gullible Allure of The Onion

Trying times bring out the worst in men. It's easy to look at contemporary vitriol (birtherism, calls for secession, warnings of "1,000 years of darkness," incessant playing of the Nazi card, Glenn Beck's piss stunt) and chalk it up to unusual cultural and economic circumstances. More alarming is the credulity displayed by many people in believing that things are worse than they really are, that America is plummeting into the abyss, and that Canada will soon become a refugee camp for fleeing patriots.

But, for good or for ill, this predilection for sensationalist fearmongering is more a trademark of the American character than it is a generational allergy. And it's exacerbated not by racism or cultural insensitivity, but by the oldest reason in the book: money. A weak economy grants the pundits a populist influence that would otherwise be impossible, and this is the way it's been since time immemorial.

Sally Denton's magnificent portrait of FDR's first term, The Plots Against the President, is the perfect historical example. The title alone alludes to the urgent, incendiary zeitgeist of the early 1930s: The "Plots" (plural) Against The President (which one?). The author recalls a cultural and economic environment of reactionary fear and irrational finger-pointing: plutocratic conspiracies to overthrow the government; furious radio personalities touting the virtues of fascism, including the strong leadership of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini; attempts to undermine the presidency through specious accusations of a Jewish bloodline in the Roosevelt family; assassination attempts by deranged immigrants; and popular calls for an American dictatorship.

When I read this book I was struck by a feeling that was at once relieved, but then clouded by a greater fear for the American character. Said in a less poetic way, I saw the spirit of this country forever tied to the politics of fear, paranoia, and ignorance (of the willful kind). It's fitting, then, that in the epilogue Denton quotes a John F. Kennedy speech from 1961, titled "The Conspiracy Speech." In it, the 35th president illustrates the uniquely American temptation of militant dramatics, but also the greater imperative of calm:

"Now we are face-to-face once again with a period of heightened peril. The risks are great, the burdens heavy, the problems incapable of swift or lasting solution. And under the strains and frustrations imposed by constant tension and harassment, the discordant voices of extremism are heard once again in the land. Men who are unwilling to face up to the danger from without are convinced that the real danger comes from within. They look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders. They call for a 'man on horseback' because they do not trust the people...

"So let us not heed these counsels of fear and suspicion. Let us... devote more energy to organize the free and friendly nations of the world, with common trade and strategic goals, and devote less energy to organized armed bands of civilian guerillas that are more likely to supply local vigilantes than national vigilance."

Forgetting, for a moment, the chaos of the 1960s, could this same excerpt not perfectly describe the American mood in 1931? Or how about antebellum politics? Fears of the Reconstruction Era South? The Red Scare of 1919-1921? 1950s McCarthyism? Or, of course, today's virulently ignorant landscape of manmade hurricanes, manipulated employment figures, Muslim witch-hunts, and socio-political boycotts?

Interestingly -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- each of the above mentioned "fear epidemics" coincided with a major economic downturn:

- Panic of 1857 (23.1 percent decline in business activity)
- Long Depression of 1873-79 (33.6 percent decline in business activity)
- Depression of 1920-21 (32.7 percent decline in industrial activity)
- Great Depression (26.7 percent GDP decline, 24.9 percent peak unemployment)
- Recessions of 1953 and 1958 (6.1 percent and 7.5 percent peak unemployment, respectively)
- Recession of 1960-61 (7.1 percent peak unemployment)
- Great Recession (5.1 percent GDP decline, 10 percent peak unemployment)

This is not to say America's penchant for hysterics exposes itself only during times of economic difficulty. Rather, it shows that this tendency is always present, if made louder by financial duress.

This is essentially the argument Denton makes in her carefully crafted epilogue, with a thumb held allegorically on the pulse of today's cultural landscape. The title of the chapter, "The Paranoid Style of American Politics," is from the words of historian Richard Hofstadter, and it is highly appropriate. After all, in referencing today's political landscape, the last four years have seen their fair share of grand political conspiracies. According to the Secret Service, President Obama is the target of more than 30 potential death threats a day, making him the most threatened president in U.S. history.

But there's something else that this book illustrated to me about America: a sensationalist tenor that is not merely political or cultural, but intellectual, too. As if instilled from on high, I was unable to read this book without thinking about the website Literally Unbelievable. For those who don't know, Literally Unbelievable posts Facebook users' credulous interpretations of stories from the satirical newspaper The Onion. Here's an example: An anonymous Facebook user responded to an article with the headline, "Obama: Help Us Destroy Jesus And Start A New Age Of Liberal Darkness," with the following reaction (verbatim):

"anybody that believes in god needs to read this and see the true colors of our satanic president barrack obama.... this is no joke. he did this. it was on national news today..... i told you all he was bad but you said i was just being racist.... i dont think so. now maybe youll see that i was telling the truth"

Another user responded to the same article as such:

"His sarcasm is the scary truth. He will go back to Chi town and hand out subsidized condoms to his base .out of work lazy anitamerican muslim gay black latino communist occupy the toilet women... As is his fathers dream..."

Clearly, the blog is an entertaining way to waste time at work, even if it's offensive to common intellect. But I promise you, if you spend enough time on this site, it will begin to weigh on you. The full spectrum of human stupidity, in all its various incarnations, seems funneled into this one website for your own amusement. Eventually, it will depress you. The more addicted I visited to Literally Unbelievable -- citing it constantly, making it a part of my morning routine -- the more I became troubled by its implications.

There's such an intense level of anger behind the reactions to some of these articles that it frightened me. Collectively, they reveal a mass of people who are fearful, ignorant, and blindly searching for someone to blame. And it's understandable. Why not point your finger at the most powerful person in the country -- nay, the world?

Denton's book showed me that this tendency is not unique to today's circumstances; in fact, it is common throughout U.S. history. And I can't decide if this is more relieving or disturbing. As with so many posts displayed on Literally Unbelievable, The Plots Against the President variously depicts three natural American attitudes toward recession-era presidents: (1) media-driven public malice, (2) allegations of socio-economic treason, and (3) fabrication of ethnic origin.

First, the book depicts a desperate populace willing to believe anything it's told, particularly the irrational fears of media blowhards. Here's Roosevelt himself on two inflammatory radio personalities of the day (Huey Long and Charles Coughlin, the latter of whom frequently called for a fascist state in America):

"In normal times the radio and other appeals by them would not be effective. However these are not normal times; people run after strange gods."

Second, the book depicts capitalist zealots decrying red tape as the heralding of tyranny and economic apocalypse, with the "communist" commander in chief to blame for the country's downfall. Consider this quote:

"This is despotism. This is tyranny. This is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot... The President... has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom."

Sound familiar? No, that is not Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, or Ted Nugent talking about our 44th president. That is Denton quoting one U.S. Senator's response to New Deal financial regulations.

Lastly, Denton's book depicts a blindly angry public relying on the time-tested theme of cultural "otherness" to whip up support and delegitimize the presidency. If the fallacious attack on President Obama's "otherness" is his supposed Muslim roots, Roosevelt's was his supposed Jewish bloodline. Citing the American fascist William Dudley Pelley's faith in the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a hoax document that purports to be a blueprint for Jewish world domination, Denton writes the following:

"[Pelley] and his legion of Silver Shirts worked feverishly to prove that Roosevelt was the installed head of a Jewish dictatorship... The fanatics charged that Roosevelt was the head of a Communist conspiracy to take over the world. Such indictments would have been laughable if not for the suggestion of violence they contained and the unhinged population to which they appealed."

Clearly, the American temperament has long swayed toward the sensational. It could be argued that this obsession with the unreal or the anecdotal is a reason for the lofty ambitions that brought us to the moon, inspired our westward expansion, or instilled in us a constitutional belief in human dignity and freedom. But, if this condition could be diagnosed as something along the line of "expedient dramatics," it is certainly true that this flowery notion manifests itself in scarier ways, too, especially when the economy is at stake. People will believe anything if it affords them a villain.

Literally Unbelievable creator Hudson Hongo touched on this idea in an interview with Salon earlier this year.

"I definitely find that anything Obama -- or right-to-life-related gets an especially fiery response. My speculation is that mainstream reporting about these topics has become so sensational that readers are really willing to believe anything that gets said about them. Also people seem to be waiting to hear that their tax dollars are spent on any number of bizarre projects or studies."

Now that Obama's second term has begun and the economy is beginning to improve, it will be interesting to see whether or not the animosity toward the president subsides. It's unlikely to go away entirely, as I think it's in our American DNA to oppose, to disobey, and to do so regardless of circumstances. But, hopefully, the kinds of people who find themselves strung up on Literally Unbelievable can temper their vitriol, and perhaps devote their wary affectations toward something more... constructive. Like making a laugh of the gullible. In that sense, I think it's just something that we Americans all have to live with, provided we can live with facts instead of sensations.