Why I Wrote The New Hate

Back in 2009, I published a book called Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies—a serious-minded but basically gee-whiz impulse-buy type compendium of odd, offbeat, and scary beliefs and belief systems. “Mystics,” I wrote in its introduction, “believe that multiplicity and change are illusory; that everything is ultimately interconnected…that our universe is a cosmic One in which all contradictions are resolved.” Crises, I added, “can make a temporary Kabbalist out of anyone.” Shocking events like the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, or the stock market crash of 1929 can produce “a certain paranoid, pattern-seeking frame of mind akin to the cultic and conspiratorial world-view, they can also engender charismatic, omnicompetent leaders—messianic father figures who take matters in hand and tell us what we need to think and do.”

2009 was as eventful a year as most of us had ever lived through. The financial meltdown that had begun in 2008 metastasized and spread throughout the world. America’s first multi-racial president was inaugurated. And Birthers and Tea Partiers became an inescapable presence—at first on the fringe, but increasingly in the inner corridors of power. Our new president, they said, wasn’t the post-partisan figure of hope that he had campaigned as, but a radical and a tyrant, bent upon the destruction of the American way of life. Obama was a Manchurian candidate, a secret Muslim. He was fighting a war against Christianity. He might even be the Anti-Christ. “This President,” said Glenn Beck, whose TV show had debuted on Fox News in January, 2009, “has exposed himself as a guy, over and over again, who has a deep hatred for white people.”

All of it had a familiar ring to me. Those obscure fringe groups I had spent the last year writing about—doomsday sects that were looking to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem to hasten the advent of End Times, fanatical anti-Communists who believed that Eisenhower was an agent of Moscow—had said much the same things. Racism was a big part of the picture, but only a part of it.

I called it “the New Hate”—a toxic brew of racial, religious, gender, and nationalistic chauvinisms. Some of its themes—the danger of foreign-born people and foreign-minted ideas, the perfidy of international financiers and the put-upon virtue of society’s producer class—went back to nineteenth-century rural populism and even further, to the reactions of the propertied classes around the world to the bloody horrors of the French Revolution. Frank Gaffney’s Stealth Shariah sounded like nineteenth-century Nativist views of the Jesuits. Go back even further, to the fourteenth century, and there were the terrible rumors about the Knights Templar—that they worshipped the Devil, defiled the cross, were adepts in Arab magic, and committed unspeakable sexual acts.

Out of all this comes my latest book, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. I write about the Illuminati panic of the 1790s, the anti-Mason scare of the 1820s, and the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement that arose in the 1840s. I write about Henry Ford’s obsession with the “Jewish Problem” and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, about the anti-Semitic occult religious movement founded by William Dudley Pelley in the 1930s, and the parallel rise of white and black nationalism in the 1950s. I compare Lindbergh and Limbaugh. If the New Hate sounds a great deal like the Old Hate, I conclude, that’s because it is.

My subject is not so much prejudice as America’s long-standing penchant for conspiratorial thinking, its never-ending quest for scapegoats—a failing, I should acknowledge, that the left is not altogether immune to either. At root, the issue is not so much partisanship as it is paranoia. Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” has had an enormous influence on my thinking. But paranoia isn’t just a question of style, of form rather than substance. In some ways, it’s the default human condition. Our reptilian brains interpret every rustling of leaves as hungry bears or saber-toothed tigers pacing just beyond the firelight; they warn us that every stranger is a potential rival who might murder or rape us and enslave our children. It’s because we human beings carry so much of that kind of instinctive baggage that we need to be socialized. It’s why civilizations build schools and churches and the like; why parents teach their children to count to ten, to take a deep breath, to remember the Golden Rule—and why a politics that panders so blatantly to our resentments, to our ignorance and prejudice, is so deplorable.

If you live in the New York area and would be interested in learning more about The New Hate, I will be having a public conversation with the Daily Beast columnist and author Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World) at the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on February 8 at 7:30 (686 Fulton Street). Wine and snacks will be served.

If you are in the DC area, I will be reading at Politics & Prose on 5015 Connecticut Avenue, NW in Washington, DC on February 9 at 7:00.

And if you are in Portland, Oregon, I will be reading at Powells Books on 1005 W Burnside on February 16 at 7:30. I hope to see and speak to some of you.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.