What has changed over the past 50 years is not so much the incidence of craziness but its distribution. With the conversion of southern Dixiecrats to Republicans the crazies are now all in one place.
Gopnik uses the recent book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis to compare the extremists of 1963 to those of the present day. Those authors
"....the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction....that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate."
Gopnik pinpoints a few examples of the eerie similarities between the environments faced by Kennedy and Obama.
"The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a "Wanted" poster, with the headline "WANTED FOR TREASON." The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. ‘He has been wrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States’; ‘He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.’ Birth certificate, please?"
Gopnik could have gone further with his analogy between the Birchers of then and the Tea Party of now. The Birchers have at times come out in favor of disassembling the Federal Reserve System, and returning to the gold standard. They have always been against the United Nations claiming it was conduit through which the Communist conspiracy would form a world government that it could then control. These are all themes that occasionally emerge in Tea Party demonstrations.
Gopnik’s claim that the craziness is passed down from one generation to another is clearly supported by the fact that one of the twelve founding members of the John Birch Society was John Koch of Koch Industries, father of the two right-wing activist brothers who now run that company and support Tea Party activities.
Gopnik addresses race as an issue and describes the sentiments of the right-wing extremists as being only marginally based on race.
Gopnik could have made one more comparison between Kennedy and his time and Obama and his. Kennedy was a Catholic and, based on today’s data, to be one of the crazies you have to be a Protestant. Hatred between Catholics and Protestants has a longer and bloodier history than any such animosity between whites and blacks. His Catholicism gave Kennedy a hint of that "otherness" that Obama evokes from his political enemies.
A case can be made that race is a big issue in the confrontation between the right-wing extremists and Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) keeps track of hate groups, antigovernment "patriot" groups, and armed militia movements. It concludes:
"These factors also are feeding a powerful resurgence of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813 percent since Obama was elected – from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012."
An article in The Economist provided this chart based on the SPLC data and coined the phrase "The Obama Effect.".
The ignorant, the violent, and the bigoted get disturbed when a Democrat is elected president; they really get riled up when that Democrat is also black.
Gopnik’s article provides a timely correlation between the current madness and past madness. But what are we to draw from that correlation? That madness is conserved through time and that that the similarly mad have always been among us? But the John Birch Society had a definite beginning, and its main concern was Communist domination. That is a fear that can be firmly placed in time.
Consider this comment by Archibald MacLeish written in 1949 and reproduced in the Introduction to Studs Terkel’s wonderful oral history "The Good War".
"All this....took place not in a time of national weakness or decay but precisely at the moment when the United States, having engineered a tremendous triumph and fought its way to a brilliant victory in the greatest of all wars, had reached the highest point of world power ever achieved by a single state."
World War II ended with the dropping of two nuclear weapons. The world could never be the same after that. The United States had to face the task of fighting the next war with nuclear weapons. It would take a while before the absurdity of that concept became evident. We also had to face the certainty that the Russians would also possess nuclear weapons. In that eventuality, we could no longer be protected by the broad oceans that separated us from potential enemies. A single bomb could destroy an entire city. We could no longer feel quite so "exceptional."
The Europeans suffered mass devastation and patiently went about rebuilding their nations and developing kinder, gentler versions of their former selves. We merely feared mass devastation and went bonkers, descending into wave after wave of destructive paranoia.
It is comforting to view our madness as having a specific beginning. One can then more easily believe that it can be dissipated or subdued. Rather than being passed from generation to generation as a genetic defect, it is a cultural defect that is transmitted. Those are a bit easier to deal with.