It began with those expressions of hatred for President Barack Obama heard at campaign rallies in late October. During the weeks before and after the inauguration, it was muted. Since then it has gained in intensity, breadth and momentum. It underlies the "birther" movement that questions his citizenship; the belief that the president hates whites; the claim that he is another Hitler, a communist, a socialist and a liar. Call it a contagion of anger and fear - an infection of deep anxiety and militant resentment.
It is not any ordinary partisanship. It is something deeper and more troubling: a profound irrationality percolating up from the nether regions of our American psyche. It involves a rancorous rejection of reason.
Reason differs from intelligence. Intelligence is our capacity for insight - our ability to comprehend ideas. One has to be intelligent to be rational; but being intelligent is not sufficient. To be rational, one has to make sound judgments about whether an insight is correct. One has to stop and reflect. One has to carefully consider and soberly evaluate one's own ideas and those of others. One has to be able to give reasons for what one affirms and denies.
The rational process of critically evaluating ideas enables us to appreciate the complexity of issues. It helps us to recognize that good answers to hard questions are not easy to find. In a democratic culture, rationality is indispensable. It enables us to argue with each other thoughtfully so that disagreement does not turn into fisticuffs and then into deadly violence.
Whatever people may think of President Obama's policies, it is difficult to deny that he is a deeply rational person. His coolness under fire, his unflappable temperament, his professorial way of talking about issues - all suggest that, in him, rationality is something like a habit of being. He has repeatedly responded to insult and scorn with thoughtful candor. These are good reasons for saying that, when it comes to civility, he tries hard to practice what he preaches.
The conservative thought of Edmund Burke and the Republican tradition founded by Abraham Lincoln are both deeply rooted in and committed to the kind of rational discourse that the president practices and encourages. The political speeches of Burke and Lincoln often read like exercises in philosophical argument. So it is an especially tragic irony that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are now becoming identified with individuals who are very intelligent but deeply irrational, who use adolescent demagoguery in place of adult argument, and who seem to be oblivious of the fact that their rhetoric of rage and oversimplification inflames the most dangerous angels of our nature.
If Mr. Obama has become the focus of rage and fear, it is because he has come to symbolize what deeply angers and frightens many Americans: the complexities that make us feel impotent, the profound changes that are altering our world. It is hard, for example, for many of us to imagine a world in which white is not the dominant color and Christianity is just one of many respected creeds. The anger and fear that such change provokes are understandable. This does not make them any less irrational.
There is little that the president or his administration can do to allay this irrationality. Those who respond to him with visceral anger and fear are right to see him as the embodiment of the changes that enrage and terrify them. As he is the agent of change, he can do little to disarm the irrational response it often provokes. What is missing from our present political culture is an opposition that responds to the president's history-making administration with thoughtful conversation, an opposition that has the courage to eschew and explicitly criticize the rhetoric of hate and oversimplification.
Only conservatives and Republicans can provide such an opposition. The need for it is fast becoming desperate. For the vacuum created by the absence of such an opposition will not continue for long. There is a maelstrom waiting to fill it.
Astute Republican thinkers such as The New York Times' David Brooks have emphasized that the party needs to rethink itself to renew its identity. But there is already available to the Republican Party and the conservative movement an indispensable role in these historic times: They can stand up for reason and work to delegitimize the demagogy and malice that are betraying their deeply thoughtful and venerable traditions. Doing so may cost them votes; it may cost them primary elections. But it will earn them the gratitude of history.
We now need, perhaps more urgently than ever before, an opposition that is loyal, above all, to reason, as it was exercised by our founders.
Jerome Miller is professor emeritus of philosophy at Salisbury University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.