I was filing some papers the other day, when I came across my somewhat dog-eared copy of Richard Hofstadter’s classic article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It was written for Harper’s Magazine in 1964–but it sounded as if it could have been written for our own toxic times. Hofstadter explained his terminology thusly:
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds….I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy I have in mind.”
The article used historical examples–the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement and others–to give the reader a flavor of the “paranoid” mindset to which he was referring. The anti-Masonic hysteria he described just seems quaint today, when the few Masons still around have an average age of 103 or so, but the anti-Catholic rhetoric has uncomfortable resonance. “A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by the ‘potentates of Europe,’ multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation and sending increasing thousands of of voters to ‘lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.'”
As Hofstadter memorable put it, “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan.”
He also made an observation that seems particularly salient today–that the difference between the spokesmen for these historical movements and today’s right wing is that previous hysterics felt they were fending off threats to a way of life they still possessed, while today’s culture warriors feel dispossessed. They believe America has largely been taken away from them and their kind. And he quotes another author’s observation that there may be a “persistent psychic complex” made up of “preoccupations and fantasies” that characterize the paranoid style: a megalomaniacal view of oneself as Elect, wholly good, persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of great power to the adversary of the moment…It’s hard to read that without thinking of the contemporary insistence that “bible-believing” Christians are “victims,” that gays are a rich bloc pursuing a nefarious “agenda” and that all Muslims are well-funded and powerful terrorists.
I don’t know whether to be comforted or disturbed by the similarities between today’s “paranoids” and those described in the article. On the one hand, America survived those past eruptions–the know-nothings, the nativists, and the other ugly and regrettable episodes of our history did become footnotes of our larger story.
On the other hand, we waste an enormous amount of time and energy trying to solve not only the real problems we face, but the problems such people create.