The New Powerlessness

Conservative pundit Bret Stephens recently had a column in the New York Times, cleverly titled “The Bonfire of the Sanities.”

Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is often cited but less often read, which is a shame because the landmark 1964 essay helps explain our times.

As an example of contemporary paranoia, Stephens recounted a speech in which Senator Ron Johnson had gone full conspiracy theorist, before it turned out that a text message he had found so suspicious was an office in-joke between two FBI agents who were having an affair.  Johnson was also forced to admit he had no idea what a phrase within the message referenced, “not that it prevented him from painting it in the most sinister colors. Maybe there was a scavenger hunt for Hillary’s missing emails.”

I wouldn’t bother posting about this particular bit of GOP embarrassment–it is only one of  many, and Stephens lists several other “breaking news” items that later turned out to be equally bogus, but I was struck by this observation:

None of this would have surprised Hofstadter, whose essay traces the history of American paranoia from the Bavarian Illuminati and the Masons to New Dealers and Communists in the State Department. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” What better way to describe a Republican Party that thinks America has more to fear from a third-tier F.B.I. agent in Washington who doesn’t like the president than it does from a first-tier K.G.B. agent in Moscow who, for a time at least, liked the president all too well?

Then again, Hofstadter might have been surprised to find that the party of conspiracy is also the party of government. The paranoid style, he noted, was typically a function of powerlessness. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

As Stephens points out–and as we all know–the GOP currently controls all three branches of government, and then some: Robert Muller is a Republican. Jeff Sessions is a Republican. Etc. Surely the GOP is not powerless!

Except, it is.

Despite control of the government, the party cannot govern. It cannot head off standoffs like the recent shut-down. When its lawmakers make a deal–like the recent DACA agreement brokered by Lindsay Graham and Dick Durbin–they can’t predict whether their lunatic President will accept it.

Powerlessness, it turns out, is not solely a function of losing elections. There are a lot of reasons for the dysfunction that has turned the federal government into an exaggerated version of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight–this blog has suggested a number of them. And although he has been a mighty contributor to GOP fecklessness, Trump is less a reason than a consequence.

When nothing is working properly, people look for a reason–usually, they look for someone to blame. When there is no one handy, they suspect conspiracies. They develop paranoia.

The principal lesson of paranoia is the ease with which politically aroused people can mistake errors for deceptions, coincidences for patterns, bumbling for dereliction, and secrecy for treachery. True conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal. The failure to know the difference, combined with the desire for a particular result, is what accounts for the paranoid style.

“Conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal.” Or, as a friend of mine used to say when we were all in City Hall: incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.


  1. The billionaire Mercer family who funded Breitbart for Steve Bannon was also a major contributor to Trump.

    The Koch brothers pump billions into local, state and federal politics.

    They both have agendas which do not align well with the average American, therefore, they cannot widely spread this agenda to garner votes. They lie and manipulate people’s prejudice and bias. They’ve been doing this for generations.

    The level of a person who can sell out so easily is rather predictable. Several years ago, because Tony Bennett used state computers and his office staff to campaign for him, I was able to get the “GOP donor hit list” and many emails from GOP doers. They all wanted access to the monied donors.

    They don’t serve the public – they serve the donors. This leaves a huge gap between what they say to voters come election time and then what really happens.

    Americans were sold to believe that the recent Tax Reform was responsible for year-end bonuses dished out by corporations. I don’t know about anybody else, but almost every single corporate compensation package comes with an incentive plan that pays out year-end.

    The truth was the Tax Reform was a major gift to donors, but the GOP has been selling it to Americans as a windfall to them personally.

    So, is that a “lie” or a “conspiracy”? Those who can’t lie very well look completely incompetent. Remember Pence’s interview with George Stephanopoulos? He got caught in a lie.

    Fox News knows the game and would never ask such a question of a GOP’er (sociopaths).

    Based on my research, there is a major gap between our truth versus our reality. That gap births conspiracies. If we truly had a free press in the USA, there would be no gap. There also wouldn’t be a multitude of political pundits and media channels peddling their own theories.

    Our reality is we are an Oligarchy/Kleptocracy but we sell to the world that we are a well-functioning democracy. It requires lots of propaganda to sell this false reality.

  2. “…incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.”

    This comment took me back to the Goldsmith days in City Hall when he conspired to fill job slots with incompetents to accomplish his – and Warren Tyler’s – goals of personal enrichment. They were sneakier about their actions, seen by us inside city government, but Trump’s conspiracy to fill his cabinet with incompetents has been out in the open and approved by the entire Republican Legislature with some SCOTUS support. They are primarily intelligent, accomplished in their own field of expertise, but incompetent in their appointed positions and apparently most are unwilling to learn the ins and outs of the departments they control. The only powerlessness I see evidence of is in the general public; we ignored the signs of things to come if Trump was elected and are now faced with living under the incompetent leadership and daily we face new conspiracies to survive. What is the actual relationship between Nunes and Trump? They have conspired against the House Intelligence Committee and this country before in their attempts to deny and distract us from the Trump/Putin connection. And they have so far done a competent job of achieving their conspiracy by confusion and distraction from the core issue which Trump himself put before the public during his campaign.

    “Just because we are paranoid doesn’t mean they AREN’T out to get us.”

  3. “Trump is less a reason than a consequence.” Any close examination of the reason reveals a rot at the core of our society. It isn’t just the greed for power and wealth we now see in every institution, but it is also the abandonment of the belief in the possibility of a better society.

  4. Todd,

    “Our reality is we are an Oligarchy/Kleptocracy but we sell to the world that we are a well-functioning democracy. It requires lots of propaganda to sell this false reality.”

    You’re exactly right. That’s why I tweet in Sweden almost on a daily basis. They have a real democracy. I have to import whatever political strength I have at least once a week. It has taken the rest of the world a few months to understand and NOW observe FRAUDULENT America.

    Sheila is for real. Unfortunately, Sheila is not America.

  5. …all leading one to still come away with the understanding – WE ARE SCREWED!!!

  6. Theresa, good point. But given there are millions of Americans who are or at least see themselves as worse off economically than their parents will view a bleak future for society. This is because their place on the economic ladder is society’s fault not theirs. Hence paranoia-fueled conspiracy-driven populism. Of course in reality one’s place on the economic ladder it is a combination of the birth lottery, education, being opportunistic, hard work and being lucky.

  7. Manuel,

    “…all leading one to still come away with the understanding – WE ARE SCREWED!!”

    Not necessarily. Maybe it’s Donald Trump who is going to be SCREWED.

    Take a look at the Military Channel or YouTube. It’s called BATTLEPLAN DECEPTION. Deception can be a very successful strategy. For example, football and basketball are about deception.

    As pointed out on the Military Channel, there’s ONE big problem with deception. What happens if the other side is also using deception? Answer: Usually defeat.

  8. Patrick, my point is that our society as a whole has given up on the idea that we can do better. Of course, those at the bottom of the economic ladder see a futility in their efforts, but so do those at the top who only see amassing more and more money and power as their goal. The idea of building a fair, peaceful, and just society has faded from the public discourse. That idea once drove this country. Not anymore. Today it is every man/woman for themselves.

  9. When I was living and working in “the swamp” I was asked what I thought of “House of Cards”. I responded that it seemed too much like fantasy. I didn’t know any members of Congress who were evil and ruthless, but I knew a ton who were stupid. They do the bidding of their donors because they don’t know and don’t care much about the policies. They are easily persuadable by anyone with a handful of campaign cash.

  10. Incompetence certainly accounts for a lot, and GOP voters have been driving that train for years by electing candidates with no political experience and who profess to hate government (well, at least government that serves anyone but them, which is what I’m getting to think is what they mean by “small government”). The conspiratorial paranoia, though, I think is driven more by fear of powerlessness, of fear of impending powerlessness- the coming demographic shift that’s going to leave the old white guys behind. I’d say they’re just getting warmed up, and we’d better get our act together if we’re going to effectively counter the civic destruction.

    We who are tad more left of center aren’t immune from the effects of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing. I’d put that at the root of the “both parties are just as bad” false equivalence that energized Sanders’ supporters and drove the anti-Clinton movement on the left.

    We have much to overcome, if we’re going to get out of this mess.

  11. Theresa,

    “Today it is EVERY man/woman for themselves.”

    Don’t give up. That’s not true. It just seems that way because of the feeling of impotence when facing up to the OLIGARCHIC SYSTEM. All systems have vulnerabilities. From past experiences, I know the Kochs and the Mercers of this world are not exempt.

  12. Maybe it isn’t just paranoia, but an inferiority complex. Is the Republic party feeling inferior and trying to convince the average person that they too are inferior? The Mercer and Koch families, and others of their elk, are taking advantage of the Republican party’s poor image of itself. Until the Republicans can resolve this problem, they will continue to wreak havoc and plunge our great nation to the bottom rankings of developed nation’s.

  13. Jerri,

    It’s not just the Republican Party that is being manipulated. The Democratic Party is also being manipulated by the forces that control the NGOs on their side. The Mercer and Koch families are not the only ones who are attempting to control. They are just more successful at it.

  14. when most of the old guard republicans died off,retired,or moved on, we were left with a growing wing of paronoid tax evaders who today stand as the teaparty. except,like the president are guided by monied interests,who exploit their fear of paying taxes,and feel they are,,above he law. not new, up here in NoDak,we had gordon kahl, and his merry bunch called he pose comatodus. not much diffrent,except they made no hidden secret about hatred for our goverment. today,its been refined as the teabaggers. you may scoff,but unless you talk to these half wit,mindless,kooks, you can see,and hear,they are the inbred likes of gordon kahl. these self proclaimed savers of the country,expect to go on through life,telling the people,we have a issue with goverment,but they dont support it,but want eveything America has. they profess less goverment,but when farm bill “entitlement”check is inthe mail,they gladly cash it,and neer give thanks to the rest of us,who,paid that tax.

  15. open secrets is agood way to start lookingat t he donation tred mill of each elected member of congress, sen hietkamp,d,n.d. is obviously a dino. her stand with fossil fuel and banking,and health care corps,and a recent vote to head the hhs, a former eli,lilly ceo,way to go girl, a true dino….. no loss here,she voted for pruitt too..

  16. “The powers of ordinary men [and women] are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet in even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by FORCES they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.”

    “At the pinnacle of each of the enlarged and centralized domains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, the political, and the military elites. At the top of the economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief executives; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequences, the leading men in each of the three domains of power—the warlords, the corporation chieftans, the political directorate—tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.”

    “By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it.”

    “The Power Elite” by C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, London, 1956) pp. 3-9.

    Mills warned us over 60 years ago where we were headed. However, the problem is much more centralized now.

  17. The false hope of unity, scarcity, fear, the prisoner’s dilemma: there are many ways to describe the nature of individual actors in an environment of scarcity. Cooperation takes higher brain function, and yes, much of what we see is stupidity, animals being animals, but cooperation also takes commitment, the willingness to ignore instinct, place trust in others, and do what is right for everyone, not just for one’s self. Western culture is not based on principles of cooperation. Our journey to civilization is far from over. America the Idea, however brilliant in its conception, was flawed in execution, and 250 years later has become a farce in reality. Perhaps we need a new Idea.

  18. Over it,

    “Perhaps we need a new Idea.” That’s a very good idea in itself.

    Maybe a good start would be to find a way to make sure the oligarchy is neutralized, much like the successful ORGANIZATIONAL METHODS used in the formation of Desert Shield in Iraq.

  19. “When nothing is working properly, people look for a reason–usually, they look for someone to blame. When there is no one handy, they suspect conspiracies. They develop paranoia.”

    This does explain an awful lot. It’s also the basis for a great deal of political strategy. Republicans haven’t accomplished anything for several decades with and without majority and Presidential power. One reason is they are no longer focused on the country but their donors. They know several things. They know that they have an active and successful propaganda network with millions of supporters ready willing and able to accept anything that they are told. That takes the kind of money donors have. Donors are not average Americans but monied interests who want only to become more monied interests. There are always, always conditions attached to gifts. It’s a marriage made in hell. All of those controllable minds represent corrupting power.

    There’s an old saying something like the fact of conspiracy theories doesn’t mean that conspiracies don’t exist. Isn’t that the purpose of a political party? To conspire together to gather as much power as possible? They didn’t create their propaganda network. They are just taking advantage of what started out to be merely lucrative entertainment for authoritarian personalities.

    The GOP believes it to be their savior. It’s our job as Americans to turn it into their downfall. That’s the easy job. Next comes the harder job: reinforcing democracy to avoid a repeat and recognize that democracy is facing new threats much more subtle than invading armies and protecting who we are requires more than our current institutions are designed to give.

    Can we be clever enough to build systems that allow us continued freedom and robust democracy?

  20. Pete,

    “Republicans haven’t accomplished anything for several decades with and without majority and Presidential power. One reason is they are no longer focused on the country but their donors.”

    As I mentioned a few days ago, you’re PATRIOTIC. The Republicans, for the most part, aren’t. That’s there “Achilles heel.”

    We need to take advantage of it right now. It gives us an ORGANIZING ADVANTAGE, a political common denominator: a concern for the future of our country as opposed to FUTURCIDE.

    This movement has to start outside the Democratic Party similar to the creation of the Tea Party. As it gains traction, the Democratic Party will have no other choice to move in the same direction.

  21. The mention by Patrick and others of incompetence is salient. Reading the Nunes memo after following the whole story, I was foolish enough to believe that the memo would be more sophisticated than it was, and that it would actually tell me something I might not know. Instead, it misstated and twisted the facts, not just from the FISA document but from what we know from published information, and the whole process violated the spirit of fairness. People only fell for the document because they didn’t know what has already been published, stemming from being misinformed rather than not knowing what was in the FISA document. Furthermore, if the Democrat response was included, which would have only been fair, the public would have seen just how twisted the Nunes document really was and just how incompetent Nunes and his ilk are. The only thing saving that crew was keeping the public in the dark, many of whom believe that darkness is already a good option. But like the Washington Post says, “Democracy dies in darkness”.

  22. This past Sunday’s NYT carried a commentary on a just-published book by Harvard professors Livitsky and Ziblatt titled, “How Democracies Die.” Its main point is that when the electorate become so polarized and partisan that they can no longer communicate, or even comprehend each others views, democracy is at risk.

    I have no sense of what Trump’ admirers are talking about when they say he is a great president or aver that he is making America great. Nor can they understand my argument that without a modicum of empathy it is impossible to hold a meaningful discussion on matters that affect a lot of people. Nor do I have any thoughts that my mostly conservative, well-armed neighbors will hesitate to attack my family when Trump calls his thugs (they own nearly all the guns) into the streets to support his firing of Mueller.

    I may be paranoid, or democracy may be at risk, or neither or both

  23. Gerald,

    “Want to know our political future? Follow the money.”

    Well, if that’s the case, we better make damn sure that the money flows away from Trump/Pence/Bannon in the months leading up to the November elections.

  24. When Ross Perot ran for president he paved the way for a trump. trump only worships money and power and practices a form of capitalism that screws workers and only projects that aggrandize trump are put together. Take the USPS property across from the white house that opened for business as a premier hotel where anyone who wants favor from our government will stay, but the contractors who helped get it open before the election got screwed out of their pay, that he contracted. When it all comes out that trump is a money launderer of oligarchs from russia and that he owes them billions for his self-aggrandizement projects, I hope it dispels the myth that a businessman is the best to run government. A business is not a democracy, and a democracy can never be what makes capitalists successful and rewarded. The tide will turn toward the workers when they finally realize fox news is an advertisement for unbridled, unregulated capitalism. That is why European countries mix in some socialism, like for health care which shouldn’t be a profit center, just a public service with workers and doctors being paid a fair professional fee.

  25. Hofstadter’s essay (reprinted in a collection of his works), points out that the paranoia in the Conservative movement has a religious foundation, in that it is a form of Manichaeism. They are firmly opposed to negotiating to run a government because, as Hofstadter put it, “who would negotiate with the devil?”

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