Political Paranoia

Awhile back, in one of his newsletters, Paul Krugman reminded us that we’ve always had lunacy in America. He was right–before the equation of vaccinations with (ahem!) both communism and fascism, the fluoridation of water was a favorite target. And I remember when the John Birch Society assured us that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” 

As Krugman pointed out, however, the difference between then and now is that the entire GOP has embraced bizarre theories like Trump’s “Big Lie.” Conspiracies are so mainstream in the Republican Party that, as he wrote, “These days you’re excommunicated from the Republican Party if you don’t embrace the Big Lie that the election was stolen, don’t denounce modestly center-left Democrats as the second coming of Stalin and, increasingly, don’t declare that mask mandates are the equivalent of the Holocaust and vaccines are a globalist plot to achieve mind control.”

The question of our time is: What has given “political paranoia” critical mass? Krugman didn’t offer an answer, and I certainly don’t have one.

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This seems to be a good time to revisit it.

Hofstadter was commenting on the right-wing of his time, and its success in nominating Barry Goldwater. (In the wake of Donald Trump, Goldwater seems eminently normal, whether one agrees or not with his political positions.) Explaining his choice of language, Hofstadter wrote

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

The essay included illuminating examples reaching back to 1855.

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

The examples–which he elaborates–are telling, but it’s the following paragraph that struck me. It could easily have been written this year.

The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

At their base, American grievances always come back to tribalism, and to threats posed by “the Other” to the world within which White Christian men are comfortable.

Ironically, it’s their refusal to accept a changing reality that is by far the biggest threat we face.


  1. Folks used to laugh at the Chicken Littles of the world with their “The sky is falling. The sky is falling!” Not so anymore. Their fearmongering and craziness have cost lives and paralyzed the country. Our politics have become very, very ugly.

  2. The type of non-medical paranoia in our politics is the direct result of lusting for power and control. That means power over money and the lives of people. To Karl Marx’s point: The greedy capitalists will do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to keep their grasp on the money and how to make more of it at the expense of whatever gets in their way to take it all.

    THAT, is the simple and primitive truth that confirms Rebecca Costa’s thesis that humans evolved much faster socially than biologically. We’re still trying to govern ourselves with a semi-reptilian brain.

  3. You have to look further into this country’s history for examples; today’s Republican party is still operating under the Carpetbagger mind set of post Civil War control of the country. Then, as now under Donald Trump’s GOP; “To the victor, goes the spoils.” He was talking about foreign oil but…his takeover of America reaped the “spoils” for his party.

    A line by Rhett Butler to a group of plantation owners in the movie “Gone With The Wind” before the Civil War was true then and remains true today, “There is as much money to be made from the destruction of a civilization as their is from building one.”

    And Theresa’s comments are true, “The sky IS falling. The sky IS falling.” in the name of Climate Change and the Pandemic continuing under the Trump Republican party which has not been removed from our government.

  4. It seems our White Christian Brethren have accepted the fact that they will soon be a minority (if they aren’t already). What they are doing about it is setting in stone an original Constitutional provision for minority rule, when only propertied white men could vote. Ah the good old days! What the rest of us are trying to do is continue the work of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments. If we don’t get better at it, we might just lose the battle.

  5. In a perfect society, transparency would be the fundamental principle. Honesty would be heralded and a beloved character. Society would function democratically controlled by politicians who serve the people in making decisions that benefit their constituents.

    We would also have a free press that worked for the people to keep those in government accountable to the people. Both would be funded entirely and solely by the people for obvious reasons. Any money offered by outside entities would fuel corruption. Favors would be the norm. Ulterior motives would be concealed from the people and the press.

    All men and women of every nature would be equals. As part divine and part human, we would embrace both aspects of our soul and would understand our connection to everything, including this planet that provides for us. We would be grateful for our planet and all it gives to us, and we would protect it as if our life depended upon it because it does.

    We would see ourselves as equals, divinely created for a human experience, and then reunited with our divinity. One would follow Jesus’s words as truth. Sinful ways would be rectified as soon as possible to avoid karma.

    In a society like this, people would trust our institutions entirely because they were accountable under moral law and watched by people upholding it.

    There would be very little need for man’s laws. Those who went against the moral code would be shunned and feel guilty for their sins. Those feelings would be worse than prison. They would beg for forgiveness and clamor never again because being isolated from society would be painful enough to prevent future wrongdoing.

    The problem is we don’t have a society like that on earth. Those within our government and other institutions are corrupted with wrongful motives. The press isn’t watching or keeping those in government accountable. The politicians receive bribes from outside influences and motives aren’t anywhere close to being morally or ethically guided.

    As a result of all this corruption, nature is to cover up or lie about as with any human caught amid wrongdoing. Dishonesty is the rule rather than the exception. How can you trust anything said by these creatures? They aren’t trustworthy.

    Look at the revelations released yesterday about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Mike Pompeo reclassified both of them so the CIA could plot ways to destroy them – plans for kidnapping and assassination were underway.


    Because they perfected a way of gathering the truth about what our governments were doing in the name of the people and let the world see it, whistleblowers only trusted them with their facts because regular news outlets would report the whistleblowers to the FBI or Justice Department.

    Think about that on your Monday. As I’ve said often, the news in this country is propaganda for the oligarchs who own this country. They are not allowed to hold the oligarchy or their government accountable.

    In our natural world, conspiracy is the norm because corruption is the norm. Nothing can be taken at face value, and it’s been that way for a very long time. Our Founders knew what could happen, so they designed checks and balances. It didn’t last very long, did it?

  6. @Todd … the last thing a perfect society would need is more inspiration from the divine. Centuries of the ruling class being the divine were filled with distrust, hatred, persecution, corruption and ignorance.

  7. Alfred…weren’t we not warned about false prophets?

    Plato suggested that society be ruled by “philosopher kings.”

    We cannot ignore or resent our social instincts or we’d be ruled by Libertarians. This is what the Koch Network, Ayn Rand lovers prophesize. I don’t think you’d like that existence.

    What is commonality then? What can we unite around?

  8. Todd and Alfred > Or until we catch up with Plato. Todd > Tell us something gnu. Those in power have always called the shots, whether a Ball Brother or a Lenin or a Charlemagne or a George III, and as for the John Birch Society, Marxism and the like > If you don’t have a real enemy, manufacture one, or if you do, manufacture another a la the present maufacture of subhead hatreds and grievances stoked by Trump from his list of grievances anchored in tribalism.

    So what’s a “perfect society?” Like beauty, that may be in the eyes of the beholder, and like perfection, something (like Athenian democracy minus its gender and slave components) to be ardently strived for as a concept knowing it will never be achieved – and while striving I can think of worse than “philosopher kings” to lead the charge – like Hitler, Jefferson Davis and Trump, for instance. My vote is for Plato.

  9. Theresa, Chicken Little is Q.

    So, the U.S. has been a nation of conspiracy theorists since its founding. But they spread slowly when all that existed was print media and word-of-mouth. They speed up with radio and TV, and especially with Limbaugh, then accelerate further with Fox News founding. And then comes the internet and social media, and they explode. At this point, it’s a full-blown addiction epidemic, with posts acting as “hits” of a potent drug. More and more people are trying the drug and getting hooked. It’s overlooked as such, but it’s a very real health crisis.

  10. The paranoia we see in our politics is fueled by those who feel existentially threatened.They want the American culture I saw in the small towns of Indiana in the 50’s. They want the America of “Leave it to Beaver” and “My Three Sons.” They want African-Americans living on the other side of town, across the railroad tracks. Fox News fuels the paranoia. They are guilty of misinformation that further supports conspiracy theories. They enable the divisiveness. One could also accuse MSNBC and CNN of fueling the divisiveness. And don’t get me started on the failure of Facebook and other social media sites to intervene, to take off posts that further enable conspiracy theories and misinformation.

    As I recall, there have been reports of an increase in suicide amongst white men. I’ve even heard journalists who report that farmers commit suicide.( And yes I know there are people of color who are farmers.) Why? Many men base their self-worth on being able to provide for their families. Many of these men worked in manufacturing, coal mines etc. and can no longer provide well for their families. So, some of these suicides are due to feelings of shame and the loss of meaning for those men.

    Robert Reich has pointed out a pattern. Anytime there is severe inequities in the distribution of wealth, there is severe divisiveness and tribalism. One would hope that Biden’s agenda would diminish this inequity. The problem is that the democrats in Congress can’t seem to get past the conflicts between moderates like Manchin and progressives like OSC. Pelosi and Schumer and other leaders of the cacauses need to move democrats in congress to come together as a UNITED group. This has always been the problem for democrats. The diversity within them tends to undermine their agenda due to an unwillingness to compromise.

    I am sure the social Darwinists will have a lot to research in lieu of all this insanity.

    In my practice as a psych nurse, I became skilled with deescalating agitated patients, even very paranoid ones. All I had to do was stay very calm and try to find something we had in common to build a rapport. One time I did this with a man by finding out he lived in my former home town. It was that simple. After he knew I spent much of my childhood in Rushville, he became willing to take the meds he needed to diminish his paranoia.

    If only we could find the common ground amidst our increasing diversity. Let’s see Step 2 Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. I sometimes wonder what would happen if everyone truly lived in accord with the 12 steps. Oh, but that would require we all clean out the dirt in our own houses instead of blaming others.

  11. Gerald, I think the Enlightened Founders like Jefferson had the right idea, but I don’t think the British oligarchs were ready to let go so easily.

    Those who believe in some of the early Mason conspiracies weren’t far off. I’ve read pages of letters from the dude in Montreal taking orders from what appears to be a Mafia-type organization overseas, including providing funding to the Southern Confederacy and Booth. Not sure if all his letters were in the history books I’ve read about that period of time.

  12. It’s too bad Plato the Greek (minus the gender and slave components of Athenian democtracy) was not a Florentine Italian during the Enlightenment, a Florence where we are told the Enlightenment began. Perhaps Jefferson could have made some shortcuts with his quill and the Civil War and womens’ rights to vote would never have been issues, but we start from where we are, and better late than never. Thanks to Trump, we have ample new wrongdoings to correct.

  13. Whether one prefers the known past to the unknown future depends largely on the degree to which the situation of the past entitled or deprived you. Not that alone though. Science is able to ignore those critical feelings and focus on the details of imperceptible interactions of energy, matter, and spacetime and predict when the winds are shifting and the sails need to be adapted to what’s coming no matter what was. Then sensible sailors stow their feelings and react on the knowledge that they’ve been accorded about what will be, not what would benefit them.

    Consumerism has had a great run over my lifetime and it would feel good if I could pass my favorable winds on to my grandchildren’s watch as mine comes to an end. If only. That however is not reality no matter what would make them and I feel good. They know that of course and don’t expect it and are ready to accept the realities of their watch and that generation gap is ultimately a measure of progress and not dysfunction. It’s us however feeling left out and worried about what we don’t understand. Life has a cure called death for our problems though and another called maturity for them to pick up the slack and prepare for what they will face.

    The circle of life may be more prominent thanks to absolutely pervasive entertainment media but other than that appearance change it’s the same ol’, same ol’.

  14. I would recommend that everyone go back and read Barry Goldwater’s book “Conscience of a Conservative.” In today’s Republican Party Goldwater would be sitting with Liz Chaney on the sidelines. In his book Goldwater describes his apprehension of the fundamentalist Christians, and states something like,”There is just no dealing with these people.” I think the closest to a Goldwater Republican you can find in the Senate today would be Joe Manchin.

  15. I never have the time to indulge in more than a few cursory remarks, but for today, this is what stirs my paranoia:
    1. Hillary was right.
    2. Fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in or support democratic institutions and have made organized efforts to undermine them going back decades. Even now, at the highest levels of government.
    Am I paranoid? Absolutely.

  16. We really shouldn’t get to wrapped up in terms that include “Darwin”. This is especially true for Republicans, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and ALL Trump-ties: Sadly, they’ve mostly already been allowed to reproduce.

  17. In re Plato and philosopher kings: He thought philosopher kings were those who had the ability to govern well but who DID NOT WANT the position. In other words, they were not greedily seeking wealth and power through politics, but wanted the actual welfare of the people. He also thought women could just as well qualify to be philosopher kings as men. The issue of who would mind the children needed to be resolved first (sound familiar?). This is all in The Republic, Plato’s blueprint for an ideal society, and well worth reading. The guy was no fool.

  18. Todd, we can unite around what Jonathan Rauch calls “The Constitution of Knowledge,” which refers to The’… 3 great liberal social systems that humans have developed since breakthroughs in the 17th and 18th centuries: economic, political and epistemic.” He refers to “the reality based community,” which requires following rules of evidence, with no one having anything like a “final say,” (as Trump and other manipulators, have wanted to have), open data, rigorous vetting, falsifiability, and the like. that could help re-establish a common reality, and, possibly, the ability to converse with one another without pulling knives, or the like.
    John H., you have correctly pointed to the poisonous part of the ‘Digital Age,” that the electronic system responds to “hits” and “clicks,” not to anything related to veracity, and people get drawn, addictively, down their favorite rabbit holes.
    “Political Paranoia,” has been around “forever,” but was not taken to the extreme, I believe, that we find now, until Malignant Manipulator Trump was allowed to capture an all too willing GOP, which then morphed into the GQP.

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