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.