The Return of the Paranoid Style

“…the modern right wing 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 […]; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

-Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1964

I would not be surprised, when reading the above quotation, if you expected to see it attributed to a writer responding to the rise of Trumpism. If he were alive today, I suspect Richard Hofstadter wouldn’t be surprised either, as its undying virulence is a hallmark of the political pathology he described as “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.”

Half a century ago, in the wake of McCarthyism, Hofstadter was trying to make sense of a type of politics he had seen emerge and re-emerge during his lifetime. Among his contemporaries, he saw this form of political rhetoric and vision represented by Barry Goldwater, and the populist movement he led. Goldwater would remind many today of Donald J. Trump, campaigning for president while talking up conspiracies and easily disprovable claims, also showing little impulse control. Famously, he wisecracked that he wanted to “Lob a grenade into the men’s room at the Kremlin” in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and Russia during the Cold War.

Having borne witness to the politics of the mid-twentieth century, and having studied the history of American political life, Hofstadter found that apocalyptic rhetoric, tinged with conspiracy theory and zealotry, was not an anomaly, but a regular feature of our democracy. In the essay quoted above, he traced this “political pathology” at fifty-year intervals throughout American history. The targets varied, ranging from Freemasons to Communists, but the symptoms of the disease persisted: a distorted style of political speech filled with exaggeration and “conspiratorial fantasy,” a political vision of enemies guilty of inhuman vice and capable of superhuman power, and the immediacy of an apocalyptic disaster, lurking just over the horizon.  Seeing this as an unhealthy political dynamic, he sought to catalog the symptoms and warn future generations of this dangerous cognitive contagion.

The case studies that Hofstadter provides us with are illustrative, but may be surprising to those unfamiliar with some of the murkier corners of American political history. Starting in the 18th century, Hofstadter finds sermons and speeches describing the dastardly designs of Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati to overthrow monarchies, establish democracies, and build a wall of separation between church and state. Then there are the Anglo Protestants fearing the vast resources deployed by the Catholic Church in the Americas, seeing the preaching and religious observances of Catholic communities as a conspiracy to overthrow democracy and freedom of religion in the United States. Fears then turn to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, among protestant Christians, and international bankers, among populists, as the 19th century wears on. He found examples among the left-wing socialists and the right wing fascists of the 20th century, locating the practice of the paranoid style both in the New World and the Old. For this reason, he expressed a sense of resignation, saying that this style of political thought seemed to be “all but ineradicable.”

Even though it was clear the paranoid style had long been with us, Hofstadter identified certain important aspects of the style had changed during the 20th century. Chief among them, the emergence of mass media had shifted the attention of the conspiratorial mind from malevolent silhouettes lurking behind closed doors to “vivid” villains seen on the nightly news – politicians, celebrities, and other public figures. Rather than worrying about the outsider trying to infiltrate and corrupt their society, the modern practitioner of the paranoid style sees unwanted outcomes of public policy as arising not from incompetence or misfortune, but as the result of treasonous betrayal. All of this plays out on the stage of “a vast theater for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic clues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his views” (Hofstadter, 1964). That is to say, the spokesperson of this style will hunt out whatever they can find to confirm their beliefs, and any evidence against it becomes itself proof for the conspiracy, more often than not being attributed to the participation of the media in this vast scheme.

Listing off these aspects of the modern paranoid style, memories of the 2016 election and the emerging habits of the Trump administration come immediately to mind. So many times we heard conspiracy-mongering rants and shouts about Hilary Clinton’s e-mails, Obama’s national origin and religious identity, or that incoherent expression of rage, “Benghazi!” Whenever individuals that voiced these ideas, such as our new president, were confronted with evidence that contradicted or disproved their claims, they would reinterpret the facts to fit their narrative, cite falsified news stories, or declare that contrary evidence was just proof that the “liberal media” was biased.

And, of course, Hofstadter recognized among the paranoid style of the contemporary American far right the phenomenon described at the beginning of this essay. In earlier eras, the spokesperson of the paranoid style often still felt themselves to be in possession of their country and community. They were fending of outside threats to a “well-established way of life in which they played an important part,” being the hero that would man the ramparts of civilization against the forces of evil and barbarism. But this did not hold for the modern American far right.

Hofstadter explains that the modern far right feels dispossessed, perceiving that “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” (Hofstadter, 1964). The old virtues and capitalism were under threat from “cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” with our national security and independence undermined by “treasonous plots” coming from “major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power” (Hofstadter, 1964). And with this, they demanded we return America to a better time, to once more restore the way things were. It’s almost as if Donald Trump plagiarized earlier practitioners of the paranoid style with his campaign slogan, declaring “Make America Great Again!”

So here we are. It seems that the paranoid style of politics has finally seized the reins of power, moving from the fringes into the center of American democracy. Unfortunately, while Hofstadter cataloged the political pathology, he did not discover the antidote to this poison. Rather, it falls to us to find a way back to healthy and fruitful politics.

Let us consider then, central to the pathology of the paranoid style is that it is a political dynamic, a process, not an outcome or a person. Even more so, this is not just about one man, Trump, but about his way of doing politics. In order to address it, we must engage in a form of political therapy, healing the body politic through consistent activity and careful practice. How can we resist the paranoid style and mitigate the harm it may do? How do we reverse it and prevent it from returning to power?

Like a hurricane, the paranoid style of Trumpism has swooped into the center of our political discourse, bringing destruction and disaster with it. And like a hurricane, it will be up to us to endure and rebuild. The storm is upon us. Batten down the hatches and protect the levees. Keep the radio on and keep track of the tempest. But remember that we have endured this before and we will endure again.

What should we do now to protect those vulnerable to this disaster? What can we do to decrease the damage it will do? And what will we do tomorrow, when we are forced to start over once more?

 

Citations:

Hofstadter, R. (1964, November). The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Harper’s Magazine.

 

If you would like to read Hofstadter’s essay yourself, you can find it here as part of Harper’s Magazine Archive:

http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/

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