Revisiting The Paranoid Style in American Politics


Tensions are high in Washington as the confirmation process of Judge Brett Kavanaugh continues amid a cacophony of politicized tirades and editorial screes. That same nominee stated that “this whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit” motivated by anger, fear, and, in his own words, “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”  This claim is hardly unique; our President tweeted claims that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” that millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016, and that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. Consider a similar line taken by a former U.S. senator: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be a product of a great conspiracy…” That quote comes from a 1951 speech made by the notorious Joseph McCarthy, and though the language might differ, the logic is identical. This argument was made by Richard Hofstadter in a 1964 essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics that identified characteristic forms of political orientation. His paper identified and defined the key characteristics of what he termed ‘the paranoid style.’ A deep feeling of dispossession fosters the belief that national ills cannot be explained by incompetence but rather a secretive conspiracy of the powerful. Always the battle is apocalyptic and imminent. Because the enemy is totally evil, there cannot be compromise, and the only victory is total. “Very often,” Hofstadter wrote, “the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press [or] he has unlimited funds.”  The enemy is a projection of the self, in both ideals and faults—the failure of the individual is attributed to the enemy as one party monopolizes virtue and the other vice.

Hofstadter identifies one more quality of the paranoid style— “the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows” that will “prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.” Evidence is taken not as proof of a theory itself but more as a talisman against claims of falsehood. Though outlandish, the conspiracy is founded in a generally feasible premise. Hofstadter concludes that “this glimpse across a long span of time” reveals “that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population” that may be framed along broader socio-cultural norms to create a mass movement. It is not difficult to see Hofstadter’s paranoid style alive and well in Washington now.

The feeling of dispossession is apparent in the language concerning ‘demographic changes,’ in Laura Ingraham’s rant that America is being destroyed from within by legal and illegal immigrants for instance, or in the person of Alex Jones, whose own conspiracies range from the ‘pizzagate’ child sex ring run by the DNC to the theory that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged by gun-control advocates. The relationship with truth is no different now either. ‘Evidence’ often takes second place behind claims that the opposition is ‘fake news,’ and thus illegitimate. While people like Alex Jones represent the relative fringe of paranoid stylists, I believe that Hofstadter’s argument—that the “mentality” of conspiracy theorists is immortal, and that these notions can become political platforms—is truer than ever. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why, either. The advent of gay marriage, of the #MeToo movement, controversy over access to abortions, and, of course, issues of race and immigration inform a period of relative cultural instability. Things are changing, and too fast for a great many people, and this sentiment has been actively projected into the political sphere. My point is discussing Hofstadter is, however, not simply to reaffirm Hofstadter’s work, nor to be an apologist for Trumpist America. Rather, I would like to dissuade the pervasive liberal fear that Trump, his conspiracies, and the paranoid style itself are anything new and thus anything apocalyptic. I feel there is a widespread apathy, that the invective pouring out of politics is reason to keep clear. Quite the opposite is true; in failing to meet and match the explosion of conspiracies, we act merely to confirm them. The solution is a redoubling of efforts rather than stuffing our ears. We should be more conscious of political rhetoric, rather than disengaging entirely, and I think Hofstadter’s scholarship supports the fact that we should not be intimidated by the abundance of falsehoods. We cannot compromise on the standard of truth we hold as Americans, and we cannot attribute our own failings, nor the success of our opponents, on forces outside of ourselves.

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