Cape Coral, FL, March 14, 2016
Everyone of a certain age who took history or political science classes in the mid-1960’s had an assigned reading list which included “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a book by Professor Richard Hofstadter, named after its title essay which was originally an article in the November, 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which in turn was based on a lecture Hofstadter gave at Oxford in November 1963. (Hofstadter got his money’s worth out of his labors.)
The title certainly was evocative of the current season of American presidential politics, so I took a fresh look at the essay recently to see how well it holds up and applies to the present campaign. The central thesis is undisputable enough: “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.” The paranoid style itself he defines as “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” that is, something so terrible is happening; that political enemies must have conspired to cause it. The style preys upon the followers’ feeling of dispossession.
Hofstadter documents his point with some interesting historical examples, although in trying to apply it to his contemporary (1963-64) world, the biases of the mid-century faculty lounge confound him.
His historical examples are sound enough. He cites suspicion among Americans in the early 1800’s of a branch of Masonry, Illuminism, created by the Bavarian Illuminati. (A relation to this group provided the evil villains in Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code.) These groups were argued to be in control of the American financial system and responsible for the lack of control of it by rural egalitarians and popular democracy. It was a folk movement of real power and many politicians, pretended sympathy to advance their own ends.
Much different villains but the same pathology appear a bit later in the century in the anti-Catholic movements and the Populist party railings against the precursors of Wall Street.
Moving to a subject more contemporary to himself, Hofstadter obviously enjoys his discussion of McCarthyism, specifying McCarthy’s rantings that since China “fell” to the Communists, it must be the result of a great conspiracy with Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall as a traitor.
Of course sometimes paranoids have real enemies. Later research shows that instead of being a Populist delusion, bankers did indeed use bribes to influence 19th century monetary policy. Hofstadter himself smugly mocks McCarthy’s notion of (in Hofstadter’s words) “famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.” Release of KGB records later in the century revealed that Hiss was indeed a Soviet spy.
Hofstadter’s essay was set up to discuss what he selects as the paranoid political movements of the time, the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. He is indisputably correct applying the designation to the Birchers and their President, candy magnate Robert Welch. The latter’s signature conspiracy theory, Dwight D. Eisenhower as a tool of the Communist Party, consigned him properly to the lunatic fringe.
Hofstadter, with the insularity of the midcentury academic, missed the mark with Goldwater whose campaign failed spectacularly but served as the seed corn for the modern conservative movement and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, the most successful and admired of the second half of the 20th century (a low bar, granted).
The Paranoid Style certainly describes the campaign of Donald Trump. His campaign is one of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.” Indeed, much the same may be said of the campaign of Bernie Sanders, a neat trick running for President in the incumbent’s party. Their followers are different versions of those feeling powerless in the face of a conspiracy between Wall Street and the 1% and establishment politicians, based on campaign and PAC money given by the later to the former.
The central difference is that the Sanders voters see the principal villain, as the wealthy donors of the money while the Trump supporters hate the recipient politicians. The problem is that neither man is suited to be President but both groups of supporters are right. The preoccupation of the Washington establishment of both parties is retaining office and gaining the financial support necessary to do that.
My personal “Paranoid Style” conspiracy theory is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump got together at his wedding and planned his campaign to insure that she would be elected president. How else can recent events be explained? The only flaw in my theory is that a real political plan would never work so perfectly.