America now embracing the ‘paranoid style’

Former President Trump speaks during a rally
Associated Press/Evan Vucci
President Trump speaks during a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as President in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Nearly 60 years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter published his classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in Harper’s magazine. It came out at the end of the 1964 presidential campaign between Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater. The essay marked the takeover of the Republican Party by the Radical Right. 

Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 did not mean the demise of the Radical Right. Conservatives ultimately came to power with the election of Ronald Reagan, a Goldwater supporter, in 1980. Reagan, however, was less a radical than a figure of the conservative establishment. Reagan was not given to espousing paranoid conspiracy theories.

The far right finally came to power in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, whose conservative credentials were not very deep. It is with Trump that Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” became most visible and powerful.

Hofstadter wrote, “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” A contemporary historian, Bennett Parten of Yale University, wrote last year, “Hofstadter tells us that, at its core, the paranoid style uses conspiracy to engage in subversion. The political paranoiac can’t stomach society as it is and thus seeks to destroy it under the guise of some looming threat, a deep state, antifa, migrant caravans, transgender bathrooms, an international pedophile ring … Those taken with the paranoid style channel their victimhood by believing the world is one vast conspiracy.”

Hofstadter saw evidence of the paranoid style in radical movements, mostly on the political right, throughout American history — the Anti-Masonic Party, the Know Nothing Party, the Populist Party, nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon and anti-Semitic movements, investigations in the 1930s of “merchants of death” (munitions makers and bankers who had supplied and financed World War I), McCarthyism, the John Birch Society. Add to that white supremacists, MAGA enthusiasts who see a gigantic conspiracy to steal the 2020 election, and QAnon adherents who believe Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers are the sinister force controlling U.S. government and world affairs. 

A lot of this is in line with the “preoccupation with illicit sex” that Hofstadter noted in 1964 as characteristic of the paranoid style: “The sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns.” So we get Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson accused of being soft on child predators, Florida teachers forbidden to mention homosexuality to students (“Don’t Say Gay”), attacks on transsexuals, and accusations that Democratic political figures are “groomers” (pedophiles who “groom” children for sexual exploitation).

It would all be ridiculous if it hadn’t acquired a hold on so many people — particularly people who have gained control of the Republican Party.

Take the smear that “top Democrats are involved in child sex-trafficking rings.” In a poll taken in late March by YouGov for The Economist, 30 percent of Americans said the charge was definitely or probably true. Nearly half of Republicans (49 percent) said they were inclined to believe it.

The poll also tested the core QAnon conspiracy theory: “Regardless of who is officially in charge of the government and other organizations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” Outlandish paranoia? Thirty-nine percent of Americans said it’s definitely or probably true. Among Republicans, a majority (53 percent) were inclined to believe it.

Where do those views come from? Often from social media, which more and more Americans rely on, as trust in mainstream media has diminished, particularly among conservatives. Katerina Eva Matsa of the Pew Research Center reports that “the way people get news today has changed from ten years ago, from 20 years ago. We’ve seen that online news consumption is up, and it’s at this point even more than television.”

The reason why the paranoid style is more dangerous now than ever is that it has taken over one of our two major political parties. That first happened in 1964 when Goldwater was nominated, but Goldwater lost, badly. On the other hand, Trump got elected in 2016. He gave the Radical Right a taste of power. Trump claims it was stolen from them and he intends to get it back. 

In a two-party system like that of the U.S., voters will sooner or later get fed up with the incumbent party and demand change — even if that means voting for a party in thrall to paranoia.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags American politics Barry Goldwater Conspiracy theories Don't Say Gay Donald Trump Far-right politics in the United States John Birch Society Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearing MAGA McCarthyism paranoid style pedophile QAnon Republican Party Ronald Reagan trumpism

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