Political paranoia. It’s everywhere.
Donald Trump claims that Hillary Clinton will appoint Supreme Court justices who will do away with the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Some Bernie Sanders voters believe an unholy cabal of corporate overlords and their buddies in the mass media conspired to steal the Democratic nomination from the Vermont senator.
Tea party favorite Ben Carson once claimed that America would be in such a state of anarchy in 2016 that the presidential elections would be canceled.
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Bill O’Reilly has claimed that photos taken in the 1990s of President Obama in Muslim garb at the wedding of his half-brother Malik show his deep ties to the faith.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter in his groundbreaking essay “The Paranoid style In American Politics.” “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers. … It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
Contemporary as that might sound, that quote is from an essay published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The piece was a reaction to the anti-Communist hysteria and nativist sentiments expressed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society and some supporters of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – the tea party crowd of its day. And thanks to birthers, truthers, climate change deniers and Trump’s comments about immigrants and the media, it remains staggeringly relevant today.
Beginning with a brief history of American paranoia involving anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic and other reactionary groups, Hofstadter’s essay moved ahead to dissect the fantasies of then-contemporary right-wing movements. The modern right-wing, wrote Hofstadter, “feels dispossessed: America has largely been taken away from them and their kind. … 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.”
Sound familiar? It’s the line being pushed by Trump, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others of their ilk.
The left gets no free pass
Yet the essay doesn’t absolve the left from paranoid thinking. Hofstadter mentioned abolitionists who felt the U.S. was in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy and populists of the late 19th century who railed against an alleged conspiracy of international bankers. More recently, you can point to Hillary Clinton’s contention that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to undermine her husband, then-President Bill Clinton.
But it’s the right that seems to excel in this sort of thinking. Hofstadter’s contention that a basic element of right-wing paranoia is the belief that there has been a long-running attempt, culminating in the New Deal, to undermine capitalism rings as true today as it did in the ’60s.
So does his comment about treason, which plugs into the mentality of those accusing President Obama and Hillary Clinton of sedition and disloyalty. “Any historian of warfare,” said Hofstadter, “knows that it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.”
The bottom line is this. If someone tries to tell you that Common Core is indoctrinating kids into the intricacies of Islam, or that Sandy Hook never happened and was a staged event to move the anti-gun movement forward, or that the United Nations is preparing to attack the U.S. from a staging ground in Alabama – well, this kind of nutty thinking is nothing new.
“The paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
Lewis Beale is a journalist based in Raleigh