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The Paranoid Style in American Politics

17 Jul 2016

Paranoid Style
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One of my favorite silly sayings of politics is "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes". One hundred years after the birth of American historian Richard Hofstadter, I'm rediscovering one of his great works of a half century ago. When I read the book in college it read like a story of distant past history. When I reread it again this month, The Paranoid Style of American Politics read like it was written for this year's presidential election. This year we are rhyming like the lunatic ravings of a psychopathic poet.

The eye-opener as a student was the discovery that American's anti-Communist fanaticism was preceded by earlier waves of xenophobic fantacism, exactly like Donald Trump's ranting and raving against Mexicans and Moslems. Starting in 1797 there were broad claims of a conspiracy to control America by the Bavarian Illuminati - a secret society so controversial that it was ended in Bavaria before it could spread abroad, but which has been blamed for any number of ills for centuries. That wave was followed by anti-Masonism, which was vaguely associated with anti-Jacksonianism because Andrew Jackson was a Mason (in Texas it is believed that Sam Houston, a Jacksonian Mason, failed to execute Santa Ana at the Battle of San Jacinto because the Mexican general employed secret Masonic hand signals). By the time the fervor against Masons died down in the mid 19th century, anti-Catholicism was set off by nativists upset by millions of Irish, and later Italians, flooding into the country.

I've given enough background to make it clear that the politics of Trump fall into the classic style of American paranoia, but it doesn't take much to see the same paranoid style in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton, although to a lesser extent. To make this point clear I need to quote from the book's lead essay.
The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.
Keep in mind that Hofstadter wrote this in 1965, not this year. And he was aware of the difficulties of sorting out real conspiracies from those of fantasy.
All political behavior requires strategy, many strategies acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. (In that thinking) History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoia spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.
That starts out sounding like Trump, but by the end sounds more like Sanders, who along with his zealous supporters has long railed against the vast forces conspiring against his campaign and against the 'true values' of the American people. And if you've followed American politics long enough you know that Hillary Clinton has long claimed that a "vast right wing conspiracy" has tried to take down her and her husband. Watch for it in her fall campaign.

Hofstadter goes on to describe how the paranoid sees the enemy, which helps us see that the Clinton criticisms against Trump are remarkably similar to long-standing Republican critiques of Democrats.
This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.
If you see in this description your favorite criticisms of Trump, Sanders, Clinton, Cruz or anyone else - congratulations! You are a classic paranoid in the style of American politics. Read the book's lead essay: It will be, I fear, a look in the mirror.


You may also like this related article: Presidential Breakdown (273)
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