Paranoid Politics Essay

Political paranoia. It’s everywhere.

Dr. Ben Carson, the Fox News contributor and Tea Party favorite, thinks America will be in such a state of anarchy by 2016 that the Presidential election might actually be cancelled.

Phyllis Schlafly, the long-time right-wing activist, believes President Obama is deliberately introducing Ebola into America, to make it more like Africa.

And Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) claims at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught at the Mexican border (A charge refuted by the Department of Homeland Security).

“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 it might sound, that quote is from a 50-year-old essay published in Harper’s Magazine November 1964 issue.

Hofstadter’s classic 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 other crackpots, it remains staggeringly relevant.

“The essay was written in the context of the Goldwater campaign, which was a landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson,” says Meg Jacobs, a history professor at Princeton, “and Hofstadter was saying that [this was] the stuff of the state of anxiety of the losers in history. Hofstadter’s essay is seen as a starting place in the history of conservatism in the U.S.”

“Hofstadter's essay helped to shift thinking about conservatism—and American politics more broadly—by focusing attention on the symbolic, psychological elements of political life, instead of seeing political ideology as a natural outgrowth of material or economic interests,” adds NYU history professor Kim Phillips-Fein.

Starting with a brief history of American paranoia involving anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic and other reactionary groups, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics” moved ahead to dissect the fantasies of then-contemporary right-wing movements. Hofstadter stated that the modern right-wing “feels dispossessed: America has been largely 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? Like maybe the line that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others of their ilk are pushing?

“Hofstadter probably would have said that the right is especially susceptible to this kind of thinking because people drawn to these politics have a very limited set of tools for thinking about power and about social change, especially about economic power,” says Phillips-Fein. “They feel themselves to be the victims of forces they can't control. Paranoid politics is the result.”

Yet the essay does not absolve the Left from paranoid thinking. Hofstadter mentions abolitionists who felt the U.S. was in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, and Populists of the late 19th century who railed about an alleged conspiracy of international bankers. More recently, you can point to Hillary Clinton’s contention that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” aiming to undermine her husband, then-President Bill Clinton.

“Certainly there's left paranoia,” says Phillips-Fein, “but I would say that it is less elaborate than paranoia on the right—less developed, and less mainstream, and also with some exceptions, less focused on developing paranoid or conspiratorial theories of society and how it works. This is of course partly because the right is a lot larger and possesses many more institutions (eg. Fox News) than the left today.”

But it’s the right that seems to have excelled in this sort of thinking, especially today. Despite the passage of time, Hofstadter’s contention that a basic element of right-wing paranoia involves 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 50 years ago.

So does his comment about treason, which plugs into the mentality of those accusing the President 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.”

This mindset, says Jacobs, is “a style of those who feel a certain nostalgia for the past, a more pure imagined past, and that comports with a more conservative impulse. It’s this idea of people who were once powerful, no longer having the place they once had, and they see themselves as more marginalized.”

Whether or not we live in a more paranoid era than the one Hofstadter was writing about is, however, open to question. Certainly FDR attracted his share of crackpot attention, and the hugely popular 1930s radio priest Father Joseph Coughlin, who pushed an anti-New Deal, anti-Semitic, pro-fascist line, was a precursor of the rabid anti-Obama media of today.

Jacobs, who’s not certain that political paranoia is any worse now than in years past, says it might seem that way because of “the explosion of different mass media outlets that allow for more segmented markets. There’s frustration that our political process does not function in the way we want it to, and with this inaction you get these louder and louder voices.”

So remember. If someone tries to tell you that Common Core is indoctrinating our children into the intricacies of Islam; or if they say the Sandy Hook massacre never happened; or the UN is preparing to attack America from a staging ground in Alabama—well, this kind of nut job thinking is nothing new.

“The paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote 50 years ago, “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.”

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Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute warned that if the outcome is a close win for Hillary Clinton:

It will reinforce the view among Trump populists that the election was stolen and he was stabbed in the back, which will make the task of party leaders that much harder, while creating further delegitimization of the process.

At a rally in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 1, Trump told the crowd, “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.” Roger Stone, a Trump confidant, shared his own thinking with Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News on July 29:

I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly.

Stone’s advice was that Trump should say,

I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.

The Trump-Stone message is resonating.

In early August, a Bloomberg poll asked voters, “When it comes to the presidential election, is it your sense the election will or will not be rigged?” The poll found that 56 percent of Trump supporters believed the election would be rigged. Among all voters, 34 percent predicted a rigged election; 60 percent rejected the notion.

Further complicating the situation, The Washington Post reported on Sept. 5 that

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are probing what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions.

Masket believes that a spreading suspicion among Trump supporters that the election outcome was fixed could have severe repercussions after Nov. 8:

Part of the reason that our nation has been relatively free of political violence is that losers of contests have nearly always accepted their loss and opposed the victor through legitimate means, such as challenging them in future elections or working against their agenda in Congress. The 2000 election was very close and obviously very controversial, but Al Gore nonetheless conceded after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Were Trump and his supporters to continue to argue that the election had been stolen from them, it would mean that they reject nonviolent solutions to political differences. It could jeopardize future elections, undermine the legitimacy of the federal government, and create an environment in which political violence becomes more likely.

While clearly on the fringes of politics, the so called alt-right — white nationalists and hard-line opponents of immigration who oppose multiculturalism and defend a particular vision of Western values — has become an influential force in politics.

Since the start of the Trump campaign, alt-right groups have been attracting members and they have strengthened their ties to the Republican Party.

Trump “has sparked an insurgency, and I don’t think it’s going to go away,” Don Black, a founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront, told Politico in December:

He’s certainly creating a movement that will continue independently of him even if he does fold at some point.

Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown and a co-author of “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform,” points to the problems a narrow Trump loss could pose for the Republican Party:

If Trump continues to be a focal point for alt-right ideas, those voters will demand a voice, either in the Republican Party or outside it. Can the conservative and mainstream Republicans unite effectively and keep the alt-right from steering the party?

The conviction that Democrats and the Washington establishment will rig the election in Clinton’s favor is by no means limited to the alt-right. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, have both promoted the idea.

“There’s a long tradition on the part of Democratic machines of trying to steal elections,” Gingrich told Sean Hannity on “Fox News” on Aug. 2:

I mean, if you assume that she is a crook, as he says, if you assume that she lies, as he says, why would you expect her to have an honest election?

“This is a rigged system,” Giuliani declared on July 24 on the Fox show “Sunday Morning Futures With Maria Bartiromo,” “and Hillary and Kaine are right in the middle of the Washington insider rigged system.”

On Aug. 26, Ann Coulter, the conservative firebrand, told Politico “Any close election will be stolen by the Democrats.”

Before he was fired, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, warned that federal officials could not be trusted to prevent voter fraud:

Frankly, we think that the situation in the country — just like with the Democratic National Committee’s primaries — is a situation where if you’re relying on the Justice Department to ensure the security of the elections, we have to be worried.

In an exhaustive 2007 study of voter fraud, the Brennan Center at N.Y.U. Law School concluded that individual attempts to cast multiple votes, to register using a false name or other methods to vote more than once are so rare as to be inconsequential.

In the New Jersey election in 2004, 3,611,691 votes were cast and there were “eight substantiated cases of individuals knowingly casting invalid votes,” Justin Levitt, the study’s author, who is now deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, wrote. He calculated that illegal votes amounted to 0.0004 percent of the total.

As could be expected, the Brennan study has done little or nothing to tamp down accusations of election fraud from the alt-right, and indeed from Trump himself.

Fifty-two years ago, writing in the year of the Johnson-Goldwater election, Hofstadter proved remarkably prescient: The right wing, he argued,

feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.

Should Trump fail to eke out a victory, his already deeply suspicious supporters are likely to double down on allegations that they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs. As Hofstadter put it:

In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.

Hofstadter wrote that at a time when polarization was a minor factor in politics. The confrontation of irreconcilably opposed interests is far more hostile today, which Hofstadter foresaw with such focused intensity that it is worth quoting him at length:

The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power — and this through distorting lenses — and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him — and in any case he resists enlightenment.

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