These are anxious times. Peril stalks the nation. Focused on the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the left warns that the institutions of government are under assault by shadowy, treasonous forces. Not that it necessarily matters: As environmental activists assure us, imminent cataclysm threatens the very survival of life on this planet. Traitors conspire with the nation’s enemies, foreign and domestic. The Constitution is in crisis, threatened by white supremacists whose systemic racism has turned the parents of grade-schoolers into domestic terrorists. The woke feel unsafe and look to government to protect them, whether with anti-COVID mask mandates or a federal presence at local school board meetings.
Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior recently asked Hillary Clinton whether her critics evinced a persistent “paranoid style.” Senior was clearly referencing the famous evisceration of the right by historian Richard Hofstadter. Delivered first as a lecture in 1963 and then published as an essay in 1964, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” made the case that conservatives were prone to kooky conspiracies.
“There’s always been a kind of paranoid streak in American politics,” Clinton replied in a slight misquote. But she has earned the right to garble Hofstadter’s core principle: After all, she has done more than anyone in half a century to demonstrate that Hofstadter, at least as he is exalted in the left’s popular imagination, was wrong. Whether in imagining a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to destroy her philandering husband, or in claiming she lost the 2016 election because Vladimir Putin had been conspiring with Donald Trump for five or more years to deliver the vote to the Republican, Hillary Clinton demonstrated the left was every bit as capable of divining conspiracies as the right.
“In the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “the feeling of persecution is central and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy.” How grandiose? For Hofstadter, the key word, and one repeated throughout his essay, is “vast.” He writes that the “ central image” in the minds of the paranoid stylists “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.”
The historian’s archetypical paranoiac was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who in 1951 declared that “men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster” and that the communist menace “must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
The Paranoid Style of the Left
Hofstadter lives on in the left’s zeal for right-bashing. Paul Krugman’s 2018 New York Times essay “The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics” is but one of many examples. Is the paranoid style really the province primarily of the right? A deeper dive into his thesis suggests that the tendency toward paranoia is not the sole possession of the heirs to a demagogic Wisconsin Republican with an unhealthy fondness for libation. If anything, the modern militants of the paranoid style may be found disproportionately on the left.
Hofstadter argues that the paranoid style of the ’50s and ’60s is an extension of a long, nasty-minded tradition in American thought. In the early days of the republic, the French Revolution occasioned much puffed-up concern about sneaky, Jacobinical “Illuminati.” The preachers denouncing this mysterious menace warned that, without action, the nation’s daughters would become “concubines of the Illuminati.” Those denouncing the Illuminati, Hofstadter argues, “illustrate the central preconception of the paranoid style — the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”
Masons and Catholics were targeted by paranoid leaders in the 1830s. It wasn’t enough, for those working in the paranoid style, to suggest that secret societies such as the Masons might not be a great idea. The paranoid fashion was to go to 11. Hofstadter gives as an example a book from the period, “Light on Masonry,” that declares the organization to be “the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man, an engine of Satan … dark, unfruitful, selfish, demoralizing, blasphemous, murderous, anti-republican and anti-Christian.”
Catholics came in for much the same treatment as the rabble were roused by tales of “licentious convents and monasteries,” according to Hofstadter. “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the puritan.”
So, given that history, as articulated by the left’s go-to maven of paranoid style, is it a surprise that former British spy Christopher Steele baited the anti-Trump puritans with pornographic tales involving peeing prostitutes in Moscow? Trump’s behavior “has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB [Russian intelligence],” Steele claimed. His report stated that Russians had exploited Trump’s “sexual perversion.” Steele would use the oddly anachronistic accusation more than once, marking the one-time MI6 man as a vice-squad kind of spy. It was long a trope of anti-communists to accuse the enemy of various perversions. The tendency was parodied in “Dr. Strangelove.” “I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert,” Col. “Bat” Guano says, leveling his weapon at Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake. “I think General Ripper found out about your preversion, and that you were organizing some kind of mutiny of preverts.”
Or consider the communist villain of “The Manchurian Candidate,” the overbearing Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury in the 1962 film). “Beneath her respectable, and in the film even matronly, outward appearance lurks a Communist pervert who betrays her country and harbors an incestuous desire for her son,” Michael Butter writes in “Plots, Designs, and Schemes: American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present.”
Militants in the paranoid style see their enemy as “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral Superman, sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury loving,” Hofstadter writes. His list of evils here, though nearly 60 years old, sounds remarkably modern. It could have been drawn up by one of the House impeachment managers to denounce then-President Trump.
One might challenge Hofstadter, not by questioning whether there is a paranoid style in America, but by asking whether there is anything unique about the tinfoil hats worn in the United States. “There is a paranoid style in America — and everywhere else!” Jonah Goldberg tells RealClearInvestigations. “Virtually every society in the world has conspiracy theories and America is pretty average on that score.”
Not only is paranoid thinking widespread geographically; Yale professor of political science Steven Smith tells RCI that looking for plots real or imagined has been commonplace across the centuries. “Machiavelli,” he says, “is probably the first great ‘theorist’ of conspiracy.” Smith points to Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy” and says that it can be read as saying “conspiracy is the essence of politics.”
What sovereign can afford to ignore intrigues in his court? The insecure ruler turns “diffident,” as Thomas Hobbes put it, striking out at potential enemies before they have the chance to strike first. “Ruling regimes can never take their authority for granted, as revolutions, plebiscites, and palace coups are ever present possibilities,” writes Hofstadter biographer David S. Brown, making the case that to call all such worries paranoid is to oversimplify psychology.
That, as anyone who has read his Shakespeare will know, can lead to some ugly outcomes. Combine fear and power and, Brown writes, you end up with the sort of ruler “known to purge whole populations, draw up elaborate lists of enemies, and fill [his] councils with pliant yes men.” Even that may not be paranoid enough, as the careful king keeps a particularly watchful eye on the toadies.
Brown writes that “paranoia is a slippery concept,” one that “can be used indiscriminately to pathologize political opposition.” Or as Goldberg puts it, “The paranoid style is really a clever attempt to put conservatives on the couch and treat conservatism as a kind of mental defect or disorder.” William F. Buckley Jr. griped that Hofstadter “analyzed” liberal tendencies, but “diagnosed” the right.
It’s true against the long history of conspiracy mongering, Hofstadter believed there was something unique about the anti-communist agitators of the 1940s and ’50s, a willingness to suspect “eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower” of participating in conspiracies. John Birch Society founder Robert W. Welch Jr. believed Eisenhower to be a “conscious, dedicated agent of Communist Conspiracy.”
The paranoids’ predecessors, Hofstadter writes, “discovered foreign conspiracies; the modern radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.” But in our time you don’t have to look to the “radical right” for such claims of conspiracies. Consider the titles of some of the books produced from the left over the last few years: “The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced Our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How We Can Fix It”; “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show”; “Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America”; “Corporate Conspiracies: How Wall Street Took Over Washington.”
Hofstadter writes that the paranoids of the right have contempt for “the cosmopolitan intellectual,” but then try to outdo the sophisticates they loathe by loading up their arguments with “the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.”
As an example, Hofstadter pointed to the pseudo-sophisticated, ersatz scholarship of Tailgunner Joe. “McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet McCarthyism contains no less than 313 footnote references,” Hofstadter marveled. “The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies.”
But then isn’t the Steele dossier just such an exercise? There is this one difference: The dossier’s author contrived to make his “reports” seem real, not by presenting them in the forms of scholarly study, but instead in the format of intelligence reports.
At the top and bottom of each page is a security designation, as if the document had been created by a government agency. “CONFIDENTIAL/SENSITIVE SOURCE” embellishes “COMPANY INTELLIGENCE REPORT 2016/080.” There are the British security service formatting tics — last names are in all-capital letters and first names in lower-case letters, except for an initial capital. For example, “Donald TRUMP” and “Vladimir PUTIN” conspire, not Donald Trump or (as the FBI would put it) VLADIMIR PUTIN.
The fantastical nature of the paranoid militant’s conclusions, Hofstadter argues, “leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.”
The dossier occasioned no shortage of heroic strivings for elusive proof of the unbelievable. In the year before the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released, it became clear that dozens, if not scores, of reporters had been sent to Prague to ask seemingly every hotel manager, desk clerk, concierge, and maid whether they had seen — and at this point you can imagine the reporter holding up a picture of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen — “this man.”
For those perplexed by the end-times obsessions the contemporary left brings to issue after issue – that we’re on the verge of “mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves”(Robert Kagan) or that there is a climate “emergency” and “Our House Is on Fire” (Greta Thunberg) – there is an explanation, the one that Hofstadter originally applied to the right. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” Hofstadter writes, “he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds.” It is now or never with the paranoiacs. “Time is forever just running out.”
Paranoid militants are like “religious millenarians,” Hofstadter writes. They are “sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse” but usually stop short.
Take a recent article by Jeff Goodell at Rolling Stone, where a mundane Capitol Hill budget squabble is presented as a doomsday device: “West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin just cooked the planet. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. I mean that literally.”
As Hofstadter said of mid-century militants of the right, Goodell stops just short of declaring it to be too late: “Unless Manchin changes his negotiating position dramatically in the near future, he will be remembered as the man who, when the moment of decision came, chose to condemn virtually every living creature on Earth to a hellish future of suffering, hardship, and death.”
Suffering. Death. Hell. You’d think that you were listening to a fire-and-brimstone preacher selling salvation under a tent. But that’s exactly, Hofstadter said, what one should expect from militants in the paranoid style. “Apocalyptic warnings arouse passion and militancy and strike at susceptibility to similar themes in Christianity,” Hofstadter wrote. Such warnings “served somewhat the same function as a description of the horrible consequences of sin in a revivalist sermon: they portray that which impends but which may still be avoided.”
Hofstadter was describing the apocalypticism of the McCarthyite right. But now it serves as a perfect explanation for the eschatological character of panicked environmentalists, desperate Trump haters, and Clintonites convinced of vast conspiracies.
A further pull on progressives’ paranoia hair trigger is found in Hegel’s “arc of history,” a powerful influence on Marx, says the conservative writer Steven Hayward of U.C. Berkeley’s law school. “When you think ‘progress’ has a definite (leftist) shape to it, any deviation from that progress has to be some kind of historical error, and causes, forces, or people behind it must be malevolent,” Haywood tells RCI. “This is why the left reacts as it does whenever an election or other large event doesn’t go their way. If history has a ‘side’ and that side isn’t winning, it must be for nefarious reasons.”
Jonah Goldberg makes a similar argument. “Liberals tend to believe that governing is a science, that their public policy is simply empirically correct, true, and good,” he tells RCI. “So when they fall short of their goals, they immediately think some factor outside of reason and science must be to blame. This causes them to look for people with bad motives to blame.”
Still, as Yale’s Smith tells RealClearInvestigations: “Sometimes conspiracy mongering is just that – mongering – and sometimes it isn’t. It may be true that all conspiracy theorists seem a little crazy, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t conspiracies.”
The antebellum South is a case in point, says Jesse Walker, author of “The United States of Paranoia.” There, plantation owners embraced conspiracy theories in which their slaves, “perhaps guided by outside agitators, were allegedly plotting to overthrow the social order.” Those Southerners weren’t wrong, which goes to show that conspiracies are not always imagined, nor always evil or sinister. They may be organized in the most worthy of causes. John Brown, after all, was surreptitiously funded by abolitionists who came to be known as the “Secret Six,” an undercover operation almost the epitome of a conspiracy.
It’s the type of situation that gave rise to the old joke: “What do you call someone who is paranoid? Perceptive.”
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