Issue LXVIII: The Paranoid Style and the Mueller Report

27 Mar

Somewhere out there Richard Hofstadter is laughing.

The Columbia University historian gave a lecture at Oxford University one day before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  The title?  “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  Professor Hofstadter developed concern with the looming takeover of the Republican Party from the moderate Eisenhower wing by right-wing followers of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).  As he reflected on the situation more deeply, he realized that this minority of people has a style of mind with a long history in the United States.  In Harper’s he wrote:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mindthe feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy…

[T]he spokesman of the paranoid style finds [a hostile and conspiratorial world] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.

He then cites many groups and movements in U.S. history which contained the paranoid style which had risen and fallen over the years.  Cranks who opposed the fluoridation of water, Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts of Communists, the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party, and New England preachers worried about the European Illuminati all contributed to the rich tapestry of American insanity.  No region is exempt from this paranoia.

Linking your domestic opponent with the foreign has rich roots.  Pure, “real” Americans have been hoodwinked by rapacious foreigners.  Texas newspapers complained that Catholics were paid off by the Vatican to spread their un-American religion while the president of Yale likened Thomas Jefferson’s supporters to the Antichrist filled with foreign French revolutionary ideas.  Today, Muslims are the foreign religion under the pay of a foreign power and the “secular humanism” of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation seeds the nation with future radical Jeffersonians.  Which brings us to this month’s Mueller Report.

A conspiracy so vast

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government area concerting to deliver us to disaster?  This 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.  A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men…

Rachel Maddow could have closed her show with this paragraph last week on MSNBC about President Donald J. Trump.  Glenn Beck’s opening monologue about Barack Obama on FOX News in 2013 could have sounded like this.  But instead this is from June 1951 from Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) describing a conspiracy of Communists in the federal government.

Little has changed.  It won’t do to disagree with Barack Obama’s ideas, policies, tax rates, judicial nominees, or public priorities.  Or that he did not end our never-ending wars.  No, it’s that he was born in Kenya (41% of Republicans), or he is the Antichrist (13% of Americans).

Is it not enough to accept that President Donald J. Trump is a tax cheat abusing nonprofit laws and creating phony educational institutions like Trump University?  He has ripped off contractors and hired mafia lawyer Roy Cohn to bully his opponents.  The Trump Cabinet of billionaires and generals has pursued unwise tax cuts and environmentally destructive policy in public!

Why can he not be a corrupt billionaire at the intersection of broken D.C. politics and New York real estate shenanigans?  Why does he need to a traitor?  The paranoid style afflicting Democratic liberals since 2016 shows symptoms of the deep American past.  A secular liberal evangelical thinking, wishing for superheroes to save us (Robert Mueller) and reveal the shocking crime of conspiracy against our innocent nation.

Donald Trump cannot be us.  He cannot be America. 

Well, he is.  He is us as much as Barack Obama is us and is America.

If you cannot fathom that the nation that produced Obama is the nation that produced Trump, you do not understand how much those two Americas need each other and reinforce our squalid present.  The need to externalize our faults is at work.

MSNBC and CNN will demand the full Mueller report be released.  It will come out and should.  But according to the direct quote from the report from Attorney General Barr, there was no evidence of Americans in the Trump campaign conspiring with Russia’s election activities in 2016.  This has been hinted at for weeks if not months before it was completed.  Shifting the topic to obstruction of justice (where there is more evidence but not enough) dodges the issue that this whole campaign of Russian collusion was led by people with less than pure motivations (intelligence agencies and incompetent Clinton campaign staff) using the bizarre Steele dossier.  Trump is not a Russian agent and did not collude, and that was what this was all about.  The only real question is why did a counterintelligence investigation begin on a presidential candidate during an election year?

Maybe I am wrong, and some paragraphs in the full report will reveal some grand treachery.  But I feel skeptical.  The fantasy of a ripping away the veil of some great crime displays magical thinking.  There are no saintly heroes, and there are no devils.  A corrupt system produces corrupt politicians.  Fight the system and you might have a chance.  Fight fantasy and you collide with reality.

Professor Hofstadter would shake his head as he saw mainstream liberals following the well-trod path of Puritans, anti-Masonic quacks, McCarythites, and the Tea Party towards the paranoid style of American politics.

Recommended Reading

Andersen, Kurt.  Fantasyland: How America went Haywire, A 500-year History.

Hofstadter, Richard.  “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  Harpers: November 1964.




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