Article — From the November 1964 issue

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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Why They Feel Dispossessed

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, 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. 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, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Perhaps the most representative document of the McCarthyist phase was a long indictment of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, delivered in 1951 in the Senate by senator McCarthy, and later published in a somewhat different form. McCarthy pictured Marshall as the focal figure in a betrayal of American interests stretching in time from the strategic plans for World War II to the formulation of the Marshall Plan. Marshal was associated with practically every American failure or defeat, McCarthy insisted, and none of this was either accident or incompetence. There was a “baffling pattern” of Marshall’s interventions in the war, which always conduced to the well-being of the Kremlin. The sharp decline in America’s relative strength from 1945 to 1951 did not “just happen”; it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention,” the consequence not of mistakes but of a treasonous conspiracy, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”—note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”

Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His book "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1964. This essay was adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.

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  • fool on the hill

    A coherent discussion of the wiing nuts who are always with us. Pray for common sense and sanity. It is in short supply.

    • DavidHarley

      “Common sense” is usually wrong. Consider the obvious truth of the Sun going round the Earth.

  • paralyzed

    There’s a new book out that uses Hofstader’s analysis as a foundation for looking at the alliance between neoconservatives and the Christian Right and the emergence of the Tea Party. It’s called America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party, by Robert Horwitz. Check it out.

  • David Woody

    Totally uncited work that says such nonsense as “Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt.” Really? 1776? Major fail.

    • Claude Jacques Bonhomme

      Actually, the quote you ridicule is correct. The Illuminati movement started in 1776 in Bavaria (even Wikipedia will tell you that, with a quote). This article in lay language is based on both a lecture and a Pulitzer-winning book chock full of literary references, and is cited at the end of the article.

    • Geek Cream

      What are facts?!

      Said a Republican “Daily”.

      • Mark Jones

        If you worship Ron Paul and or are a 9-11 truther, facts are a photo with words added in PhotoShop. Or a YouTube video.

  • Esperanza’s Servant

    Richard Hofstadter was one of my academic heroes at University and he
    persists to this day with his uncanny prescience about the
    sociopolitical paradigm of America today. This essay is 50 years old and
    just as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1964. Read, learn, mark, and
    inwardly digest this magisterial essay.

  • leadingedgeboomer

    Happy to have been pointed to this essay. Long ago I read Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” and it’s time to read it again.

  • Ryan England

    Funny how little things have changed since this was written. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party could stand in for Bob Welch and the Birchers quite easily.

  • Jason Hops

    So are the Tibetans “paranoid” when they protest their genocide? No.

    ONLY White countries + millions of non-Whites + forced assimilation = White genocide. #WhiteManMarch

    • pantherburns

      You’re right. You are paranoid.

  • obbop

    The USA federal government was intended by the Founders to be owned and operated by an elite class.

    From its inception the USA has been in a state of class warfare with the intensity increasing greatly around 1972.

    What will be the spark igniting the inevitable much-needed Revolutionary War Two?

    • snaketrapper

      Hans Hoppe shows that there is no reason to sit back and wait for some spark – here:

  • JimGlover

    Are the anonymous paranoid? I admit much paranoia and in these times when hackers (The Interview) can set off international sanctions amounting to war without proof because it would be too hard to prove or reveal “national security secrets”. I blieve Paranoia is everywhere… fear is how we are controlled and if one is not at all paranoid one must be immune to reality.

    Reality after all like truth is perception and we perceive from our own personal point of view, and in this world public perception is controlled by powerful groups and interests. What is the War Economy, and big party politics and but political Psy-op wars motivating Domination and victory with increasing intake of the Paranoid Style inherited from most religious and all political traditions?!

    Just a hint about why Jefferson was so feared, He did not believe in “The Virgin Birth” while he liked the message and life of Jesus and other heros of History. Another thing can be said of the Paranoid style… it generates much great art and change, reform, and even revolution while trying to remain above it all is boring at best. Each side tends to think the other is the paranoid ones. For me, fear like courage is human and they are interdependent and part of our evolution.

  • Bob Cuddy

    I read this book back in college in the early seventies and found it again this week. Hofstadter’s analysis of the pseudo-conservative movement is incredibly prescient and still important for giving us an historical context for the political phenomenon we see in America today. It would appear that the “wing-nuts”, like the poor, will always be with us.

    • sjdowling

      Yes, but now those wing-nuts have a major political party. The poor should be so organized.

  • DavidHarley

    We are all apt to fall into the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and confabulation. That is why we are rarely able to take seriously the arguments and emotions of our opponents.

    Clear thinking is rarely to be found, and those who try to practise it, to understand and explain the positions of those with whom they disagree, are usually condemned by all concerned.


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