No Comment — August 16, 2007, 3:04 pm

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It’s about us every day, but some days it is stronger than others. And today it is stunning. Consider these examples:

  • In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, the senior Republican in the U.S. Senate, Ted Stevens, says “This paper has done nothing but try to assassinate me.”

  • Fox News’s John Gibson, one of the most partisan and venomous figures on the airwaves, accused Democrat John Edwards of having “whored his wife’s cancer as a fundraising gimmick.” When he drew criticism over this, he responded that “[t]he war on Gibson is real” and that “it is pursued everyday by the people who just can’t abide by what you hear on this radio program.”

  • Karl Rove, in some of his parting comments, stated that he was “Moby Dick” and that “we’ve got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Capt. Ahab.”

Assassination? Attacks? Whale hunting? All we’re talking about are very powerful figures who are being asked to account for having done things which were wrong: perhaps exercising poor judgment, but perhaps something far more serious. But you’ll not hear a single word of regret or remorse. No apologies. No “I’m sorry.” Instead what we hear is a standardized refrain: “I’m being persecuted.”

Harper’s subscribers (subscription details here) should read “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.

In the October 1964, America was moving towards an historic election contest: Lyndon Johnson was seeking election in his own right, and the Republican Party had nominated Barry Goldwater. One of the major issues in the election was the rightward drift of the G.O.P. Against this backdrop, Richard J. Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (PDF).

Those who don’t like and want to dismiss Hofstadter frequently see his work as a tirade against Barry Goldwater. That’s incorrect. Barry Goldwater withstood the test of time as an important figure in American conservatism, and neither to Hofstadter nor to any serious analyst or historian today does he appear to be a player in what Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style in American politics.” On the other hand, he did attract and play to that camp—a point that reverberated in his acceptance speech at the G.O.P. convention (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”) As Goldwater himself later recognized, this formulation reinforced the public’s impression of him as an extremist and ultimately damaged his already thin electoral prospects. By contemporary American political standards, Goldwater is a moderate libertarian, and a patron saint to those (like your humble writer) who detest big government. But traveling in the Goldwater entourage of 1964 were some very interesting characters, and Hofstadter dug in.

Still, Hofstadter is very clear that the “paranoid style” is something with deep roots in American culture. Something almost universal, in fact. In Hofstadter’s view this “paranoid style” was not necessarily right-wing, or the province of the G.O.P. Moreover the G.O.P. had arisen and been nurtured as a counter-movement to one of the earliest manifestations of the paranoid style, a political movement derided by Abraham Lincoln and called the Know-Nothings.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Hofstadter gives a long historical survey, and details the phenomenon from the early days of the Republic. Suspicions directed at newly arrived waves of immigrants, at nationalities and religions. The hysteria over Jesuits, for instance. Hofstadter writes, “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan.” And then waves of anxiety about conspiratorial secret societies, such as the Free Masons. He ends with a fascinating short history of the John Birch Society, one of the most compelling clips from the entire work.

The article has three key elements: a definition of the “paranoid style,” a discussion of the process of construction of the powerful and mysterious enemy, and finally a process of psychological projection in which the enemy’s own horrendous conduct is emulated as a supposed way of surmounting it.

Defining the Paranoid Style
The politician seeking to mobilize the “paranoid style” knows that he has to hit a series of hot buttons. He may or may not believe the points he is making; it may well be that he uses these hot buttons because of the emotive effect he knows they will have on a specific segment of the electoral base. Here are the elements:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Constructing the Enemy
The next essential element is the identification of “the enemy.” He will not be entirely fictional, and he may indeed be an enemy—a force hostile to the nation—but the trick in the paranoid style is the magnification of his threat and the dramatic distortion of his characteristics, to produce something truly hideous, evil and menacing:

john-welch

The 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 wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect 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. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

The threat from the highly focused notion of “the enemy” is complex. Of course, “the enemy” as targeted may in fact be an enemy and may really present a threat to the nation. However, the selection and narrow definition of “the enemy” inevitably presents a simplification and coarsening of analysis of the risk environment. Few nations have a single enemy. More often they have an array of adversaries marked by differing degrees of adversariness that rises and falls over time. However, an analysis that is complex, subtle and accurate is difficult to grasp and to wield as a political meme.

Copying the Enemy
And finally we come to what was certainly the most stunning, indeed, shocking aspect of Hofstadter’s study, namely, the process of psychological projection. The paranoid political advocate crafts a villainous enemy and imbues the enemy with horrendous traits. And to counter this, he crafts an organization which mimics the enemy and copies its traits.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

A Universal Phenomenon
“The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time,” Hofstadter writes. “It is an international phenomenon . . . more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

I first read Hofstadter in my college years in the seventies. Traveling and working abroad I had occasion to think about his theories. In Russia in the early nineties, for instance, I found that the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his efforts to craft a political movement followed a pattern close to the one that Hofstadter described. It was successful, but only within bounds.

And then we have the one really commanding example–the country in which the “paranoid style” perhaps went the furthest and had the greatest impact. That would be Germany in the period from roughly 1880 to the end of World War II. Hofstadter’s Columbia colleague, and my friend, Fritz Stern, wrote what may be a definitive application of the Hofstadter thesis in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, which was actually published three years before the Hofstadter article.

Echoes of the Past
If we look at the radical fringe of Republican politics today, we find that the paranoid style is alive and well. It’s undergone a transformation. Obviously, the end of the Cold War and the global collapse of communism created a dilemma. Paranoid politics had been carefully constructed for decades around the threat presented by a global communist conspiracy. Moreover the perception of this threat was hardly paranoid–the threat was quite real and the enemy’s rhetoric in pursuit of global dominance was clear.

By the mid-nineties, however, this model was increasingly difficult to sell. In the late nineties a search was on for a replacement. Would it be China? About the time of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, that seemed the emerging pick.

However, as has often been said, 9/11 changed everything. With the traumatic experience that accompanied an attack, there was a quick refocusing. Islamic terrorists were quickly substituted as “the enemy,” and it seems that fringe groups are quickly replicating the patterns that Hofstadter identified in 1964.

But the substitution of “Islamo-Fascism” for “Communism” as the new “enemy” of the paranoid right raises some very severe problems. Communist nations had clear designs including infiltration, subversion and conquest–and acknowledging that was never “paranoid” in the normal sense. With respect to Islamic terrorist groups the threat assessment is far more problematic. They present a clear, objective threat, even though this enemy is particularly weak in unifying themes and leadership. But is it an existential threat as was that posed by Soviet Communism? The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction permits the case to be made, but it’s still very problematic. However, the biggest problem with the unifying focus on Islamic terrorist groups is that doing so detracts attention from other immediate threats. Obviously other nations with large nuclear arsenals and delivery systems figure right at the top of that list of threats, and while American relations with other members of the nuclear club have been relatively friendly for more than a decade, it would be foolish to assume that that situation will continue indefinitely. The threat environment is complex, difficult and ever changing. Calling the threat “Islamo-Fascism” and being done with it is a dangerously primitive misperception.

So what is the role played by Stevens, Gibson, and Rove in the contemporary politics of paranoia? I am not saying that any of them is paranoid. They are all shrewd political players, and they understand how to trigger a reaction from the right-wing paranoid base. Portraying themselves as “under attack” is an effective defense tactic, and not one limited to the Republican Right. Ask Hillary Clinton. She coined the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” in fending off her Whitewater critics, and it worked pretty well.


P.S. On second thought, I am convinced that Karl Rove is Moby Dick. He’s mastered that fishbelly white color, he’s clearly been harpooned a few times, and he is driven by a vendetta-like rage against those who are stalking him. I’d avoid boating in his vicinity at all costs.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong “celebration‚” of “success‚” in Iraq and Afghanistan:

$20,000,000

Male orangutans announce their travel plans in advance.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today