The Paranoid Style in 2012 Politics

This week, my history class is studying McCarthyism and the early Cold War in the US. In addition to assigning my students YouTube videos of the McCarthy hearings, I’ve also asked them all to read Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Hofstadter’s intent in the essay, written in 1964, was to contextualize McCarthyism and, to a lesser extent, Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president, but it was intended to be a timeless commentary on politics throughout history. A look at two major political stories in 2012 bears out Hofstadter’s ambitious scope.

The first story, of course, is the campaign for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. As of today, there are four candidates for the Republican nomination – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and New Gingrich – of whom three – Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich – have peddled paranoid theories as part of their candidacies. These examples of paranoia are not trivial but cut to the core of each candidate’s appeal to his segment of the Republican electorate’s feeling of dispossession in American society due to its own demographic decline.

Hofstadter describes the paranoid style as one of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” used by “more or less normal people” for political purposes. While the paranoid style exists across time, “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.”

Ron Paul’s libertarianism is grounded not only in liberal principles but in his conviction that there is a soft-money conspiracy that can only be defeated by a return to the gold standard. Newt Gingrich claims that President Obama is leading a secular-socialist conspiracy against the public, and that he himself is a victim of a conspiracy to keep him off of the ballot in some states. Rick Santorum accuses Obama of plotting to use universities to indoctrinate students into a left-wing agenda. These are not fantasies on the part of individual politicians. These are well-worn tripes that appeal to established streams of thought in the Republican right-wing, which, with the advent of the Tea Party, is now coming into plain view. One reason why the Republican primaries are lasting for so long is that these wedge-issue conspiracies carry as much weight within the Republican party as does Romney’s faithless but conventional conservatism.

In particular, it is the personal invective against Obama that is so striking about the current paranoid style of Republican politics. Beginning with the birther movement, this personal invective has morphed into claims that he is a Muslim as well as into charges that he is a “food stamp president”, a dog-whistle aspersion by Gingrich seemingly intended to imply that Obama’s base of support consists of African-American welfare recipients who would rather stay on the dole than work. A right wing already energized by the supposedly looming imposition of sharia law and the creation of a victory monument to Islam at Ground Zero has found its perfect target in the foreign-sounding Barack Hussein Obama.

The paranoid style against Obama also extends to his foreign policy. Gingrich, for instance, claims that “there seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way“, thereby playing to the paranoid fear that Obama is a closet Muslim who will sell America out to its Islamic enemies. This brings us to the second paranoid fantasy of 2012: the imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and responding Israeli air strike.

Hofstadter writes that “the paranoid spokesman …. is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.” Nothing could be more true of the hysterical reports of the imminence of Iran’s nuclearization and the even greater imminence of an Israeli preemptive strike.

Iran has been 6-12 months away from a nuclear bomb for a long time now. Like the end of the world, the designated date keeps passing and yet the prediction never changes. Likewise, Israel has been on the verge of launching airstrikes for nearly as long. Neither even happens, but the predictions remain the same, and the media attention they get makes them appear more credible than they deserve to be.

While it would be deeply naive to presume that the Iranian theocracy has peaceful intentions for its nuclear program, it is equally naive to accept that a country that has not decided to weaponize its nuclear materials could suddenly break out within a six-month time frame, a time frame that is even less realistic given how often it has shifted. To believe otherwise is to assume a conspiratorial mindset that a nuclear program under the surveillance of the international community has developed a secret apparatus, intelligence of which the Western powers are willing to share with sources in the media but not with the weapons inspectors who could do something about it.

The predictions of an imminent Israeli strike are equally conspiratorial and in defiance of fact and common sense. The very fact that an air campaign against Iran is probably beyond Israel’s technical capacity leads the paranoid observer to assume not that Israel will decline to attempt the impossible, but that because it is impossible they will do so with the support of an outside power, perhaps the US or even Saudi Arabia. The timeframe is similarly conspiratorial, with reports speculating that Israel will time its airstrikes to undermine Obama’s re-election campaign.

This is, of course, non-sensical. It assumes that other considerations more relevant to the success of airstrikes – say, the schedule for moving Iranian nuclear technology into underground bunkers, or the availability of bunker-busting munitions – will be outweighed by Binyamin Netanyahu’s desire to harm Obama’s re-election chances. This assumes, in turn, that Netanyahu can rely on the US presidential election being close enough for Israel’s actions to influence it (a big if, considering that the Republicans are busy destroying themselves in their own conspiracy-driven primaries), and that if the election were that close, that Obama would act in such a way that would harm his political prospects. Assumption after assumption piles on, one after the other, in a manner that shows the paranoid style is at work in foreign as well as domestic politics.

We live in paranoid times. Hofstadter’s morphology of paranoid political movements remains as relevant for understanding the world today as it was in 1964.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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