Trump and the “paranoid style”

During the last year countless commentators have made the point that Donald Trump embodies the “paranoid style” in American politics that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his famous 1964 essay. A central feature of the style, which Hofstadter thought was “all but ineradicable”, is a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – a tendency Trump certainly has (e.g. “birtherism”). Moreover, with his election as president, the style seems to have a had what Hofstadter called a “consummatory triumph” in the United States – something that, he wrote, had up to that point only occurred in Germany. Thus it seems to me that we now have to rethink some of our assumptions about the differences between Europe and the United States. But what struck me reading Hofstadter’s essay now was not just the way Trump embodies the “paranoid style” but also something altogether stranger: he is in reality exactly what previous practitioners of the “paranoid style” feared.

In the essay, written against the background of the emergence of Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate in the presidential election of 1964, Hofstadter traces the history of the “paranoid style” from imagined plots against America by the Illuminati in the eighteenth century and by Catholics in nineteenth century through to perceptions of ubiquitous Soviet influence in the second half of the twentieth century. In each case, what practitioners of “paranoid style” ultimately feared was that a foreign power might undermine American democracy and destroy the American way of life. Hofstadter quotes a speech from 1951 in which Senator Joseph McCarthy – a paradigmatic practitioner of the “paranoid style” in twentieth-century American politics – even suggested that Secretary of State George C. Marshall was a Soviet agent. Though Hofstadter does not mention it, the movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962) can also be seen as an expression (or indictment?) of the “paranoid style”.

Yet much of what during the Cold War and during previous periods of history was conspiracy theory is now reality. A typical nineteenth-century tract quoted by Hofstadter warned Americans that the Catholic powers of continental Europe might “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union, and throw down our free institutions”. In 2016 Russia really did interfere in the U.S. presidential election – though what difference, if any, it made to the outcome remains unclear. We still do not fully understand the relationship of Trump to Russia, but there is a real question about whether he has been compromised in some way. These days, serious analysts wonder if Trump is a kind of real-life Manchurian Candidate. In short, this time the conspiracy is real. The odd thing is that instead of obsessing about this, today’s practitioners of the “paranoid style” seem not to care.


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