A standard definition of paranoia is when a person experiences a deep, anxious fear of threats or conspiracies founded on delusion and irrationality. In a now-famous 1963 lecture at Oxford University, Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter called this phenomenon “the paranoid style in American politics.” A year later, it appeared as an essay in “Harper’s Magazine” (bit.ly/MVparaonid). It later appeared as a book, which has been reissued several times.
Just this year the Library of America reprinted it, along with other works by Hofstadter, who died 50 years ago.
As we enter the new year, it is a good time to revisit this phenomenon, as its appearance in our contemporary politics, many commentators have pointed out, rattles American life. Courts have denied nearly 50 cases that the Trump campaign has brought concerning baseless and unproven charges of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Even Attorney General William Barr, a longtime President Trump loyalist, claimed the election showed no evidence of fraud or irregularities. Shortly thereafter, Barr resigned.
The Trump-appointed cybersecurity chief, Christopher Krebs, noted that the election was the “most secure” in American history. Trump fired him soon afterward.
According to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 72 percent of Republicans five weeks after the election still said it was rigged (bit.ly/MVMarist). They shockingly argued that voting machines were tampered with, international conspirators interfered with a Republican win, and socialists will take over the country.
If Hofstadter were alive today, he would not be surprised. As he put it in his celebrated lecture, “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life, which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.” He traced these movements back to our founding in the 18th century. He cited unsubstantiated plots by internationalists conquering America, or theories about Catholics, prodded by the Pope, seizing control of the government.
Some thought that President Franklin Roosevelt, who led the country during the Great Depression with a massive New Deal, was turning the nation into a socialist or communist nation. Today’s paranoid conspiracy theorists echo that accusation.
According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style is “made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: the megalomaniac view of oneself as the elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary.” The fearful are unable to engage in political and social negotiation. “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 theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”
Armed militiamen threatened governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Ralph Northam of Virginia with kidnapping and then putting them on “trial,” with possible punishments, for their strong stance to fight the coronavirus with lockdowns. Election officials in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, and elsewhere have been subjected to death threats. Armed militia have marched in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., leading at times to violent confrontations with police or counter-protestors.
The most unsettling aspect of “the paranoid style” is, as Hofstadter notes, that its adherents are not insane. They do not have “profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” The problem is that the line between the real and the unreal, the rational and irrational, has been broken. The result is the construction of a fantasy world based not on fact but on fear and trembling.
Overcoming this style will be one of the major challenges of 2021.
Jack Fruchtman, a resident of Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for more than 40 years.