Way back in 1964 Richard Hofstadter in an important essay nailed down what he characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics”. It did not appear out of nowhere. It was part of the soil in which the country was born. It did not suddenly disappear from American politics in the 60s either. It has been around for a long time and it is far from dead. In fact I think it is more alive than ever before and Hofstadter’s analysis is still vital.
Remember the word “paranoid” may sound odd, but it really means an unreasonable fear. Fears are good because they alert us to dangers. But unreasonable fears are well unreasonable. They are without reason, or at least in sufficient reason.
Kurt Anderson in his very readable book called FantasyLand which I have posted about earlier, traces the roots of this paranoid style to the arrival of Puritans 400 years ago! It is baked in to America.
I really think it has something to do with America right from the start being subjected to the dominant will of groups of people, like the Puritans, who wanted to abandon reason in favor of faith—but only their kind of faith. When this is done for long periods of time—and 400 years is certainly plenty of time—people learn to abandon reason and when that happens as Goya said, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” And no one knew this better than Goya.
America, like Canada, has always had plenty of those. I have commented on this in an earlier post as well. That is why the United States thinks that it must spend more on its military than the next 9 highest spending countries combined! That is why I call this paranoia in high def. Fears are natural and good. They help us stay alive. But unreasonable fears are something else. Unreasonable fears are delusions. They are dangerous. And America has plenty of those. I would not be surprised if someone counted them and found they have more of them as well than the next 9 countries on the list combined.
This is what Hofstadter said:
“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.”
I think this is even more important today than it was 50 years ago. Does this not describe to perfection Sean Hannity and a legion of Fox News pundits? Hofstadter pointed out the toxic brew that was created when anger, resentment, heated exaggeration, a suspicious mind and conspiratorial fantasy were combined. Anyone who follows American politics is very familiar with it. Donald Trump is merely the most recent practitioner in a long line of ignoble politicians and other demagogues who took advantage of this poisonous strain for their own political advantage.
Hofstadter acknowledged that this was a pejorative phrase, but he was comfortable with that because “the paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
Hofstadter in the 1960s pointed to the toxic brew that was created when anger, resentment, heated exaggeration, a suspicious mind and conspiratorial fantasy were combined. Anyone who follows current politics is very familiar with it. Donald Trump is merely the most recent practitioner in a long line of ignoble politicians and other demagogues who took advantage of this poisonous strain for their own political advantage.
In politics or religion or other social settings this toxic brew is particularly dangerous. I think it applies even more to current times than the 1960s when Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style. It helps us to understand the crazy times we live in.