A warning from history

The ‘paranoid style’ finds expression on both right and left of politics, writes Robert Philpot

In November 1964, just a year after the assassination of John F Kennedy, a shell-shocked American public went to the polls. On the ballot paper they were presented with, perhaps, the starkest choice of the 20th century. Fresh from passing the slain president’s civil rights legislation, Lyndon Johnson promised to continue and expand the Kennedy legacy. His opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, had voted against the Civil Rights Act, vowed to roll back the New Deal and toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. ‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,’ Goldwater declared as he accepted the Republican party presidential nomination. ‘And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’

The nomination of Goldwater – who had, in a conscious dig at moderates within his own party, vowed to offer the voters ‘a choice not an echo’ – split the Republicans all the way to polling day. Many liberal Republicans – such as Governor Norman Rockefeller – withheld their support from their party’s candidate. In November, Johnson – running adverts which suggested a trigger-happy Goldwater might provoke a nuclear war – cruised to a landslide victory.

The echoes of the 1964 campaign can be heard again as Americans prepare to vote next month. The parallels are, of course, not exact: even if many leading Republicans have refused to endorse Donald Trump, the party’s once-vibrant liberal wing has long gone the same way as the Democrats’ southern conservative one. At the same time, Goldwater, a principled conservative who towards the end of his life spoke out vigorously against the takeover of the Republican party by the religious right, would likely have been appalled by Trump’s apparent total disregard for constitutional niceties.

Nonetheless, those attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon can find many clues in Richard Hofstadter’s ‘The Paranoid Style In American Politics’ – an essay which first appeared on the eve of the 1964 presidential election and sought to explain the rise of Goldwater. Hofstadter, a historian renowned for his seminal work ‘The American Political Tradition’, opened his assault on the radical right with the words: ‘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.’

As Hofstadter outlined, the ‘paranoid style’ had deep roots in American history. It had been visible in the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements of the early 19th century, in the nativists who opposed large-scale Catholic and Jewish immigration to the United States at the end of the century, and, of course, in Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts in the 1950s.

But, as Trump has demonstrated, there is nothing historical about the ‘paranoid style’. Although its causes were deeper, the Goldwater movement sparked to life during Kennedy’s time in the White House. For a vocal and substantial section of the American right, the nation’s first Catholic president was a dangerous liberal: an ally of the Communist-led civil rights movement at home and an unreliable cold warrior abroad who flirted with such notions as ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the Soviet Union. It is, maybe, significant that Trumpism – and its precursor, the Tea party movement – has emerged on the watch of America’s first black president, a man seen as a partner of gays, secularists and immigrants on the home front and a weak commander-in-chief of the ‘war on terror’ overseas.

It is unlikely, when the votes are counted on 8 November, that Trump can be said to reflect only the ‘animosities and passions of a small minority’. But, thus far, his movement is proving a minority phenomenon. Take the fight for the Republican nomination. Trump has loudly proclaimed that he received more votes than any previous Republican candidate in the primaries. That is true – his 13.3 million votes eclipses by some way the 11.5 million won by George W Bush in 2000. But it is not the whole truth: he also holds the record for the most votes cast against a winning candidate and he is one of the few Republican presidential candidates in recent times to win the nomination with the support of only a minority of the party’s primary voters. The general election polls paint a similar picture: in the RealClearPolitics average, Trump has consistently struggled to pass 44 per cent (in the wake of the Republican party convention he briefly came close to touching 46 per cent).

Trump’s reflection of the attributes of the ‘paranoid style’ is, though, most apparent when it comes to Hofstadter’s description of the ‘sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’.

It is something of an understatement to describe the Republican standard-bearer’s relationship with the truth as merely ‘heated exaggeration’. In 2015, Trump’s statements were awarded PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year. His current scorecard is revealing: the website suggests that just 15 per cent of what he says is ‘true or mostly true’. Half-truths make up a further 14 per cent, while the remainder are ‘mostly false’ (17 per cent); false (36 per cent); and ‘pants on fire’ (18 per cent). From his suggestion that the father of his Republican primary rival, Senator Ted Cruz, was ‘with Lee Harvey Oswald’ before the Kennedy assassination to more conventional (though no less dishonest) assertions that Hillary Clinton wants to ‘release the violent criminals from jail. She wants them all released’, Trump has become the Pinocchio of presidential politics.

Bush’s former chief political strategist, Karl Rove, famously derided the ‘reality-based community’, but Trump’s willingness to cast the shadow of suspicion on generally accepted facts has created a whole unreality-based universe around his campaign. What, for instance, does Trump have to say about the American unemployment rate – figures painstakingly compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics via monthly surveys of 66,000 households by 2,200 Census Bureau employees? ‘Don’t believe those phoney numbers when you hear 4.9 and five per cent unemployment,’ he suggested. ‘The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 per cent.’

It is, though, Trump’s advocacy of ‘conspiratorial fantasies’ which most marks his campaign out from those of his predecessors. He has gone from peddling the conspiracies of the ‘birther’ brigade (who claim Barack Obama was not, as his birth certificate states, born in Hawaii) to implying the president is a terrorist sympathiser and ‘founded Isis’. But Obama and Clinton, the ‘co-founder’ of Isis, are not the only targets for Trump’s conspiracy theories. From his suggestion that the US election system is ‘rigged’ – of his suggestion that ‘people are going to walk in and vote 10 times’, one political science professor responded: ‘I’d like to see him try’ – to the notion that global warming is a hoax dreamed up by the Chinese and that he witnessed ‘thousands’ of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, the Republican nominee appears at times to receive his campaign briefings from some of the kookier outreaches of the blogosphere.

However, as Hoftstadter suggested, the ‘paranoid style’ is not confined to the right. He detected it too in ‘certain spokesmen of abolitionism’ who suggested that America was beholden to a ‘slaveholders’ conspiracy’, in those 19th century populists who talked about an international banking conspiracy, and in sections of the leftwing press. In a mirror image of Trump, the ‘paranoid style’ can be seen in the presidential campaign of Green party candidate, Jill Stein. Like Trump, she appears to thrive on promoting conspiracy theories. She has peddled the notion that Wi-Fi damages children’s brains, appeased those who oppose vaccinations against childhood illnesses, and also questioned the validity of government statistics. Like Trump, too, Stein is not averse to ‘heated exaggeration and suspiciousness’: she has attacked Clinton’s mothering skills, echoed conservative calls for the Democrat nominee to be prosecuted over her use of a private email server, and suggested that Obama is a war criminal.

While Hofstadter hailed very much from the American left, he slipped into his essay a warning. He recognised, he wrote, that the term ‘paranoid style’ was pejorative. It was meant to be: ‘the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good’. Wild conspiracies, overblown rhetoric, paranoia: from whichever quarter they come, Hofstadter urges, be on your guard.

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Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress

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Comments: 1...

  1. On October 7, 2016 at 6:42 am Alf responded with... #

    Good to see Labour’s Tory-lites get the sack in the reshuffle.

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