Roughly a quarter of Republican voters in the United States believe that “elitists” in government, the media, and Hollywood are a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking pedophiles who murder children for their adrenochrome. Meanwhile, 25 percent of Americans believe that it’s “definitely true” or “probably true” that the coronavirus pandemic was “planned.” More than a third of self-identified conservative Republicans are in this camp, as are nearly one-in-five Democrats.
These are not garden-variety conspiracy theories. It’s one thing to believe that, say, the CIA assassinated President John F. Kennedy because they didn’t like his Cold War policies. It’s quite another to believe that a demonic organization of millions is murdering as many people as Nazi Germany did—and without a single government anywhere in the world uttering so much as a peep about it or a single insider blowing the whistle or leaking. If you believe these plots are real, you are not the target audience for historian Richard Hofstadter’s collection of essays, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not often that a magazine asks a writer to review a book published more than a half-century ago, but much of Hofstadter’s work is timelier and more relevant now than it was when he wrote it.
If he were still alive, Hofstadter probably wouldn’t be surprised to find that what he called “the paranoid style” is back. He wrote his essay about this phenomenon shortly after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lurid press conferences and demagogic congressional hearings about a supposedly vast communist conspiracy riveted and repulsed the nation. But Hofstadter argued that McCarthyism was simply the latest iteration of a longstanding American tradition. Over and over again, he observed, America had become an arena for “uncommonly angry minds” on the Right and the Left, who imagined that a diabolical conspiracy was on the verge of destroying the nation. What he described was more like a state of mind—one of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—than an ideology or movement. One can be uncommonly angry and paranoid at any point on the political spectrum.
Hofstadter wasn’t describing the clinically paranoid—the mentally ill who suffer a psychotic break from reality and imagine that great forces are persecuting them personally. He was describing otherwise psychologically normal people who are nonetheless convinced that a vast conspiracy is targeting an entire country or culture or way of life, and that its victims number in the millions:
The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power … The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever running out.
Hofstadter quoted Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel, who represented California from 1953 to 1969. Of the tens of thousands of letters he received every month, Kuchel said that roughly 10 percent were what he called “fright mail” about “the latest PLOT!! to OVERTHROW AMERICA!!!” A favorite example: Chinese army soldiers disguised as UN peacekeepers were gearing up to invade San Diego from Mexico.
This phenomenon is by no means unique to the United States. Apocalyptic conspiracy theories erupt all over the world with some regularity. Indeed, some of America’s paranoid delusions were imported from Europe. But Hofstadter was interested in their American manifestation because he happened to be American.
These are wild times we live in right now, but the paranoid style can erupt even in quiet decades. The 1950s was hardly a tumultuous era, especially compared with what came before and after. The mildly conservative Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and the radicalism of the Depression era was now dormant. This is the decade to which so many contemporary conservatives—and an increasing number of progressives, albeit for different reasons—long to return.
But some people aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy. So, with nothing much to complain about, at least from a conservative perspective (the civil rights movement came later, and though much of its energy came from the Left, more Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964), malcontents on the Right had to invent something to whinge about. It was to that contingent that Hofstadter referred (in the book’s second essay) when he identified “pseudo conservatives,” a term borrowed from Theodor W. Adorno’s study The Authoritarian Personality. Although pseudo conservatives “believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism,” he wrote, they “show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions.” (A decade and a half later, he might have written about pseudo liberals rather than pseudo conservatives, but this was the 1950s, and most of the cranks back then were on the Right rather than the Left.)
Pseudo conservatism is as hard to pin down as the paranoid style to which it is so closely related because it’s not a coherent set of beliefs. But like pornography, Hofstadter knew it when he saw it, and he included some telling examples, many of which are characterized by the paranoid style.
The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures.”
Hofstadter was a historian, not a clinical psychologist, so what’s most striking about reading his work is the realization that the current spasm of paranoia and wacky pseudo politics is unremarkable when taking the long view.
The first episode covered in his title essay won’t surprise anyone since most Americans are already at least passingly familiar with the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Most famously, American playwright Arthur Miller metaphorically condemned these proceedings in his 1953 play The Crucible about the actual witch trials held in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692–3. “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy fulminated in 1951. “This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Of course, there were some communist spies in the American government, and no doubt there are still foreign spies operating on American soil, some of whom work for the Russians. That’s what the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program is for. The Americans also had sources inside the Kremlin. That’s espionage for you. But contrary to what the revisionists who claim that “McCarthy was right” insist, this is not what the anti-communist paranoiacs were talking about. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society echoed McCarthy’s apocalyptic exaggeration: “Communist influencers are now in almost complete control of our Federal Government.” Not quite complete control, but almost! And not just the government but also the media, the churches, the courts, and the schools.
This is what characterizes the paranoid style rather than run-of-the-mill conspiratorial theorizing. The problem isn’t some small group up to no good. It’s a monumental conspiracy, and it’s ruining everything. Even adding fluoride to drinking water terrified millions during Hofstadter’s day, for it, too, was supposedly part of a communist “plot.” Somehow, the theory went, fluoride in drinking water would make people more willing to go along with the nationalization of industry and the collectivization of agriculture than fluoride in toothpaste. Need I point out that this is not the sort of thing FBI counterintelligence agents spent their time investigating?
Hofstadter’s era was no more unique than our own, and reading him takes us back to the long-forgotten nonsense that preoccupied and animated the forerunners of McCarthy and QAnon. Here, for instance, is a Texas newspaper in 1855:
It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. … We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.
Going back even further, here’s a Massachusetts sermon in 1798 railing against a supposed Illuminati conspiracy:
[It is] the most extensive, flagitious, and diabolical [design] that human art and malice have ever invented. Its object is the total destruction of all religion and civil order. If accomplished, the earth can be nothing better than a sink of impurities, a theatre of violence and murder, and a hell of miseries.
Illuminism was an 18th-century Bavarian movement based on Enlightenment rationalism that stood against the reactionary clericalism present in that particular place at that particular time. It promoted freedom, tolerance, constitutional government, and the separation of religion and state. Yet, “the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them,” Hofstadter wrote. He pointed out that there was no evidence that a single Illuminati member ever set foot on American soil.
No survey of American paranoia would be complete without the freemasons, a secretive but otherwise mainstream society that “was held to be a fraternity of the privileged classes, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices, thus shutting out hardy common citizens.” Somehow, these people “muzzled” the press so that the general public wouldn’t know what was “really” going on.
The villains in these conspiracy theories weren’t merely busying themselves with nefarious political plots. They were as morally repulsive as serial killers. Masons supposedly disemboweled people and drank wine from skulls. Catholics allegedly removed unborn infants from their mothers’ wombs and fed them to dogs. Such accusations are no different from the antisemitic blood libels circulated about Jews who, it is said, use the blood of Christian and Muslim children in their religious rites, or QAnon’s claim that “Satanic pedophiles” in Congress, the State Department, Hollywood, and the media are trafficking and murdering children to harvest hallucinogens from their adrenal glands in pursuit of immortality.
While Hofstadter wasn’t able to identify the psychological mechanisms behind the phenomenon, he did offer a theory for why paranoia, while always present at some level, explodes in some historical eras and remains muted in others. Throughout American history, politics has generally been shaped by either competing interest groups (labor unions, corporations, retirees) focused on real-world problems or by cultural groups (educated professionals, Christian fundamentalists, rural residents) vying for status. In status politics, Americans are more interested in culture wars (Hofstadter used the phrase “social conflicts”) and the airing of grievances than in, say, repairing a broken economy or fighting a war.
There is a tendency to embody discontent not so much in legislative proposals as in grousing. … Therefore, it is the tendency of status politics to be expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.
A bitter culture war waged against our own friends, family members, and neighbors would have been a spectacularly poor response to the Great Depression, Hitler’s invasion of Europe, the September 11th attacks, or the War of 1812. But since human beings are wired for conflict and strife, it makes a perverse sort of sense for a certain kind of person to pick oversized fights about relatively trivial matters during peacetime and to hallucinate existential threats when none exist. When there really is an enormous real-world problem, those otherwise prone to paranoia can focus on that rather than on the bogeymen in their minds.
If Hofstadter was right, there is, in all likelihood, no solving this problem any more than we can solve winter aside from patiently waiting for spring. “While [the paranoid style] comes in waves of different intensity,” he wrote, “it appears to be all but ineradicable.” The good news about a problem that arrives in waves is that all waves break eventually. It’s mathematically impossible for any kind of wave, physical or metaphorical, to continue building forever. But since not even a pandemic that killed a million Americans and crashed the global economy was enough to change the American mood, God only knows when this preposterous era will finally expire.