Paranoia in a cat—hilarious. Paranoia in politics—sometimes hilarious, but often dangerous.
Gosh, now why would I be talking about paranoia? It’s not like the outlandish tales we hear are never true; sometimes they are. But more often, it seems they have only a grain of truth embroidered with a hefty helping of irrationality.
Between pretty much Hillary Clinton‘s entire public life, kerfuffles over the bathroom and Supreme Court nominations and the GOP free-for-all in the presidential race, I’m tempted at times to throw up my hands and hide in my room. But I have Internet access there too, sooooo …
What we’re seeing now in politics is nothing new, and it was nothing new in 1964 when Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the “paranoid style” in Harper’s Magazine, focusing on America. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
Sen. Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting (which it seems never really went away), 19th century Populists’ notions of an international bankers’ conspiracy (ditto), the supposed plot by the pope to take over the world, and abolitionists’ fear of a slaveholder cabal in control of the U.S. were just a few bits of paranoid politics gone wild on both sides of the aisle. And the founders weren’t immune either (where do you think a lot of the ideas in the Constitution came from?).
But it was on the right that Hofstadter found more paranoia:
“[T]he modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”
Naw … doesn’t sound at all familiar. I definitely haven’t read a thousand or so letters on anything like that. Oh … wait … but I’m sure any day now they’ll totally take over the world and prove the skeptics wrong …
“Hofstadter’s essay helped to shift thinking about conservatism—and American politics more broadly—by focusing attention on the symbolic, psychological elements of political life, instead of seeing political ideology as a natural outgrowth of material or economic interests.”
Paranoia is used in politics because it works, at least in the short term. If you capitalize on the fear, say, of something like foreign terrorism, you’ll find followers among the more anxious of us, those who most fear another 9/11. (Another Oklahoma City? Maybe not …) The tactic certainly worked in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson and his infamous nuclear apocalypse “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater.
Hofstadter described the typical subscriber to this line of thinking:
“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of 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. …
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 theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”
Sounds like tin-foil manufacturers may see an upswing in business, especially considering the current rhetoric. I’m sure letters editors like me have also seen an uptick in paranoid letter-writers.
Some things we should fear. When fear rules your life, though, facts are forgotten … well, except for the “facts” (air quotes intended) manufactured from cherry-picked statistics and anecdotal evidence presented to buoy the case for fear.
Anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence of anything when it’s only isolated incidents, and statistics without proper context are meaningless. Nor is someone saying “I have a great mind” proof that that someone is a genius or even in possession of basic common sense.
But that doesn’t seem to matter when the fearmongering connects, as shown by Republican media consultant Frank Luntz’s focus group of current and former Donald Trump supporters late last year. The negatives just seemed to drive his approval higher among the group members, the Washington Post reported. “Normally, if I did this for a campaign, I’d have destroyed the candidate by this point,” Luntz told reporters.
What was scariest for me was the entrenchment seen among those who believed everything Trump said despite evidence disproving many of his assertions, such as his claims about the 9/11 hijackers’ wives leaving a few days before the attacks so they could watch them on TV from afar. According to the 9/11 Commission report, none of the hijackers had wives, girlfriends or family in the U.S.; reportedly only one was married at all, and one other had a girlfriend living in Germany.
But if Trump said it, it must be true. So yeah, fear works. Which means those of us who care about truth have to dig in just as much to try to dispel that fear.
I’m not liking our chances right now. I’ll be in my room trying to cuddle with the furry one.