[He] 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. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. … As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, [he] is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. 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.—Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine
The above passage was not written recently. It does not describe anyone in the news right now. It was written in 1964 and published the month of the Presidential election that year. Its title is “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was an historian who found himself concerned with the angry political rhetoric that was emerging that year and re-discovered that there was little new to it, that in fact a “style” of rhetoric could be identified that regularly emerged and re-emerged in our history.
The “paranoid style” is back this year in America.
Of course, Hofstadter admits, he is using the term “paranoid” as a pejorative and makes no claims about possessing psychological expertise. “The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds,” he wrote. “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
Being paranoid in style, it is often expressed with the language of fear, and that fear is often if not always of what I would call The Other, a population so different from the politician and his listeners that they may have never even met a member of the population of The Other. Whenever the majority population feels unsure of status or economics, it turns to the simplistic. Hate is the ultimate simplifier in politics. Racism is almost always the template used to organize that hate.
Nationalism morphs into xenophobia. When scarcity becomes an economic reality, which it has in European nations since 2008, accusations of others hoarding resources are sure to follow. It is happening here, too. Our southern border is suddenly porous, a quality it seems to only possess in troubling economic times. Further, when the majority hates all minority groups, many, or any of them, and blames them for trouble, nothing good follows.
One voter was quoted recently as saying, “Donald Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” The speaker is Richard Spencer, a leader in the “white nationalist” or “white identity” movement, and he spoke on the record with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker (subscription required). Spencer continued, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he stated that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.” Spencer is a big fan of Mr. Trump’s.
In difficult economic times, we are all disenfranchised, but the majority population in this country is at present declaring that it is more disenfranchised and, having seen what it regards as the unfair success of identity politics used by minority groups, is using the language of disenfranchisement to fight an impending apocalypse, a conspiracy, a something.
Here are three quotes from three different political eras. From this summer:
If this deal is consummated, it will make the current administration the world’s leading financier of radical terrorism. Billions of dollars under the control of this administration will flow into the hands of those who will use that money to murder Americans.
And this, from 120 years ago:
For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. … Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of this international ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.
And this, from 60 years ago:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. … What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. … The laws of probability would dictate that part of … [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.
This country has loved its fear of The Other almost since its inception. We are always about to be taken advantage of. The Other is a group of people that lives in our shadows and is perpetually just around the corner, is about to leap on us, and wants to steal all the good things that we true Americans hold dear or even need to survive. Our money, our jobs, our security, our lives. Politicians running for the next higher office—or to retain the office already possessed—often invoke The Other, and they just as often claim that the opposing side favors The Other, either openly or, worse, secretly. In different eras, politicians have cast groups of people in the role of The Other such as Masons, Mormons, Catholics, people from Asia, people from Ireland, Jewish people, people who support the gold standard, people who support silver, militant anythings, anarchists, terrorists, Communists, international bankers, radicals, people of color, unemployed people, immigrants. The Other is always the aggressor—or is about to be the aggressor—if we do not do something about it. We true Americans are always about to become victims.
Majorities run the risk of losing philosophical coherence by the fact of being a majority, by acquiring new members with new causes; focus is regained when a sense of impending persecution is successfully sold.
Self-declared impending victim-hood prevails in nervous times, and the thinking is so damn seductive. Time and again the majority sees a group outside it complain about being denied admittance and then complain and ultimately win admission and wonders: “What if we do that, too? Won’t we get more of what we feel we need?” This is how a beloved member of the 1% wealthiest Americans is winning acclaim among voters who do not earn as much in a month as he might have paid for his wallet.
The solution the politician always offers is the only part that never changes: We must elect this person to office, where he will stand up for us. The politician always disappoints the true believers in The Other, however, for one of two reasons: because the politician discovers once elected that his fight was against an idea that did not exist in reality, so there was no legitimate legislation to be pursued; or later, when he discovers that lots of angry speeches make him sound like the boy crying wolf and he gets ignored everywhere, including the voting booth.
The quote about terrorists is from this summer, and was spoken by a sitting United States senator who is running for the next higher job: Senator Ted Cruz. The quote right after it is from 1895 (found in Hofstadter’s essay in Harper’s) and was written that year as part of the Populist Party’s platform for 1896.
The third quote was spoken by a United states senator who like Cruz also possessed a gift for the enraging turn-of-phrase: Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
There is one other unifying thing about this specter of The Other: whomever the population is that the politician is decrying as evil, as powerful, as taking advantage of our previously fair system is almost always in fact a dispossessed minority or is a group that has no hand on the levers of power. The concept of The Other draws vitality from the conceit that The Other holds power, even when it does not. Especially when it does not. Often, it is a group that we would otherwise view as an underdog. The quickest way to win votes is to find a portion of the electorate that feels bullied, blame the woes on a non-powerful part of society—a portion that can not fight back as it has no power—and then claim that the lack of a push-back is confirmation of the other group’s power. Hofstadter wrote five decades ago: “The paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.” Osnos quotes Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego: “The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become. When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”
The fight on the right in this country is the fight for the stomach-punch-simple description of current troubles that simultaneously sounds like a stomach-punch-simple solution. It is a demagogue’s dream-come-true. At any given moment, there is always a portion of the population that is ready to hate, and some of these people vote. At any moment, there is always a portion that feels that some mythic yesterday is better than today and that tomorrow will be worse. Some of these people vote. Seven days a week, there is a portion of the population that feels ignored and does not notice that this feeling of being ignored is all they care about. Ironically, they vote for politicians who reinforce this by telling them that they are being ignored. It feels like attention is being paid, but isn’t. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” was neither, but once again eager politicians are harumphing their way toward building coalitions of the not-at-all-disenfranchised and yet perpetually angry.
The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same.
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