“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 . . . how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
So begins “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a seminal essay written by the historian Richard Hofstadter — in 1964. Behind this anger, Hofstadter saw “a style of mind” that was neither new nor limited to the nation’s right wing. But his words echo ever louder as Americans look toward next week’s Republican National Convention, where the GOP is expected to formally name Donald J. Trump its presidential candidate.
Trump certainly owes his astonishing ascent to the “animosities and passions” of the American primary voters who vaulted him past more established rivals. But far from being some reality-TV revolutionary storming the barricades of the two-party system, Trump is just the newest face of an old political tradition in our country, one that stretches from the Cold War inquisition of Joseph McCarthy back to the Populist party zealots who fulminated about an international gold ring at the turn of the 19th century. What Hofstadter calls the “paranoid style” — a state of mind characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” — binds a diverse coalition of current movements, from birthers to 9/11 truthers, from Bernie Bros to the armed militias of Idaho.
What does mark Trump as unprecedented has been his willingness to bring this conspiratorial mind-set out of the shadows and onto the brightest stage in American politics. His presidential aspirations arose, after all, from the baseless charge that President Obama was neither born in, nor loyal to, the United States, an insinuation he revived after last month’s mass shooting in Orlando. “Look,” Trump declared, “we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind . . . . There’s something going on.”
Trump has consistently trafficked in such accusations. During the primaries, he implied that Ted Cruz’s father played a role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (“[W]hat was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death — before the shooting? It’s horrible.”) When the pope chided Trump for his divisive rhetoric, the candidate prophesied that ISIS would attack the Vatican.
“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” Hofstadter tells us. “He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”
This is why a central feature of Trumpism has been an emphasis on the dangers of those lurking just beyond, and within, our borders. The Mexicans are sending rapists and drug dealers, he tells us. Muslims should be banned from immigrating and Muslim Americans placed on a national registry, lest Islamic radicals massacre us.
Here’s how Trump himself put it in his 2007 book, Think Big: “The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we’re civilized. In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you. . . . Even your friends are out to get you.”
This point of view inevitably breeds militancy. Social conflict is “not something to be mediated and compromised,” Hofstadter writes. Instead, the paranoid exhorts his followers to “fight things out to the finish.” This might help explain the apparent pleasure Trump took in watching protesters get roughed up at his rallies.
Like Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio demagogue who railed against the New Deal, Trump’s brew of economic populism and nativism appeals to those who feel dispossessed, primarily white working-class voters who have seen wages stagnate and jobs disappear. Trump hasn’t offered these folks much in the way of solutions. What he does offer is easy scapegoats: immigrants and globalization.
But long before Trump came along, the fringes of the conservative movement had been employing the paranoid style to recast legislative programs into pogroms. The effort to expand medical coverage became “a government takeover of the health care system” that included sinister death panels. Universal background checks on firearms sales became a prelude to large-scale gun seizures.
Such fevered ideation also feeds the pet conspiracies of the left, from the perils of vaccines and genetically modified foods to the stubborn fantasy that the administration of George W. Bush was in on the 9/11 attacks. Some ardent Bernie Sanders supporters continue to insist the Democratic establishment rigged the process to rob him of the nomination, even though Hillary Clinton defeated him by more than 3.7 million votes.
As the general election heats up, Trump and his surrogates will flog ever wilder conspiracies regarding Clinton’s e-mail server, her involvement with the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, and so on.
Even if he wins the presidency, Trump’s grand goal — to “make America great again” — stands little chance of coming true for his followers. This sort of failure, Hofstadter glumly concludes, “constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” And if Trump loses? His legions will feel an even deeper sense of betrayal, which will fester until the next Trump inevitably comes along.
The paranoid style of thought spreads, then feasts upon, political dysfunction. It is the ultimate ideological contagion, one that breeds leaders who seek not to cure our nation, but to prove how sick it is.
Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of “Against Football.’’ Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org