What comedy! What a circus! Melania Trump’s speech was ripped off from one of Michelle Obama’s. Donald Trump’s affectionate, er, grope of his daughter Ivanka was weirdly inappropriate. His air kiss of vice presidential pick Mike Pence was an air miss. And the new Republican rock anthem, “Make America Great Again,” appeared to have been written by the creators of “South Park.’’
This is a representative sample of the things said by members of the American elite about last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Ignore it all. Their sneering is just irrelevant noise. The signal was what mattered and, though it was loud (and at times monotonous), it was also very clear.
Trump’s acceptance speech was a ghastly masterclass in what Richard Hofstadter more than 50 years ago called “The paranoid style in American politics.” As Hofstadter summarized it, the paranoid view was that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; [and] the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.”
The paranoid worldview verged on the religious: “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms. . . . He is always manning the barricades of civilization. . . . Like religious millennialists, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days.” Yet even as he denounces the corrupt, cosmopolitan elite, the political paranoiac is implicitly expressing a kind of attraction. He hates intellectuals, yet he provides extensive footnotes.
This — including the footnotes, 282 of which the Trump campaign supplied on Friday — is about all you need to know about Trump’s acceptance speech. It was all here, beginning with the conspiracy theory. “America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers,” yelled Trump, “that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics. . . . No longer can we rely on those elites in media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
“Big business, elite media, and major donors” were backing Hillary Clinton, Trump declared, “because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.” As a result, “corruption has reached a level like never before.”
Also present and correct was the classic paranoid vision of a country on the brink of Armageddon. This was “a moment of crisis for our nation,” thundered Trump, for once eschewing comedy. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” Whole communities were being “crushed.”
The speech had the usual drastic remedies for the country’s ills, and not only the border wall to keep out the illegal immigrants Trump falsely blames for a nonexistent crime wave. For the economy he promised renegotiation of existing trade agreements, tax cuts, deregulation, and the kind of infrastructure spending all those Keynesian economists should be rushing to endorse. As for foreign policy, he repeated his standard vague pledge to “defeat the barbarians of ISIS.”
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, is always with us. What determines its political salience is its appeal to people who feel “dispossessed” — who believe that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.”
This is the key to Trump’s success, and he knows it. The most powerful part of his acceptance speech was directed squarely at “the forgotten men and women of our country” — “people who work hard but no longer have a voice.” For those people, Trump had two powerful messages: “I AM YOUR VOICE” and “I’M WITH YOU,” the latter an inspired retort to Clinton’s faintly smug campaign slogan, “I’m with her.”
At the heart of the paranoid style there is always nostalgia. In Hofstadter’s day, people looked back to before World War I. In our time, they yearn for the era before Vietnam. (Trump’s hairstyle itself is an allusion to “Happy Days.’’) Watch Douglas MacArthur’s keynote in 1952 or Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech in 1964 to see just why Trump’s speech resonated.
Yet there is a difference. In those days, the paranoid style appealed to the Republican Party faithful. The convention floor went nuts for MacArthur and Goldwater. Last week in Cleveland was different because — as was obvious in and around the convention center — Trump is fundamentally a foreign body in the Grand Old Party. As one young Republican explained to me, he is really an independent candidate who seized the nomination by mobilizing voters who had been drifting away during the Bush era. That is why regular convention attendees referred disdainfully to Trump supporters as “Republidents.”
Trump’s insurgency against the elite continues to confound political experts, who are themselves members of the elite. Undeterred by all that has happened in the past year, they continue to underestimate his chances in November. They have failed to understand the power of the paranoid style. If Trump can inspire and energize not only Republicans but also Republidents — independent voters who choose him over Clinton — he could surprise us all again.
Despise him all you like, but Donald Trump could yet be the first Republident President. And no, I’m not just being paranoid.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.