Few histories age well. Fewer are said to retain relevance decades after they first appeared. Yet Richard Hofstadter’s famous rumination on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in 1964, has of late become something akin to essential reading. Hofstadter’s essay seemingly offers a persuasive explanation for what happened in November 2016: Incited by Donald Trump, mass paranoia triumphed over reason and enlightenment.
I am not persuaded that Trump’s election signified the triumph of paranoia. Trump did not create the contempt for establishment politics that accounts for the rise of Trumpism. He merely exploited the opportunity presented to him.
Yet I am increasingly persuaded that Trump’s election has induced a paranoid response, one that, unless curbed, may well pose a greater danger to the country than Trump himself. This paranoid response finds expression in obsessive attention given to just about anything Trump says, along with equally obsessive speculation about what he might do next — this despite the fact that most of what he says is nonsense and much of what he does is reversed, contradicted, or watered down within the span of a single news cycle.
Note, for example, the events of the past couple of weeks, which have featured an endless sequence of Henny Penny prognostications about the sky falling. Yet today the G-7 still exists (and won’t be readmitting Russia anytime soon). The United States remains committed to NATO. And international sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for offenses real and alleged are still firmly in place. For all of Trump’s bluster, insults, and diplomatic gaffes, in other words, nothing much has changed.
Remember when Trump’s revival of “America First” was going to lead directly to outright isolationism? Try telling that to the US troops still deployed to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and dozens of other places around the world.
Trump is not, to quote Hofstadter, “a free, active demonic agent” who “deflects the course of history in an evil way.” He is a clownishly incompetent and willfully ignorant buffoon. The sooner he leaves office, the better. But he is not a precursor of fascism. He does not endanger our democracy. Nor does he pose a threat to the rights enumerated in the Constitution. As for deflecting history, he lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the term.
So if there is a paranoid style in evidence in American politics today, it is proliferating like kudzu among anti-Trumpers who have allowed their understandable dismay with the president to become an all-consuming mania. Notably guilty of indulging this tendency are the very institutions we count on to set the terms of the national conversation, starting with our most important newspapers, but also including television networks and talk radio.
Trump decries what he calls “fake” news. A greater problem is allowing the sensationalistic ephemera that Trump himself regularly provides to crowd out news that actually matters.
The point here is not to suggest cutting Trump any slack. On the contrary: Every administration requires rigorous and relentless oversight, this president and the dubious cast of characters surrounding him more than most. Yet until elites who have allowed themselves to become mesmerized by Trump recover a modicum of balance and equilibrium, issues of far greater moment than the president’s latest idiotic statement will continue to receive short shrift.
The likelihood of Trump himself addressing any of these problems is nil. But unless we get on with the process of identifying solutions, there will likely be more Trumps in our future.
The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, finds expression in “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” We don’t have time for any such nonsense.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author, most recently, of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” He is writing a book about Donald Trump.