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United States of Paranoia

The power of the apocalyptic has never ceased to tease the American mind. A glance through the nation’s past reveals a tenacious flirtation with conspiratorial fantasies and one-idea men. This rage for machinations is all the more curious considering the many generations that the U.S. basked in the security of splendid isolation. Perhaps the lack of external nemeses coaxed the darker corners of the American imagination into a twitchy suspicion of native demons.

Not even our textbook heroes have evaded the paranoiac’s gaze. The post-Revolutionary Federalist press massaged Jefferson’s private Deism into a menacing infidelism; the Anti-Masonic Party denounced Andrew Jackson’s fraternal ties; John Birch Society founder Robert Welch called Eisenhower a possible “conscious, dedicated agent of Communist Conspiracy.” Today, the chase to stamp out villainy spins with the velocity of 24/7 news cycles.

The recent murders of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller and Holocaust Memorial Museum guard Stephen Tyrone Johns have prompted pundits and professors to blame radio rhetoric. “Right-wing extremism,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.” Yet one has to wonder if these crimes are the outcome of airwave suasion or the sick behavior of sick individuals. James von Brunn, the museum gunman, went to jail for seven years in the 1980s for attempting to kidnap the Federal Reserve Board—the entire board—over high interest rates.

The apportioning of collective guilt for individual acts of violence is nothing new. Its most famous American example is an object lesson in the triumph of conspiracy thinking over truth. The evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy: witness Howard Brennan spied Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository firing on the president’s motorcade; the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle used in the assassination contained tufts of cotton fiber matching the shirt Oswald was wearing at the time of his arrest; firearms experts for the Warren Commission determined that all of the bullets fired at the motorcade belonged to Oswald’s rifle. But polls show that most of us believe nearly anyone except Lee Harvey pulled the trigger: the CIA, FBI, LBJ, Cubans, organized crime—the list goes on.

For a grieving nation, Oswald, a communist sympathizer to the left of JFK, ironically came to symbolize right-wing resistance to the dawning era of civil-rights reform. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said shortly after the assassination, “A great and good president has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.” The Rolling Stones broadened Warren’s condemnation in their 1968 song “Sympathy for the Devil” to indict an entire culture sickened by violence: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ When after all it was you and me.”

The Kennedy conspiracies demonstrate the potency of political obsession, as well as the unsettling fact that fantasy often steers public debate. The most distinguished interpreter of this phenomenon, Richard Hofstadter, called it “the paranoid style in American politics.” Searching for a way to explain postwar liberalism’s irreconcilables, he constructed a fresh, provocative way to reinterpret contentious episodes in the American past in which irrationality appeared to trump reason. Slave-Power-fearing abolitionists, Wall-Street-hating Populists, and Catholic-baiting Protestants peopled his collection of native oddities.

Had Hofstadter written his essay in, say, 1970, he might very well have emphasized the Weatherman-esque spasms of an alarmist Left. But in 1964, the presidential election year “The Paranoid Style” appeared in Harper’s, he had the momentum-building Goldwater movement locked firmly in his sights. Accordingly, he singled out radical conservatism’s penchant for conspiratorial politics. Among his more exotic specimens, Hofstadter identified a rag-tag fringe Right that confused FDR with the dictatorial likes of a Stalin or Mussolini and believed that comrades George Marshall and Dean Acheson ran a Kremlin-cozy foreign policy. But how much did this really matter? The crank vote, after all, never congealed into a ruling consensus. And Hofstadter was delighted to register a post-election mea culpa. “There are times when it is a pleasure to acknowledge that one has been wrong,” he wrote in Encounter. “In … October … I concluded that ‘it is now much easier than before to believed that America is visibly sick with a malady that may well do all of us in.’ As it turned out, Goldwater’s showing was far from respectable.” In fact, while Hofstadter emphasized trouble on the Right, it was the center-left that overloaded the welfare-warfare state with a hastily constructed Great Society and unpopular war in Vietnam. Paranoid or not, the ultras could claim only limited success in their assault on liberalism; the heirs of FDR bore much of the blame.

Still, when used carefully, the paranoid-style paradigm has much to tell us. It reveals the impact of popular mood on public policy, it clarifies the interplay between alienation and ideology, and it offers insights to otherwise inexplicable behavior. If the anti-fluoridationists in Hofstadter’s time reduced government to grand conspiracy, we have more recently seen government engage in its own troubling flights of fancy. The agony of 9/11 sent the Bush administration into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Rather than cool leadership, the country got a pack of doomsayers who radically oversold the threat of Saddam Hussein. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conceded that definitive proof of an Iraqi nuclear program did not exist, she followed that up with “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Vice President Dick Cheney sounded like a man with one foot in the bunker: “we’re at the point where we think time is not on our side.” And George W. Bush himself ran wild with the British government’s dodgy “September Dossier” claim that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes of an order to use them. The president repeated this error to Congress, at a Rose Garden press conference, and on his weekly radio address.

From phantom WMD to the forging of a Patriot Act surveillance state to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a paranoid mindset informed American actions in the Middle East. In the wake of the Soviet implosion, terrorism had replaced communism as the prophetic enemy. Interestingly, the old postwar “crack pots,” who believed a left-leaning State Department gave Eastern Europe to the Soviets and aided Mao’s victory in China, may have been on firmer foundation than the anti-terrorist crusaders of the 21st century. Communism had exponentially expanded; the USSR did possess weapons of mass destruction; and espionage flourished. No comparable danger challenged America on the eve of the Iraqi invasion. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the intensive U.S. bombing campaign in the days leading up to the March 2003 land offensive as designed to promote “shock and awe.” But that work had already been accomplished. The trauma of half-truths handed down by the administration over the preceding months produced an anxious, uncertain public opinion. Many presumed the enemy stood at the gates.

If Hofstadter’s paranoid style offers a template to contextualize certain post-9/11 policies, George Orwell’s dystopic 1984 is even more suggestive. According to Hofstadter, society’s marginalized are typically susceptible to stabs of fanaticism, yet in Orwell’s novel, power rather than prole advances paranoia. In Oceania, fears of informant neighbors and child spies became the bread and butter of Big Brother. “The scientist of today,” Orwell wrote, “is … a mixture of psychologist and inquisitor, studying with extraordinary minuteness the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tones of voice, and testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis, and physical torture…”

For those in Oceania who survived the sensory assault, a state-enforced newspeak stood between them and the truth. The Bush team’s national-security lexicon would have made Orwell proud. Guantanamo prisoners were rebranded “enemy combatants,” while eavesdropping without warrants on the conversations of American citizens became a “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” President Obama promised a new approach, but so far we have old policies with new names. Tired of “terrorism?” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano suggests “man-caused disasters.” And in place of the much abused “war on terror,” we now have the spectacularly banal “overseas contingency operations.”

The inventive Bush-ese is instructive on two counts. First, it illustrates the ways in which power can stir up a conspiratorial mindset among public, and second, it offers a useful corrective to Hofstadter’s contention that majority parties are by definition exempt from pangs of paranoia. When challenged by one critic in 1965 to diagnose the Johnson administration’s invasion of the Dominican Republican and expanding military commitment in Vietnam as exaggerated responses to Cold War tensions, he demurred. LBJ, he argued, bowed before a potent mainstream anti-communism that proved impossible to ignore.

In this regard, Hofstadter failed to see the full implications of the theory he helped to father. For history is replete with examples of presidents, emperors, czars, and kings afflicted by private demons and public pressures. On a practical level, ruling regimes can never take their authority for granted, as revolution, plebiscites, and palace coups are ever present possibilities. In response, power has been known to purge whole populations, draw up elaborate enemies lists, and fill its councils with pliant yes-men. In America, where the two-party system ensures hotly contested campaigns, both major parties idle in a state of apprehension. The potential for political catastrophe is never farther away than the next election.

Still, Hofstadter’s linkage of paranoia, politics, and history retains a vital explanatory capacity. Keep in mind that until the 1950s, it was widely taken for granted that, as one scholar noted, “political man is basically a rational being who estimates what his economic interests are, forms pressure groups to advance these interests, and then coolly casts his vote in hopes of realizing them.” This materialist approach, popularized by the historian Charles Beard in his controversial work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, struck Hofstadter’s generation (weaned as much on the Freudian revolution as was Beard’s on the Marxian) as reductionist and formulaic. It sought, rather, to explore movers and shakers’ minds as well as their pocketbooks.

To ignore the apocalyptic strain in America—or to reduce it to an underworld peopled by pro-life extremists, white supremacists, or the media Right who egg them on—is too simple. The idea of the U.S. as destiny’s “redeemer nation,” after all, has forever shaped its development. Jonathan Edwards’s grandson Timothy Dwight, Yale’s eighth president and a patriotic poet, looked forward to the impending American millennium when he wrote in 1801:

Here Truth, and Virtue, doom’d no more to roam,
Pilgrims in eastern climes, shall find their home;
Age after age, exalt their glory higher,
That light the soul, and this the life inspire;
And Man once more, self-ruin’d Phoenix, rise,
On wings of Eden, to his native skies.

Leaving feudalism, religious violence, and superstition behind, America, Dwight believed, was a chosen land. And any attempt to subvert the Republic—whether by Jesuits or Jacobins, Bolsheviks or bin Ladens—must be met with a righteous reaction. On this score, liberal-conservative bipartisanship is the rule rather than the exception. Wilson’s vision of a “war to end all wars” through the toppling of old European aristocracies was echoed in Bush’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East through regime change. Similarly, Henry Luce’s assurance that his nation stood on the cusp of a rising American Century reverberated in Francis Fukuyama’s tribute to liberal democratic eschatology, The End of History.

As long as Americans conceive of their nation as a kind of Divine Right experiment in human freedom and moral progress, they must bear the burden that comes with a two-dimensional worldview. Both Left and Right are susceptible to this type of absolutist thinking, and each pole has on occasion ridden the politics of crisis to power and poverty.

Now nearing 50, the paranoid-style thesis ambles easily along, occasionally derided but more often appropriated, whether acknowledged or not. We live, after all, in a country of contradictions and thus in need of its unique explanatory insights. Puritan piety idles alongside capitalist excess, imperial dreams hide behind a wishful republicanism, and we honor a shared national heritage while emphasizing an everyman-his-own-identity diversity. The only nation in the history of the world created under the compulsion of Protestantism, laissez faire, and immigration, America remains a country tethered by cultural and economic structures commonly in tension. It doesn’t take a paranoiac to see that. 

David Brown teaches history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing and Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.

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