The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Revisited

Not quite 60 years ago—in November 1964, just as Barry Goldwater was being crushed by Lyndon Johnson—Harper’s magazine published an article by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter. His essay, which was titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was ostensibly about paranoia and conspiracy-mongering throughout American political history.  In reality, of course, it was a broadside against the new and burgeoning American conservative movement.

Hofstadter’s argument was that conservatives were part of a long tradition of unreasonably suspicious and obsessive American political actors who saw conspiracies lurking around every corner.  Even so, these “new” conservatives were worse and even more disturbed than their predecessors.  Hofstadter argued that the “radical right wing” was truly batty and that its obsessions sprang not from any actual sign of conspiracy but from pure self-interest and personal frustration.  “The modern right wing,” Hofstadter wrote, “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Unsurprisingly, the lynchpin of the “paranoid style” among American conservatives was their undue fear of communism.  Conservatives not only saw Reds everywhere but believed that these foreign forces were aided and abetted by the highest levels of government.  “Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies,” Hofstadter wrote, but “the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”

Hofstadter’s essay went on to become one of the most influential in contemporary American politics. It has been cited countless times over the decades as “proof” that Republicans are scared, old, and (mostly) white and are desperately trying to defend what they see as theirs against the forces of “evil.” You hear these same arguments echo through our political debate today, particularly on matters like immigration.

One year after Hofstadter’s theory appeared in print, it became the lead essay in a book-length collection of his essays, which went on to become one of the most widely read works of pop-political science in the Cold War era.

One year after that, the moral philosopher and professor of ethics, William F. May, published his own essay, looking at the phenomenon described by Hofstadter from a religious perspective. May concluded that “the paranoid style” in American politics could also be described as Manichaeism, one of the oldest and most persistent religious heresies in the world. May wrote that “the metaphysical and moral presuppositions of the Radical Right are Manichaean to the core” and that, like the Manichaeans, the Right “reduced all distinctions to the cosmic struggle between two rival powers: Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness.”

There are several reasons why Hofstadter’s original theory about conservatism was wrong. The most important of these is that his accusations of “paranoia” don’t hold much water, given what we know today, which is that the U.S. government during the Roosevelt administration was indeed riddled with Communists, many with direct ties to the Soviets.

That’s not to say, however, that the paranoia and Manichaean dualism that Hofstadter and May noted don’t have a place in an explanation of American politics. It does, just not the place Hofstadter and May thought it had.

Since the end of the Cold War, the American political parties have moved in opposite directions, changing places on a whole host of issues. The GOP today, for example, is the party of the working class and free-speech absolutism (as noted here), while the Democrats now represent the wealthiest and best-educated Americans, forsaking “labor” almost entirely. Additionally, they are, under this administration at least, the party of endless war and enmity against Russia.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the left in American politics has also become the hub of Manichaean dualism. Bizarrely, the source of their paranoia and the object of their obsession is not an ideological or foreign enemy, but one man, Donald Trump. Whatever Trump favors, the left/Democrats oppose. Whatever he does, they do the opposite. Whatever he says, they insist otherwise. He is, to them, the inarguable and undisputed ruler of the Kingdom of Darkness.

One needn’t like Trump or even believe that he is fit to be the President of the United States to see just how awkward and potentially dangerous this Manichaeanism is for the nation.

The other day, the conservative commentator Rod Dreher tweeted a video of illegal immigrants overwhelming and overrunning a group of Texas National Guardsmen at the border. “This is jaw-dropping,” Dreher wrote. “It is an invasion. And the United States government does not care to stop it. Why?”

The answer to his question, unfortunately, is simple: because Trump. Every Democratic president before Biden has made at least a rhetorical pitch to halt illegal immigration and secure the southern border. Biden, by contrast, was forced by his own party to apologize to a murderer for having referred to him as “illegal” in his State of the Union address. Part of that was the effect of the intersectional language police, who are omnipresent and ruthlessly effective. A bigger part of it, though—and the answer to Dreher’s question—was the left’s insistence that illegal immigration is just fine and borders are imaginary and oppressive devices because Trump thinks otherwise. Trump wants a wall; therefore, the left wants “no borders.” Trump wants deportations; therefore, the left wants blanket amnesty. Whatever Trump wants, the left instinctively and unthinkingly wants the opposite.

It almost goes without saying that this is hardly the most reasonable or effective way to determine public policy.

The same, in many ways, applies to the situation with Russia and Ukraine. There are good and sound reasons to support the Ukrainian defense efforts. Likewise, there are innumerable sensible reasons to see Vladimir Putin as a threat to world peace and the global order and a moral monster. Unfortunately, the Biden Democrats don’t bother to make any of these. Putin allegedly helped Trump, and Trump allegedly likes and supports him, and that’s enough. Moreover, Trump tried to bully Ukraine; therefore, Ukraine must now receive undying American support. Any dissent from this line is, almost definitionally, traitorous.

When Trump was president and was pushing Operation Warp Speed, the Democrats were skeptical, if not downright hostile, to the idea of a COVID vaccine. Once Trump was out of office, however, and some of his supporters appeared hesitant about the vaccine, such behavior was vile, to the point of murderous. Suddenly, it was okay to hate, to discriminate against, and even to deny medical care to vaccine skeptics. The entire narrative was flipped on its head—again—because Trump!

Again, one needn’t be a Trump fan to understand just how damaging this is. The fundamental bifurcation of the nation into opposing camps is the unfortunate story of American politics in the twenty-first century. The fact that roughly half of the country now almost exclusively uses the thoughts, words, and deeds of one man as the arbiter of their own beliefs is as ridiculous as it is destructive.


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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: ROME, GEORGIA - MARCH 09: Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage a the conclusion of a campaign rally at the Forum River Center March 09, 2024 in Rome, Georgia. Both Trump and President Joe Biden are holding campaign events on Saturday in Georgia, a critical battleground state, two days before the its primary elections. A city of about 38,000, Rome is in the heart of conservative northwest Georgia and the center of the Congressional district represented by Rep. Majorie Taylor Green (R-GA). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)