Dispatches from the Archives

On the Trail of the Paranoid Style

by guest contributor Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

By Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

An astute sense of timing has undoubtedly guided the Library of America (LOA) publishing house in recently deciding to reissue Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” as part of a volume that collects his mid-career writings and that has been edited by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. After all, the United States is currently in the throes of an unusually consequential electoral campaign and, with the mantras of the “deep state” and “fake news” still ringing in voters’ ears, it is not a stretch to claim that, in some sense, the paranoid style is itself one of the issues on the ballot. In fact, this unsettling situation  mirrors the circumstances under which Hofstadter in 1964 originally presented his essay to the American reading public. In an introductory paragraph that uses broad brushstrokes to sketch the profile of a distinctive form of political irrationality, Hofstadter also reveals a willingness not only to get specific but to do so in ways that were highly topical. He does this by pointing to the “Goldwater movement” and the attendant “animosities and passions” (3) that made this movement, the most striking, contemporary manifestation of the eccentricity he was striving to comprehend.

This reference to the presidential campaign fronted by the Republican senator from Arizona also served another purpose. It alerted Hofstadter’s readers to the way in which the paranoid style, although subsisting mostly at the fringes of American politics, could at times come frighteningly close to its command posts. Liberal-minded readers could nonetheless partake of a collective sigh of relief when they opened the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine that contained “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”; in this same month, Goldwater was trounced at the polls by the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet, recalling this context forces us to note how the alignment of 2020 with 1964 contains a jarring inversion: in the current contest, incumbency is on the side of the candidate who is recognized by not a few commentators as the paranoid style’s most recent avatar. The nightmare scenario that haunted Hofstadter in 1964, namely that this pathology might entrench itself at the heart of political power, has since become the reality to which Americans (and non-Americans like myself) wake up each day.

Of course, all of this only holds true if one agrees that President Trump’s politics really do bear the hallmark signs of the paranoid style. There are valid grounds on which one might call such a characterization into question. Hofstadter spoke of the compulsion under which adherents of the paranoid style labored in “leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overreaching, consistent theory.” (36-37) Such a need for coherence seems lacking in Trump, who, as the occasion suits, denounces “deep state” bureaucrats who undermine his administration, journalists who peddle “fake news,” Democrats who hate America, Antifa activists who spread anarchy, and the Chinese who first concocted the hoax of global warming and then blighted the world with a pandemic. There seems to be no prospect of these vituperations ever congealing into a coherent account that precisely delineates the culprits behind America’s alleged fall from greatness. Here some of the recent observations made by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in their book A Lot of People are Saying about a new strain of conspiracism—“conspiracy [theory] without the theory”—seem pertinent

Yet even before the question of applicability is addressed, it is necessary to take a step back and consider those voices who have raised more fundamental questions about the validity of Hofstadter’s concept. Measured in terms of uptake and longevity, Hofstadter’s coinage seems to qualify as a resounding success. This success has, however, been fueled not only by the recurrence of movements and moments whose profile seems to match the diagnosis put forward by Hofstadter. It is also, perversely, a reflection of the contentiousness of the approach he adopted by introducing a psychological diagnosis into the realm of political debate in the first place. This controversy plays its own part in ensuring that the paranoid style remains a “live issue.” As a result, two attitudes have consistently come into play—and into conflict—in the discussions spawned by Hofstadter’s essay: on the one hand, there are those who are happy to invoke his concept whenever the political body is convulsed by a new fit of unhinged fearmongering; and on the other hand, there are those who challenge the concept’s legitimacy and argue, not without some justification, that it effectively gives license to a liberal orthodoxy to dismiss alternative viewpoints by casting aspersions on the mental state of those who express them.

Amid this controversy, one assertion is relatively uncontroversial: to the degree that one feels compelled to take a position on these issues, one should attempt to take an informed position. As such, it would be helpful to reach a more nuanced appreciation of what Hofstadter was actually trying to do when he originally posited the “paranoid style” as a term denoting a collection of recurring patterns of speech, action, and agitation within American political history. With this in mind, for some time now I have been collecting pieces of evidence that help us to reconstruct more fully the story of how Hofstadter alighted upon this particular collocation. The results of this research form the basis of a forthcoming article in JHI.

Beatrice and Richard Hofstadter, circa 1958-59. Photograph courtesy of the SUNY-Buffalo Archives.

The first major point is that the 1964 political contest between Johnson and Goldwater was not the original historical context within which the concept of the paranoid style first emerged. Eliminating this context from contention requires us to do nothing more than consult the re-printing of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in the 1965 book to which the essay lent its title. Collating other essays that Hofstadter had written over the preceding years, the book prefaced these texts with remarks on their specific motivations and publishing histories. The note for “The Paranoid Style” is particularly succinct and confines itself to informing readers that the essay was based on the Herbert Spencer lecture that Hofstadter had delivered in Oxford in November 1963. In fact, there was an ominous quality to the exact date because of its proximity to another event that unsettled Americans, in particular those of a liberal persuasion—and indeed did so some months before they were troubled by the prospect of a Goldwater Presidency. After delivering the lecture in Oxford on November 21, Hofstadter spent the following evening at a dinner party in Cambridge with colleagues he had come to know from the sabbatical he had spent there as a fellow of Gonville and Caius College in the 1958-59 academic year (see the image above of Hofstadter with his wife Beatrice in one of the college’s courtyards). The levity occasioned by the reunion abruptly gave way to consternation as news arrived that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

By the time that Hofstadter came to reprint the essay in the 1965 book, he saw fit to integrate a reference to the conspiratorial speculation beginning to accrete around Kennedy’s assassination; obsession with the mystery of Dealey Plaza would indeed go on to engender new iterations of the paranoid style. Yet none of this is relevant to the attempt to understand why and how Hofstadter had arrived in England in 1963 with the manuscript of a lecture documenting his awareness of how, long before Kennedy’ assassination and Goldwater’s candidacy, American politics had been visited by frequent bouts of enthusiasm for a political style that traded in notions of conspiratorial subversion and was flavored by a sense of apocalyptic urgency. Why in 1963, at a time when post-war liberalism was riding high and was buoyed by its personification in a charismatic president, was Hofstadter preoccupied with what he called the paranoid style?

Of course, Hofstadter had never been under any illusion that, since the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the collapse of his anti-Communist crusade, liberalism’s preeminence might go unchallenged forever, or that the ultra-conservative American Right had been vanquished once and for all. In the years since McCarthyism had offered Hofstadter a first real-time, up-close encounter with the mode of politics he later denoted as the paranoid style, he remained aware that the resentments McCarthy had so effectively channeled continued to circulate, perhaps not over the nation’s cultural and psychic highways but certainly along its more obscure byways. By the early 1960s, media reports of organizations such as the John Birch Society induced a growing awareness among liberals that the American Right was once more stirring from its post-McCarthy slumber. This awareness informed the decision taken in 1962 by some of Hofstadter’s colleagues to reissue and update The New American Right, their earlier response to McCarthyism. Hofstadter contributed to the reissue, appearing now under the slightly revised title The Radical Right, by supplementing his earlier essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” with a postscript that explored possible revisions to his earlier interpretation based on the observations he had made of the American Right in its post-McCarthy manifestations.

There was, however, most likely another, more narrowly biographical reason for why Hofstadter chose to use the invitation to Oxford in 1963 as an opportunity to discuss the paranoid style. Effectively, he was picking up from where he had last left off in England by reprising a conceptual approach to the American Right that he had first experimented with in a BBC radio lecture from 1959. Recorded shortly before his return home to New York after his Cambridge sabbatical, the lecture, now published for the first time in the LOA volume edited by Professor Wilentz, demonstrates that the reflections that incubated Hofstadter’s notion of the paranoid style actually revolved around McCarthyism and the American Right in its moment of post-McCarthy retrenchment.

One reason why this discovery is important is that the focus on McCarthy helps to clarify the specific kind of work that Hofstadter assigned to “style” in constructing his new concept. This is because Hofstadter was of the opinion that, despite all the bluster of his grandstanding, McCarthy was not overly invested in anti-Communism as an intellectual position or an ideological commitment. In Hofstadter’s own words:

Oddly enough, I don’t think McCarthy himself took most of the right wing views very seriously. He was a complete moral nihilist, playing the political game for the fun of it: he could never understand that real moral issues were involved or that some people took seriously what for him was simply a problem in crafty manoeuver.

This same opportunism could not be attributed to the subsequent devotees of the American Right, who tended to the flames of the movement after McCarthy’s campaign had ignominiously fizzled out. Those who signed up to the John Birch Society and those who were emotionally and politically invested in Goldwater’s candidacy were not acting out of opportunism. It was also not possible to use this charge to belittle Goldwater himself, whom Hofstadter saw as a “true believer” who only begrudgingly made concessions to the norms of moderation and compromise, observance of which was seen by many as a precondition for any prospect of electoral success in the competition for the presidency.

This brings us back to the current incumbent in the White House. In Michael Wolff’s Siege: Trump under Fire, a successor to the journalist’s earlier Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the following summation of the president’s mental character was distilled from the reports of staff and co-workers in the White House: Trump “wasn’t paranoid. He was self-pitying and melodramatic, but not on guard.” (55) Such a diagnosis does not, however, undercut the acknowledgment of Trump’s mastery of the paranoid style. This point has been appreciated by the political scientist Roderick P. Hart: “No matter what Mr. Trump’s own mental state might be, the more relevant point is that he performs paranoia brilliantly, selling its depredations to others.” (134)    

Hart’s observation is consonant with Hofstadter’s insistence that the expression “paranoid style” was not meant “in a clinical sense”; rather, he was “borrowing a clinical term for other purposes” (3). The historian Leo P. Ribuffo has echoed a frequent criticism of Hofstadter’s conceptual innovation when, in a 2017 statement on “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style’ in American (Intellectual) Politics,” he asked in a tone betraying a note of exasperation: “if ‘paranoid’ was not being used ‘in a clinical sense,’ why use the word at all?” However, Hofstadter’s point was that, as a pattern of perceiving the world and acting in it, paranoia need not be rooted in a biochemical imbalance in the brain (as a neurologist might claim) or disturbances in psychosexual development (as the Freudian psychologist could suggest). Rather, its patterns repeat themselves on the level of rhetorical tropes and the accompanying performative postures. This becomes most obvious when we consider a figure such as McCarthy in whom, in Hofstadter’s estimation, there was a disconnect between the private personality and the public self-aggrandizement. In cases where there is such a disconnect, the paranoid style as a style truly comes into its own.

This insight is present in the 1959 BBC radio lecture, over which McCarthy casts a long shadow—his name appears on half of the pages of the original transcript. It becomes somewhat more diluted and more abstract in Hofstadter’s later presentations, in which McCarthyism was absorbed into a long lineage of the paranoid style’s former and subsequent instantiations. It is, however, an insight worth holding onto for those who wish to deploy the concept of the paranoid style in their attempts to understand what Americans have experienced under the current president for the last four years—and what (at the time of writing) they might be experiencing for some time yet, should Trump win re-election or should the paranoid style, after attaching itself to the highest office in the land, demonstrate an unwillingness to let go of it.

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (IRCI) of the Australian Catholic University (ACU). His interests range from anti-Jesuit polemic through radical currents of Enlightenment thought to modern intellectual history.

Featured Image: From cover of Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, First Edition (Knopf, 1964).

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