Tag Archives: paranoia

Political Paranoia

Awhile back, in one of his newsletters, Paul Krugman reminded us that we’ve always had lunacy in America. He was right–before the equation of vaccinations with (ahem!) both communism and fascism, the fluoridation of water was a favorite target. And I remember when the John Birch Society assured us that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” 

As Krugman pointed out, however, the difference between then and now is that the entire GOP has embraced bizarre theories like Trump’s “Big Lie.” Conspiracies are so mainstream in the Republican Party that, as he wrote, “These days you’re excommunicated from the Republican Party if you don’t embrace the Big Lie that the election was stolen, don’t denounce modestly center-left Democrats as the second coming of Stalin and, increasingly, don’t declare that mask mandates are the equivalent of the Holocaust and vaccines are a globalist plot to achieve mind control.”

The question of our time is: What has given “political paranoia” critical mass? Krugman didn’t offer an answer, and I certainly don’t have one.

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This seems to be a good time to revisit it.

Hofstadter was commenting on the right-wing of his time, and its success in nominating Barry Goldwater. (In the wake of Donald Trump, Goldwater seems eminently normal, whether one agrees or not with his political positions.) Explaining his choice of language, Hofstadter wrote

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

The essay included illuminating examples reaching back to 1855.

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

The examples–which he elaborates–are telling, but it’s the following paragraph that struck me. It could easily have been written this year.

The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, 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. 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; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

At their base, American grievances always come back to tribalism, and to threats posed by “the Other” to the world within which White Christian men are comfortable.

Ironically, it’s their refusal to accept a changing reality that is by far the biggest threat we face.

 

European Media Saying What American Media Won’t

In April of this year, I stumbled upon a publication called Euronews, and read the following lede from one of its “viewpoint” articles:

There has only been one headline worth printing since Donald Trump was elected president. That headline is “Donald Trump suffers from a dangerous incurable narcissistic disorder which makes him incapable of empathy and reason. He is a grave danger to the US and the world.”

Instead of stating this disturbing fact, the evidence for which is voluminous, the mainstream media have over the last three years led America down the rabbit holes of normalising him and trying to understand him as you would a psychologically healthy human being. But Donald Trump is not a psychologically healthy human being and reporting on him as if he were, empowers him and disempowers people of reason. Acknowledging his pathology is fundamental to reversing this imbalance.

The article made the point that an understanding of Trump’s “dangerously disordered mind” requires “joining the dots” between what the article identified as his narcissism, his paranoia and his incapacity to accept reality. The author went on to detail the symptoms of  each of those disorders and the elements of Trump’s behavior that “fit” the diagnoses.

In all fairness, there has been significant media emphasis in the U.S. on Trump’s malignant narcissism–but I will admit there has been less attention paid to the diagnosis of paranoia. And when we do start to connect–or “join”–the dots, it’s a pretty convincing one, and especially relevant to his horrendous approach to international relations.

Acute paranoia is characterised by a worldview in which other people are not only inherently untrustworthy, but also “out to get” the paranoid individual. Connecting those dots explains some otherwise confounding foreign policy behaviors:

Trump’s major foreign policy stances are consistent with such extreme paranoia. Trump’s attacks on membership organisations, such as NATO and the European Union, reflect a paranoid conviction that such alliances cannot be trusted and will serve only to rip off the United States, a view he has expressed repeatedly. Trump’s affinity for violent authoritarian leaders is also consistent with the interpretation that they are more in tune with Trump’s own narcissistic and paranoid worldview, than the “weak” leaders of America’s major democratic allies.

According to this analysis, Trump’s psychopathology simply doesn’t allow intelligence information incompatible with his worldview to be processed. Lacking the ability to fact-check the intelligence provided to him–or for that matter, to recognize or fact-check the reality within which he resides– he fills that space with “fact-free conspiracies that fit with his emotional needs.”

The author’s conclusion is depressing–and undoubtedly quite accurate:

For those looking to November’s election as the safety stop that will secure all our futures, Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Tooles has issued a prescient warning: “As the cost of [Trump’s] terrible failures of public duty and common decency becomes ever more starkly evident, he will revert in his re-election campaign to an explanation of the [COVID-19] disaster, not as a consequence of his own incompetence and contempt but as a punishment inflicted on the United States for its failure to build his wall, keep out foreigners, and crush the enemy within. Like a medieval quack making a profit in times of plague, he will offer a stricken people an ever-higher dose of a toxic cure.”

It is long past time to acknowledge the truth that has been staring us in the face all along – Donald Trump is clearly mentally disordered and poses a grave danger to us all.

The interval between now and January 21st will be incredibly dangerous. And in the absence of any discernible Republican integrity, I have no idea what we can do about it.

 

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.

 

The New Powerlessness

Conservative pundit Bret Stephens recently had a column in the New York Times, cleverly titled “The Bonfire of the Sanities.”

Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is often cited but less often read, which is a shame because the landmark 1964 essay helps explain our times.

As an example of contemporary paranoia, Stephens recounted a speech in which Senator Ron Johnson had gone full conspiracy theorist, before it turned out that a text message he had found so suspicious was an office in-joke between two FBI agents who were having an affair.  Johnson was also forced to admit he had no idea what a phrase within the message referenced, “not that it prevented him from painting it in the most sinister colors. Maybe there was a scavenger hunt for Hillary’s missing emails.”

I wouldn’t bother posting about this particular bit of GOP embarrassment–it is only one of  many, and Stephens lists several other “breaking news” items that later turned out to be equally bogus, but I was struck by this observation:

None of this would have surprised Hofstadter, whose essay traces the history of American paranoia from the Bavarian Illuminati and the Masons to New Dealers and Communists in the State Department. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” What better way to describe a Republican Party that thinks America has more to fear from a third-tier F.B.I. agent in Washington who doesn’t like the president than it does from a first-tier K.G.B. agent in Moscow who, for a time at least, liked the president all too well?

Then again, Hofstadter might have been surprised to find that the party of conspiracy is also the party of government. The paranoid style, he noted, was typically a function of powerlessness. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

As Stephens points out–and as we all know–the GOP currently controls all three branches of government, and then some: Robert Muller is a Republican. Jeff Sessions is a Republican. Etc. Surely the GOP is not powerless!

Except, it is.

Despite control of the government, the party cannot govern. It cannot head off standoffs like the recent shut-down. When its lawmakers make a deal–like the recent DACA agreement brokered by Lindsay Graham and Dick Durbin–they can’t predict whether their lunatic President will accept it.

Powerlessness, it turns out, is not solely a function of losing elections. There are a lot of reasons for the dysfunction that has turned the federal government into an exaggerated version of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight–this blog has suggested a number of them. And although he has been a mighty contributor to GOP fecklessness, Trump is less a reason than a consequence.

When nothing is working properly, people look for a reason–usually, they look for someone to blame. When there is no one handy, they suspect conspiracies. They develop paranoia.

The principal lesson of paranoia is the ease with which politically aroused people can mistake errors for deceptions, coincidences for patterns, bumbling for dereliction, and secrecy for treachery. True conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal. The failure to know the difference, combined with the desire for a particular result, is what accounts for the paranoid style.

“Conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal.” Or, as a friend of mine used to say when we were all in City Hall: incompetence explains so much more than conspiracy.

Armed and Very Dangerous

The recent shoot-out in Waco, Texas, prompts me to share some observations about the ubiquity of guns in America, and the near-religious fervor with which an unrestricted right to bear arms is defended. (I’m well aware that I may regret writing this; my only previous foray into the issue, on this blog, prompted responses that were by far the most uncivil and threatening I have ever received. And I used to run Indiana’s ACLU.)

A couple of caveats: Perfectly reasonable people may have different opinions about the purpose and reach of the Second Amendment, and what restrictions on gun ownership are both socially prudent and constitutional. Many responsible people own firearms, for a variety of eminently defensible reasons.

This blog isn’t about those people.

In fact, even though this post was triggered by the motorcycle gang violence in Waco, it isn’t intended to be directly responsive to that event, either; rather, you might think of it as a meditation on America’s inability to approach even the most reasonable discussions of gun rights and public safety with anything other than hysteria and hyperbole.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 1968, for example, President Johnson signed a sweeping national gun control law; in 1993, Congress passed the Brady Act. There have been others.

But during the past few decades, these federal laws have been substantially weakened and the gun lobby has advanced multiple state-level initiatives expanding gun “rights” well beyond what my generation considered reasonable– measures to permit concealed weapons, to allow people to take weapons into businesses (including bars and despite the objections of the property owners), and to invalidate campus rules against weapons. Iowa even passed a measure allowing people who are blind to obtain gun permits.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this landscape has been the growth of so-called “open carry” laws. Want to sling your AK47 over your shoulder when you go to the grocery? Sure thing!  In the wake of passage of these laws, groups of heavily armed men have “exercised their constitutional rights” by showing up in the aisles of establishments like Target and Walmart.

These displays of machismo are not unconnected to the (increasingly bizarre) conspiracy theories that have mushroomed in the wake of President Obama’s election. “Obama is going to confiscate our guns!”  “Jade Helm is a plot—Obama is planning to bring in the U.N. and take over Texas!”

Racism is clearly a factor in these and similar conspiracies being promoted in the more fetid precincts of the Internet, but racism doesn’t explain all of the paranoia.

Fear does.

We live in a time of dramatic and unprecedented social change, with a corresponding loss of what scholars call agency. Agency is personal efficacy, confidence that we are in charge of our own lives, the masters of our own fates, in possession of a measure of control over what happens to us.

Americans wake up every morning to a world that is less familiar and more disorienting; a world resistant to attempts at control. Meanwhile, the Internet inundates us with evidence that our social institutions—especially but not exclusively government—cannot be trusted. People who’ve been told their whole lives that they’ll do well if they work hard and play by the rules—most of  whom have dutifully proceeded to work hard and play by the rules—have seen their wages stagnate and their life prospects dim.

Some Americans respond to this social landscape by “opting out,” by retreating from civic life. Others– frightened people trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world– take refuge in “explanations” for their distress: a War on Christians, welfare mothers, Sharia law…  At the extreme, folks with paranoid tendencies believe their lives depend upon their ability to arm themselves against the “enemy,” the United Nations, immigrants, terrorists, the federal government….and especially, the terrifying unknown.

So they swagger down the aisles of the local Target with guns over their shoulders and strapped to their hips, and tee-shirts that say “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Sad. And very dangerous.