Paranoid politics is back – again

Jan 3, 2021

Paranoid politics always seem to be with us in some form or other. It has ebbed and flowed for centuries but in the past year, it has seemed more like a flood than a flow.

Indeed, around the world – from Trump to Orban, to Bolsonaro to Dutton-Morrison – conspiracy theories flourished in 2020.

“I’ll be back”, said Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 film The Terminator. Donald Trump is now using classic paranoid political conspiratorial claims about the recent election in a bid to do the same if not in January but in 2024.

The term paranoid politics was coined in a Harpers magazine article in November 1964 by Richard Hofstadter then a History Professor at Columbia.

In November 1963 he gave the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University. The Harpers article was an adaptation of that lecture and in 1964 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Anti-intellectualism in American life.

In the Harpers’ article Hofstadter wrote: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers,” citing the contemporary Goldwater campaign and movement as an example of how political leverage “can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

“But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. 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.”

Hofstadter carefully stated that he had neither the competence nor the desire to classify any current or past political figures as “lunatics’ however tempting (or accurate) that might be and argued that the paranoid style would not be relevant if it applied only to people with “profoundly disturbed minds.”

“It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant….of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good,” he said.

When we think about political history the concept is a powerful explanatory device. Just in the 20th century, we can look at societies which became paranoid about Asian immigration, communism, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals and a host of other groups or ideas.

McCarthyism in the US was a prime example of how the approach could convulse and pollute a nation. The imagined threat posed by Muslim terrorists masquerading as refugees fleeing to Australia is another.

What is common to them all is that they have been stoked by ambitious politicians, the media and interest groups who use the alleged threats to create fear justify everything from loyalty oaths to murder and genocide.

Just this year Senator Abetz channelled Joe McCarthy in a Senate hearing insisting that a Chinese witness disavow the Chines Communist Party. Donald Trump has certainly not read Hofstadter but his style – railing against immigrants, alleged electoral fraud and many of the other groups and individuals he has targeted – epitomises paranoid politics.

Successive LNP governments have encouraged paranoia about refugees, environmentalists, the Chinese, humanities students, the ABC and a long, long list of enemies.

On the other hand, many progressives and left-wingers have become paranoid about populism and populist leaders. They may argue they are not paranoid but rather realistic. However, if they are realistic they have failed to convert their realism into effective strategies to counter populist campaigns.

Indeed, there is a certain arrogance in progressives employing the term populist to criticise the people and ideas they fear rather than working out how to make their own policies more popular.

Moreover, modern-day fostering of populist paranoia has largely been made possible by the many, once progressive, parties such as Blair’s Labour and Clinton’s Democrats embracing much of the neo-liberal policies which have stoked contemporary populism.

Thomas Frank in his latest book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism tries to resuscitate the reputation of the 19th century Populists and contrasts them to modern-day populists. While his book is fascinating historically, it is hard to escape the reality that the 19th-century version of populism had its own paranoid delusions – particularly over the huge US 19th century debate about gold and silver.

Hofstadter in 1964 might have almost anticipated the problem in Frank’s argument when he cited a “manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party: as early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarrelling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.”

A corollary to paranoid thinking is millenarianism thinking which seems to have been with us since the proverbial birth of time. 500 years ago it was the Melchiorites in Munster; 40 years ago it was Jim Jones in Guyana; a thousand-odd years ago it was religious sects anticipating the Apocalypse as the year 1000 approached.

Hofstadter also drew on the research of Norman Cohn the great student of millennial sects in the first five centuries of the last millennium. Cohn believed there was a persistent style underpinned by preoccupations and fantasies. Cohn identified a pathology of fantasies involving: ‘the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissension, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque’.

Prescient what?

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