Inside the Mind of the Conspiracy Theorist

A look back at ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’

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Credit: Ann Althouse

It is hard to write stuff that stays fresh, and that’s what makes Richard Hofstalder’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written in 1964, so impressive. We live, as everyone knows, in what feels like a high point of mainstream conspiracy theory in the United States. There’s nothing you can read today that better will describes the aesthetic or the distinct mindset of those who believe our country is about to be taken away from us, by them. The essay is, in its way, a tour of the mind of the conspiracy theorist.

Hofstadler, a professor of history at Columbia University, used the word “paranoid” because he felt “no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” But the essay was ultimately about the lasting power of the belief that some sinister cabal is in the process of taking over America, and the political purposes to which idea has been put. “The central image” wrote Hofstandler “is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.” Its adherents are taught to feel dispossessed. Their country “has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try and repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

It is easy to think that the widespread nature of conspiracy theories in our times is a fairly recent development. But The Paranoid Style makes it clear that this is not the case, for American political life has long served “as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” There were those, in the early 1800s, who thought the Bavarian illuminati were trying to gain control of the country. Others seriously believed in the dangers posed by the Free Masons, and by the 1850s it was the Catholics. Here’s a Texas newspaper in 1855:

“It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism….”

So it is, at least an enduring mindset. What Hofstadler captures best is its distinct causality — the worldview which takes conspiracy as the causal explanation for most historic events. “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style” he wrote “is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force,”of history one “set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power….”

The enemy is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.” And to fight such an enemy, “what is needed is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.” This tends to induce something quite key: a constant anxiety, a need to be doing something. The adherent “is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.”

Hofstalder’s historic approach caused him to reflect that the 20th century conspiracy theories differed from the 19th century on the origin of the threat. The 19th century paranoids warned of ill-defined threats from abroad. But in the 20th century, the threat became internal, encompassing figures like President Roosevelt, Secretaries of States and justices of the Supreme Court. If “their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies” he wrote “the modern radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.”

Likewise, I think it is fair to say that conspiracy theory has transformed in our time as well, in at least three ways. First, that frantic spirit, that living of life at a turning point, has had its commercial potential recognized and exploited fully. The fearful believer is no longer ruminating in his basement, or boring his family to tears, but instead clicking away on Facebook and Youtube, consuming hours of cable news every day, and perhaps buying overpriced gold bars, QAnon paraphernalia, and generally turning conspiracy theory into a good business. And if once the peddler of conspiracy theory lived a lonely life, confined to whomever he could corner, today the career of a professional conspiracy theorist can be reasonably lucrative, yielding a solid, middle-class existence. In this way, the aAttention economy has brought the paranoid style into its full flowering.

Consistent with this change in the economics, the ranks of the paranoid have broadened. InIf in 1964, they were an angry minority, the extreme radical right, but today form a much larger group, with left wing battalions as well. That broadening has promoted what would once be considered conspiracy theory into regular discourse, and indeed evocation of sinister theories in the public media has become so common as to barely elicit comment. For example, when the George Floyd protests erupted in the summer of 2020, Ruldoph Giuliani, once known as “America’s mayor” quickly went on television to connect the protests to jewish financier George Soros and antifa groups.

A third difference is that those who were, in the ’60s, considered right wing radicals are no longer actually dispossessed, for many have come to occupy positions of power in Government or in the media, including, of course, the President of the United States. This, of course poses a dilemma for a style that depends on being in hopeless struggle against some overwhelmingly powerful and sinister force, and much must be done to preserve the sense that, despite their powers, figures like the US President still face dark forces much greater than them.

That problem is relieved to some extent, by the idea that the enemy is so vast and terrifying that it must be eliminated entirely, and that victories must be complete and unqualified. That leads to inevitable failures which serve only to heighten the sense of urgency and the need to redouble one’s efforts. The modern day conspiracy theorist also choses not shadowy figures, but visible enemies who will not easily disappear, like the mainstream media, left wing college professors, or the ranks of those who wish to enter the country. The former can be constantly baited into combat and the latter blamed for anything bad. As this proceeds, the long run effect of the technique can divide the country into groups whose power and livelihood come to depend on fighting the other’s threats to the domestic way of life, like two orbiting electrons, in a strange kind of interdependence.

Finally, in its way, the paranoid style seems to have infected everyone to some degree. Who in this country doesn’t fear that that which is best about this nation is being taken away from us by “them?” I think most if not all Americans fear there is a threat to their way of life and to institutions held dear, and is convinced that the “other side” has access to strange powers and sources of influence that our side somehow lacks. That’s why perhaps the real change, since 1964, is the discovery of how few of us are relaxed when it comes to politics: compared with 1964, we are all paranoids now.

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