Every morning in elementary school, my classmates and I pledged allegiance to the flag, said a prayer for the conversion of Russia, then, before curling under our desks to practice avoiding being vaporized in an atomic blast, we prayed for Sen. Joe McCarthy to root the communists out of government.
“Tail Gunner Joe” believed that men high in government were conspiring “on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthy blamed Gen. George Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson for making us vulnerable “to Soviet intrigue from within and Russian military from without.” Kindred spirit Robert Welch (John Birch Society) believed John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower were communist agents based on evidence “beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Many of McCarthy’s and Welch’s supporters also believed that “fluoridation” was a Socialist plot designed to “rot out the brains of the community by introducing chemicals in the water supply in order to make people more vulnerable to socialist or communist schemes.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Richard Hofstadter references these events and others in his 1964 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter explains that this paranoid style has deep roots. For example, 19th century conspiracy theorists believed Catholics, especially Jesuits, were “prowling about” the U.S. “to disseminate Popery.” They believed Freemasons were “blasphemous, murderous, anti-Republican and anti-Christian” subversives.
The “paranoid style” trafficks in conspiracies, like McCarthy’s, that are “vast” and “gigantic.” It prophesies the imminent death of cultural and political orders. The enemy is always presented as ruthless and cunning. He “directs the public mind through ‘managed news’; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction; he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system.”
Hofstadter discusses four basic elements of the paranoid style:
n the prevalence of a sustained conspiracy;
n infiltration of subversive elements into top government officialdom who are “consistently selling out American interests”;
n a pervasive network of agents who have infiltrated “the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media”; and
n “Projection”: “A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy.” In order to combat their chimerical enemy, right-wing organizations elaborately and defensively mimic the very systems they oppose.
Fifty-five years after Hofstadter’s book, the paranoid style flourishes, especially in the right-wing media. “Birtherism,” “Benghazi,” “Hillary’s Emails,” and the “Deep State” have provided the fist-pumping musical scores for Rush, Alex and Laura. But they are all second fiddlers to their brassy one-note trumpeter, Sean Hannity.
Hannity himself provides an instructive template for illustrating Hofstadter’s criteria for the paranoid style.
n Prevalence of a Sustained Conspiracy: Hannity stated that the Mueller investigation was a product of the “Deep State” and that “major documents” will demonstrate that the Trump campaign was spied on by “treasonous and politically motivated law enforcement officials” who favored Hillary Clinton. He stated “if there is no investigation of the investigators, we lose the country.” Hannity believes, moreover, that conspiracies continue unabated as Congress plots a “coup” in the guise of impeachment.
n Infiltration of subversive elements into top government officialdom: Hannity, parroting Joe McCarthy, believes highly placed figures are everywhere in government: in the State Department, the Judiciary, the FBI, the CIA, even the White House, where they continue to threaten Trump’s presidency. Hannity believes “these people” are a clear and present danger to the country and should be jailed. Moreover, somewhere … somehow … the diabolical George Soros and his misspent billions are implicated.
n Pervasive network of agents from education, the press, religion, and the mass media: Corrosive forces operate everywhere in Hannity’s mind. He indicts “the media mob and the Democratic mob who have lied ...repeatedly,” warning that they will “face the justice” they deserve. Perhaps seeking a “cultural revolution,” he also indicts liberal professors for brainwashing students and infecting our universities with socialist propaganda.
n Projection: Conspiracy theorists ironically transform themselves into the phantom enemy they oppose. Hannity and other Fox pundits have infiltrated so deeply into the President’s office that they have become Trump whisperers, offering advice and shaping talking points. Moreover, fully sanctioned by Murdoch’s “managed news” (brainwashing?) empire, Hannity employs the paranoid style every day, snarling practiced rage to his mesmerized and duly horrified viewers.
The paranoid style diagnosed by Richard Hofstadter 55 years ago is a recurring feature of American politics. The latest conspiracy theories are the latest variations on the paranoid style — same choir, similar tunes. The danger with phantom conspiracy theories today is that they obscure truth and divert attention from ongoing, verifiable threats to our electoral system.
Life was simpler when all we had to worry about was fluoride eating our brains and turning us into socialists.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”