The Paranoid Style: Rereading Richard Hofstadter in the Aftermath of January 6

July 13, 2021   •   By Bennett Parten

IT ISN’T ALL that hard to explain what happened on January 6. The proof reads right off the page. At a rally with thousands of his supporters, President Donald Trump told his people to march to the Capitol; his people went to the Capitol. His son and campaign surrogate Donald Trump Jr. told them to fight; they fought. The case for incitement is on record; or as Trump adherents repeated ad nauseam during the last impeachment: “Read the Transcript!” Yet what is much harder to explain and what future historians are likely to puzzle over is exactly how we got here — how so many Americans could not only believe conspiracies as loony as #StopTheSteal and QAnon, but could also believe them so fervently that they stormed the Capitol, ransacked the halls of our highest offices, and carried out acts of hooliganism that killed five Americans and injured countless more.


Richard Hofstadter, a midcentury American historian and public intellectual, gives us a place to start. In his “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964) — the lead essay in a book by the same name — Hofstadter offered an early diagnosis of the type of conspiratorial politics that exploded on the steps of the United States Capitol. He called it a “paranoid style,” and in naming it, began the process of trying to understand it — of putting it under historical scrutiny and identifying its root causes and consequences. But to be clear, the paranoid part was not a clinical pathology. Rather, what mattered most was the style part. He likened it to something being described as “baroque” or “mannerist.” The paranoid style reflected a way of seeing and doing politics, which meant that it was capable of being studied and eventually understood.


Hofstadter felt compelled to write because he saw a version of the paranoid style rising in his own time; if January 6 has taught us anything, it’s that we are now living in the long arc of its creation.


¤


Hofstadter tells us that, at its core, the paranoid style uses conspiracy to engage in subversion. The political paranoiac can’t stomach society as it is and thus seeks to destroy it under the guise of some looming threat: a deep state, antifa, migrant caravans, transgender bathrooms, an international pedophile ring. Perceived persecution runs deep, and those taken with the paranoid style channel their victimhood by believing the world is one vast conspiracy. But here is the key idea: it is not just personal grievance. The paranoid style is the paranoid style because it manages to take victimhood and transmit those feelings of personal injury onto the nation’s fate. One person’s paranoia thus becomes an attack on a culture or a way of life, turning a lone loony into a proud member of a “silent majority” — a collective firewall against something that needs no firewall.


Why? Hofstadter had a couple ideas. For one, he believed that American society was increasingly rootless. Homogeneous communities were becoming more heterodox, especially as the nation grew more ethnically diverse; people picked up and moved, leaving old communities behind; and the country was — and still is — massive, with different regions and localities maturing with their own values and beliefs. As important, the national standard of living had risen rapidly. In just a few generations, people had gone from eking out an existence off the land to microwaving dinners in manicured middle-class homes, which redefined what politics was all about.


This last part is the most important. According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style possessed a particular staying power because by the mid-20th century, politics had shifted from a matter of competing interests — “Who gets what, when, how?” — to a matter of one’s own self-definition. He believed that people now saw themselves in politics, which turned the political field into a great “sounding board” for one’s “identities, values, fears, and aspirations.” The personal had become political; the political was now personal.


Hofstadter is perhaps his most prescient in his use of the term status. In a way, the term is a holdover from his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Reform (1955). In it, he argued that, as an impulse, turn-of-the-century progressivism ran through WASPy, old-stock Americans who claimed the mantle of reform as a way to assuage their “status anxiety” — their fear of falling behind in a new and modernizing United States awash with an ever-expanding professional class. In a book chock-full of provocative and field-defining claims — including an argument that 1890s Populists were nothing but a bunch of hayseed antisemites drunk on their own misguided dream of an agrarian past — his point about status anxiety became one of his most widely debated and well-remembered ideas.


Hofstadter struck a similar chord in reference to the paranoid style, except in this work he drew on a slightly different meaning of status. Remember, he was writing at a time when our political language didn’t include things like “identity politics” or the “culture wars.” Yet he wrote that status could very well be replaced by terms such as “cultural politics” or “symbolic politics.” Still, regardless of terminology, what he considers status politics is a particular type of politics whereby groups find prestige in publicly rallying behind their values through efforts like the Thin Blue Line flag and Blue Lives Matter, bathroom bills, the 1776 Commission, and anthem protests. It’s a politics of projection, and to Hofstadter’s main point, it turns politics into a place where people find self-worth.


One of the most debilitating elements of status politics, as Hofstadter saw it, is that it trades political interest for pure emotion, which makes it almost impervious to policy and reduces serious questions of political difference to guttural reactions: “Owning the libs.” “Fuck your feelings.” “Fake news!” “Lock her up!” Even worse, because such a politics avoids policy, its most adroit spokesmen have little incentive to effecting positive change. Instead, they pride themselves on negating incursions and focus their political goals on acts of prohibition, effectively limiting the range of political possibility. This style of politics, if allowed to fester, destroys society as we know it — not in a clap of smoke or a blaze of bullets but by letting it slowly wither on the vine.


¤


Born in 1916, Richard Hofstadter was one of the foremost historians of his generation. A Columbia PhD and later a member of the school’s history faculty for over 20 years, he thrived at untangling political ideas; his writing — sharp, incisive, and accessible to a broad audience — brought him fame. Perhaps his best-known work is The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), a synthetic and largely biographical account of the shared ideas underlying American politics. The book won him a wide following and established his central place in the consensus school of American historical writing.


To be clear, Hofstadter never saw the paranoid style as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. It applied to both sides of the political spectrum, and in both the essay and the larger book, he drew historical parallels with a number of American movements. There was the Anti-Masonic Movement in 1820s, which believed that secret societies (the Masons in particular) sought to control the United States government. In the 1930s, Father Coughlin, a priest from Detroit, spewed antisemitic conspiracies through the airwaves of his nationally syndicated radio show. And lest we forget, anti-Catholicism, or fears of a vast papist conspiracy, had always existed in American politics. The point, for Hofstadter, was that elements of the paranoid style had been a recurring theme throughout American history, and he expected it would remain a constant force in political life.


Still, he recognized that, as of the 1950s and ’60s, things had clearly changed. Whereas those earlier movements had all been mediated or controlled and eventually dealt with by the existing party structure, conspiratorial forces on the right threatened an internal takeover of the Republican Party. He called them “pseudo-conservatives.” These were not conservatives in the traditional sense of the term, nor were they your typical business-minded Republicans. Instead, these were members of a new conservative movement that didn’t want to conserve American society so much as undermine it. As these new conservatives saw the country, the entire postwar order had been built in the image of the New Deal, which they regarded as little more than a liberal exercise in state-planning. If allowed to persist, this new order, they believed, would fall down the slippery slope and arrive at its destined end point — state-sponsored socialism, if not one-party totalitarianism.


In hindsight, it is unclear how much was hyperbole and how much the pseudo-conservatives actually believed their own Stalin-inspired fever dreams. Nonetheless, these new pseudo-conservatives used the looming socialist menace as a pretense for waging an all-out war on the liberal consensus at the heart of midcentury United States. They hated Eisenhower, largely because despite being a Republican and a “small-c” conservative to boot, Ike kept much of the New Deal order intact, thus dividing the party. Old-time Republicans like Robert A. Taft and Nelson Rockefeller attempted to hold the line. Meanwhile, movement conservatives, led by the eventual kingmaker William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the National Review, sought to take over the party, purge it of its most flaccid members, and recreate it as an avowedly conservative party. The result was Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, a loss that history tells us wasn’t a defeat as much as a preview. The big breakout came with the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Then the Tea Party in 2010. So on and so forth. The conservative insurgency continues to evolve.


Yet, even as it evolves, it retains its central calculus. As Hofstadter identified way back in 1964, the modern right has conspiratorial thinking coded into its DNA. Fear of a permanent liberal order has since turned into fears that any federal program aimed at bettering the welfare of its citizens constitutes a step toward state control. So it was then, and so it is today. The only difference is that in Hofstadter’s time, this nascent conservative movement failed to control the party. It hadn’t yet defined the parameters of our politics, and it hadn’t yet cannibalized the Republican Party and all its more liberal members. The movement was still young — so young, in fact, that though Hofstadter expected the new conservatism to become what he described as one of the “long-waves of the twentieth century,” and he believed that it, too, could be mediated and controlled. January 6 proved otherwise.


¤ 


The Paranoid Style in American Politics isn’t an It Can’t Happen Here or a Nineteen Eighty-Four — it’s not a book that ominously warns of potential peril. It’s especially not one of those works presaging the possibility of an American demagogue. It’s a learned study. Some of Hofstadter’s claims don’t hold up. Most do. And his fundamental description of the paranoid style reads as prescient and as relevant today as ever. As he wrote, the paranoid style casts conspiracy not as a singular plot or occurrence, but as “the motive force” in history, which makes history and conspiracy indistinguishable. When this happens, elections won’t do, town council meetings don’t matter, and only something as drastic as overthrowing a sitting government can stop the conspiracy, or conspiracies, that surround us. Someone has to be there forever “manning the barricades of civilization,” to quote one of his more memorable lines.


It’s easy to see those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 as fringe members of the Republican Party, as Trump voters but not representative of the Republican Party as a whole. Yet doing so misses the conspiratorial thinking that binds them both. In 2016, Michael Anton, a former Bush official, published an essay he called “The Flight 93 Election,” which made the case for a Trump presidency by equating a Clinton win to al-Qaeda hijacking the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Conservatives had a choice, he argued. They could either storm the cockpit (that is, vote for Trump) or not vote and ensure a Clinton win, which would ruin the country beyond repair. To up the ante, Anton acknowledged that “[y]ou may die anyway” — meaning the Republican Party may lose or destroy itself — but “if you don’t try, death is certain.” Someone must man the barricades, or else a President Clinton may bring the socialist menace through the White House door. We all know what they chose.


For his part, Trump operated with such political force within the party because he commanded Anton’s fear, amplified it, and browbeat fellow Republicans with it, all while perfecting another of the paranoid style’s characteristic traits: as Hofstadter pointed out, the paranoid style concocts its own base fabrications, but it works best by taking some defensible claim and making profound leaps in logic. Yes, mail-in ballots pose some security risk, but that doesn’t mean the election was fraudulent. Yes, there is a robust government bureaucracy, but it hardly amounts to a nefarious deep state out to do the president in. These massive leaps in logic are just the kinds of things that led to January 6. No, supposed “irregularities” do not equal fraud. And no, Mike Pence can’t stop a procedural vote from happening, even if it is technically a vote. By helping his supporters make these leaps from the defensible to the absurd, Trump parroted the paranoid style from the bully pulpit of the oval office.


¤


If only Hofstadter had forewarned us of potential doom. As it is, he offers no way to avoid the collapse into paranoia — no prediction, no solution, no guidebook back to sanity. If anything, history gives us the answer we don’t want — that paranoia is an American fact, and that we must try to rein it in. After January 6, it’s obvious that we’re failing, that too many of our elected officials aren’t responsible leaders, that our parties can’t mitigate the problem, and that our politics have regressed to the point that so many Americans can no longer distinguish what’s real and what’s not.


Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964. Television news was in its infancy, the internet was years from even being an idea, and no one could have imagined a thing called “social media.” Moreover, the conservative insurgency had yet to fully rise. Reagan performed in Westerns, the Tea Party meant Boston in 1773, and Trump was but a rich kid piling up Vietnam deferments while still a freshman at Fordham. In other words, the paranoid style was still only a style. You could still distinguish the cooks and cranks from the responsible politicians and old-time patricians. Hofstadter reads so dissatisfying now in the aftermath of January 6 because we’ve seen how far we’ve come and are left with a chilling thought: if this isn’t the bottom, what is?


¤


Bennett Parten is a PhD candidate in History at Yale University. His writing has appeared in We’re History, The History New Network, and The Washington Post.


¤


Featured image: “Stop The Steal” by Chad Davis is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.


Banner image: “Stop The Steal” by Tyler Merbler is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.