A Conspiracy So Dense

The dubious half-life of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”


At the outset of the Trump era, historian Leo Ribuffo declared that “Richard Hofstadter’s famous catchphrase, the ‘paranoid style in American politics,’ should be buried with a stake in its heart.” It’s safe to say that this directive has gone unheeded. Hofstadter’s controversial thesis about the primordial origins of the McCarthyite Red Scare has, if anything, been revived with renewed fervor. On the surface, it’s not hard to see why: as Donald Trump and the far-right insurgency behind him spiral off into ever higher levels of conspiratorial speculation about the “witch hunt” of the Russia probe and the opaque yet sinister operations of the “deep state,” many bewildered liberal pundits have prescribed therapy for the body politic.

Public intellectuals on the left borrow the “paranoid style” model, in its broad outlines, to help explain Trump, whom they see as “the pinnacle of paranoid politics and American idiocy,” as Salon scribe Conor Lynch put it. And many Trump defenders on the right cite some of the more hyperbolic criticism provoked by the president as proof that the paranoid style is alive and well among Trump opponents. Hofstadter—especially Hofstadter reduced to a catchphrase, his arguments shorn of their nuances and complexities—still speaks to a wide variety of American journalists and political junkies.

To get at the stubborn, bipartisan appeal of Hofstadter’s fifty-five-year-old thesis, it’s critical to revisit the cultural moment that gave rise to the elite-baiting, conspiracy-mongering turn of the modern right—as well as to Hofstadter’s own forensic efforts to explain it as a bona fide pathology lurking in the deeper recesses of the American civic mind.

Con Jobs

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” created a sensation when it was first published as a free-standing essay in Harper’s. And no liberal public intellectual of the moment was better positioned to spark this new phase of debate. When Hofstadter offered his famous thesis in 1963, he was already one of the most highly regarded and versatile scholars of United States history. He had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his work comparing the Populists, Progressives, and New Dealers, The Age of Reform, and would go on to win a second Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life eight years later. In addition to these works, he was best known for his 1948 classic, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, and for his essay on McCarthyism, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” in an influential 1955 collection edited by sociologist Daniel Bell called The New American Right. A professor at Columbia, Hofstadter was also one of the most distinguished members of the so-called New York intellectuals—a group of thinkers who shaped scholarly debate and tried to propose solutions to the political problems of their day.

In the early 1950s, Hofstadter, like many American liberals, grew deeply concerned about Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to expose American Communists in the federal government—a genuine political witch hunt, as opposed to Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump.

Hofstadter and his fellow intellectuals asked how it was possible that so many Americans on the right had lost their minds.

McCarthy was a homegrown American demagogue with pronounced fascist leanings—a blowhard and a liar who won election in 1946 in part by fabricating stories about his service in World War II; in 1950, he launched his high-profile bid to denounce and imprison alleged Soviet spies in the U.S. government. None of his charges were borne out—though there had been some Communist spies in the government, McCarthy did not discover any of them. But that was of secondary concern to the fire-breathing senator. The activities of McCarthy’s Senate inquisition, together with hearings on the Communist menace conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, kept the attention of the press riveted on McCarthy and his crusade, and the national leadership of the Republican Party largely cowed by the McCarthyite inquisition. At one point on the Senate floor, McCarthy even suggested that President Harry Truman’s highest foreign policy advisers, Secretary of Defense George Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, were Soviet agents: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy suggested. “This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

McCarthy asked how it was possible for the United States to have lost its atomic monopoly; in response, Hofstadter and his fellow intellectuals asked how it was possible that so many Americans on the right had lost their minds. What on earth had prompted American voters to support this liar, and why were the nation’s allegedly conservative leaders too terrified to question him? As heirs to what Hofstadter’s contemporary, Louis Hartz, confidently pronounced as the unchallenged liberal character of America’s national political tradition, these scholars decided the American right must have gone from a peevish minority persuasion—a set of “irritable mental gestures” in Lionel Trilling’s haughty formulation—into a full-blown psychological disorder. Many of the authors behind this new effort were sociologists or psychologists who used social scientific theory to try to understand their political moment. Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Nathan Glazer analyzed the ideas and origins of the modern American right via the canons of social-psychological inquiry. Because Hofstadter was a historian, he looked for answers in the American past.

Status Update

Hofstadter first grappled with the sources of McCarthyism in his essay on “pseudo-conservatism,” which was initially published in 1954 and then republished in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. In the piece, he borrowed from the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno to argue that the so-called conservatives of postwar America were actually “pseudo-conservatives” who shared a deep but unacknowledged hatred of American values and institutions. A scholar who was less scrupulous and less concerned about precise definitions might have used the term “fascist” to describe them. But Hofstadter actually attributed the more confrontational mood on the American right to a broader, retrograde strain in American politics. These pseudo-conservatives were motivated by what Hofstadter called “status politics”—namely, the fear that these legatees of a small-town reform tradition were losing their privileged position as civic arbiters in the diverse, volatile social environment of the United States.

Hofstadter expanded his arguments about status anxiety in his next major work, The Age of Reform, which searched for the roots of what he called “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time” in an unlikely precursor: the Populist and Progressive movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The Populists in particular, he argued, won support from precisely the same type of backward-looking rural Americans who later supported McCarthy. In Hofstadter’s stories of the American past, the participants in many American social movements were inspired not by economic oppression, as the previous generation of historians had argued, but set on the path to political insurgency via the anxieties arising from their perceived sociocultural decline.

By 1965, Hofstadter’s language had evolved. He had replaced the term “status anxiety” with “cultural politics.” But the basic underlying project was unchanged: Hofstadter continued to mine psychological theory to analyze the dark, anti-intellectual, and irrational elements of past American social movements and the echoes of these movements in the present. Again and again in American history, he argued, national politics had served as an arena for “uncommonly angry minds.” From the WASP-driven anti-Masonic, anti-Mormon, and anti-Catholic uprisings dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, on through the Populists in the 1890s, to McCarthy in the 1950s, American political activists had been immersed in what he termed the distinctive “paranoid style” of the American political tradition.

The People Pathologized

Hofstadter knew that his use of a clinical term for mental illness would provoke controversy. “I call it the paranoid style,” he wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” But he was not talking about “certifiable lunatics,” he explained. Rather, “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

The first part of the essay marshaled evidence from political platforms and public speeches to demonstrate the prevalence of hyperbolic, fearful rhetoric throughout much of American history. The second part, which tends to be the one quoted by journalists and pundits, examined how the 1960s American right updated this paranoiac strain of thought, particularly as they closed ranks behind Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency in 1964. Hofstadter preferred the term “the Right”—not “conservatives”—in line with the Adorno critique of modern right-wingers as “pseudo-conservatives.” It was indeed one of the hallmarks of pseudo-conservative orthodoxy to reject the traditional conceptions of political order in America and embrace conspiracies with no basis in reality. Fortunately, Hofstadter argued, the paranoid style was still a fringe phenomenon, a political persuasion that was “the preferred style only of minority movements.”

The essay immediately attracted a lot of attention inside and outside the academy. Hofstadter first wrote the piece as a lecture he delivered at Oxford in 1963. He then expanded it for Harper’s the next year. The Washington Post ran an abbreviated version of the lecture as an op-ed. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays was published in book form in 1965—a fitting gloss for triumphant liberal intellectuals on what they believed was the sound and final defeat of the Goldwater uprising on the right.

Among historians, however, the Hofstadter thesis found a far less enthusiastic reception. Not long after Hofstadter’s book appeared, a new cohort of American historians became disenchanted with the essay’s broad terms of analysis.

Hofstadter knew that his use of a clinical term for mental illness would stir controversy.

Many young historians of that decade identified with the New Left and disagreed with Hofstadter’s Cold War liberalism. They found much to attack in his individual works of scholarship. In his influential 1967 study The Intellectuals and McCarthy, Michael Paul Rogin proved that Hofstadter’s argument in Age of Reform about the link between the Populists and Progressives, on the one hand, and McCarthy on the other, was just wrong. McCarthy’s support came from conservative Republican areas, Rogin demonstrated, and his followers were not the same farmers and workers who had backed William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette. Several books over the next few decades showed that the Populists had fought for economic justice and were not the one-dimensional anti-Semites and xenophobes Hofstadter portrayed. (Or at least, these books argued, the Populists were not any more anti-Semitic or xenophobic than most other white Protestant Americans had been at the time.)

In the 1970s, scholars grew interested in social history and sought to examine the contributions of ordinary Americans, especially racial minorities and women. Many of these new social historians were appalled that Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It assumed that American politics had been shaped, as the title said, exclusively by men, and elite white men at that. Moreover, they noted, as Hofstadter’s critics have done for decades, that he did not do archival research for his books, but instead wrote provocative syntheses mostly based on secondary sources.

At the same time that these scholars of left-wing reform movements were calling the basic terms of the “paranoid style” argument into question, Hofstadter’s work on the right also came under attack by historians of conservatism. Beginning in the 1990s, scholars of the American right sought to understand and sometimes even empathize with grassroots conservative activists, and they objected to the way Hofstadter had put them on the metaphorical couch and psychoanalyzed them. These historians emphasized the modern sensibilities and adaptability of various conservative activists, from Klan members in the 1920s to suburban housewives in the 1960s, and condemned what they saw as a tone of Eastern, urban condescension in the work of Hofstadter and other mid-century scholars of the right.

From Couch to Catchphrase

Far removed from the ideological battles of the 1940s and 1950s, the new historians of conservatism believed that Hofstadter and his peers had put too much emphasis on the supposed irrationality of right-wing activists. The New York intellectuals’ “excessively psychological interpretation,” wrote Lisa McGirr in Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, “distorted our understanding of American conservatism.” McGirr and other historians sought to avoid pejorative labels like “Radical Right” and “paranoid style.” After these revolutions in historical interpretation, Hofstadter disappeared from many syllabi, and graduate students only learned about him when other historians briefly summarized his arguments before dismissing them.

To be sure, some historians—particularly those who specialized in political history—continued to admire Hofstadter, but they usually couched their admiration in defensive terms and insisted that his interpretations remained important even if they were wrong. As Columbia’s Alan Brinkley wrote in 1985 about The Age of Reform, “It is a book whose central interpretations few historians any longer accept, but one whose influence few historians can escape.”

Curiously, though, Hofstadter’s declining stock in the academy hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for his best-known work among the American punditocracy. Indeed, the “paranoid style” catchphrase has only gained currency in American political commentary as Hofstadter’s academic renown has waned. Searches of newspaper databases show that pundits routinely trotted it out to describe Americans on the left as well as the right: in the 1990s, filmmaker Oliver Stone was a favorite target, largely thanks to his overheated conspiratorial epic JFK. As early as 2006, historian David Greenberg was so annoyed by facile journalistic invocations of Hofstadter that, in an article headlined “Richard Hofstadter: The Pundits’ Favorite Historian,” he called for a moratorium on references to the “paranoid style.” Alas for Greenberg, in 2006 American politics was just beginning to get truly crazy.

First came the Birthers, who contended that Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya and was ineligible to be president.

In 2006, historian David Greenberg called for a moratorium on references to ‘the paranoid style.’ Alas, American politics was just beginning to get truly crazy.

Many Republican leaders supported the Birther theory despite the mountain of archival and eyewitness evidence that Obama had been born in Hawaii. The anti-Obama theories continued to multiply: conspiracy theorists insisted that he was a secret Muslim, or even a Manchurian Candidate who was controlled by agents of the New World Order. (How these cunning figures could have been so confident, decades earlier, that a Kenyan-born crypto-Muslim would be a surefire heir to the American presidency is a mystery that all this baroque conspiracy-mongering left unexplained.) The most outrageous exponents of these conspiracy theories—including Alex Jones, who also believes that 9/11 was an inside job and that recent mass shootings were government “false-flag” provocations to alarm and terrorize the electorate—won tens of millions of viewers and readers.

Then, in 2015, Donald Trump, who helped birth the Birther movement, announced that he was running for president. The reality show tycoon supported a whole variety of conspiracy theories. Vaccinations caused autism. Climate change was a hoax. The Democrats planned to steal the election with votes cast by millions of undocumented immigrants. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have been murdered. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the Kennedy assassination. And, of course, Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.

Losing the Plot

In this environment, it’s not surprising that journalists and political pundits believed that Hofstadter could help them understand the darkness, unreason, and conspiratorial transports of the modern right. But in reviving Hofstadter’s thesis, these commentators also resurrected its most glaring weakness—the New York intellectuals’ penchant for pathologizing the opposition, and thereby simultaneously stigmatizing and underestimating the appeal of the resurgent American right. Ironically enough, the latter-day embrace of the paranoid style’s explanatory power also appears to stem in no small part from the status anxiety of the pundit class. At a time when the mainstream outlets of opinion-making and political reportage are being swamped by viral, fact-averse simulacra of news coverage on Facebook, and in digital outlets of glorified Trump propaganda such as Breitbart News and Infowars, the notion that Trump voters are unhinged paranoiacs may help to keep the burgeoning audiences for such platforms at reassuring arm’s length.

Still, for all the limitations of Hofstadter’s Cold War thesis, there are some ways in which his observations about the paranoid fringe of the McCarthy era can be made to apply to today’s Trumpian conservative mainstream. In view of the renewed popularity of the phrase “the paranoid style,” it’s worth recalling some of Hofstadter’s own cautions surrounding the use of his interpretive scheme. To begin with, Hofstadter did not use the term “paranoid style” as an indiscriminate descriptor, to be applied to all Americans who believed there were plots against them. There were real conspiracies, he was careful to point out, and from time to time it was reasonable for Americans to call attention to them.

This is important because, as the poet Delmore Schwartz is supposed to have said, even paranoids have real enemies. A casual student of recent American history can recite a long list of very real conspiracies carried out by the U.S. government since the 1960s. The FBI systematically spied on and harassed members of leading civil rights groups, including Martin Luther King Jr. Top bureau officials tried to blackmail King into killing himself by threatening to publicize a tape recording of his extramarital affairs. The CIA tested hallucinogenic drugs on unsuspecting American citizens—and then tried to destroy all the memos documenting the program—and illegally spied on American citizens at home. Abroad, the CIA worked with the Mafia to try to shoot, poison, and stab Fidel Castro; without the Mafia’s help, the agency also tried to kill other foreign leaders. Top officials of President Nixon’s re-election committee raised millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions through bribes and extortion, and then used that money to pay spies to break into the offices of various Democratic candidates (and to bribe those spies to keep silent, once they had been caught). The Iran-Contra conspiracy involved the president’s national security adviser overseeing a program to break the law by selling arms to Iran in order to bribe terrorists and funnel money into Central American counter-revolutionary movements. It’s not always crazy for Americans to believe that their government conspires against them, because sometimes it does.

Hofstadter also clearly differentiated between these types of evidence-based conspiracy theories and those characterized by paranoia. The practitioners of the paranoid style, he argued, did not just believe in a few plots, but in the ultimate plot—the Insiders versus the People. “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 in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.”

The language used by Trump and by his supporters often meets these criteria. According to the president, reporters for the mainstream media aren’t merely skeptical of his claims, they are the “enemy of the people.” In the view of his fans, Robert Mueller’s investigation is not just unnecessary and distracting, it’s a “witch hunt,” led by members of the “deep state.” Ninety-two percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters think that members of the news media knowingly report false or misleading news at least some of the time. Seventy-four percent of Americans believe in the probable or definite existence of a deep state, defined as “a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy.”

“What’s on the Internet”

Hofstadter gave us a tool for assessing why these paranoid theories have such persuasive force: the “curious leap in imagination” from provable facts to absurd conjecture. “The plausibility the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure,” he wrote, “in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” I frequently ask the students in my conspiracy theory course to use Hofstadter’s “big leap” to analyze these theories at different historical times and places. Conspiracy theories that win the allegiance of a genuinely small minority—say, the “pizzagate” theorists who maintain that Hillary Clinton raped and murdered child sex slaves in a pizza parlor basement—are not, to my mind, all that interesting. But take a theory that is believed, or was believed, by 36 percent of Americans, like the view among self-styled 9/11 truthers that a cabal within George W. Bush’s White House either plotted the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington or deliberately allowed them to happen. The Truthers begin by constructing a foundation of undeniable facts—the administration’s eager quest for a pretext to go to war with Iraq and the way it manipulated intelligence to deceive the American people. They claim to document these facts with a careful array of citations and official sources. Then they leap from these undeniable facts to incredible conjectures: that the Bush administration itself masterminded the 9/11 attacks. It is by acknowledging the power of the undeniable facts that we can see why so many people might be willing to accept the leap to the incredible conjecture.

We could apply a similar analysis to President Trump’s deep state conspiracy theories about the Russia probe. Trump suggests that powerful forces within the FBI are determined to reverse the election by falsely charging his campaign with colluding with Russian hackers. Some of his supporters warn that the agents of the deep state are plotting a coup to remove him from office and destroy American freedom. Could they persuade so many people to believe them without the documented evidence of real conspiracies carried out by the FBI in the past?

Hofstadter’s analysis of the use of apocalyptic rhetoric throughout American history also helps to put many aspects of the Trump phenomenon in context. Here is Hofstadter on the paranoid spokesman: “He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.” Here, by way of graphic illustration, is the opening of a much-shared pseudonymous pro-Trump article from The Claremont Review of Books, published just before the election:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.

When “death is certain” if the other side wins, there must be no accommodation or compromise.

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “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.”

It’s not always crazy for Americans to believe that their government conspires against them, because sometimes it does.

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

The “irrational” tenor of pseudo-conservative debate that Richard Hofstadter confidently decried and dismissed circa 1965 was, in retrospect, the opening salvo of a thoroughgoing ideological, cultural, and financial assault on the modern welfare state. His notion of a status-driven revolt against political modernity was also a grave misreading of the future course of American conservatism. Trump may display in his bearing, his rally speeches, and his tweets all the hallmarks of an unhinged paranoid mind—but the vast armature of Republican statecraft and fundraising have swung into line behind him. Historians tasked with explaining the Trump phenomenon will have to advance a theory of change far more ideologically probing and analytically persuasive than a clutch of terms borrowed from the modern-day DSM manual.

Kathryn Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Right Out of CaliforniaThe 1930’s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.

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