Something Something Richard Hofstadter

Everyone talks about conspiracy theories at the moment, but they talk about conspiracy theories in old ways. This is Sarah Churchwell, writing after the US election:

In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he called the ‘paranoid style in American politics’, a perspective that shaped the stories Americans too often told themselves. Paranoia offers a master trope for interpreting ‘the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ in American political narratives, from 18th-century Illuminati paranoia to the Papist conspiracies of 19th-century nativism, to the enduring anti-communist hysterias of the 20th century. Hofstadter predicted that paranoid energies would periodically be released in America when ‘historical catastrophes or frustrations’ exacerbated the religious traditions and social structures that fostered those energies, catalysing them into ‘mass movements or political parties’.

And this is Oliver Kamm, also from November, writing about the ‘Great Reset’ COVID-19 conspiracy theory:

The historian Richard Hofstadter identified this strain of thinking in American public life in a classic essay titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in 1964. He showed that the fevered allegations of McCarthyism, which were then a recent aberration in US politics, had a historical lineage. American society, he said, ‘has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds’.

Going back a few years, here is science writer Martin Robbins, with a long essay covering Trump, the Jeremy Corbyn movement and UKIP.

Like many UKIP supporters, Corbyn occupies an anti-political ground where the traditional distinctions between left and right are less meaningful. Corbyn and his UKIP counterpart are both natural Eurosceptics, both insular and protectionist when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, both weirdly sympathetic to Putin, both aligned with the left behind working class and suspicious of political, economic or intellectual elites (Corbyn rejects scientific consensus on everything from alternative medicine to nuclear power). Both have adopted – and been adopted by – what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style’ in his famous 1964 essay: ‘a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.

Much has happened in politics since 1964. Hofstadter’s paranoid style was realised ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process.’ Hofstadter wrote that ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.’ It is this picture of conspiracy theorists that has dated the most, because the impression is of unhappy, highly-strung people kept out of the conversation. Robbins says: ‘we should ask about the circumstances and decisions that created such a large group of the frustrated and ignored in the first place.’

What has changed? That today’s conspiracists walk the halls of power. Viktor Orbán parlayed the Soros myth into national leadership. Trump ruled America for four years. (Hofstadter in his day saw a successful conspiracist in ‘Tail-Gunner’ Joe McCarthy.) Your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table might not become prime minister any time soon. But he can set up a YouTube channel, get subscribers, leverage that into regular appearances as a ‘British expert’ on Sputnik or Press TV. Conspiracists want money. They want power. Mona Charen remembered taking National Review cruises in the 1990s where the conservative elites mingled and networked. Conspiracy theories proliferated. ‘Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary had killed Vince Foster,’ Charen writes. And she noticed something else:

These people were not hard up. They hadn’t been displaced from their union jobs by outsourcing. The ladies wore designer dresses and the men sported pinky diamonds. In 2020, people earning more than $100,000 voted for Trump over Biden by 11 points, whereas Biden earned the support of those earning less than $50,000 by 15 points.

Once conspiracy theorists do become successful, the conspiracies are used to maintain power. Peter Pomerantsev writes in This Is Not Propaganda that

In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, one has to surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative, a tactic a renowned Russian media analyst called Vasily Gatov calls ‘white jamming’.

There is a subgenre of articles that advise us ‘how to talk to conspiracy theorists’ as if you are looking at people with Asperger’s or learning difficulties who have to be carefully coaxed into engagement with reality. ‘Recognise that everyone has had their lives turned upside down, and is seeking explanations,’ says fact checker Claire Wardle in a recent BBC feature. ‘Conspiracy theories tend to be simple, powerful stories that explain the world. Reality is complex and messy, which is harder for our brains to process.’ The piece also tells us to ‘Remember that people often believe conspiracy theories because deep down, they’re worried or anxious. Try to understand those feelings – particularly in a year like the one we’ve just had.’

David Aaronovitch, in his 2009 study Voodoo Histories, realised that ‘The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’ How then do you talk to someone who is professional, solvent, sound of mind, but is deeply into conspiracy theories for their own reasons? Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’ arises ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process’ – well, they’re not shut out now. ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable…’ Not remotely attainable? Seriously?

Writers who have actually studied modern authoritarianism know that it has adapted well to the digital age and that old certainties no longer apply. Anne Applebaum, in Twilight of Democracy, wrote that ‘Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order.’ The National Review cruisers who support Trump and Brexit, Aaronovitch’s professors and intellectuals – they aren’t going to be stuck in burning cities or starving in lorry queues. Psychologist Jovan Byford in that BBC feature says that ‘Conspiracy theories instil in believers a sense of superiority. It’s an important generator of self-esteem.’ To quote Charen again: ‘A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority—not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn’t understand.’

Chaos is good – as long as it happens to others. Smash the world and there’s a chance you’ll get to rule over the ruins. This is, of course, the point of Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement. His challenges to the 2020 election have been thrown out of every court in the land, but that’s not the point – the point is to create a ‘stab in the back’ myth and delegitimise Biden, in preparation for a 2024 run either by Trump himself or one of his proxies. A cognitive neuroscientist told Five Thirty-Eight that ‘I think the current situation is going to be much, much worse than birtherism in terms of people believing it, and believing it for the long run.’

Conspiracy theorists know what they are doing. They have changed. Our arguments against them need to change too.

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