“Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland
But I think it’s all overdone.
Exaggerating this, exaggerating that,
They don’t have no fun.”
That’s a verse from “Have a Good Time” on Paul Simon’s 1975 album “Still Crazy After All These Years”. Simon may have had in mind a famous essay by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, published eleven years earlier in Harper’s magazine but ringing no less true today.
The propensity to believe that nothing is as it seems and that demonic forces are out there plotting to destroy or take control of “our” America is as old as the Republic. In the late 18th century, the hidden enemy was the Illuminati, a group of utopians founded in Bavaria, then it was the Masons’ turn, then Catholics’.
In 1835, no less a figure than Samuel Morse, inventor of the eponymous code, wrote: “A conspiracy exists…its plans are already in operation…we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts or our armies.” The supposed mastermind? Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, said to be financing Jesuit missionaries to act as his agents. Such nativist nonsense was common throughout the 19th century.
By the 1950’s the politics of paranoia had become primarily a phenomenon of the right, typified by Senator Joseph McCarthy who wanted people to think that figures as eminent Secretary of State George Marshall — he of the Plan — were part of a Communist fifth column. McCarthy died in disgrace, but his method survived him as did his evil gnome, Roy Cohn, who went on to become a consigliere to one Donald Trump.
Today, in Trump, we have a president who revels in conspiracy theories every bit as bizarre and poisonous as those peddled by John Welch, founder of the John Birch society and keeper of the McCarthy flame, who thought it possible that President Dwight Eishenhower was “a Communist assigned the specific job of being a political front”.
Of the right wing conspiracists of his day Hofstadter wrote, “they feel dispossessed” as if “America has been largely taken away from their kind…They are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.” They believed that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.”
Sound familiar? The historian could just as well have been describing the way Trump devotees see the world — a world they are are only too easily persuaded is run by people who are plotting against them and their country. People like Bill and Hillary Clinton, who Trump has repeatedly insinuated are murderers (most recently of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein), and Barack Obama, who Trump for years insisted had faked his birth certificate.
Trump and his media surrogates like the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the line-up of Tru-mbongi on Fox “News” routinely spout conspiracy theories to fuel loathing of Democrats, “cosmopolitans and intellectuals”, and whoever is running the “Deep State”. Your America, they tell the base, is being “invaded” by Latin American gangs, murderers and rapists and by Muslim terrorists bent on imposing sharia law. And what does treasonous elite want? Open borders, of course. Why? To “replace” you with brown people who’ll work for lower pay — or live off your taxes in the form of public assistance — then vote for Democrats who “want to destroy America”.
Stoke the paranoia hard enough in a country where paranoiacs have ready access to the weapons of war, and it really will strike deep in the heartland — as we just saw in El Paso.