The paranoid mind, wrote Richard Hofstadter — one of America’s great 20th-century thinkers — sees the world as a battle between good and evil. Anything less than total victory will only deepen the paranoia. “Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began,” Hofstadter wrote. “This is in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
In today’s US case, the enemy is the deep state allied with globalist forces, whom conspiracy theorists believe (without evidence) rigged the presidential election for Joe Biden. The question is whether that kind of paranoiac, which, polls suggest, describes the overwhelming majority of Republican voters, will drift into atomised resentment or be a political wrecking force.
The answer will shape the direction of American politics in the years ahead. Hofstadter’s observations point us in both reassuring and worrying directions. He developed his theory of “the paranoid style in American politics” having watched Joe McCarthy’s red scare, which convulsed US politics, media, academia and the entertainment industry for several years in the 1950s.
Much like today’s GOP politicians, who are mostly playing along with Donald Trump’s claim of a stolen election, McCarthy’s fellow Republicans kept their misgivings about his communist witch hunt to themselves. This included president Dwight Eisenhower who was unwilling to pit his office and towering second world war record against a booze-addled senator from Wisconsin.
Eventually McCarthy went too far. His balloon burst in 1954 after Joseph Welch, a Pentagon lawyer, who was rebutting McCarthy’s wild claims that senior army figures were in league with the Soviet Union, retorted: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” McCarthy died three years later in obscurity. Mores have coarsened since then. It is hard to imagine anyone who could similarly shame Mr Trump.
McCarthy’s fall shows that America’s bouts of paranoia do subside. From the scare over the Illuminati in the 1790s, to the Free Masons in the 19th century, to the resistance to Catholic immigration in the late 19th century, each wave crashes. But they are followed by more. Sometimes, as with McCarthyism, they evolve. The year after McCarthy’s death, Robert Welch, a wealthy candy manufacturer, founded the John Birch society, which seeded today’s US conservatism. Welch was an ardent fan of McCarthy. He believed Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”.
Claims that Mr Biden stole the election demand an equally giant leap of faith about the existence of a vast conspiracy to cancel Mr Trump. Just as McCarthy’s supporters believed in an elite cabal that worked for Moscow, today’s ring allegedly includes George Soros, Venezuelan socialists, Chinese communists and numerous Republican judges and election officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania. Lack of evidence has been cited as proof of the conspiracy’s veracity. Even Fox News and Republican state governors are now part of the plot, which is endless in its sophistication and bottomless in its evil. The paranoiac, in Hofstadter’s words, is up against “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving”.
Today’s conspiracy theory is supercharged by being led by the US president. To be sure, Mr Trump will have to move out of the White House on January 20. But he is giving clear hints he plans to run again in 2024. Even if he does not, it will be in his interests to keep everyone guessing. That will maximise his leverage over the Republican party and his ability to add to the more than $200m he has raised since November 3.
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Last week the Washington Post found that only 25 Republicans on Capitol Hill (a tenth of those surveyed) were willing to admit publicly that Mr Biden won the election. Almost all of the others refused to identify a winner. Mr Trump tweeted: “Please send me a list of the 25 RINOs [Republicans in name only]”.
It is entirely possible Mr Trump’s conspiracy theory will start to pall. It is also possible that his hold over the Republican party will solidify. One recent poll showed that Mr Trump was the party’s overwhelming favourite to be the 2024 nominee. Third place, behind vice-president Mike Pence, was Donald Trump Jr. There is one simple test of whether Mr Trump’s grip will loosen. Mr Trump looks set to boycott Mr Biden’s inauguration next month. If senior Republicans follow his lead, the party will remain his. If they ignore him and show up, his spell will have broken.