The paranoid mind, wrote Richard Hofstadter – one of the great American thinkers of the 20th century – sees the world as a battle between good and evil. Anything less than a total victory will only make the paranoia worse. “Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of helplessness he started with,” Hofstadter wrote. “It only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
In today’s American case, the enemy is the Deep State allied with globalist forces, which conspiracy theorists claim rigged the presidential election for Joe Biden. The question is whether this kind of paranoid, who, polls suggest, describes the overwhelming majority of Republican voters, will drift into atomized resentment or be a force for political demolition.
The answer will shape the direction of US policy in the years to come. Hofstadter’s observations point us in directions that are both reassuring and disturbing. He developed his theory of the “paranoid style in American politics” after observing the red fear of Joe McCarthy, which rocked American politics, the media, academia, and the entertainment industry for several years in the 1950s.
Much like today’s GOP politicians, who primarily play with Donald Trump’s claim of a stolen election, McCarthy’s fellow Republicans have kept their doubts about his Communist witch hunt to themselves. This included President Dwight Eisenhower who was unwilling to pit his office and his World War II record against a drunken Wisconsin senator.
In the end, McCarthy went too far. His balloon burst in 1954 after Joseph Welch, a Pentagon lawyer, who refuted McCarthy’s far-fetched claims that senior military officials were in cahoots with the Soviet Union, retorted:Don’t you have a sense of decency, sir, finally? McCarthy died three years later in the dark. Morals have grown since then. It’s hard to imagine anyone who could shame Mr. Trump in the same way.
The fall of McCarthy shows that the attacks of American paranoia are subsiding. From fear of the Illuminati in the 1790s, to Freemasons in the 19th century, to resistance to Catholic immigration in the late 19th century, every wave crashes. But they are followed by others. Sometimes, as with McCarthyism, they evolve. The year after McCarthy’s death, Robert Welch, a wealthy candy maker, founded the John Birch company, which sowed the seeds of today’s American conservatism. Welch was an avid McCarthy fan. He believed that Eisenhower was a “devoted and aware agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
Claims that Mr. Biden stole the election demand an equally giant leap of faith that there is a large plot to overturn Mr. Trump. Just as McCarthy’s supporters believed in an elite cabal that worked for Moscow, today’s circle would include George Soros, Venezuelan socialists, Chinese Communists, and many Republican judges and election officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The lack of evidence was cited as proof of the veracity of the plot. Even Fox News and the Republican state governors are now part of the plot, which is endless in its sophistication and bottomless in its evil. The paranoid, in Hofstadter’s words, comes up against “a perfect model of mischief, a sort of amoral superman – sinister, omnipresent, powerful, cruel, sensual, lover of luxury”.
Today’s conspiracy theory is supercharged by being led by the US president. Certainly, Mr. Trump will have to leave the White House on January 20. But he gives clear clues that he plans to run again in 2024. Even if he doesn’t, it will be in his best interest to let everyone guess. This will maximize his influence over the Republican Party and his ability to add to the over $ 200 million he has been lifting since November 3.
Last week, the Washington Post found that only 25 republicans on Capitol Hill (a tenth of those polled) were prepared to publicly admit that Mr. Biden won the election. Almost everyone else 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 that Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theory is starting to fade away. It is also possible that his grip on the Republican Party will solidify. A recent poll showed Mr. Trump was the party overwhelming favorite to be the 2024 candidate. Third place, behind Vice President Mike Pence, was Donald Trump Jr. There is a simple test as to whether Mr. Trump’s grip will loosen. Mr. Trump appears set to boycott Mr. Biden’s nomination next month. If senior Republicans follow his lead, the party will remain his. If they ignore him and show up, his spell will be broken.