Trumpism: The Politics of Paranoia

On November 19th, Rudy Giuliani and other members of the Trump legal team held an extended press conference to discuss their claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. While this event will be remembered as the occasion where Giuliani’s hair dye dripped down the sides of his face, it was more notable for the bizarre claims made. We shouldn’t be surprised, because the press conference is consistent with the Republican “paranoid style” championed by Donald Trump.

Conspiracy Theories: For the last 70 years, there’s been a faction within the Republican Party that promotes conspiracy theories.  This began with the 1950 claim, by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, that Communists had infiltrated the State Department.  The assertions by the Trump legal team are part of this tradition.

Giuliani began his November 19th press conference with this claim: “There was a plan from a centralized place to execute these various acts of voter fraud…in a  number of states.”  Trump legal team member Sidney Powell elaborated: “What we are really dealing with here, and uncovering more by the day, is the massive influence of Communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States.”  Powell described the mechanism for interference: “The Dominion voting systems, the Smartmatic technology software and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here in as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chavez.”  She claimed the Dominion company has a relationship with George Soros, adding “There are ties of the Dominion leadership to the Clinton Foundation and to other known politicians in this country.”  Giuliani told reporters: “I would love to release all the information that I have… Except most of you wouldn’t cover it… The censorship that is going on in this country right now by big tech and by big media, is almost as dangerous as the election fraud that we’re revealing.”

This isn’t the only conspiracy that Republicans are concerned about.  On November 22nd, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes referred to former President Barack Obama as President-elect Joe Biden’s “overlord,” calling for a special counsel to take over the investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8975595/Rep-Devin-Nunes-claims-Barack-Obama-Joe-Bidens-overlord.html )

Conspiracies swirl around Donald Trump.  At various times, Trump has tweeted conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus: it was a Chinese bio-weapon; the U.S. numbers are overstated — the pandemic is not as serious as health authorities say it is; etc.  He has also tweeted conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and Joe Biden: they illegally spied on his campaign; Biden is semi-senile and only appears normal because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs; etc.  Recently, Trump’s most venomous theory is that use of mail-in ballots leads to widespread voter fraud. (https://www.vox.com/recode/21546119/trump-conspiracy-theories-election-2020-coronavirus-voting-vote-by-mail )

Many Trump supporters subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory (https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html .  According to the New York Times: “QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.  QAnon followers believe that this clique includes top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities…”  (Trump refuses to disavow this group.)

Trumpism: Some political observers have dismissed Trump as a performer, observing that he has no deep political beliefs; that he is guided by the maxim: “do whatever it takes to win.”  Another way to view Trump is as an “extreme” Republican; that he represents long-standing Republican tendencies taken to the extreme.  For example, “isolationism:” since before World War Ii, the Republican Party has been the “isolationist” Party; Trump has taken this tendency and promoted objectives such as the U.S. leaving NATO.  As another example, since passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the political realignment, the Republican party has been the “White folks” Party.  Trump has played to this and been the most overtly racist President in modern times.

Most relevant to the present moment is the fact that, since 1950, the Republican Party has been the conspiracy Party; there has always been an element within the GOP that believed “socialist hordes are at the gates,” and promoted stories about “the Communist menace.”  Once again, Trump has taken this to an extreme.  Not by emphasizing Russian communists but rather by demonizing Chinese communists and fomenting a conspiracy theory linking communists/socialists, AntiFa, leaders of Black Lives Matter, and violence in American cities.

Donald Trump has championed paranoia.  He’s distributed paranoia through his public statements and the conservative media silo.

The Paranoid Style:  The Republican tendency to engage in conspiracy theories was analyzed in a classic 1964 political essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” (https://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ ) written by historian Richard Hofstadter.  “There is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”  Hofstadter linked the paranoid style to Joseph McCarthy and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater,  Hofstadter described three aspects:

First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism…The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.  Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents…so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Summary: Considering Hofstadter’s words, It’s easy to see Donald Trump’s 2020 political campaign as a manifestation of the Republican paranoid style: Trump claimed the United States was under attack by socialists (and Antifa), the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by these socialists, and socialists had subverted the mainstream media — with “fake news.”

From this perspective, the fact that more than 73 million Americans voted for Trump is not surprising.  They did not necessarily vote for the man, they voted in support of the notion that the United State is under attack and Republicans can save it.  In 2020, Republican voters were motivated by paranoia.