Bret Stephens and the Paranoid Style

I graduated from college in 1959, a few years before Richard Hofstadter’s essay on The Paranoid Style in American Politics came out in Harper’s. As an associate in a Pasadena (California) church, the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society were driving me nuts. One of the promulgators of conspiracy, a retired naval officer and member of the “society” was teaching in adult classes. The senior minister, a nice guy, but utterly gutless, let it go on and on. I was a history major, so I was familiar with American conspiracy theories. I was amazed how many in that well-educated, upper-middle-class church were believers in the process.

Shortly after I left that position, Hofstadter’s essay came out in Harper’s magazine. I have viewed it as a touchstone ever since. Still I never thought the essay would be as valuable today as it was then. Yet here’s Bret Stephens, a “never Trump Republican” using the valued essay again. What’s especially helpful…

is his reinterpretation of Hofstadter and the insight that Hofstadter might have been surprised to find out that the “party of conspiracy is also the party of government.”

Stephen’s application of Hofstadter is especially insightful:

The principal lesson of paranoia is the ease with which politically aroused people can mistake errors for deceptions, coincidences for patterns, bumbling for dereliction and secrecy for treachery. True conspiracies are rare but stupidity is nearly universal. The failure to know the difference, combined with the desire for a particular result, is what accounts for the paranoid style.

America already has one party that’s lost its mind. We don’t need another.

Bret Stephens: The GOP’s Bonfire of the Sanities.

Richard Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

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