The dubious half-life of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”Historians in the News
tags: Richard Hofstadter, Trump
Kathryn Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Right Out of California: The 1930’s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.
At the outset of the Trump era, historian Leo Ribuffo declared that “Richard Hofstadter’s famous catchphrase, the ‘paranoid style in American politics,’ should be buried with a stake in its heart.” It’s safe to say that this directive has gone unheeded. Hofstadter’s controversial thesis about the primordial origins of the McCarthyite Red Scare has, if anything, been revived with renewed fervor. On the surface, it’s not hard to see why: as Donald Trump and the far-right insurgency behind him spiral off into ever higher levels of conspiratorial speculation about the “witch hunt” of the Russia probe and the opaque yet sinister operations of the “deep state,” many bewildered liberal pundits have prescribed therapy for the body politic.
Public intellectuals on the left borrow the “paranoid style” model, in its broad outlines, to help explain Trump, whom they see as “the pinnacle of paranoid politics and American idiocy,” as Salon scribe Conor Lynch put it. And many Trump defenders on the right cite some of the more hyperbolic criticism provoked by the president as proof that the paranoid style is alive and well among Trump opponents. Hofstadter—especially Hofstadter reduced to a catchphrase, his arguments shorn of their nuances and complexities—still speaks to a wide variety of American journalists and political junkies.
To get at the stubborn, bipartisan appeal of Hofstadter’s fifty-five-year-old thesis, it’s critical to revisit the cultural moment that gave rise to the elite-baiting, conspiracy-mongering turn of the modern right—as well as to Hofstadter’s own forensic efforts to explain it as a bona fide pathology lurking in the deeper recesses of the American civic mind.
“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” created a sensation when it was first published as a free-standing essay in Harper’s. And no liberal public intellectual of the moment was better positioned to spark this new phase of debate. When Hofstadter offered his famous thesis in 1963, he was already one of the most highly regarded and versatile scholars of United States history. He had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his work comparing the Populists, Progressives, and New Dealers, The Age of Reform, and would go on to win a second Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life eight years later. In addition to these works, he was best known for his 1948 classic, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, and for his essay on McCarthyism, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” in an influential 1955 collection edited by sociologist Daniel Bell called The New American Right. A professor at Columbia, Hofstadter was also one of the most distinguished members of the so-called New York intellectuals—a group of thinkers who shaped scholarly debate and tried to propose solutions to the political problems of their day.
In the early 1950s, Hofstadter, like many American liberals, grew deeply concerned about Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to expose American Communists in the federal government—a genuine political witch hunt, as opposed to Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump. ...
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