Thursday night’s blockbuster story in The New York Times—which reported that President Donald Trump ordered special counsel Robert Mueller fired last June but backed down when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign—confirms just how terrified the commander-in-chief is of the Russia investigation. But if Trump pulled back from the full constitutional crisis that firing Mueller would have sparked, he and his allies in the Republican Party have pursued an almost equally dangerous plan B: If they can’t fire Mueller, they can at least discredit the investigation so that GOP partisans will reject the findings and stay loyal to the president and his party.
To that end, Trump, much of the right-wing media, and a cohort of congressional Republicans have been loudly talking about an alleged “deep-state” conspiracy rooted in the Department of Justice and a “secret society” embedded in the FBI that are both resoundingly focused on taking down the president. These theories, often echoed on Fox News and by the president’s tweets, have only the flimsiest basis in reality: The phrase “secret society” was used as an obvious joke in a text exchange between two FBI agents after the 2016 election.
Yet prominent Republicans are willing to treat that jest as though it referred to an actual organization. “It’s more than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and that secret society,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Fox News on Tuesday. “We have an informant that is talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There is so much smoke here, there is so much suspicion.” (The following day, Johnson retreated from those remarks.)
On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity went into full tinfoil-hat mode, declaiming that the plot against Trump is nothing short of staggering:
This ... is so much bigger than Watergate. It’s about our Constitution, about the rule of law. It has been shredded. All because powerful people at the highest level in the DOJ and the FBI thought they knew better than you as to who should be president. There needs to be serious ramifications if we are going to save our country in all of this. People must be held accountable, they must be investigated, they must be indicted, and probably many of them thrown in jail.
The paranoid ravings of Johnson, Hannity, and indeed Trump himself have a familiar lilt: They echo the venerable tradition of conspiracy theories that has flared up again and again in U.S. history, from the fear of the Bavarian Illuminati in the 1790s to the anti-Masonic fervor of the 1820s to the anti-Catholic scare of the mid-19th century to the anti-communist crusade of the 1950s.
In a classic 1964 essay, the influential historian Richard Hofstadter described this tradition as “the paranoid style in American politics.” Much of Hofstadter’s analysis could easily describe the feverish rantings that are the staple of Fox News: “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”
Trump rose to the presidency as a conspiracy-theory merchant, happily spewing forth absurd fantasies that were both widely shared by the GOP electorate (birtherism) and arcane (the claim that Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy). As president, Trump’s flights of crackpot fancy have become the de facto talking points of the Republican Party and much of the right-wing media.
Given the resurgence of conspiracy theories in the Trump era, many pundits have returned to Hofstadter. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics is Back,” The New York Times declared in September 2016.
Yet to revisit Hofstadter’s essay is to realize that the historian, despite offering an acute outline of the mythological system created by conspiracy theorists, was far too optimistic about the basic health of the U.S. system. A cold war liberal, Hofstadter had a profound faith in the power of the mainstream consensus that bound together moderates on the center left and center right. For Hofstadter, the paranoid style was a fringe phenomenon, usually “the preferred style only of minority movements.” That “modest minority” tended to be people far removed from the center of power, such as the “rural enthusiasts” caught up in the anti-Masonic movement.
As Reason magazine editor Jesse Walker notes in his 2013 book, The United States of Paranoia, thanks to the pervasive influence of Hofstadter’s essay, “Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames.” Walker rightly adds that these pundits are wrong, because the “fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes.”
Hofstadter died in 1970, but even in his own lifetime there were ample reasons to challenge the idea that paranoia was the property only of the fever swamps. After all, Joseph McCarthy flourished thanks to the patronage of the Republican Party. Moreover, extreme anti-communism was fostered by eminently mainstream establishment figures like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson (who justified the Vietnam war on the absurd conspiracy theory that the North Vietnamese government was a puppet of Communist China).
Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, was perhaps the most paranoid man to become president, a politician who ascended to power as an ally of McCarthy. The tape-recorded conversations of the Nixon White House are full of presidential paranoia about his various supposed enemies, ranging from the media to the Ivy League universities to the Jews. This paranoia was the mainspring for Nixon’s attack on the constitutional order.
Nixon is proof that the paranoid style is most dangerous not when it comes from fringe mass movements but when it resides in the elite. A president who thinks he’s besieged by enemies has both the motives and the resources to strike back.
Trump’s thwarted firing of Mueller calls to mind Nixon’s famous Saturday Night Massacre, when he fired special counsel Archibald Cox (after also firing Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus). If Nixon was a more ruthless authoritarian than Trump, both presidents can fairly be described as a paranoids and Trump seems more successful at bending the Republican Party to his wishes.
With Trump and his allies continuing to fan the conspiracy-theory flames, the true limits of any analysis that relegates the paranoid style to the fringes are clear. What is truly dangerous about the present moment is that the paranoid style has fused with the personality cult around Trump and the partisan passions of the Republican Party. If the United States is rushing toward a constitutional crisis, it’s because the paranoid style is in power.