Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, NY. SUNY Press published his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History, in 2015.
Donald Trump seems to be trying to convince American voters that the sky is falling and powerful forces are arrayed against him to keep him out of the White House. That isn’t likely to work. Fear mongering has never been the route to the presidency.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention in July, he presented an unrelentingly dark, pessimistic view of the nation’s social, economic, and political situations. He decried “poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad.” Millions of jobs have been lost through international trade deals that were “colossal mistakes and disasters.” The national debt and the international trade deficit are skyrocketing. Illegal immigrants are entering by the thousands, taking American jobs, and committing murders. People are fearful in their own homes and walking down the street. “The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threaten their – our – communities.”
“No one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.” he said. He asserted that a shadowy conspiracy is out to defeat him. “Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”
Appealing to disaffected voters, he assured them that “I am your voice.”
Trump exemplifies what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in his 1965 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics.This style is characterized by feelings of persecution and grandiose assertions of conspiracy directed against the nation’s way of life. It’s feared that the nation is sliding toward catastrophe. Proponents “feel dispossessed. America has been taken away from them and their kind and they are determined to repossess it and prevent the final destructive act of subversion.” They express feelings of obsessive fear, righteousness and moral indignation.
They believe entrenched political insiders are keeping them away from power; or, as Trump put it at the convention, “the system is rigged” and, on August 1, continuing the theme, insisting that the general election “is going to be rigged.” They see things in “apocalyptic terms,” and assert that they alone can save the nation if only they can get power. Their outsized egos lead them to see themselves as indispensable, e.g., in Trump’s startling “I alone can fix it” remark.
They demean and demonize their opponents, seeing them as dishonest, dissembling, evil people who will speed the nation on the road to ruin, noted Hofstadter. That is consistent with Trump’sinsulting “Crooked Hillary!” and “Lock her up!” chants.
Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style “represents an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life…. [W]hile it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable.” He noted that it “has a greater affinity for bad causes than for good” and offered many examples: anti-Catholic agitators in the 19th century who asserted that the Pope was planning to take over control of the United States; the Populist Party in the late 1890’s, railing against bankers and businesses conspiring to exploit workers and farmers; and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950’s screaming that men high up in the government were conniving with Communists and conspiring to deliver us to disaster.
Jesse Walker, in his 2013 book The United States of Paranoia, goes further. He identifies five archetypal paranoid conspiracies: the Enemy Outside, strangers plotting to take over our economy, society, or nation, or destroy our values; the Enemy Within, neighbors and people in our midst who are not to be trusted and who are gradually destroying our nation’s way of life; the Enemy Above, powerful social and economic interests controlling the nation for their own benefit and determined to keep us down; the Enemy Below, resentful social and economic groups waiting for a chance to seize power; and the Benevolent Conspiracy, “a secret force working behind the scenes to improve people’s lives” but one that, no matter how well-intentioned, needs to be confronted and defeated. Trump’s rhetoric has at times reflected each of these themes, even “the Enemy Above” in references to Hillary Clinton receiving speaking fees from Wall Street interests.
Daniel Bell, in his 1962 book The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, criticized political leaders who contended that other than their own political movements, “all politics was a conspiracy.” He used 19th century Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt’s term “terrible simplifiers” to characterize leaders who are alarmist, overly moralistic, utterly self-assured, and who play on the fears of people who are feeling status anxiety. “The tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to invest them with moral color and high emotional charge, is to invite conflicts which can only damage a society,” Bell warned. “It has been one of the glories of the United States that politics has always been a pragmatic give-and-take rather than a series of wars-to-the-death…. Democratic politics means bargaining between legitimate groups and the search for consensus.”
Usually, political paranoid movements run out of steam for one of four reasons.
One, the countervailing evidence is so strong that the nation is basically all right and the paranoid critics’ allegations so extreme or outlandish that their credibility vanishes. People become bored, disillusioned, or just stop paying attention.
Two, proponents’ reckless tactics lead to their own demise, as was the case with Joe McCarthy. Eeventually Republican president Dwight Eisenhower turned on McCarthy and the U.S. Senate itself censured him in 1954 for his reckless accusations and tactics.
Three, mainline reformers adopt strands of the paranoids’ ideology, tame them, and integrate them with mainline political parties’ campaigns, thereby deflating the paranoids’ balloons. A good example is William Jennings Bryan, Democratic candidate for president in 1896. He adopted Populist apocalyptic rhetoric and their central demand for inflation of the currency, which they had asserted would help struggling farmers. But he broadened their argument to contend that monetary inflation and credit reform would help all debtors, small businessmen, and other average Americans. Bryan lost the election in 1896 to William McKinley, a proponent of sound money and promotion of big business. Bryan ran again in 1900, this time asserting that America’s acquisition of colonies and territories after the Spanish American war threatened the nation’s traditional values of self-government. He lost to McKinley again. By that time, the Populist Party, its raison d’etre siphoned off by the Democrats’ appropriation and reinterpretation of its key issues, was sputtering into oblivion.
Four, even when the crises are real (e.g., war or depression) rather than perceived or concocted, moderate leaders usually seize the momentum from the extremists. They reframe the discussion, appeal for unity, and preach optimism and hope.
For instance, the first president from Trump’s party, Abraham Lincoln, in his inaugural address in March 1861, as states were beginning to secede from the union over the slavery issue and the calamity of civil war loomed, did not shout an alarm, bluster or threaten. Instead, he appealed for reconciliation and unity. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said in concluding, “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Franklin Roosevelt, in his acceptance speech in July 1932, at the depths of the Depression with millions unemployed and the economy in a shambles, calmly urged delegates to “let us now and here highly resolve to resume the country’s interrupted march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small.” Eschewing inflammatory, alarmist language, he concluded simply with “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage.”
Will the paranoid style succeed in 2016?
This year, it is too late for the third potential sidetracking development noted above. Trump defeated all his Republican rivals for the nomination rather than one of them winning and then accommodating and integrating some of his ideas into the campaign.
But the other three – the absence of convincing evidence of his allegations, being undone by his own reckless statements and tactics, and Hillary Clinton distinguishing herself as the candidate of optimism, unity, and workable plans – all seem like viable possibilities to defeat him.
So far, his tone and message are more dour and negative than any previous presidential candidate. He has tapped into an undercurrent of public uncertainty, apprehension and impatience with political impasse and government dysfunction. He is playing on fears about terrorism with appeals to exclude Muslim immigrants and wall out Mexicans. But he seems inclined to overplay his negative themes. He is continually alarmist and accusatory. As the campaign progresses, he may drop the drumbeat about Armageddon approaching and turn away from painting a totally dark picture of a crippled nation.
He may turn more sunny and positive and describe hopeful and feasible strategies. So far, Trump’s campaign has instead urged people to trust his experience as a businessman to find solutions and get things done. Particularly given the candidate’s inclination to use bullying tactics and his frequent gaffes and missteps, such as assailing the Gold Star mother who appeared at the Democratic convention, voters’ confidence in his judgment is understandably wavering. They will want something more than vituperation and vague promises.
History suggests that a positive, optimistic campaign is the key to a candidate convincing the American people that he or she would be a good president.
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