Donald Trump and the politics of paranoia


One startling feature of the latest race to become the next president of the US  is the runaway success in the opinion polls of the outspoken billionaire, Donald Trump. But this should not be so surprising, says Michael Goldfarb, as Trump is just the latest example of a tendency in American politics that goes back a very long way.

Fear. The simple four-letter word that works if you want to get elected. Political professionals know that playing on people’s fears is the way to win.

Paranoia. A somewhat fancier word that is used to describe excessive, irrational fear and distrust. It, too, works from time to time – in American politics, at least.

This current presidential season is one of those times. Donald Trump has surged to the front of the pack competing for the Republican Presidential nomination by giving voice to outsized fears many in America have – illegal immigrants, terrorists, free trade agreements shipping American jobs to China.

Trump promises to make America Great Again – as if the US somehow was no longer the most powerful country in the world – by simple solutions: deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the US, and forcing the Chinese to back down through tough talk.

The phrase “paranoid style in American politics” was coined by the late historian Richard Hofstadter. He defined the Paranoid Style, “an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
In a country that at its best radiates an infectious optimism, it is interesting how often fear has stalked the American landscape.

Richard Parker, who lectures on religion in the early days of America at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government, traces paranoia in American public life back to the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th Century and even before that, to the religious politics of the Mother Country.

It’s easy to forget how closely tied the first colonies were to England, particularly in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were dissenting Protestants who sided closely with Cromwell in the English Civil War. When the Commonwealth was overthrown and the Stuarts restored to the British throne, there was renewed struggle with Catholicism – and the religious suspicions surrounding the court of James II were magnified out of all proportion on the other side of the Atlantic.

Add in the daily struggles with nature, fighting with native Americans, and millennial religious practice that thought the end times were approaching and you have, Parker points out, “a community primed to be fearful”.

And so in the town of Salem, people turned on their more free-thinking neighbours, and accused them of being witches. At this time, the idea of witchcraft was not something from fiction. People really did believe, in Parker’s words, “dark spirits could inhabit souls and bodies. It was the basis for primitive psychology and physiology.”

He adds that it’s no surprise that in 1953, playwright Arthur Miller set his classic drama, The Crucible, in Salem during the witch trials.

The early 1950s was a time of another outbreak of fear in America, this time of communists in high places everywhere including the entertainment industry. There were blacklists of suspected communists and former communists in Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee, initially led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, summoned the famous to Washington to testify against artistic colleagues. Careers were ruined. Miller, summoned by the committee in 1957, refused to name names and had his passport revoked.

But I digress…

Writing off Donald Trump was the default setting of most pundits and political professionals in the first months of the campaign. But Trump understood more than they did that a significant chunk of American society is fearful. He plays to those fears – whether they are rational or not. He doesn’t speak in what he calls “politically correct” terms.

In South Carolina, recently, I met a gentleman named Robert Sandifer.

“Trump has instilled hope in people,” Sandifer told me.

“Hope? Sounds to me like desperation,” I told him.

“If he does what he says he’s gonna do, we would be less fearful.” He added, for emphasis:

“We fear the federal government very much.”



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