When you get engaged in politics as an activist or an observer or both, every once in a while it helps to step back and look at current political events within an historical perspective, because you’ll often find that what is considered to be so new and unusual today has either happened before or can be better understood with reference to previous political events.
After all, the United States is not only the world’s second oldest democracy, but England, the world’s oldest democracy, didn’t abolish property ownership as a requirement for voting until 1918. We never imposed such a stipulation for voting, which makes the United States the oldest, universal democracy on Earth.
(Women could vote in both the U.S. and U.K. after 1918 but women still needed to be owners of property to vote in the U.K. until 1928.)
Maybe it’s my penchant and training to always consider any current politics from an historical point of view which has made me unable to jump on the ‘Trump’s a Fascist’ bandwagon, but the reason I have always been more sanguine about the so-called Trump ‘threat’ lies in an essay written by the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1963 which you can download and read right here.
This essay, entitled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics,’ brilliantly captures and explains the background and reasons for the appearance of what we now call the ‘alt-right’ political narrative roughly every fifty years.
Trump is hardly the first public figure to try and build a political movement based on the idea that government needs a radical overhaul because it has been captured by some kind of secret, anti-American cabal which if left unchecked will destroy our Constitutional foundations and turn all of us into zombie-like followers of the Deep State.
According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style in American politics involves “a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone: but millions of others.”
Hofstadter finds a paranoid effort in political circles first appearing as an anti-Mason effort directed primarily at Andrew Jackson’s commitment to democracy because Jackson was a Mason. It reappeared again in the 1830’s as anti-Catholicism, then again in the defeated Confederate states, then once more as a resistance to the New Deal, and most famously in the anti-Communist crusade led by Joseph McCarthy after World War II.
In all of these expressions of acute paranoia, Hofstadter finds some basic themes: (1). A secret elite trying to undermine Constitutional principles; (2). an assault on the welfare of the ‘dispossessed’ classes; (3). The rewarding of loyalty to the Deep State with everyone else losing out.
Does this schema perfectly approximate the messaging of Donald Trump? Of course. And if you doubt me, just pay attention to what Trump is planning to say at a rally he wants to hold in Detroit to support the striking UAW workers.
But notwithstanding how Hofstadter finds similarities between the current alt-right paranoia and its historical precedents, there’s also an additional element in today’s political landscape which reflects how the world has recently changed, namely, the use of social media to promote a political point of view.
It turns out that social media isn’t just a vehicle for spreading political narratives. It’s also becoming the preferred method to spend money on things which we don’t really need. The latest survey in this respect finds that over the past twelve months, Americans made $71 billion worth of impulse purchases on social media platforms, a figure larger than the entire GDP of countries like Croatia, Lithuania and Uruguay.
The phrase ‘impulse buying’ is advertising-speak for crap we don’t need. And if 48% of all social media users have spent money on junk, then how can we believe that all these MAGA followers are broke because the existence and activities of the Deep State is what’s getting them screwed?
I only wish that Richard Hofstadter was alive today so that we could get a better idea of how the paranoid messaging of Donald Trump fits into a world where so many decisions are made after a five-second glance at a computer screen.
I have to assume that the consumer impulsiveness captured by social media carries over into the political realm as well because I have often thought that many of the people who say they support Trump have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about at all.
I could also be completely wrong.