From John Birchers to Birthers

Conspiracy-mindedness isn't just for fringe political groups anymore; it makes for riveting entertainment. And it is all around us today, a disorder with an entire industry to act as its enabler.
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Next month will mark the 45th anniversary of the publication by Harper's magazine of Richard Hofstadter's famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a work that seems to grow more relevant by the day.

I was not always a fan. When I first read it two decades ago, I thought Hofstadter was being needlessly insulting by equating political views with mental illness -- despite his insistence that he wasn't using the word that way. Besides, I thought, who really cared about the strange notions that occurred to members of marginal groups like the John Birch Society? Joe McCarthy's day was long over, and even in the age of high Reaganism, I thought, the type of person Hofstadter described was merely handing out flyers on street corners.

As the historian himself admitted, "In America it has been the preferred style only of minority movements." Why bother with it, then?

How times have changed! Hofstadter's beloved liberal consensus has been in the grave for decades now. Today it would appear that his mistake was underestimating the seductive power of the paranoid style.

The essential element of this mindset, Hofstadter explained, was its predilection for conspiracy theory -- for understanding history as a theater in which sinister figures control the flow of events from behind the scenes, nudging us constantly and secretly in the direction of communism.

Back in Hofstadter's day this sort of thinking at least had something supremely rational going for it: The existence of the Soviet Union and its desire to bring the West to its knees.

But take that away and the theories become something far more remarkable. Consider, by contrast, the widespread belief that President Barack Obama's birth certificate was forged. What could have been his parents' motives for committing such a bizarre deed, or his home state's motive for colluding in it, or the courts' motives for overlooking it?

Or consider the widespread conservative conviction that we are being marched secretly into communism or fascism. Why would someone bother? It seems equally likely, given today's circumstances, that conspirators would trick us into becoming a colony of Belgium or the imperial seat of the Bonaparte family.

The paranoid pattern persists regardless. It is impervious to world events; a blurring of the American subconscious that has not changed since Hofstadter analyzed it 45 years ago. Consider the recent wave of fear that the hypnotic Mr. Obama was planning to indoctrinate schoolchildren. In "The Paranoid Style," Hofstadter wrote, "Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; . . . he has a new secret for influencing the mind; ... he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system."

Conspiracy-mindedness isn't just for fringe political groups anymore; it makes for riveting entertainment. And it is all around us today, a disorder with an entire industry to act as its enabler.

The source for much of the current epidemic of paranoia is no doubt the Glenn Beck Show on Fox News, which follows the Hofstadter script with remarkable faithfulness. One episode last month featured Mr. Beck and a panel of guests speculating darkly about indoctrination in the public schools, about the war on religion, about the Federal Reserve, about the student loan system, the United Nations, and the swine flu vaccine. As a bonus, Mr. Beck rattled off a short history of lobbying that was almost entirely incorrect -- perhaps to illustrate his favorite plaint about Americans not learning history. And in the commercial break the real-life conspirator G. Gordon Liddy advised viewers to invest in gold.

What is most remarkable about the paranoid style, though, is the earnest self-pitying that always seems to follow each round of accusation. Case in point: a recent essay by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. After describing the murder of a controversial abortion doctor, a guard at Washington's Holocaust Museum, and a census bureau employee who was found with the word "Fed" written on his corpse, she insisted that "The criminalization of conservative dissent is well underway." How so? Because some of these acts caused media revulsion against certain branches of the conservative movement; surely the clampdown is not far behind.

Just a few years ago the right percolated with grand schemes to "defund the left," to win a "permanent majority," to destroy the Democrats with a "K Street Project," to outsource government itself and wreck the regulatory process -- but now its liveliest leaders turn to us, fat glycerine tears running down their cheeks, and complain that the libs just don't play fair.

"Pseudo-conservative" was another term Hofstadter used to describe the far-right fringe: "pseudo" because they didn't embrace conservatism's "temperate and compromising spirit." It's a pity Hofstadter isn't here to see the fakes eclipse the real thing.

Read other Opinion Journal articles:
The GOP's New York Fiasco
John Kyl: Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons

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