When the mainstream slips into conspiratorial thinking

‘Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric’, the historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote in a famous piece of 1963, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’. For Hofstadter, the Barry Goldwater candidacy against Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election of 1964 offered the occasion for his reflections. With the communist witch hunt of the McCarthy years (the early fifties) not long past, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy that got Johnson the presidency, just behind him, Hofstadter had ample evidence to situate Barry Goldwater in a long tradition of American Far Right conspiracy theory.
His reasoning is again topical now that it is not a radical fringe, but the mainstream of American politics that has surrendered to conspiratorial thought, Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’. 

That it was ‘Russian hacks’ that presumably landed Donald Trump in the White House, was only denied at the very last minute by… outgoing president Obama. He suddenly spoke of a ‘leak’ instead of hacks—after having expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two vacation compounds used by them just before New Year’s eve. But that is only a minor dent in a mainstream consensus that a vast hacking operation, so unbelievably devious and cunning that it could only have been directed personally by the master of ceremonies in the Kremlin, cost Hillary Clinton the US presidency last November.

Would that mean that ‘catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe’ has taken possession of the US Congress (both parties believe in the Russian hacks story), the US intelligence services, and all the mainstream media, but also of European politicians and media (the Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, already warned that the Dutch elections of 15 March, too, run the risk of being hacked by Moscow)—?

What sort of catastrophe are we speaking of in that case?

If we consider the Russian conspiracy narrative as a whole, including its presumed dissemination of ‘fake news’, there must be a major historical shift in the works to grip the mainstream forces in this way. The catastrophe, then, is nothing less than the decline of the Atlantic West and its established ruling structures.

Faced with that world-historic decline, the human occupants of what used to be the commanding heights have to resort to paranoid thinking, without which it would be incomprehensible for them.

Hofstadter wrote that adherents of the paranoid style in politics, unlike the clinical paranoid, believe the conspiracy is against a nation, a civilisation—or in this case against US democracy. ‘The central image [of the paranoid style] is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy. A gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence has been set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life’.

Indeed the conspiracy is so vast and yet so invisible and intractable, that one would almost think it doesn’t exist; apart from the fact that Russia of course had to fear most from Hillary, at least in the short run. US and NATO troops (including Dutch armoured units) are deployed in Poland, dispatched there in the last days of the Obama administration, under Obama a fascist coup occurred in Kiev, and missile batteries were installed in Rumania. Can one blame the Russian leadership for hoping that a man who promised he would work to normalise relations, would win?

After the unexpected defeat of the mainstream candidate this preference has been turned into a conspiracy by an enemy who is the epitome of evil, ‘a kind a amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving’—just delete what is not applicable to Vladimir the Terrible. One more from Hofstadter: this malicious devil is exceptionally devious and cunning: ‘he controls the press; he directs the public mind through “managed news”; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction… ; he is gaining a stranglehold of the educational system.’

Does all this mean that with Donald Trump, cool-headed sanity has returned to the White House? Here we must fear that both the new president and his electorate also share some of the key ingredients of the paranoid style: they feel excluded from power, they feel as if their country has been taken from them and must be repossessed.

For ultimately, the election of Trump is not a sign of a reversal of the decline of the West. It is itself a symptom.

Kees van der Pijl

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