In assessing Donald Trump's appeal, some go to phrase 'paranoid style'

But the phrase has become wearisome to non-Democrats, who consider it worthy of cliché status.

Richard Shiro/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall meeting in the Convocation Center on the University of South Carolina Aiken campus, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Aiken, S.C.

“Paranoid style”: a phrase from a famous 1964 essay that Democrats increasingly invoke to explain the appeal of Donald Trump and others with whom they vehemently disagree.

Historian Richard Hofstadter, in an article that later became a book, coined the phrase “paranoid style in American politics” to connote “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that have marked some political movements since the 18th century. It was published in Harper’s Magazine around the time that conservative Barry Goldwater edged out the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller for the GOP presidential nomination. (Goldwater later would lose overwhelmingly to President Lyndon Johnson, but laid the groundwork for what evolved into the modern conservative movement.)

“American politics,” Hofstadter presciently began his article, “has often been an arena for angry minds.”

Hofstadter sought to make clear that he wasn’t speaking to a pathology applying only to people with “profoundly disturbed minds,” but “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people.” The “style,” he wrote, had several elements: “a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life”; an “apocalyptic” mentality that “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values”; and the firm insistence on seeing all political differences as “a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil.”

For the past half century, the essay often has been trotted out to dissect the behavior of those on the right. “Paranoia isn’t on the fringe anymore, like it was in Hofstadter’s day,” Todd Leopold observed on CNN in 2012, citing the ubiquity of social media. “It’s now closer to the beating heart of the mainstream.”

University of California-Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, in his 2006 book “Talking Right,” argued that it’s prevalent in conservatives’ gripes about media bias. “There’s the deafness to humor, satire and metaphor that puts a [David] Letterman gag on the same level as a New York Times report,” Professor Nunberg wrote. “There’s the way that the right talks about ‘the media’ as a monolithic entity, an undifferentiated ‘they,’ effacing the differences between sources and formats.”

These days, though, the phrase keeps popping up in the litany of “what’s Trump’s appeal” analyses. “[I]t’s helpful to position Trump in the long tradition of what Hofstadter had termed in 1964 ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ ” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen wrote after the bombastic billionaire made his controversial comments on barring Muslim immigrants.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Tracy Mitrano used the expression in approving of a Times analysis of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. And in The Washington Post, Christopher Federico concluded that “Trump and his fan base revive the paranoid style in American politics,” tossing in a clip of Black Sabbath’s heavy-metal classic “Paranoid” to underscore the point.

Meanwhile, it’s been deployed in connection with two other leading GOP candidates – neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Times liberal columnist Paul Krugman invoked the phrase in discussing many Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge humans’ contributions to climate change. And it’s also been applied to the Koch brothers, another fat target of Democrats’ enmity.

As you might expect, all of this has become wearisome to non-Democrats, who consider it worthy of cliché status. “The Paranoid Style idea was so attractive because it masqueraded as sober history,” Philip Jenkins wrote dismissively in The American Conservative two years ago. He noted that Rutgers professor of history and media studies David Greenberg has argued that “there should probably be a moratorium” on the expression’s use, because Professor Greenberg said it’s among the ideas of Hofstadter’s that commentators “may simplify or mangle.”

Nunberg, in a recent e-mail, agreed that “people have pulled the phrase out too often over the years. It usually explains less than it seems to, and it can be condescending.” Although he said it connotes provocateur Glenn Beck as well as the uproar over the Jade Helm military exercises this fall, he added, “I don’t know that I’d apply the phrase to the simplistic xenophobia that’s out there now.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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