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The paranoid style in British politics

No political movement is immune to the conspiratorial world view

May 23, 2019

11:42 AM

23 May 2019

11:42 AM

The politics professor Matthew Goodwin made an interesting comment on Twitter earlier this week. He pointed out that many of the elements of the ‘paranoid style’ in politics – a phrase coined by Richard Hofstadter in a famous essay to describe right-wing populist movements – are now as common on the Left as they are on the Right. Goodwin mentioned ‘Remainia’ as being particularly susceptible to the paranoid style, which is characterized by ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’, according to Hofstadter. That struck me as an astute observation and I’ve tried to flesh out the idea in my Spectator column today. If you allow for the fact that some Remainers have become infected by this virus it helps explain why they’re so convinced that the 2016 referendum result was due to sinister foreign influences – data mining companies, Kremlin bot factories, the Koch brothers, Vladimir Putin, and so on – rather than widespread skepticism about the EU among the British electorate.

Hofstadter was a history professor at Columbia, as well as a public intellectual, and his essay, which was published in 1964, proved highly influential. (There is even a garage band named after it called The Paranoid Style.) The reason it has endured is because the right-wing movements he analyzed haven’t disappeared from American politics. In 2018, for instance, Paul Krugman wrote a column for the New York Times entitled ‘The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics’. However, until now no one has sought to apply Hofstadter’s analysis to the anti-Brexit campaign.

Hofstadter traces the ‘paranoid style’ back to the Millenarian Christian sects of Medieval Europe, as documented in the historian Norman Cohn’s book, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957). Members of these sects had a distinctive set of psychological characteristics, according to Cohn:

‘the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies…[and] systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.’

Hofstadter detects these same pathologies in nearly all the right-wing movements that have disfigured American politics since the country’s founding, from the Populist party to the John Birch Society.

The imagined adversary is nearly always something foreign that has wormed its way into the body politic and poses a grave, existential threat – and it’s this ancient fantasy, in particular, that seems to have clouded the minds of the anti-Brexit campaigners. We saw a manifestation of this earlier in the week when Gordon Brown accused the Brexit party of being funded by sinister foreign agents. In Brown’s fevered imagination, that was the only explanation for how the party has been able to raise so much money in such a short space of time. Brown warned that British democracy was being ‘fatally undermined’ by ‘underhand’ donations of ‘dirty money’ to the party ‘from whom and from where we do not know’.

The evidence for this charge is laughably threadbare. It’s against the law for people who aren’t on the electoral register to donate to British political parties, but donations of under £500 don’t have to be declared and, according to Brown, the Brexit party is taking advantage of this loophole by allowing people to make these smaller donations via PayPal. Brown pointed out that it was technically possible for foreign donors to use PayPal to convert their local currency into sterling and this possibility – he had no evidence that it was actually happening – meant the Electoral Commission should mount an urgent investigation. Protestations by the Brexit party that many other British parties also allow people to make donations of under £500 using PayPal, including Labour and the Conservatives, fell on deaf ears and the Commission duly turned up at the party’s headquarters on Tuesday morning and spent seven hours there. According to Nigel Farage, they didn’t find evidence of a single offense.

Hofstadter contrasts the paranoia of 19th century populist movements, which identified Jews, Catholics and freemasons as an external threat that had to be repelled to preserve the American way of life, with the fabulist claims of Joseph McCarthy, who believed that Soviet agents had already infiltrated powerful institutions and had to be expelled. This more recent manifestation of the paranoid style is fueled by a sense of ‘dispossession’, of ‘powerlessness’ on the part of a section of American society, often triggered by a recent setback. ‘America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and prevent the final destructive act of subversion,’ he writes.

It is this type of paranoia – the conviction that power and influence that rightfully belongs to you has been stolen, thanks to the machinations of an evil cabal – that seems to animate the most bug-eyed of the Remainers. This pathology helps to explain what often looks like unhinged behavior on the part of AC Grayling, Alastair Campbell and Andrew Adonis, such as Adonis’s obsession with the BBC’s ‘pro-Brexit bias’. It’s as if, in his mind, one of the UK’s most cherished institutions has been captured by enemy agents. In the course of seven days he tweeted about this 72 times and last year he wrote a letter to the Director-General of the BBC demanding that Andrew Neil be sacked. Only this week, Adonis called for BBC News to be taken over by Channel 4 News, which, in his eyes, is the only broadcast news organization brave enough to tell the truth about Brexit. The impression you get is that Adonis believes he’s engaged in a struggle against demonic possession in which only he and a few other enlightened souls can see the danger. ‘The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values,’ writes Hofstadter. ‘He is always manning the barricades of civilization.’

The same Millenarian, apocalyptic tone is detectable in The Bad Boys of Brexit, a website maintained by the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. Like those who detect the hidden hand of the Illuminati behind historical events, Cato believes Brexit was orchestrated by ‘an unholy alliance’ of ‘the very wealthiest members of a global elite’, many of whom have ‘highly questionable Russian connections’ and are engaged in ‘undermining the very foundations of democracy’. As if aware of how deranged this sounds, Cato adds: ‘This site describes not a conspiracy theory but a conspiracy fact.’ Among the ‘conspirators’ identified by Cato are Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and Matt Ridley. (I even get a passing mention myself.)

But the ultimate exemplar of the paranoid style in British politics is the journalist Carole Cadwalladr. ‘Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power,’ writes Hofstadter. ‘He controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing)…’ Those are the themes of nearly every Cadwalladr article and speech, with the ‘unlimited funds’ coming from Russia and the brainwashing supplied by Facebook. ‘This entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook,’ she says in her TED talk, explaining why a majority of people in Ebbw Vale voted Leave in spite of their shiny new sports centre funded by the EU. ‘This is not democracy – spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion…’

In his essay, Hofstadter describes the ‘literature’ of conspiracy theorists, which combines ‘fantasied conclusions’ with an ‘almost touching concern with factuality’. He writes: ‘It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.’ The example he gives is a pamphlet written by Joseph McCarthy that contains 313 footnotes, but another, equally good example would be Cadwalladr’s recent attempt to persuade her Twitter followers that Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore had gone on a week’s skiing holiday in Italy to secretly arrange for Matteo Salvini to veto an extension to Article 50. She piled on fact after fact – Wigmore had a chalet in Wengen, so why was he in Cortina? – seemingly unaware that Salvini is only the deputy Prime Minister of Italy and therefore in no position to veto anything. Needless to say, the extension request was unanimously approved by all 27 EU leaders.

One last example before I bring this to a conclusion: Christopher Wylie. ‘A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause,’ writes Hofstadter. ‘[T]he renegade is the man or woman who has been in the arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world.’ Could there be a better description of the almost holy reverence with which the Remainiacs treat Wylie, the ‘whistleblower’ who used to work for Cambridge Analytica and gave evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee? The reason renegades like Wylie are valued so highly, explains Hofstadter, is because ‘in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.’

Some people reading this will object that the paranoid style is equally prevalent among the most fanatical Brexiteers and I wouldn’t dispute that. Certain elements of the Leave campaign – the imagined invasion of Turkish immigrants, for instance – had a lot in common with the right-wing populist movement Hofstadter writes about in his essay. But that’s exactly what you’d expect, just as you’d expect the same conspiracy theories to crop up in the Trump campaign. What’s so striking about the manifestation of this type of thinking among the anti-Brexit campaigners – as well as those who believe the US presidential election was ‘hacked’ by the Russians – is that they’re supposed to be the educated, well-informed, reasonable ones. The paranoid style is supposed to be something that afflicts the unschooled masses, not the cognitive elite. It’s as if the class Richard Hofstadter himself belonged to – the liberal intelligentsia – has become the latest victim of the pathology he identified.

The lesson is that no political movement is immune to this conspiratorial world view – it’s a cluster of memes that’s impossible to eradicate. The same Millenarian catastrophizing that gripped the Anabaptists in the 16th century, with their conviction that the moral corruption of mankind meant the end of the world was nigh, was visible in the Extinction Rebellion protests, as well as in the climate emergency movement more generally; and the same suspicion of wealthy outsiders, pulling the strings from their secret temples, is a key feature of Corbynism, with its history of anti-Semitism. As Hofstadter points out, we moderns naively imagine that we’ve left these fever dreams behind in the pre-modern era, but they are ‘a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population’. The most we can do is remain vigilant and try not to be pulled under ourselves.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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