Fake News and Fascists: The Paranoid Style in American Journalism

Donald Trump may suffer from a lack of humility, but he is not a fascist.

In his essay entitled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1965), Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter explored what he believed to be the inextricable connection between conspiracy, paranoia and conservatism in American political life during the Goldwater era. According to Hofstadter, the linchpin of the paranoid style of right wing politics was the “existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.” Hofstadter distilled the elements of contemporary right wing thought into three; First, the presence of un-American traitors who desired to “undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government” thus paving the way for socialism or communism. Second, the view that the United States government was already “infiltrated by Communists, who sold out American interests”. Third, the revelation of an alliance between Communist agents who had infiltrated the “whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media and our education system to “paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.” Although historian-cum-pseudo psychiatrist Hofstadter asserted that he had “neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past and present as certifiable lunatics,” that is precisely what he did in his diagnosis that Rightism was not a system of rational political beliefs, but rather a pathological disorder. Hofstadter made a distinction between the clinical paranoiac in society and the paranoid spokesman in right wing politics; the former “sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him.” The clinical paranoiac in right wing politics finds it “directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone, but millions of others.” Despite this fundamental difference, an extemporaneous and symbiotic relationship is forged. Thus, the existence of enemies, either real or imagined, serves as the foundation that right wing politics is built on.

At the same time, Hofstadter offered evidence that paranoia was not the exclusive domain of politics and conservatives in his claim that a paranoid style was often a component of the left-wing press. The history of journalism as seen through the lens of paranoia and grandiose conspiracy is well documented. Fox News provided the fertile ground for President Trump’s birther beliefs from 2011 to 2016. Even so, on December 8th, 2015, Rachel Maddow and MSNBC took the paranoid style of journalism to heights hitherto unknown. Proceeding with a seemingly innocuous synopsis of various styles of auto racing from around the world, Maddow transitioned from auto racing to an old story about Max Mosley, the former boss of the Formula One organization, and son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists in 1932. In 2008, Max Mosley gained infamy when a video of his sexual escapades surfaced. Maddow conveys how the British tabloid News of The World broke the story of the five-hour long video tape with the headline: Formula One Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy with Hookers. What Maddow fails to mention is that later that year, Mosley won £60,000 in a privacy action against News Of The World. In his judgement, Mr. Justice Eady “found no evidence of Nazi themes in the video,” and said that Mosley’s life had been “ruined” because of the tabloid. Nevertheless, Maddow used the Max Mosley sex scandal as an introduction to the true purpose of her feature, which was to draw parallels between Sir Oswald Mosley’s failed efforts to move Britain towards fascism, and the rise of Donald Trump, which she considered the beginning of a “flirtation with fascism” in the United States based on Trump’s desire to call for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. She concluded her character assassination of Donald Trump by raising the question as to whether fascism as a word was too “over the top” to use to describe politics in America, or “helpful because it was accurate.” She chose the latter, and closed the segment stating that the rise of Donald Trump can be viewed as “America’s Sir Oswald Mosley Moment.”

Continue reading “Fake News and Fascists: The Paranoid Style in American Journalism”