Don­ald Trump and the pol­i­tics of para­noia

Nairobi Law Monthly - - Briefing -

One star­tling fea­ture of the lat­est race to be­come the next pres­i­dent of the US is the run­away suc­cess in the opin­ion polls of the out­spo­ken bil­lion­aire, Don­ald Trump. But this should not be so sur­pris­ing, says Michael Goldfarb, as Trump is just the lat­est ex­am­ple of a ten­dency in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that goes back a very long way.

Fear. The sim­ple four-let­ter word that works if you want to get elected. Political pro­fes­sion­als know that play­ing on peo­ple’s fears is the way to win.

Para­noia. A some­what fancier word that is used to de­scribe ex­ces­sive, ir­ra­tional fear and dis­trust. It, too, works from time to time - in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, at least.

This cur­rent pres­i­den­tial sea­son is one of those times. Don­ald Trump has surged to the front of the pack com­pet­ing for the Repub­li­can Pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion by giv­ing voice to out­sized fears many in Amer­ica have - il­le­gal im­mi­grants, ter­ror­ists, free trade agree­ments ship­ping Amer­i­can jobs to China.

Trump prom­ises to make Amer­ica Great Again - as if the US some­how was no longer the most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world - by sim­ple so­lu­tions: de­port­ing all 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants, ban­ning Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the US, and forc­ing the Chi­nese to back down through tough talk.

The phrase “para­noid style in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics” was coined by the late his­to­rian Richard Hof­s­tadter. He de­fined the Para­noid Style, “an old and re­cur­rent phe­nom­e­non in our pub­lic life which has been fre­quently linked with move­ments of sus­pi­cious dis­con­tent.”

In a coun­try that at its best ra­di­ates an in­fec­tious op­ti­mism, it is in­ter­est­ing how of­ten fear has stalked the Amer­i­can land­scape.

Richard Parker, who lec­tures on re­li­gion in the early days of Amer­ica at Har­vard’s John F Kennedy School of Govern­ment, traces para­noia in Amer­i­can pub­lic life back to the Salem Witch Tri­als in the late 17th Cen­tury and even be­fore that, to the religious pol­i­tics of the Mother Coun­try.

It’s easy to for­get how closely tied the first colonies were to Eng­land, par­tic­u­larly in Mas­sachusetts. The Pil­grims were dis­sent­ing Protes­tants who sided closely with Cromwell in the English Civil War. When the Com­mon­wealth was over­thrown and the Stu­arts re­stored to the Bri­tish throne, there was re­newed strug­gle with Catholi­cism - and the religious sus­pi­cions sur­round­ing the court of James II were mag­ni­fied out of all pro­por­tion on the other side of the At­lantic.

Add in the daily strug­gles with na­ture, fight­ing with na­tive Amer­i­cans, and mil­len­nial religious prac­tice that thought the end times were ap­proach­ing and you have, Parker points out, “a com­mu­nity primed to be fear­ful”.

And so in the town of Salem, peo­ple turned on their more free-think­ing neigh­bours, and ac­cused them of be­ing witches. At this time, the idea of witch­craft was not some­thing from fic­tion. Peo­ple re­ally did be­lieve, in Parker ’s words, “dark spir­its could in­habit souls and bod­ies. It was the ba­sis for prim­i­tive psy­chol­ogy and phys­i­ol­ogy.”

He adds that it’s no sur­prise that in 1953, play­wright Arthur Miller set his clas­sic drama, The Cru­cible, in Salem dur­ing the witch tri­als.

The early 1950s was a time of an­other out­break of fear in Amer­ica, this time of com­mu­nists in high places ev­ery­where in­clud­ing the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. There were black­lists of sus­pected com­mu­nists and for­mer com­mu­nists in Hol­ly­wood. The House Un-amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee, ini­tially led by Sen­a­tor Joseph Mccarthy, sum­moned the fa­mous to Wash­ing­ton to tes­tify against artis­tic col­leagues. Ca­reers were ru­ined. Miller, sum­moned by the com­mit­tee in 1957, re­fused to name names and had his pass­port re­voked. But I di­gress... Writ­ing off Don­ald Trump was the de­fault set­ting of most pun­dits and political pro­fes­sion­als in the first months of the cam­paign. But Trump un­der­stood more than they did that a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is fear­ful. He plays to those fears - whether they are ra­tio­nal or not. He doesn’t speak in what he calls “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” terms.

In South Carolina, re­cently, I met a gen­tle­man named Robert San­difer.

“Trump has in­stilled hope in peo­ple,” San­difer told me.

“Hope? Sounds to me like des­per­a­tion,” I told him.

“If he does what he says he’s gonna do, we would be less fear­ful.” He added, for em­pha­sis: “We fear the fed­eral govern­ment very much.”^

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