Can We Hope This Era Of Paranoia Is Burning Itself Out?
Credit: Screenshot
October 20, 2020

Two things bear repeating before I get to the point. One, the president is not going to play fair. This election is not a contest in which we can honestly say, “May the best man win.” If there’s a way to cheat, Donald Trump will find it. Two, the weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day are going to be scary. The president is already extorting the electorate into choosing him—or else. If he doesn’t win, we can expect white-power terrorists to react. What’s certain, unfortunately, is there will be blood.

That said, I want to take a moment to express hope. Polling is very encouraging. Joe Biden is leading the president nationally by double digits in some surveys. That’s where you want to be to avoid the effects of GOP voter suppression. That’s where you want to be to counteract the inequities of the Electoral College. Also encouraging has been enthusiasm for early voting. In George and Texas, we’re seeing huge lines. Voters are waiting to cast ballots for up to 10 hours. While wait-times are a national disgrace, the fact that people are determined should be seen a source of national strength. Truly, the people are the only way of getting rid of a tyrant. And the people are showing up.

To be honest, I had lost some faith. Not all, but some. Like others, 2016 gave me a lingering case of PTSD. The choice seemed so simple. I found myself reading a lot about propaganda, disinformation, conspiracy theories and the like. I concluded some Americans were not only duped; they desired being lied to. It made them feel good.

“Democracies can accommodate quite a lot of irrationalism,” wrote David Runciman. “What is not clear is whether they can accommodate it when it emanates from the center.” Runciman went on to say that, “There will always be fringe figures in any democratic society who believe the nonsense they read and decide to take matters into their own hands. It is shocking when it happens, but democracies can cope. Pedophilia and pizza parlors will be told apart eventually, and the contagion from that kind of paranoia can be contained. Much harder to know is what happens when the contagion of conspiracy theorizing spreads out from the heart of government” (my italics).

It was harder to know, in January 2017, what happens when “conspiracy theorizing spreads out from the heart of government.” (That’s when Runciman was writing for the special “post-truth” edition of The Chronicle Review.) In not knowing, in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency, there was opportunity aplenty for abject despair. But now, as a new Election Day approaches, and as polling indicates an electorate poised to correct its previous mistake, we see something like affirmation of Runciman’s claim. The people understand Trump’s the-Deep-State’s-out-to-get-me shtick. His paranoia can be contained. Democracy can cope with irrationalism emanating from the center. It can cope not because the institutions are strong. It can cope because the people are.

Thursday night, during NBC’s live town hall, the president refused to disavow QAnon. (That’s the conspiracy theory holding that Democrats are satanist child sex predators; it’s a 21st-century update of the ancient “blood libel” slander against Jews.) Trump refused to disavow it the way he refused to disavow any number of horrible things over the course of his term. But while in the past, this seemed like a source of strength (he can say anything and never face consequences!), this time it seemed like a source of weakness. Under Savannah Guthrie’s withering questioning, and set side-by-side with Biden’s calm, mild and policy-oriented town hall, the president seemed to unravel. He is the center of American power, as all presidents are. But his center did not hold.

Let’s hope the darkness is lifting. The popularity of conspiracy theories is cyclical in American history. It rises with rising tensions rooted in crisis. The influx of Catholic immigrants aroused the Know Nothings in the 1850s. The Cold War, and the fear of a nuclear Soviet Union, gave fruit to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Each period tapped into a “persistent psychic phenomenon,” wrote Richard Hofstadter in 1964, which is “more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.” In each period, this psychic phenomenon eventually burns itself out. Then it crawls back underground. Fortunately for us, this paranoid style, like Trump’s style, seems to be going out of style. Let’s hope that by 2021, conspiracy theories passing for credible become passé. Then we can, at last, get down to the business of solving our collective problems.

Republished with permission from The Editorial Board. Subscribe here.

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