America the Paranoid

From the man who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson to The War of the Worlds, a brief history of political paranoia from Jesse Walker's The United States of Paranoia


On January 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson exited a congressman's funeral, an assassin drew a gun and pointed it at the president. The pistol misfired. The gunman pulled a second weapon from his cloak. Though loaded, it too failed to fire. The cane-wielding commander in chief and several bystanders subdued the would-be killer, an unemployed housepainter named Richard Lawrence. Lawrence later informed interrogators that he was King Richard III, that Jackson had killed his father, and that with Jackson dead "money would be more plenty." He was judged insane and committed to an asylum, where he died three decades later. Lawrence was a lone nut.

Or at least that was the official story. It wasn't long before two witnesses filed affidavits claiming to have seen Lawrence at the home of the Mississippi senator George Poindexter shortly before the attack. Poindexter was a noisy opponent of the Jackson administration, and pro-Jackson newspapers accused the senator of plotting the president's murder. So did Jackson's allies in Congress, who quickly convened an investigation. Jackson himself told bystanders after the assault that the shooter had "been hired by that damned rascal Poindexter to assassinate me."

Some of Jackson's critics countered by suggesting that the president had staged the assault to gain public support and that this explained why both weapons had failed. And many Jacksonians pointed their fingers at John Calhoun, the South Carolina senator and former vice president, arguing that if he had not been directly involved in the assassination attempt, he had at the very least incited it with a speech denouncing Jackson as an American Caesar.

When the Republican writer John Smith Dye described the crime 29 years later, he saw an even more devilish plot at work. Calhoun might not have been directly involved in the assault, Dye conceded—or then again, maybe he was. Either way, Dye believed that Calhoun had belonged to a Southern cabal that would have benefited if Jackson had been put in the ground. The Slave Power, Dye informed his readers, was more than willing to kill a powerful man to get its way.

In 1841, for example, President William Henry Harrison told Calhoun he wasn't sure he was willing to annex Texas, which Southerners wanted to add to the union as a slave state. Harrison promptly died—officially of pneumonia, but Dye was sure that arsenic was to blame. Nine years later, Dye continued, President Zachary Taylor was poisoned because he opposed the Slave Power's agenda in Cuba and the Southwest. And when President-elect James Buchanan prepared to make some appointments of which the slaveocrats disapproved, Dye declared, Southern agents poisoned all the bowls containing lump sugar at the National Hotel in Washington. Southerners, he explained, drink coffee; coffee drinkers use pulverized sugar; so the Southern diners would be spared while the tea-drinking Northern diners, including Buchanan, would be wiped out. Buchanan survived, Dye wrote, but he was intimidated into becoming "the tool of the slave power."

There is little evidence for Dye's explosive charges. But when his book The Adder's Den was published in 1864, the country was at war with the South, and when an expanded edition appeared two years later, the nation was still reeling from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In that atmosphere, a book that feels like a 1970s conspiracy thriller set in the antebellum era received a respectful notice in The New York Times and was excerpted in the Chicago Tribune.

Dye did not invent his theories from nothing: He drew on rumors that had been floating through Whig and Republican circles for years. And other Northerners worried about Southern conspiracies without taking their fears as far as Dye. Lincoln himself believed he could "clearly see" a "powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual," and in his famous "house divided" speech he engaged freely in conspiratorial speculation. Meanwhile, Southerners had elaborate conspiracy theories of their own, blaming slave revolts, both real and imagined, on the machinations of rebellion-stoking abolitionists, treacherous land pirates, and other outside agitators.

It was a paranoid time. In America, it is always a paranoid time.

Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They're wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country's core.

Unfortunately, much of the public perception of political paranoia seems frozen in 1964, when the historian Richard Hofstadter published "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in Harper's. In that essay, Hofstadter set out to describe a "style of mind" marked by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy," detecting it in movements ranging from the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic crusades of the 19th century to the "popular left-wing press" and "contemporary right wing" of his time. Half a century of scholarship has built on, refuted, or otherwise amended Hofstadter's ideas, but that work rarely gets the attention that "The Paranoid Style" does.

That's too bad. The essay does contain some real insights, and if nothing else it can remind readers that conspiracy theories are not a recent invention. But it also asserted that political paranoia is "the preferred style only of minority movements," and—just to marginalize that minority some more—that it has "a greater affinity for bad causes than good." In the Harper's version of his article, Hofstadter went further, claiming that the paranoid style usually affects only a "modest minority of the population," even if, under certain circumstances, it "can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties."

Hofstadter did not provide numbers to back up those conclusions. We do have some data on the popularity of well-known conspiracy theories, however, and the results do not support his sweeping claims. In a 2006 Scripps Howard survey, 36 percent of respondents—a minority, but hardly a modest one—believed it "very" or "somewhat" likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/11 to happen or actively planned the attacks. JFK assassination theories are not a minority taste at all: In 2003, four decades after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed a conspiracy was behind the president's death. (In 1983 the number of believers was even higher: 80 percent.) According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 71 percent of the country thought the government was hiding something about UFOs.

To be sure, there is more to Hofstadter's paranoid style than mere belief in a conspiracy theory. And there's a risk of reading too much into those poll answers. You can believe the government has covered up information related to UFOs without believing it is hiding alien bodies in New Mexico. (You might, for example, think that some UFO witnesses encountered weapon tests that the government would prefer not to acknowledge.) There is also a revised version of Hofstadter's argument that you sometimes hear, one that accepts that conspiracies are more popular than the historian suggested but that still draws a line between the paranoia of the disreputable fringes and the sobriety of the educated establishment. The "fringe," in this telling, just turns out to be larger than the word implies.

But educated elites have conspiracy theories too. You wouldn't guess it from reading "The Paranoid Style," but the center sometimes embraces ideas that are no less paranoid than the views of the fringe.

Consider the phenomenon of the moral panic, a time when fear and hysteria are magnified, distorted, and perhaps even created by influential social institutions. Although he didn't coin the phrase, the sociologist Stanley Cohen was the first to use it systematically, sketching the standard progression of a moral panic in a 1972 book: "A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible."

An essential feature of a moral panic is the folk devil, an evil agent who serves as a scapegoat for the threat. The folk devil often takes the form of a conspiracy: a Satanic cult, a powerful gang, a backwoods militia. The anti-prostitution panic of the early 20th century featured lurid tales of a vast international white-slavery syndicate conscripting thousands of innocent girls into sexual service each year. An influential book by a former Chicago prosecutor claimed, in the space of three paragraphs, that this syndicate amounted to an "invisible government," a "hidden hand," and a "secret power," and that "behind our city and state governments there is an unseen power which controls them."

While coerced prostitution really did exist, it was neither as prevalent nor as organized as the era's wild rhetoric suggested. Yet far from being consigned to a marginal minority movement, the scare led to a major piece of national legislation, the Mann Act of 1910, and gave the first big boost in power to the agency that would later be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Within a decade, the bureau would be extending its purview from alleged conspiracies of pimps to alleged conspiracies of Communists, getting another power boost in the process.

Such stories are missing from Hofstadter's account, which drew almost all its examples from movements opposed to the "right-thinking people" Cohen described. The result was a distorted picture in which the country's outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not. The essay had room, for example, for "Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers," but it said nothing about the elites of the era who perceived Populism as the product of a conspiracy. Hofstadter did not mention Charles W. Dabney, the assistant secretary of agriculture who denounced William Jennings Bryan's Populist-endorsed presidential campaign of 1896 as a "cunningly devised and powerfully organized cabal." Nor did he cite the respectable Republican paper that reacted to the rise of the Union Labor Party, a proto-Populist group, with a series of bizarre exposés claiming that an anarchist secret society controlled the party. "We have in our midst a secret band who are pledged on oath to 'sacrifice their bodies to the just vengeance of their comrades' should they fail to obey the commands or keep the secrets of the order," the Winfield Daily Courier warned in 1888. The paper kept up the drumbeat until Election Day.

When scholars and pundits aren't claiming that paranoia is limited to the political extremes, they sometimes claim that it's a product of particularly harsh times—that a conspiracy panic might leave the fringe and seize a large portion of the population, but only when the country is in turmoil. In 2009 the conservative writer David Frum offered that explanation for the popularity of Glenn Beck, a right-wing broadcaster with a fondness for conspiracy stories. "Conspiracy theories," Frum wrote, "always flourish during economic downturns."

He's right: They do flourish during economic downturns. But they also flourish during economic upturns. Frum was specifically attacking Beck for his interest in the idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was building secret concentration camps, so it's worth noting that the very same fear was previously popular on the left during the booming 1980s and on the right during the booming 1990s. For the last few decades, elements of whatever party is out of power have worried that the party in power would turn fascist; the FEMA story was easily adapted to fit the new conditions. (Beck, it should be noted, wound up rejecting the FEMA theory.)

Even if you set aside purely partisan fears, the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and allegedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that even at its most peaceful America is riven by conflicts. But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does.

The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that "it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." The Piaroa Indians of Venezuela, he wrote, "are famous for their peaceableness," but "they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities." Many middle-class bloggers leading comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean universe.

The word paranoia is being used here colloquially, not clinically. That should be obvious, but it's worth stressing the point, because there is a long history of people using psychiatric terms to stigmatize political positions they oppose. Unfortunately, a better term is not available. (Conspiracism comes close, but it doesn't quite cut it, since political paranoia can take the form of a dread that is broader than the fear of a cabal.)

To his credit, Hofstadter insisted that he had "neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics," adding that "the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant." But you still can come away from his article with the sense that large swaths of the American past have just been put on the psychoanalyst's couch.

And not every writer in his tradition has been as careful with his caveats as Hofstadter was. The same fall that Harper's published "The Paranoid Style," with its opening declaration that "the Goldwater movement" showed "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority," Fact magazine announced that "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!" Naturally, those irresponsible diagnoses from afar included the claim that the candidate had "a paranoid personality."

Well, colloquially speaking, virtually everyone is capable of paranoid thinking, including you, me, and the Founding Fathers. In the 1960s there was a scare about the radical right, demonstrating that it is even possible to be paranoid about paranoids.

And as one more illustration of that last possibility, here is a final story.

On October 30, 1938, at 8 p.m., the CBS radio network transmitted The War of the Worlds, a special Halloween edition of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The broadcast, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, was based on H.G. Wells' famous novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, but the action was moved from Victorian England to contemporary New Jersey. The first half of the story jettisoned the usual format of a radio play and adopted a more adventurous form: a live concert interrupted by ever more frightening bulletins. It was and is a brilliant and effective drama, but the broadcast is famous today for reasons that go well beyond its artistic quality.

You might think you know this story. In popular memory, hordes of listeners mistook a science fiction play for an actual alien invasion, setting off a mass panic. That's the tale told in one of the most frequently cited accounts of the evening, a 1940 study by the social psychologist Hadley Cantril. "For a few horrible hours," Cantril wrote, "people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from danger; that the end of the world was near.…Long before the broadcast had ended, people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians. Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurried to inform neighbors, sought information from newspapers or radio stations, summoned ambulances and police cars." At least 6 million people heard the broadcast, Cantril claimed, and "at least a million of them were frightened or disturbed."

The truth was more mundane but also more interesting. There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, however, that they were any more common than the people who today mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.

Cantril's numbers are dubious, and the people interviewed in his book were not a representative sample of the population. "Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast," the media scholar Michael Socolow noted in a 2008 essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.…Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn't handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine."

Of the people who did mistake the fake news bulletins for real reports, a portion were under the impression that the invaders were not extraterrestrials but Germans, a less implausible scenario. Even the spikes in telephone calls didn't necessarily represent public panic. The press critic W. Joseph Campbell has pointed out that the calls could be "an altogether rational response of people who neither panicked nor became hysterical, but sought confirmation or clarification from external sources generally known to be reliable." Campbell added that the call volume must also have included "people who telephoned friends and relatives to talk about the unusual and clever program they had just heard."

If Welles' broadcast derived some of its impact from Americans' anxieties about international tensions, the exaggerated reports about the response have persisted because they speak to another set of fears. After the play aired, the prominent political commentator Walter Lippmann took the opportunity to warn against "crowds that drift with all the winds that blow, and are caught up at last in the great hurricanes," adding that those "masses without roots" and their "volcanic and hysterical energy" are "the chaos in which the new Caesars are born." As Socolow wrote, the legend of the Mars panic "cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists—or incendiary demagogues—could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation."

To capture consciousness: what a chilling image. It's an idea that appears when dissidents warn that our leaders are using the mass media to brainwash us. But you can also find the fear among those leaders themselves, who have a long history of fretting over the influence of any new medium of communication. If Orson Welles was cast as a wizard with the power to cloud men's minds, his listeners were imagined as a mindless mob easily misled by a master manipulator. The social order is disrupted; riots are sparked from afar.

The War of the Worlds story is usually told as a parable about popular hysteria—of a sudden spike in the sort of fear that Hofstadter's essay decried. But at least as much, it is a parable about elite hysteria—of the anti-populist anxiety that Hofstadter's essay exemplified. No account of American paranoia can be complete unless it includes the latter.

This article is adapted from The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker.