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.
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. In an excerpt from his new book, The United States of Paranoia, Jesse Walker details the long history of American political fearmongering.