The Subtleties of Raging Paranoia

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is hardly news that the Trump campaign traffics in conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies.  Trump, however, is not actually more extreme in this regard than many people on the American right in the 21st Century.  He is merely more shameless about it.

More than a year ago, when the idea of Donald Trump as the Republican Party's nominee was still eliciting howls of laughter, I wrote about the spread of paranoid political fantasies among Republicans in the United States.  Drawing on the historian Richard Hofstadter's classic 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," I noted that the arch-conservative takeover of the Republican Party has coincided with an embrace of full-on conspiracy theorizing.

While many Republican leaders claim that Donald Trump is an outlier, therefore, this is yet another area in which the real problem for Republicans is simply that Trump is doing what they have been doing for years, but he does it more crudely.  Rather than viewing Hofstadter's essay as a warning, Trump seems to view it more as a playbook.

As boorish as he is, however, Trump has shown himself to be surprisingly adept at the dodge-and-weave of paranoid language.  For example, when he wanted to say that Senator Ted Cruz was not an American citizen and thus was ineligible for the presidency, Trump employed slippery language like, "I'm just asking whether ...," or "People are wondering about ..."  Why say that something is true and be proved wrong, when mere insinuation gets the job done?

Again, this kind of rhetorical move can be found everywhere on the right in U.S. politics.  Although many Republicans are willing to simply assert as a matter of fact that some crazy thing is happening -- calling climate change a "hoax" perpetrated by thousands of scientists, for example -- just as often we hear statements that never quite say what the speaker clearly means.

Take, for example, Trump's claims that the unemployment rate is being manipulated.  Back in February, Trump suggested that the standard way to measure unemployment was somehow a big conspiracy, and that the actual unemployment rate is 42%, not the published rate of 4.9%.

Again, however, Trump did not quite say that the unemployment rate is any particular number.  He said, "The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent."  Yes, he "even heard" that the number could be 42 percent.  Not that he himself is saying it.  He heard it.  From somebody.

This was classic Trump, because he was peddling a huge lie in a thin wrapper of plausibility.  There are many ways to measure unemployment, after all, and the government dutifully publishes a full range of possibilities.  Trump's 42% number includes retirees, students, non-working disabled people, and stay-at-home parents.  If this is his way of proving that things are much worse than the government admits, then he is really in trouble.

After that talking point had been laughed out of the court of public opinion, Trump seemed to move on.  Last month, however, one of his sons revived the conspiracy, seeming to claim on a CNN show that the Obama Administration was manipulating unemployment numbers to make them look smaller. 

PolitiFact rated that claim a "Pants on Fire" lie, finding "no evidence that [unemployment statistics] have been massaged for political purposes."  All of which is well and good, and it shows that the father of the Trump family is not the only one who is keeping the fact-checkers busy.  But the language that the younger Trump used was classic paranoia-speak, and it deserves closer attention.

When the PolitiFact reporter contacted me (along with other economists from across the political spectrum) about this issue, he provided the longer exchange between the interviewer and Trump, Jr.  (Unfortunately, I cannot find that transcript online.  [UPDATE: The video is available here, with the relevant portion beginning at the 3-minute mark.])  The full extent of the conspiratorial style of language was fascinating.

Most importantly, Trump Jr. never quite said who was doing these horrible things.  He used the passive voice -- darkly describing "numbers that are massaged" -- and he said that the massaging was being done "to make this administration look good," but he never quite said that the Obama Administration itself ordered anyone to do the massaging.  In the younger Trump's telling, there is some unnamed, malevolent person or group of people who are supposedly hiding the truth.

But the truth, as the interviewer pointed out, is that different ways of measuring unemployment have nothing to do with making the Obama Administration look good.  The same approach to reporting unemployment has been used for decades, through Republican and Democratic presidencies.

So, like any good conspiracy theory, this morphs into a claim that maybe this number has been manipulated by "some bureaucrat in D.C.," maybe (or maybe not) for Obama's benefit but so that "(they can say) unemployment's great because these people just can't even find jobs so they don't even count anymore."  Who is "they"?  Apparently, they are the people who want to prevent Trump from helping workers feed their families.  You know, the bad guys who are trying to harm Real Americans.  No need to be specific.

As I noted above, however, there is nothing about this style of what we might call "blunt indirectness" that is unique to Trump or his family.  Such manipulation of language is the stuff of conspiracy mongering across the right-wing landscape.

(I should emphasize, as Hofstadter did, that there is nothing inherent in conservative thought that should make the paranoid style more appealing to people on the right than on the left.  For whatever reason, however, much of the mainstream of the American right has been overtaken by conspiracy theorists, whereas left-wing conspiracy mongers remain marginalized.)

In a recent column, I revisited another conservative conspiracy that has been raging on the political right for the past three-plus years.  The claim is that the Obama Administration ordered the Internal Revenue Service to "target" Tea Party groups.  Like all good conspiracy theories, this one is based on a fact that is easy to distort.  In this instance, we know that some IRS employees did use inappropriate screening techniques that drew greater attention to conservative groups (but not exclusively conservative groups, with some left-leaning groups also having been singled out).

But it is apparently not enough to simply state the truth, which is that the bad practice was discovered and discontinued, and the IRS has made it clear that its supervisors never approved those practices (and never will).

The claim that there is a scandal has to be based on the idea that this did not simply happen but that it was politically directed.  The paranoid fantasy is that it was not merely some poorly trained employees of a chronically underfunded agency who were at fault.  Instead, it simply must be true that the Obama team was using the IRS for partisan purposes.  And that Holy Grail has kept Republicans in Congress in a tizzy ever since the inspector general's report was released in 2013.

As I have said many times, this is a particularly ridiculous conspiracy theory, because even if it were true, there is simply no political advantage to be gained from slowing down the applications for tax-exempt status from tiny groups that were unlikely to have any income to tax in the first place.  Why target a group of a dozen or so guys in rural Alabama, yet somehow approve an application from a massively financed group run by Karl Rove?

Even so, the dark language of conspiracy infects even the non-politicians who are claiming that something sinister simply must be afoot.  Consider an op-ed by one law professor who has been obsessed with this non-scandal.  Written a full year after the story had broken, and after House Republicans had failed time and again to find anything linking the Obama Administration to the IRS employees' long-since-discontinued behavior, the claim was that there is a scandal because we do not have all of the evidence that might prove that there is not a scandal.

Better still, the author frames this as a conspiracy of silence by the national media, which he accuses of ignoring what he matter-of-factly describes as the "IRS scandal" rather than as a possible scandal.  And the op-ed proceeds with positively Trumpian levels of misdirection, trying to build a steady drumbeat of troubling innuendo.

He starts with what should have been an innocuous incident early in Obama's presidency, when the president delivered a commencement address at Arizona State University.  Making light of the university's controversial decision not to confer an honorary degree on its commencement speaker (that is, himself), Obama laughed and said that obviously the IRS would investigate.

The audience got the joke, but our conspiracy theorist did not: "Supporters of the president dismissed critics who worried that the 'joke' was a 'dog whistle' intended to declare open season on the president's political opponents."  Get it?  There is no actual claim that the president was issuing an order to his minions.  There were just "critics who worried" that he had done so, and the president's supporters dismissed them.

It gets better.  The president's famous criticism of the Citizens United decision was followed (as a matter of chronology) by right-wing political groups forming in response to the legal opening created by the Supreme Court, which was supposedly followed by Democratic senators calling for the IRS to investigate, which was followed by the IRS employees' ill-fated screening decisions.

Not titillated enough?  There's more.  The then-Commissioner of the IRS testified that there had been no targeting, but he "stepped down at the end of his term later that year."  The subsequent acting commissioner later resigned, and the person whom House Speaker John Boehner threatened with criminal charges ended up receiving a $42,000 bonus.  (Was the bonus a payoff?  Inquiring minds want to know!)

Like Trump's and Trump Jr.'s slippery maneuvers noted above, this is the way that paranoid conspiracy theories are crafted for plausible deniability.  There is no need actually to assert that the Obama Administration ordered a political hit.  No one quite needs to claim that the resignation of an acting commissioner was part of a supposed coverup.  The insinuation that this timeline reflects a political cause-and-effect is left unstated.

Yet it all is sold as a "scandal."  And Republicans then gleefully use taxpayer money to launch investigation after investigation, leading to their recent shameful efforts to slime the current IRS commissioner, which is currently proceeding to an effort actually to impeach him.  Meanwhile, they prevent the crippled agency from carrying out its duties to collect taxes.

Hofstadter claimed that a "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" had begun to filter into the American Right during the post-WWII period, culminating in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and his landslide defeat in 1964.  In the half-century since then, the paranoid style has reached a fever pitch.  We can only hope that Trump's impending defeat will bring with it a broader rejection of Republicans' much longer-standing reliance on conspiracy theories and propagation of paranoid fantasies.