The Paranoid Style

I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone attacked for being an example of “the paranoid style in American politics,” but there was a time in the late 1960s and 1970s when the expression would pop up all over the place. It came to mind once again while I was reading a January 29th New York Times book review by Judith Warner of Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, by Donald T. Critchlow.

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” was a widely discussed article by Richard Hofstadter that appeared in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Hofstadter’s thesis was that “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” have long been a part of American politics. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, he argued that these fears centered on the manipulations of our government by “international bankers, Masons, Jesuits and munitions makers.” But the most-discussed element of Hofstadter’s article was his contention that by the last half of the 20th century, this “paranoia” became central to the radical right’s view of the world, especially that associated with Joseph McCarthy and his followers, who “believed that the country was infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents”:

The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent figures like President Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Whatever one thinks of Hofstadter’s proposition (one suspects he would like to return from the grave to rewrite the line about Alger Hiss), his description of paranoid politics is now a property of the American Left. Judith Warner’s review of the Phyllis Schlafly biography demonstrates this turn of events in spades.

Warner is a champion of feminist causes, host of a program on XM satellite radio and author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. You would think she would admire Schlafly. And in some ways she does, in spite of herself. She cannot deny Schlafly’s accomplishments, the way she worked her way through college, earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa, earned a “master’s degree from Radcliffe, established herself professionally and achieved economic self-sufficiency, then married a St. Louis man with whom she bonded intellectually” and then raised six children and “rose to national prominence” where she has “for the better part of the past 50 years, been a one-woman right-wing communications empire.”

The fly in the ointment for Warner is that Schlafly is a woman of the Right. She credits Schlafly with being the driving force behind the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, noting that Betty Friedan once said she’d like to burn Schlafly at the stake: “Why would such an independent-minded, ambitious, self-motivated and capable woman devote so much effort to making sure that members of her sex would benefit from their dependence upon men?” asks Warner.

But this point — the link between feminism and left-wing political causes — has been made repeatedly. No need to go over it again. What interests me just now is another angle. Warner takes Donald Critchlow to task for not using his book to expose the “well-recognized code” that Schlafly employs to express anti-Semitism. Warner is convinced this is because “Critchlow essentially speaks the same language as Schlafly and her cohort.”

What’s the code that Shlafly and her “cohort” use for this purpose? Warner credits Critchlow with noting that “Schlafly, like many other hard-right conservatives, has long been preoccupied with certain ‘well-financed’ minorities — ‘Eastern Establishment’ elites with ‘internationalist’ viewpoints who ‘shared strategies to expand their political and financial influence.’” Warner points out that Schlafly believes these elites are epitomized by Henry Kissinger, whom Schlafly and her co-author, Rear Adm. Chester Ward, described in the final pages of their 1975 polemic, Kissinger on the Couch, in this fashion: “Henry, say some who know him well, has no God. Does he have a country?”

Critichlow comes up short for Warner because he is reluctant to connect the dots, to point out how all this talk about plans for “world domination by Wall Street and the Trilateral Commission,” by a “well-financed, godless and countryless” minority is actually a “well-recognized code” for “identifying Jews.” Ward chastises Critchlow, “a professor of history at St. Louis University,” for letting “all this wink-winking go on without comment.”

Warner concedes that Schlafly does not identify Jews as part of any conspiracy. It is what she says between the lines, with her code language and wink-winking that is an expression of anti-Semitic hate. That sounds to me like a case of “suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter’s definition of political paranoia. I wonder if Warner thinks Schlafly’s cohort of anti-Semites also has a secret handshake.

I guess I would make little headway if I were to protest to Warner that I have been floating around the edges of the conservative movement for over 40 years now, that I have been in attendance at numerous speeches, meetings and seminars, as well as at social gatherings with people who call themselves conservative, and that no such “wink-winking” about Jews goes on. I suspect she would accuse me of being part of the conspiracy too. But it is a fact: It does not happen. Warner is living in a fantasy world as separate from reality as that of the 19th-century conspiracy theorists Hofstadter described in his essay.

I had better rephrase my case: There are anti-Semites on the Right. I have run into snarling characters who sound like someone sent from central casting for a bad movie about right-wing kooks, beery loudmouths who leap to accept baseless canards such as the one about no Jews being killed on 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center because they had been informed of the Israeli plot that was responsible for the attack. But they are rare. It is a baseless smear to maintain on the basis of some “code language” that they are representative of anything associated with Phyllis Schlafly.

When Phyllis Schlafly writes about “morality” and “pro-family values” and “one-world elites” hostile to the traditional beliefs of the American people and the nation-state system, she is being precise in her language. There are countless Jews in all walks of life who do not hold such secular transnational views. But there are some who do, sharing them with non-Jews such as John Dewey, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Clintons, and William Fulbright. When Schlafly is critical of these Jews, such as in her comments about Henry Kissinger, it is because he is in this camp, not because he is a Jew. There is no code language being used. No wink-wink.

Take a breath, Ms. Warner. You are slipping over into what you folks on the Left call “McCarthyism.”

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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