According to both Richard J. Hofstadter’s work titled The Paranoid Style in American Politics and the Miriam-Webster dictionary, “Webster defines paranoia, the clinical entity, as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematic delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness” . While this is the technical definition which Hofstadter includes to educate the reader on what clinical paranoia is, there are prominent American leaders who have felt and exhibited some of these same tendencies, just in a different manner. As Hofstadter puts it “there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac” . The American political system has been plagued with a general, overarching sense of paranoia. The purpose of this blog post is to examine the paranoiac tendencies of American leaders of the past with the American leaders of the present.
One of the main differences between an individual who has been diagnosed with clinical paranoia and, as Hofstadter coins it “a paranoid spokesman in politics” is a politician, unlike a clinical patient who imagines everyone and everything is out to get them personally, is more likely to believe that a coup, destructive plot, or conspiracy theory is targeted “against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others” . While the two do share some of the general hostile symptoms of paranoia, what differs is where the destructive conspiracy theories are directed towards. Within The Paranoid Style in American Politics written by Richard J. Hofstadter, Hofstadter provides numerous examples of Americans speaking and operating within the paranoiac framework. Firstly is that of “Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States” . In this excerpt, McCarthy essentially felt that the American people could not trust the government as they would lead the country down a dark disastrous path. Secondly, in “a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party” , leaders of the Populist party felt that a conspiracy between American and European gold gamblers was ensuing with the ultimate goal of damaging the financial and commercial independence of America. Thirdly, in “a Texas newspaper article of 1855” , it was hypothesized that the Pope and the Europeans were joining together to undermine various religious, political, and economic institutions within the United States. Fourth and lastly, in “a sermon preached in Massachusetts in 1798” , it was felt that there were European plans to undermine Christianity. Whether the evidence to support these four claims was substantial or not, the four instances prove that paranoia was very much present within the United States’ political history. What all these colorful excerpts have in common is they all paint the picture of a paranoiac scenario where either a foreign or domestic entity has plotted to destroy certain pillars of American society such as religion, government, or democracy.
Now that we have examined how prominent leaders within American politics of the past have succumbed to paranoia, one could examine how paranoia has infiltrated American politics of the present as well. When looking at President Donald Trump, there are numerous prevalent signs which prove his presidential term has been one riddled by speculation, distrust, paranoia, and just a general sense of chaos. Time and time again there is evidence which points to the fact that President Trump feels that foreign powers along with his fellow government officials are trying to not only destroy him, but to destroy “his” view of American society which he so staunchly believes in. As mentioned earlier within this blog, author Richard J. Hofstadter wrote “there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac” . When looking at the case of President Donald Trump, the once stark differences between a paranoid spokesman and a clinical paranoiac have become muddled and hard to differentiate between. President Donald Trump has continuously conducted himself in manner which is, as Hofstadter puts it, “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” .: Hofstadter, Richard J. 1964. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Chapter 1.
While it is apparent from your summary of Hofstadter’s main points and descriptions of Trump’s behavior that the president is definitely paranoid in a political sense, I do not think that you can directly attribute these qualities to any underlying mental illness. As you note, Hofstadter draws attention to the “vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac” , implying that these two things should not be hastily equated. Although the article from psychology today linked in your post verifies that “more than 70,000 mental health professionals… signed a petition warning of Trump’s potential dangerousness, despite longstanding professional injunctions against ‘diagnosing’ public figures whom experts have not personally examined,” it should be noted that they believe he expresses symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder specifically. Some of these symptoms include: “a lack of empathy”, “a grandiose sense of self-importance”, and a “preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success.” These behaviors, if unchecked in a president, can certainly lead to troubling political decisions. However, paranoia is not one of the qualities observed by the mental health professionals who signed the petition, so it does not follow that Trump’s paranoid political style can be so easily attributed to any mental health condition that has not been professionally identified.