With the global pandemic of COVID-19 virtually shutting down the entire country and disrupting our way of life, the United States, and in particular President Donald Trump, have evoked the paranoid style of politics. Hofstadter defines the paranoid style of politics as, “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that permeates American right wing politics (1). This method of politics further catapults the US down the path of democratic erosion with its dangerous, conspiracy driven rhetoric.
In the beginning of March, before COVID-19 had begun to make its full impact in the United States, right wing pundits and news organizations insisted that the virus was a liberal hoax (2). Not only was this suspicion touted by conservative news outlets, the same sentiment was echoed by members of Trump’s cabinet and the President himself. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney stated at CPAC, “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president. That’s what this is all about,” (3). The purpose of these conspiracies is to shift any possible blame away from the President and his administration and to cast doubt on the opposition and the mainstream media. This is a key tactic of paranoid politics, in which a person or party seeks to cast themselves as the victims fighting against a deeply ingrained nefarious force that is working to undermine them at every turn (4). These conspiracy theories were of course baseless and unfounded, and as the nation began to feel the full effects of this pandemic, this conspiracy was traded out for a new one to fit the new reality.
Donald Trump himself embodies this paranoid style of politics. Now that there is no denying the reality of the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump and his supporters have shifted to a new conspiracy narrative. As Hofstadter explains, “the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him” (5). Trump has expressed this sentiment repeatedly in his daily press briefings on Coronavirus to the public. Trump has not been quiet about his desire to reopen the country as quickly as possible. Not only has this virus impacted the health and safety of our citizens, it has impacted our economy and way of life. Schools are closed, unemployment is on the rise, the stock market has plumeted, and hospitals are not prepared with the proper equipment to effectively fight this virus. When criticized by a reporter for his statement that he would like to see the country reopen by Easter Sunday, which numerous health professionals stated would be dangerous, Trump replied, “Just so you understand – are you ready? – I think there are certain people that would like it not to open so quickly. I think there are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls,” (6). Instead of answering the reporter’s valid question, Trump took it as an opportunity to victimize himself and accuse the media and the democratic party of exploiting this crisis to defeat him in the next presidential election.
In a time of crisis when the country should be pulling together, our politics remain as divisive and polarized as ever. The rise of “paranoid politics” style rhetoric in the midst of this crisis further divides the country, and make it harder to band together as one to help mitigate the disastrous effects this virus may have on our country.
(1) Hofstadter, Richard, and Sean Wilentz. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Vintage Books a Division of Random House, 2008. p. 3.
(2) Krugman, Paul. “Paranoid Politics Goes Viral.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/02/opinion/coronavirus-trump.html.
(3) Grynbaum, Michael M., and Rachel Abrams. “Right-Wing Media Says Virus Fears Were Whipped Up to Hurt Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/business/media/coronavirus-right-wing-media.html.
(4) Hofstadter, p. 29
(5) Hofstadter, p. 4
(6) Smith, David. “Trump Accuses Media of Wanting to Keep Economy Shut to Hurt His Reelection.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/trump-accuses-media-of-wanting-to-keep-economy-shut-to-hurt-his-reelection.