In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Melodramatic Mode in American Politics and Other Varieties of Narrative Suspicion
  • Timothy Melley (bio)

No consideration of paranoia or conspiracy theory can proceed these days without at least a nod to Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter's 1964 "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" is among the most influential essays ever on the American political imagination, and it is significantly responsible for much contemporary thinking about conspiracy theory. There is, of course, nothing new about conspiracism, and it was in fact Karl Popper who introduced the contemporary notion of "conspiracy theory" in 1945.1 Yet Hofstadter's essay popularized the idea that conspiracy theory is a distinct, recognizable, and dismissible category of thinking with outsized effects on national political life. The paranoid style, he argued, has a "long and varied history," simmering on the margins of American society from the beginning and occasionally flaring into decisive political movements (1965a, 3). Its core epistemological error is the tendency to see "a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events" (25, 29). It is also characterized by a sense of persecution, the attribution of malevolent intentions to large organizations, and the deployment of "overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic" rhetoric (4). While the paranoid style is an expression of "distorted judgment" and "political pathology," it is not a symptom of true mental illness. Whereas clinically paranoid individuals fear plots against themselves, practitioners of the paranoid political style descry threats against "a nation, a culture, or a way of life" affecting millions (4).

The age of Donald Trump seems an important time to reexamine Hofstadter's concept. Trump has frequently been seen as the avatar of a [End Page 57] new "post-truth era" and a "golden age of conspiracy theory."2 He is a stunning example of the paranoid style. His singular ability to wed the nostalgic politics of national grievance to a narrative of personal suffering at the hands of vicious political enemies, "deep state" traitors, and malevolent journalists propelled his unlikely rise to conspiracy theorist-in-chief. Still, if Trumpism marks a high point in the annals of paranoid politics, it is important to recall that Hofstadter was writing amid his own "post-truth" crisis. After a decade of anti-communist demagoguery from Joseph McCarthy and others, Hofstadter was confronting the disturbing rise of Barry Goldwater. "The Paranoid Style" connected the rhetoric of such Cold War "pseudo-conservatives" to a much older tradition of paranoid politics in order to confront the frustrating persistence and appeal of populist demonology in the U.S.

The most important legacy of Hofstadter's essay is the idea that conspiracy theory is an easily recognized and dismissed type of political speech, marked by symptomatic errors of interpretation and understood chiefly as a result of faulty cognition—a "crippled epistemology," to use the term of Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule (2008, 675). This view continues to inform most scholarly and popular thinking about conspiracy theory, but it has also troubled some critics.3 For one thing, "The Paranoid Style" focuses exclusively on conservative and American examples. For another, it paints the paranoid style as a marginal, rather than central, aspect of American politics. Third, and most important, Hofstadter pathologizes the suspicion of conspiracy without acknowledging that something akin to paranoid suspicion might actually help discern the nature of modern political and economic power. Over the past two decades, numerous scholars, including myself, have asked whether the imagination of concealed structures and intentions may be a reasonable, even salutary, response to the conditions of knowledge in contemporary democracy.4 These inquiries have been intensified by the weaponization of the phrase "conspiracy theory," which is often used to dismiss claims as patently absurd and unworthy of serious consideration.

The debate over Hofstadter's concept has mostly emphasized its epistemological rather than narratological framework—acknowledging the power of his category while challenging the confident assumption that paranoid interpretation can easily be distinguished from its rational counterparts. But what if Hofstadter's essay is, in the end, not primarily about paranoia? What happens if we take Hofstadter's term "style" more literally and attend to the formal dimensions of his major examples? What happens, in short, if we...