"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."
—Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)

In November 2020, President Donald Trump lost the presidential election—but he didn't concede. For years he'd claimed that if he ever lost an election, the reason would be fraud. Prior to the election he'd doubled down on that claim, accusing his opponents—without evidence—of plotting to steal the election.

The election came during the coronavirus pandemic, when many Americans were unemployed or furloughed. Schools and businesses that could went remote; others shut down. In the ensuing uncertainty, long-dormant conspiracy theories found traction, and new myths and rumors proliferated.

Conservative media rationalized Trump's claims, and mainstream media catastrophized them. It was the culmination of five years of drum-beating primetime coverage, pitting right-wing extremists against left-wing extremists in a Manichaean fight for good and evil.

In the chaotic information landscape, both sides were positioned to profit from the fear and division of the electorate. Lies were weaponized by self-styled information warriors. Influencers led their audiences down rabbit holes and sold supplements and merchandise. Politicians and campaigns strategized to "flood the zone with shit." The media dutifully reported on all of it as ratings skyrocketed and funds poured into political coffers.

Following the 2020 election, Trump supporters—at the behest of Trump himself—took to the streets to "Stop the Steal," where they joined an amalgamation of far-right groups and agitators who had been active since the state-mandated COVID-19 lockdowns and counter-protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

As fall made way to winter, far-right protestors—once champions of law enforcement—began to turn their ire on police. A series of escalating conflicts in November and December reached their apogee on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C., when Trump supporters and organized far-right militants stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of votes by Congress.

In the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol attack, some of the rioters regretted their actions. They came to see that they were used by Trump and his enablers—pawns in yet another scam at the American people's expense. Others dove deeper into conspiracy theories, where they rejoined the righteous quest against the deep state. The media ignored their complicity in Trump's cult of personality and building the fever pitch in which he incited an insurrection.

Trump was not an anomaly—he was a demagogue in a tradition of American demagogues; a manifestation of what historian Richard Hofstadter called the Paranoid Style in American Politics. He tapped into the deep resentments, suspicions, and myths in the substrate of American life, and gave the enemy a name. Americans will be susceptible to demagogues like Trump for as long as we refuse to look beneath the surface.

Joshua Wood
January 6, 2023


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