This deranged view of politics saw a conspiracy amongst a swath of the country’s elite composed of international bankers, Jesuits, Freemasons and others. And this unhinged perspective had a peculiar appeal to those on the fringes of the American political right.
Objectively, those on the right had little to fear in a mostly conservative country where social and political change only occurred in small, incremental steps. Nor, for that matter, barring under exceptional circumstances, such as in the wake of the Great Depression, did the country even contemplate any substantial, let alone radical, transformations. Nevertheless, those on the hard edges of the American right feared dispossession.
Hofstadter attributed these fears, especially in the postwar era, to three pervasive beliefs: that President Roosevelt’s New Deal had undermined free market capitalism, that officialdom was infiltrated with Communists and the “whole apparatus of education, religion, the press and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyse the resistance of loyal Americans”. It is necessary to include that direct quotation from his essay because it has an eerily contemporary ring to it.
The issues he had highlighted in that sentence came to the fore over the course of the past four years when Donald Trump was at the helm of the presidency. Despite his defeat, and the emergence of a seasoned, centrist Democrat, Joseph Biden, as president, this paranoid style that Hofstadter had identified nearly 60 years ago still remains a significant force in American politics.
Even as a prospective presidential candidate, Trump had started to give currency to this propensity. It started with his so-called “birtherism” when President Obama assumed office. Any number of Trump’s followers accepted his ugly and baseless claim that Obama was not a natural-born American (and was also secretly a Muslim according to many of them). In an attempt to quell this growing chorus of distrust Obama released his birth certificate from Hawaii.
Sadly, these bizarre views did not subside as the 2016 election campaign went into gear. Instead, they gained greater steam. One of the more absurd such conspiracies held that Hillary Clinton (and by extension, the Democratic Party) was running a child sex and human trafficking ring from the premises of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. Despite acquiring considerable traction amongst members of the right-wing media, this episode, popularly referred to as “pizzagate”, was bereft of any substance. Nevertheless, it attracted such a substantial following that a man actually drove up from North Carolina and fired a shot inside the restaurant. The owner of the restaurant was also subjected to death threats.
It’s widely believed that this conspiracy theory was the forerunner to another, QAnon. This has acquired an even wider following in American politics. Launched on an internet platform in 2017, it asserted that President Trump was engaged in a concerted effort to end a vast, sprawling network ranging from Hollywood elites to high government officials who are involved in global sex trafficking. The anonymous individual who posted this outlandish claim also stated that he was someone who possessed the highest levels of security clearance in the US government. Astonishingly, this theory quickly gained ground as it coursed through the internet and became the fodder of many chat rooms across the country.
The attraction of this grotesque idea amongst members of the lay public was bad enough. More disturbingly, however, it also started to attract support amongst aspiring politicians who either tacitly or even explicitly endorsed the allegation. Few politicians, however, have acquired as much notoriety for their flirtation with this conspiracy theory as Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected representative from the southern state of Georgia.
During her campaign, when QAnon endorsed her, she made little or no effort to distance herself from it. Even after the brutal assault on the two Houses of Congress on January 6 of this year which, amongst others, involved QAnon believers, she refused to promptly disavow any ties with its adherents. Only when faced with censure from her House colleagues and being voted off all committee assignments did she make a lukewarm effort to distance herself from the movement.
She may be the most prominent case of a politician who has traded in this outrageous conspiracy theory. However, she’s hardly alone. A host of Republican Congressional candidates from across the country have either endorsed QAnon or have offered varying degrees of support for its twisted claims. Among them is a first-time House member, Lauren Boebert, a restaurant owner and an unrelenting gun rights advocate from Colorado, who has made only half-hearted attempts to distance herself from her initial attraction to QAnon beliefs.
What’s striking about the vast majority of QAnon advocates is that they are overwhelmingly if not exclusively white, they are not especially well-educated and have a decidedly right-wing political orientation. Needless to say, when in office, Trump studiously refused to publicly disavow QAnon, thereby granting it a certain stamp of credibility if not legitimacy. Even with him out of office, many of his more avid followers still remain its faithful adherents.
Hofstadter, decades ago, had accurately unearthed a strain in America’s political culture that had no moorings in reality. His views have, tragically, proven to be altogether prescient.
The writer holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington