We are what we fear. And these days, it seems, we have so very many ways to be afraid that it’s a wonder we don’t just go fetal. But now we can understand why, thanks to The United States of Paranoia. Author Jesse Walker, an editor at Reason magazine, makes it clear that Americans have an exceptional tradition of being afraid, very afraid. We like to find conspiracies everywhere; they make explaining complex, frightening reality simpler, and obsessing about them can even be comforting.
Start with the Federalists, who accused Thomas Jefferson of being part of the Bavarian Illuminati, a short-lived Enlightenment society whose detractors denounced it as an international subversive movement. (He wasn’t; it wasn’t.) Fast forward to Hillary Clinton pointing—with all 10 fingers in all directions—to her husband’s opponents as a “vast rightwing conspiracy.” (No, not hardly.) In between, the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have spawned endless conspiracy theories. No wonder Walker argues that this sort of irrational thinking is very American.
The cornerstone for The United States of Paranoia, a famed essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was set by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964. According to Hofstadter, “paranoia” (in a colloquial, cultural sense, not clinically) has been part of a “modest minority of the population,” with “a greater affinity for bad causes than good.” Walker acknowledges Hofstadter’s breakthrough in the realm of American cultural studies, but argues that Hofstadter seriously underestimated how afraid we’ve always been.
He goes to admirable lengths to make his point. The first half of the book delivers a roll call of America’s historic boogie men, enemies who threatened our core values, our incomes and status, even our lives: Catholics, Native Americans, Freemasons, Shakers, tramps, Mormons, extraterrestrials, gays, blacks, whites, Molly Maguires, Communists, the Ku Klux Klan and on and on. Virtually all of this was bunk, but as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you: The Anti-Masonic Party began in 1820s upstate New York, where Freemasons in Greene County represented 5 percent of the voters but half of the office-holders.
Being a Reason-able man, Walker struggles to bring some clarity to this murky milieu by subdividing it into archetypes: enemies inside or outside the community (for example, gays or popes), enemies higher or lower in the social order (Jefferson or slaves), a force for good that makes lives better (angels). The suspicion of insiders is the creepiest, because everyone is suspect, as with the witch hunts in Salem, Mass. Often, however, these archetypes overlap and evolve—as any good paranoid or Jungian would expect— so Walker’s analysis doesn’t always stand scrutiny.
But his book’s second half offers a lot of great stories about classic cases of American conspiracy theories, like the 30-year con job perpetrated by John Todd, who claimed his “old buddy” Charlie Manson would be sprung from prison to kill a million people and bring on martial law. The United States of Paranoia, despite some sticky moments, can be satisfying to polish off—like an ultra-chunky but under-hydrogenized peanut butter, with a lot of interesting nuts to chew over.