A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 172

A conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.

Friday, November 20

What is paranoia? In his classic and now much-referenced 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter defines paranoia as “a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness.”

Hofstadter makes it clear that he is not a psychologist and is analyzing only a paranoid style. He finds this phenomenon to have existed in various historical periods among a variety of figures, including 18th century worriers over the activities of the Bavarian Illuminati, a precursor of the fraternity known as the Masons. Primarily, of course, Hofstadter is focused on the activities and writings of the mid-20th-century wacko political right wing in the United States. In the essay, he details some of the proclamations of infamous Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and John Birch Society head Robert Welch.

McCarthy, of course, won notoriety for discovering Reds Under the Beds of key U.S. institutions such as the State Department and the Army. He accused Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson of participating in a Red “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our federal government.” Former Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, to Welch, “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

Setting aside the particular subjects of McCarthy and Welch’s broadsides, the hyperbole, urgency, and delusions are all reminiscent of Trump and his cronies. In his proclamations, Trump wins elections and all other challenges by almost unfathomable margins. Allies and appointees he supports are uniformly, unbelievably marvelous.

But Hofstadter discovers one key difference with the Trumpist proclamations. The mid-20th-century right-wingers were assiduous quoters of sources and wielders of footnotes. Trump never offers any support for his over-the-top claims; it’s as if a Trump assertion alone should be sufficient. And for many Trump rank-and-filers, it seems to be enough.

The pre-Goldwater right wing were no more prone to accuracy than Trump. They simply saw the need to mimic academic and legalistic forms. Thus, Hofstadter notes “the very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.” (Hofstadter’s prose is itself so heroic that the temptation to quote him is overwhelming.) So it is that a 96-page pamphlet by McCarthy contains 313 footnote references, while Welch’s assault on Eisenhower has a hundred pages of bibliography and notes.

Trump and his surrogates, meanwhile, offer only “evidence-free” (in the Times’ phrasing) outbursts about questionable vote-processing in Nevada, purportedly suspicious mail ballots in Pennsylvania, and alleged votes by dead people in Michigan. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has pressured Georgia election officials to throw out absentee ballots since, he says, they were likely phonies. Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has asserted that Detroit voting was “a fraud, an absolute fraud.”

Again, there is no evidence for any of these claims, and whenever they have come before courts, judges have not hesitated to disregard them. Yet, a poll released on Wednesday by Monmouth University found that 44 percent of Americans think the election smells—they say we do not have enough information about the vote count to know who won. Nearly one-third of the public believes Biden won only because of voter fraud.

How can Americans be so gullible? Or maybe the right word is….paranoid. 

Dinner: a frittata with shallots, red bell pepper, and Dubliner cheese, along with braised potatoes and a green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Netflix’ The Crown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020-chapter 125

Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower.

Saturday, August 1

Maybe it’s a condition of rural life or something, but I seem to fall asleep early and wake up with the dawn. Rarely can I sleep as late as 7 a.m. and I am often up at 5. And that reminds me of summers in the 1960s, when my job as a copy boy at the daily Memphis Press-Scimitar sometimes required that I report by 5:30 a.m.

I was privileged to have this union-wage job—acquired strictly via nepotism—although I didn’t much like it at the time. I wanted to have the summers off as I had during my childhood. Only later would I realize that the newspaper was interesting, and that I had been exposed to a vanishing way of life at one of America’s soon-to-be-extinct afternoon papers.

Reporting at 5:30 meant going in to the paper’s downtown office at an hour when few people were around. If I turned on the radio while I downed a little breakfast, I’d hear the farm report, consisting of news about the latest commodities-exchange crop prices and advertisements for herbicides. 

(An aside: During my childhood, schools in neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas had springtime cotton-chopping holidays. Rural kids had to join in the workforce to help rid the cotton fields of weeds. But before long, herbicides would do this work. That had a profound effect, even expediting the migration of rural laborers, most of them African American, to Midwestern cities.)

On the drive in to the office, I’d see few people around other than milkmen or other early-to-rise laborers. Once at the office, my work largely consisted of getting stuff ready for others who’d arrive later. That meant sorting mail or attending to a variety of machines that few remember today.

For example, there were the wire-service teletype and photo machines. In those pre-Internet days, Associated Press and United Press International teleprinters—which seemed like ghost-operated typewriters—would run all night, knocking out printed copies of stories generated around the world. There’d be foot after foot of printed-out news stories, which I had to rip off of the machines and deliver to the desks of the editors who’d consider using them in the Press-Scimitar.

I don’t remember what outfit was behind the photo machine, but it produced reams of photos of global news coverage. Newspapers are always trying to anticipate newsworthy developments, so when the photo machine wasn’t busy delivering shots of such happening events as civil rights protests or Vietnam combat, it would fill in with other stuff. And in the summer of 1968, that meant photo after photo of former President and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

What was going on? Ike had long suffered from heart problems, and news outlets imagined that he might well expire that summer. He didn’t die until the following spring, but the papers were sitting on ready just in case.

Dinner: a mozzarella-cheese and sliced tomatoes salad, with asparagus on the side.

Entertainment: Episodes of Netflix’ Tabula Rasa and Britbox’ River.