Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style Revisited

Roughly a quarter of Republican voters in the United States believe that “elitists” in government, the media, and Hollywood are a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking pedophiles who murder children for their adrenochrome. Meanwhile, 25 percent of Americans believe that it’s “definitely true” or “probably true” that the coronavirus pandemic was “planned.” More than a third of self-identified conservative Republicans are in this camp, as are nearly one-in-five Democrats.

These are not garden-variety conspiracy theories. It’s one thing to believe that, say, the CIA assassinated President John F. Kennedy because they didn’t like his Cold War policies. It’s quite another to believe that a demonic organization of millions is murdering as many people as Nazi Germany did—and without a single government anywhere in the world uttering so much as a peep about it or a single insider blowing the whistle or leaking. If you believe these plots are real, you are not the target audience for historian Richard Hofstadter’s collection of essays, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not often that a magazine asks a writer to review a book published more than a half-century ago, but much of Hofstadter’s work is timelier and more relevant now than it was when he wrote it.

First Edition of The Paranoid Stydle in American Politics and Other Essays by Richard Hofstadter, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

If he were still alive, Hofstadter probably wouldn’t be surprised to find that what he called “the paranoid style” is back. He wrote his essay about this phenomenon shortly after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lurid press conferences and demagogic congressional hearings about a supposedly vast communist conspiracy riveted and repulsed the nation. But Hofstadter argued that McCarthyism was simply the latest iteration of a longstanding American tradition. Over and over again, he observed, America had become an arena for “uncommonly angry minds” on the Right and the Left, who imagined that a diabolical conspiracy was on the verge of destroying the nation. What he described was more like a state of mind—one of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—than an ideology or movement. One can be uncommonly angry and paranoid at any point on the political spectrum.

Hofstadter wasn’t describing the clinically paranoid—the mentally ill who suffer a psychotic break from reality and imagine that great forces are persecuting them personally. He was describing otherwise psychologically normal people who are nonetheless convinced that a vast conspiracy is targeting an entire country or culture or way of life, and that its victims number in the millions:

The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power … The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever running out.

Hofstadter quoted Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel, who represented California from 1953 to 1969. Of the tens of thousands of letters he received every month, Kuchel said that roughly 10 percent were what he called “fright mail” about “the latest PLOT!! to OVERTHROW AMERICA!!!” A favorite example: Chinese army soldiers disguised as UN peacekeepers were gearing up to invade San Diego from Mexico.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to the United States. Apocalyptic conspiracy theories erupt all over the world with some regularity. Indeed, some of America’s paranoid delusions were imported from Europe. But Hofstadter was interested in their American manifestation because he happened to be American.

These are wild times we live in right now, but the paranoid style can erupt even in quiet decades. The 1950s was hardly a tumultuous era, especially compared with what came before and after. The mildly conservative Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and the radicalism of the Depression era was now dormant. This is the decade to which so many contemporary conservatives—and an increasing number of progressives, albeit for different reasons—long to return.

But some people aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy. So, with nothing much to complain about, at least from a conservative perspective (the civil rights movement came later, and though much of its energy came from the Left, more Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964), malcontents on the Right had to invent something to whinge about. It was to that contingent that Hofstadter referred (in the book’s second essay) when he identified “pseudo conservatives,” a term borrowed from Theodor W. Adorno’s study The Authoritarian Personality. Although pseudo conservatives “believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism,” he wrote, they “show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions.” (A decade and a half later, he might have written about pseudo liberals rather than pseudo conservatives, but this was the 1950s, and most of the cranks back then were on the Right rather than the Left.)

Pseudo conservatism is as hard to pin down as the paranoid style to which it is so closely related because it’s not a coherent set of beliefs. But like pornography, Hofstadter knew it when he saw it, and he included some telling examples, many of which are characterized by the paranoid style.

The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures.”

Hofstadter was a historian, not a clinical psychologist, so what’s most striking about reading his work is the realization that the current spasm of paranoia and wacky pseudo politics is unremarkable when taking the long view.

The first episode covered in his title essay won’t surprise anyone since most Americans are already at least passingly familiar with the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Most famously, American playwright Arthur Miller metaphorically condemned these proceedings in his 1953 play The Crucible about the actual witch trials held in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692–3. “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy fulminated in 1951. “This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Of course, there were some communist spies in the American government, and no doubt there are still foreign spies operating on American soil, some of whom work for the Russians. That’s what the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program is for. The Americans also had sources inside the Kremlin. That’s espionage for you. But contrary to what the revisionists who claim that “McCarthy was right” insist, this is not what the anti-communist paranoiacs were talking about. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society echoed McCarthy’s apocalyptic exaggeration: “Communist influencers are now in almost complete control of our Federal Government.” Not quite complete control, but almost! And not just the government but also the media, the churches, the courts, and the schools.

This is what characterizes the paranoid style rather than run-of-the-mill conspiratorial theorizing. The problem isn’t some small group up to no good. It’s a monumental conspiracy, and it’s ruining everything. Even adding fluoride to drinking water terrified millions during Hofstadter’s day, for it, too, was supposedly part of a communist “plot.” Somehow, the theory went, fluoride in drinking water would make people more willing to go along with the nationalization of industry and the collectivization of agriculture than fluoride in toothpaste. Need I point out that this is not the sort of thing FBI counterintelligence agents spent their time investigating?

Hofstadter’s era was no more unique than our own, and reading him takes us back to the long-forgotten nonsense that preoccupied and animated the forerunners of McCarthy and QAnon. Here, for instance, is a Texas newspaper in 1855:

It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. … We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.

Going back even further, here’s a Massachusetts sermon in 1798 railing against a supposed Illuminati conspiracy:

[It is] the most extensive, flagitious, and diabolical [design] that human art and malice have ever invented. Its object is the total destruction of all religion and civil order. If accomplished, the earth can be nothing better than a sink of impurities, a theatre of violence and murder, and a hell of miseries.

Illuminism was an 18th-century Bavarian movement based on Enlightenment rationalism that stood against the reactionary clericalism present in that particular place at that particular time. It promoted freedom, tolerance, constitutional government, and the separation of religion and state. Yet, “the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them,” Hofstadter wrote. He pointed out that there was no evidence that a single Illuminati member ever set foot on American soil.

No survey of American paranoia would be complete without the freemasons, a secretive but otherwise mainstream society that “was held to be a fraternity of the privileged classes, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices, thus shutting out hardy common citizens.” Somehow, these people “muzzled” the press so that the general public wouldn’t know what was “really” going on.

The villains in these conspiracy theories weren’t merely busying themselves with nefarious political plots. They were as morally repulsive as serial killers. Masons supposedly disemboweled people and drank wine from skulls. Catholics allegedly removed unborn infants from their mothers’ wombs and fed them to dogs. Such accusations are no different from the antisemitic blood libels circulated about Jews who, it is said, use the blood of Christian and Muslim children in their religious rites, or QAnon’s claim that “Satanic pedophiles” in Congress, the State Department, Hollywood, and the media are trafficking and murdering children to harvest hallucinogens from their adrenal glands in pursuit of immortality.

While Hofstadter wasn’t able to identify the psychological mechanisms behind the phenomenon, he did offer a theory for why paranoia, while always present at some level, explodes in some historical eras and remains muted in others. Throughout American history, politics has generally been shaped by either competing interest groups (labor unions, corporations, retirees) focused on real-world problems or by cultural groups (educated professionals, Christian fundamentalists, rural residents) vying for status. In status politics, Americans are more interested in culture wars (Hofstadter used the phrase “social conflicts”) and the airing of grievances than in, say, repairing a broken economy or fighting a war.

There is a tendency to embody discontent not so much in legislative proposals as in grousing. … Therefore, it is the tendency of status politics to be expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.

A bitter culture war waged against our own friends, family members, and neighbors would have been a spectacularly poor response to the Great Depression, Hitler’s invasion of Europe, the September 11th attacks, or the War of 1812. But since human beings are wired for conflict and strife, it makes a perverse sort of sense for a certain kind of person to pick oversized fights about relatively trivial matters during peacetime and to hallucinate existential threats when none exist. When there really is an enormous real-world problem, those otherwise prone to paranoia can focus on that rather than on the bogeymen in their minds.

If Hofstadter was right, there is, in all likelihood, no solving this problem any more than we can solve winter aside from patiently waiting for spring. “While [the paranoid style] comes in waves of different intensity,” he wrote, “it appears to be all but ineradicable.” The good news about a problem that arrives in waves is that all waves break eventually. It’s mathematically impossible for any kind of wave, physical or metaphorical, to continue building forever. But since not even a pandemic that killed a million Americans and crashed the global economy was enough to change the American mood, God only knows when this preposterous era will finally expire.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/16/the-paranoid-style-revisited/
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Timely piece. It’s an awful way to live & there seems to be increasingly a hellava lot of folks afflicted that must invariably have an influence on relationships & more disturbingly their children. I suspect the reason conspiratorial mentality particularly afflicts the right & men might be related to a higher predication for control in those demographics.

Great article here that details the personality traits usually involved & gives insight why North Americans with these traits maybe more vulnerable to conspiracy mentality.

What does predict belief in conspiracy theories? A cocktail of personality traits. Those who believe these theories typically show high levels of anxiety independent of external sources of stress, a high need for control over environment, and a high need for subjective certainty and, conversely, a low tolerance for ambiguity. They tend to have negative attitudes to authority, to feel alienated from the political system, and to see the modern world as unintelligible. Conspiracy theory believers are often suspicious and untrusting, and see others as plotting against them. They struggle with anger, resentment, and other hostile feelings as well as with fear. They have lower self-esteem than nonbelievers and have a need for external validation to maintain their self-esteem. They may have a strong desire to feel unique and special, and an exaggerated need to be in an exclusive in-group. Belief in conspiracy theories often also goes along with belief in paranormal phenomena, skepticism of scientific knowledge, and weaknesses in analytic thinking. Proneness to belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with religiosity, especially with people for whom a religious worldview is especially important. These traits are hardly universal among or exclusive to conspiracy theorists, but they help create a vulnerability to belief.

Conspiracy theories such as these are especially dangerous when they’re believed by people who actually have power, who set an example and make policy decisions. As columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left—which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe—the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences.” The widespread belief on the part of Trump supporters that Biden won the election only because of voter fraud, egged on by Trump himself despite the lack of any significant evidence, may leave a legacy of delegitimating the Biden administration and of delegitimating government and normal political processes themselves. And that, in fact, may be the point.

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I wonder what percent of Democrats, Republicans and others in-between believe that a Jewish carpenter from the first century rose from the dead and then went up into the sky to be with his “father”…? Or, for that matter, how many might believe that an angel came from heaven and dictated the words of God to an Arab merchant in a cave…so he could write a boffo book and set the world on fire in the process…

You keep missing the mark… you mean “those assigned as men at birth…” But of course, if we’re only “assigned” these genders at birth, then there could be no such thing as a predilection, could there?

As for “North Americans” being more susceptible… I am not too sure. I mean, the US has its fair share of loony’s… sure. But if you want to find places where people were gassed and then their bodies cremated en-masse in a fit of sadistic conspiracy peddling… you need to go to Europe. And the less said about Australia’s relations with its “Abo’s” the better… I suspect the reason you know about these things from the American perspective is that unlike most other nations on earth, the Americans actually air their dirty laundry for the world to see… If the likes of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Mongolians, etc., etc. actually let the world know what the vast majority of their people truly believe… you may be shocked. Americans turn their worst traits outward for public display…

But I might think differently if I came from a nation that was basically the equivalent of Texas and not nearly as diverse…

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Roughly a quarter of Republican voters in the United States believe that “elitists” in government, the media, and Hollywood are a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking pedophiles who murder children for their adrenochrome.

The PRRI poll claims that “Across…four surveys, around one in five Americans mostly or completely agree that there is a storm coming (22%), that violence might be necessary to save our country (18%), and that the government, media, and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles (16%).”

So, let me get this straight. The statement with which the author chose to open his piece is a deliberate falsehood. There is so little smart, interesting writing anymore. What a bummer it is that sensational rubbish has infected Quillette.

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Yeah, I don’t know man. I am more worried that there is anyone who even believes that Satan is a real thing…

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The sexes share gendered traits remember? :grin:

I’m not suggesting it’s not a universal thing but the point is it’s a particularly north American thing right now. Don’t be so defensive sweetie…

I’m not being defensive. I am merely pointing out that you know a lot more about what is happening in the US than in other places… I am suggesting that this fact, lends the appearance that the US is unique. I don’t think it is. Not at all. I think this sort of weirdly tribal bullshit is quite common but because America produces so much content in English that it seems to be an aberration. But I suspect if you could understand Russian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, or Arabic, or Chinese, etc. then you would find a similar amount of paranoid bullshit out there…

I speak Chinese fluently. I can assure you that there is a lot of weird conspiracy shit brewing here all the time. But it doesn’t make Paul Krugman blush… cause his team lost a fucking election.

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Look, you maybe right. But as you say, your people are on the ‘loud’ side so perhaps a consequence is word/conspiracies may get around easier. There also appears to be an inordinate amount of north American ‘broadcasters’/grifters with very large audiences who peddle such nonsense like Alex Jones that I suspect aren’t as rampant in places like China & Russia for obvious reasons.

I guess us Aussies should be content drawing the vulgarity card. At least it does less damage. You people need to follow our lead & focus on the punt, grog, footy & rooting more. It’s very relaxing albeit slightly addictive.

The guys in China and Russia who peddle the nonsense are called “the state”.
As for people like Alex Jones, et. al. I think they are not as influential as people think. I am a right-winger. I don’t really like guys like him. I disdained Trump and am not a big Fox News fan. BUT… I would vote for someone like Trump over Biden any day of the week. And I suspect that many people, when responding to pollsters, are more like me. I am a shit-starter. I especially like to piss off lefty types. Their histrionics amuse me. So, if a pollster ever called me, I’d lie my ass off about what I believe partly for the kicks.

Of course, what kills me, is that in the midst of all this bullshit, there are sitting senators and congressmen who now want to believe that if the court reverses the Roe decision, then other things like gay marriage or even inter-racial marriages are next… and the right is paranoid? Or, how about the paranoia it takes to tell the entire white race that they share some collective guilt for shit?

The US is “loud” yes, but, we are also a self-reflective bunch too. If you want to find the most vicious anti-Vietnam war commentary, an American probably made it. Same too for the Iraq War. The US is a massive place. It contains multitudes and those people are free to push their bullshit on anyone… who are likewise free to believe anything. Hell, some Americans still want to believe the Beatles were good band and Barack Obama was a good president. They are free to delude themselves!

I think what is missing from this analysis, and from people like you who like to throw shit on the US from afar (since it costs you nothing) is that there is little realization of what a place like that really is. The US is everything everyone says it is. If you think the US is a racist shithole with asshole cops everywhere, you’re probably right…sometimes. If the you think it is a paradise on earth where justice reigns… you’re probably right, sometimes. Whatever you hear about the US, bad, or good… believe it. It’s probably true. We’re arrogant, stupid, redneck, crass, stubborn, imperialist, genius, creative, funny-as-fuck, talented, retarded, retrograde, moronic, inspired, insipid… you name it. If there is an adjective to describe a human being, you’ll probably find an American that fits the description.

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Sorry to disappoint but my criticisms aren’t unique to the US & I happen to very much appreciate that such a large population that bases it’s principles on liberty isn’t going to be without a larger share of issues.

PS. & given we are all forced to mostly focus on the US’s issues its invariably going to eventuate in a larger share of criticism. That’s what you get for being an attention seeker. Deal.

Mohammad was illiterate.

Ok, so the bad news is that the monkeys are crazy, always have been crazy, and always will be crazy. True. The good news is that this time is no different, and eventually the troupe will settle down. Very comforting and genuinely so. But even if we strip off that meta narrative, the fact remains that the GOP really did try to subvert an election and the woke really are teaching trans baloney to the kids. IOW, whereas it’s nice to expect that ‘this, too, shall pass’, in the mean time real damage is being done and sometimes the wave of insanity reaches high enough to topple the government. When a hurricane hits we all know that it will pass in a few hours but that doesn’t change the fact that it can trash a huge hunk of the country.

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It was difficult to read this article carefully when the author, who I respect (his Gulf war reporting was stellar), starts things off with such hyperbole. I’d be surprised if a quarter of Republicans even know what adrenochrome is.

Upon seeing such I tend to skip over the rest of the text pretty quickly, just trying to see if there are a few highlights. I don’t want to waste time weeding out more exagerations.

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I’d say that this kind of political anger is characteristic of the Conservative psyche. As @Ella-B quotes from the article in Slate, it’s people who have a low tolerance for cognitive or moral ambiguity, people who feel that they have no control over events, who are prone to Conspiracy. You can find such people across the Left-Right Liberal political spectrum: on the Left (or superficially Left, Left-adjacent) such Conservatism translates into radical attempts to invert the social hierarchy and oppress the oppressors. There, the New Boss is same as the Old Boss. On the Right such Conservatism often takes the form of belief in such things as inherent racial or cultural superiority, and a belief that a racial/ethnic hierarchy must be maintained by force. You find this with Ancient Sparta or the Old South of the United States or Apartheid South Africa or present-day Israel.

Most Conservative polities historically however have no connection to the “Right,” since the Right after all is (at least in principle) a Liberal viewpoint and Liberalism and Conservatism are original enemies. Conservatism, or its post-Revolutionary era equivalent, Fascism, does not have an articulatable ideology aside that of the Smash 'n Grab ethos of the Patriarchy. You do have people like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre who come along at the end of the era of the Patriarchate, and try to make explicit its premises; but it was originally based always on the argument of power, not the power of argument. That is why Fascism is seemingly so amorphous and difficult to define; it all traces back to the Conservative psyche, which is characterized much more by an attitude towards life and the world, than a clear view of what makes a given political authority actually legitimate. Harking back to Hofstadter’s diagnosis of the Conservative psyche,

You definitely see this state of mind on display today amongst Trump’s Fascist voters. It is all inchoate rage, railing at “the Swamp” and “the Deep State,” amidst the endless racial-agitprop over immigrants and BLM and the Chinese and what have you. It all trades on the perennial Patriarchal values of fear and anger, and fear and anger are potent Anti-Liberal political forces.

It’s no accident, either, that the Conservative psyche is prone to manifest more on the Right-end of the Liberal political spectrum than the Left, in advanced Industrial economies. When the vast majority of society consists of the rural poor (as in Soviet Russia or Communist China), it is much easier for the Conservative psyche to assert a total leveling of class-distinctions, than in the case where the economy has already undergone modernization and the means of production are too widely distributed for the government to defeasibly commandeer them. The Conservative psyche’s instincts after all are anti-egalitarian (in-group identity and loyalties are to be privileged over out-groups), and so as a practical matter Conservatives can come to a modus vivendi with Right-liberals, to oppose Leftism. In such sociopolitical contexts, you get the Red Scare or the John Birch Society or Qanon insanity; there are no equivalents of this Paranoid Style to be found on the Left (not, again, in any country with an advanced industrial economy).

Hofstadter’s analysis also aptly characterizes the way that American Fascists today caricature the Left:

This is the fever-dream worldview whereby Conservatives approach BLM or the transgender activists or the Woke Catechism generally. Fascists in America today describe these movements of social reform as being literally “totalitarian” - all the while as they look the other way at (or more often, directly abet) the literal overthrow of our most basic institutions of self-government, viz. voting. Liberalism cannot long survive, when a critical mass of the citizenry embraces this sort of wild-eyed hypocrisy.

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Adorno and Hofstadter, two Communists who admired Josef Stalin who, in turn, killed millions. Of course I am going to contemplate their wisdom.

I noticed that the writer does not mention the contemporary conspiracy theories of the left, how January 6 was an insurrection to destroy democracy, how there is systemic racism to oppress People of Color, how there is a false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

And, is it just me, or has Quillette recently started to veer to the left?

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PRRI - the source attributed to these claims - calls itself “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research”. I don’t believe them. I don’t think they are ‘nonpartisan’ nor ‘independent’.

This PRRI statement below, doesn’t read like the kind of thing an independent writes:

President Trump is set to sign an executive action Thursday that would allow religious individuals and organizations to legally discriminate against members of the LGBT community and individuals having sex outside of marriage.

BTW: One question PRRI posed to Americans was:

The government, media and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation

5% - Completely agree
11% - Mostly agree

Nothing about Reps of Dems there. Nor did PRRI ask about a cabal :

who murder children for their adrenochrome

What is the source for the statement that 25% of Reps believe the elites “murder children for their adrenochrome”?

This smells like liberals hating conservatives and projecting some demonic visage they can hate. Oh, but that’s what you think the Reps are doing to Dems!

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Hofstadter was a communist who became an establishment liberal after 1964. He’s been called the icon of liberal condescension. Totten with his quotes without either citation or context and generally sneering approach to his subject is a typical Hofstadter fan boy.

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It only seems that way because it’s all out in the open and drives official policy. You are acting as an equivalent to this in the very post that I am responding to now, multiple times. Here’s but one example:

If there’s no equivalent paranoia then I suppose everything under the sun really is a white supremacist dog whistle from historically accurate casting in films to giving the ‘ok’ hand gesture to the Norweigan alphabet.

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