The cult classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is among my favorite films. Released in 1964, it’s a brilliant satire of a certain paranoid period in recent American history.
It was a time when fears of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union infused politics with a sense of doom; when the Joseph McCarthys of the country ruined the lives of civil servants and Hollywood entertainers with baseless charges of treason; and when the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society unleashed a campaign decrying the fluoridation of water as a communist plot.
As Strangelove‘s Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper put it, “Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?” Played by Sterling Hayden, Ripper was unforgettable.
Yet, I may not have fallen in love with the movie if I had understood it less as history and more as a foreshadowing of our current crazy times. If I had first seen Strangelove just after an armed madman entered a Washington, D.C., pizzeria to rescue children supposedly held in a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton — “news” gleaned from disinformation, or “fake news,” sites — I may have found the film alarming instead of funny.
It seems we are in the throes of another of those periods when the “paranoid style in American politics,” as the historian Richard Hofstadter put it in a groundbreaking essay, is ascendant. No nefarious act, no multilayered conspiracy, is too bizarre, too complex or too ridiculous for some to believe.
Comet Ping Pong, a neighborhood pizza joint in northwest Washington where I’ve eaten once or twice, has become the target of determined propagandists spreading the laughably preposterous (and utterly false) claim that Clinton and John Podesta, her campaign manager, are operating a child sex ring out of its basement. For months now, the eatery’s owner and its employees have been subjected to death threats launched on social media as the kooky theory has ricocheted across the internet. The lunacy reached its zenith a few days ago, when a heavily armed Edgar Welch allegedly traveled from his North Carolina home to “self-investigate” the claims and rescue any enslaved children.
During the same week, Lucy Richards, a Tampa, Florida, woman, was charged with making death threats to the father of one of the children slain in the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Richards is among those who insist that the massacre was a hoax staged by liberals to further the cause of gun control.
Her target was Lenny Pozner, whose son, 6-year-old Noah, was killed on that horrific day. Pozner has dedicated himself to exposing the liars who claim he never had a son to be murdered by a psychopath, so he has earned their ire. (Try to imagine the agony of a father who still grieves for his young son but who must now also put up with these maniacs.)
Hofstadter’s essay was published in 1964, the same year that Strangelove was released, but it reads like an analysis of our current hysterical age. “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. … This term is pejorative, and it is meant to be: The paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good,” he wrote.
Donald Trump, who introduced himself on the national political stage by insisting that President Barack Obama was a foreign-born usurper, is a master of the art of the paranoid style. Indeed, even in victory, he and his minions continue to fan the flames of hysteria, using social media to spread distortions and outright lies. Perhaps it shouldn’t be any surprise that there are some who run about as if their hair were on fire, seeing networks of secret schemers out to destroy the country.
But if anybody is apt to destroy democracy, it’s the lunatics who cast aside obvious facts, preferring to indulge the most far-fetched scenarios as hidden truths. Their resistance to reality could render the country ungovernable.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IMAGE: Sterling Hayden as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.