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Paranoia Is On The Rise In American Politics

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Paranoia Is On The Rise In American Politics

Dr Strangelove - Paranoid period

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 cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

IMAGE: Sterling Hayden as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth December 9, 2016

    General Jack Ripper of Dr. Strangelove is a perfect depiction of the madness that has gripped Trump, his newly-adopted GOP cronies, and those who reside in Trumpville hamlets all across America. This article perfectly describes a real-life paranoid-delusional individual(Donald) and matches him up with “Gen. Jack Ripper” played in a sterling manner by Sterling Hayden. The match is pure genius and inspires me to pull out the DVD for some Friday entertainment with friends.

    Ripper: Mandrake?
    Mandrake: Yes, Jack?
    Ripper: Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?
    Mandrake: Well, I can’t say I have.
    Ripper: Vodka, that’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water?
    Mandrake: Well, I-I believe that’s what they drink, Jack, yes.
    Ripper: On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason.
    Mandrake: Oh, eh, yes. I, uhm, can’t quite see what you’re getting at, Jack.
    Ripper: Water, that’s what I’m getting at, water. Mandrake, water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that seventy percent of you is water?
    Mandrake: Uh, uh, Good Lord!
    Ripper: And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
    Mandrake: Yes.
    Ripper: Are you beginning to understand?
    Mandrake: Yes.
    Ripper: Mandrake. Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure-grain alcohol?
    Mandrake: Well, it did occur to me, Jack, yes.
    Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation. Fluoridation of water?
    Mandrake: Uh? Yes, I-I have heard of that, Jack, yes. Yes.
    Ripper: Well, do you know what it is?
    Mandrake: No, no I don’t know what it is, no.
    Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face?

  2. charleo1 December 10, 2016

    Yesterday’s paranoia of a nuclear armed Communist State intent on World domination were based at least in part, on reality. Today’s conspiracies are often unhinged targeted attacks on any person or group with the temerity to stand up against the cabal of RW propagandist, and their unbounded, racially tinged, zero sum, lowest common denominator tactics. Today’s conspiracy is very often made up whole cloth, designed to serve a specific purpose. To confuse, feed a narrative, push an agenda, create division, or add to people’s mistrust of all institution. Except of course for the one institution, or source that was willing to inform the listener of the peril, hidden crime, evil deed, or that which is bringing on dooms day. And so the group needs their help, their money, and most important, for them to repeat and circulate the lie….

    1. idamag December 10, 2016

      As long as I can remember, fear has been perpetuated in order to control the masses. During the WWII, it was nazies everywhere. Then communists were coming out of people heat vents, Russia was going to drop a bomb on us, and it goes on and on. The NRA attempted to get all the right wing nut jobs armed. Big money for the gun industry. Now they want the left to arm themselves against the right wing nut jobs.

  3. Paul Anthony December 10, 2016

    Would the Democrat’s belief in Russian intervention in the election qualify as paranoid style?

    1. johninnv December 10, 2016

      Yeah…because all 17 of the US National Security Agencies are in cahoots with the ?Democrats?

      1. Paul Anthony December 10, 2016

        Actually, the report came only from the CIA, an agency that knows a lot about influencing the elections of foreign governments. 🙂

        1. Eleanore Whitaker December 10, 2016

          Yes…ONE report came from the CIA. But your Boy Comey already had possession of the hacked DNC emails in his hot little hands and refused to delete them. You right wingers are going down. Even if that means taking you down by your pants in public.

    2. Sterling Harris December 10, 2016


    3. Eleanore Whitaker December 10, 2016

      No it would NOT. It has already been proven that the Russians hacked into DNC emails. Comey refused to release those emails. Now we know why. That what you call paranoia? So, let me guess…when the FBI arranged not to release those DNC hacked emails because it might have been seen as influencing the election and the 2 weeks later “found” new emails that had NOTHING to do with Hillary, Comey decided it was NOT too early to release those emails.

      Get real Daycare Generation Twit. No senior is going to just ignore what you and your Republicans did. You got the Russians to hack into our election. Now all we need is the kick Republican butt and take their names. Your everything is fine and dandy ship is about to go down.

    4. johninPCFL December 10, 2016

      Pay-for-play: CIA informs Congress in September that Russia hacked into the DNC servers. Democrat leaders want to make the report public, GOP leaders say no. Agent Orange is elected. Mitch McConnell’s wife nominated to Cabinet post.

  4. idamag December 10, 2016

    We should leave out the line, “The land of the free and the home of the brave.” from the Star Spangled Banner. In order to remain and advance, intellectually, a person needs mental stimulation. That isn’t available on television and the internet.

  5. Dominick Vila December 10, 2016

    The only disagreement I have with this article is that the people that participate in the disinformation campaign that is driving so many paranoid people crazy are not lunatics. They are deliberately manipulating the weakest among us to inspire fear, and use them as pawns to advance their agenda. They are criminal elements, not lunatics.

  6. I of John December 12, 2016

    Lets hope we don’t have a “Slim Pickens” waiting in the wings for a one way ride.


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