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Paranoid politics: how does Donald Trump get away with it?

Donald Trump has enacted the paranoid style, giving its ideas a platform and legitimacy, in his presidential campaign. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Paranoid politics: how does Donald Trump get away with it?

Donald Trump has enacted the paranoid style, giving its ideas a platform and legitimacy, in his presidential campaign. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seems willing to reach beyond what has been previously acceptable in his quest to be America’s next president.

But this, combined with his refusal to back down or acknowledge error – even after attacking the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq – signals that a campaign or arguments built around “facts”, or within the usually accepted boundaries, may not be sufficient to counter him or convince his supporters of his unsuitability for office.

Trump can claim Barack Obama is the founder of Islamic State and that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is co-founder, then argue the media are biased, doesn’t get him or sarcasm, and still maintain popular support.

Donald Trump claims Barack Obama founded Islamic State.

If the polls indicate his support is falling, Trump argues they’re rigged. But that doesn’t account for him actually having supporters. And it seems unlikely they can all be written off as being stupid or impressionable.

Some have argued Trump is the last political hope for angry white men, an opportunistic populist demagogue who appeals to the disaffected in America’s polarised politics, and a narcissist.

Perhaps this is why, when Clinton claims Trump is not fit to be president, it’s not surprising he comes back harder, manipulates the truth, makes unfounded claims and appeals to extreme emotions.

The grandiose sense of self, the slippery relationship with facts, haste to blame and humiliate others, to win at any costs, and the incandescent rage at being confronted or corrected are narcissistic characteristics Trump has exhibited in this campaign.

But how does Trump get away with the type of campaign he’s running? Why, if he’s a narcissistic demagogue, has he found an audience who respond to his politics?

What is the paranoid style?

Part of the explanation can be understood through what historian Richard Hofstadter identified decades ago as the paranoid style in American politics.

Hofstadter saw “the paranoid style” as one that secularises a religious good-versus-evil view of the world, drawing on anti-intellectual legacies in American political discourse.

He borrowed a clinical term to describe the paranoid style’s aggressive, exaggerated, suspicious, “conspiratorial fantasy” qualities and crusading mentality. The paranoid style describes the use of paranoid modes of expression: it is not describing particular individuals as being clinically paranoid.

Exponents of the paranoid style don’t see themselves as victims of personal conspiracy. They perceive the conspiracy as directed against a nation, culture or group and their own role as unselfish and patriotic.

It’s here that the paranoid style resonates with what might otherwise be labelled narcissism.

How does Trump use it?

Trump articulates the paranoid style to his constituency. He does not do this as an individual narcissistic victim, but as representative of “Us” – the true Americans who feel dispossessed from their ideal America, but are locked in battle with those destroying its greatness: Clinton, Obama, Democrats, immigrants (especially Mexicans and Muslims), the media and the establishment, including other Republicans.

Trump taps into already existent fear, anger and experiences of loss, disruption and change.

The reasons Trump supporters give for the perceived lack of American greatness may lack evidence, be wildly exaggerated, or factually wrong. But they do have grievances that haven’t been adequately tackled politically for decades. This has provided a breeding ground for expressions of racism, misogyny, hyper-Americanism and conspiratorial fantasies.

Conspiracy is central to the paranoid style. Hofstadter describes it “as the motive force in historical events”. The outcome is seen in apocalyptic terms, requiring complete victory or the elimination of the evil other.

Trump demonising Clinton, saying she’s as guilty as hell and should go to jail, and refusing to reject a statement by one of his advisers that Clinton should be put before a firing squad for treason, is consistent with the paranoid-style practitioner’s belief that political compromise will not work in what is perceived as a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil.

The paranoid style of politics accords enormous power to the enemy; it represents them as being able to change the normal course of history in an evil way.

Hofstadter argues much of the enemy’s function lies in what can be condemned. The enemy’s supposed lack of morality gives paranoid stylists an opportunity to project and express similar aspects of their own minds.

By focusing on Clinton’s alleged evil, corruption and lies, Trump’s and his supporters attempt to deny their own, simultaneously giving them voice and legitimising calling Clinton “crooked”, “weak”, “unstable” and “the Devil”.

Violence is implicit in the paranoid style, both in its language and political solutions. Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could stop Clinton winning the November election and exclamations of “Trump That Bitch” are facilitated by Clinton’s perceived evilness and the desire to eliminate it.

Donald Trump’s ‘Second Amendment people’ comment.

The solution?

In line with Hofstadter’s description of the paranoid stylist being able to perceive the conspiracy and understand the meaning of certain signs before they’re obvious to others, Trump presents himself as the only real solution to America’s problems.

His defence of statements about Obama and Clinton as most valuable players for Islamic State was:

All I do is tell the truth. I’m a truth-teller.

This amplifies his earlier claim at the Republican National Convention that he alone can fix all of America’s problems, that he is the voice of the people, that he will restore law and order if people put their faith in him.

In the 1960s Hofstadter originally located the paranoid style at the fringes of American politics. Trump’s audience may be disenfranchised from politics as usual, but they are also indicative that the paranoid style has become mainstream. Brought in from the fringes during George W. Bush’s presidency and blossoming in Tea Party politics, paranoid style has moved to the centre.

Trump attracted supporters by enacting the paranoid style. He has given its ideas a platform and legitimacy via his campaign to become president.

But will he continue to get away with it? Or will narcissistic tendencies to campaign his way, to win at any cost, continue to erode his support, even among those engaged with the paranoid style?

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