The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of 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.
The above quote is an excerpt from a November 1964 essay from historian Richard Hofstadter in Harper’s Magazine entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It was published at a time when Americans were, to say the least, in a somewhat heightened state of emotion. Merely one year removed from the assassination of JFK, the country was faced with a presidential election between his more experienced but less well-liked and trusted successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a firebrand conservative whose staunch ideology and outlandish rhetoric alienated large swaths of the American electorate but ignited the fervent passions and followings of a not insignificant slice of it. Most notable in the rise and support of Goldwater, Hofstadter noted, was the increasing and worrying tendency on the far-right to embrace in what he referred to as the “paranoid style” of certain Americans, a tradition that can be traced throughout the country’s history. He noted further that “the modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.” Goldwater, he determined, was merely the latest and most prominent individual to raise the mantle of savior of the people – namely, of Christian white people – from a systemic effort by political elites to destroy the country from within.
By now it’s pretty easy to see where this is going. As Americans today face the end of easily one of the most drawn-out and corrosive election cycles in modern history, they’re faced with a strikingly similar situation to the one 52 years ago. Once again one of the candidates for President of the United States is running on a campaign based in the “paranoid style” of politics. To say that Donald Trump has flirted with outlandish and debunked conspiracy theories as part of his campaign would be the understatement of the year. The entire theme of his run, all the way down to his slogan “Make America Great Again,” is steeped in the same kind of fervent paranoia and straight-up hatred towards the political class, of elites and intellectuals, and of any race and class of citizen who can be dangled as a scapegoat towards the idea that America has lost something critical to its being – that it has been insurrected by a vast and deeply-connected network of individuals and organizations to control and oppress the American people. In 1964, Goldwater lost in a landslide, and current polling shows that Trump, too, will likely lose – if not in a landslide then certainly decisively – to Hillary Clinton. But the seeds sown by each figure and the detrimental effects of their vile rhetoric have and will long outlast their respective campaigns.
There is one more parallel to be drawn here, however. The Hofstadter quote at the top, as well as other excerpts from that essay, also happen to be featured prominently in Real Enemies, the third album from the boundary-smashing big band Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. Though the concept for the album – originally conceived and performed as a multimedia spectacle in 2015 – pre-dated the rise of Trump and the peak insanity of this election, it has offered perhaps the most salient look at the causes and mindsets behind it. It not only offers one of the most compelling explanations and rationalities for the conspiratorial or “paranoid style,” but it also presents a chillingly accurate premonition of how conspiracies can become normalized in society, driving a citizenry and government into a death spiral of paranoia and cynicism. Americans have lived with conspiracies for a long time, but it is more important than ever now to understand why they persist, and why this election may be only the beginning of a new, much darker era of American politics.
Apocalypse Is A Process: America’s Long and Intimate Relationship With Conspiracies
Taking its name and much of its inspiration from a Kathryn Olmsted book of the same title, Real Enemies traces America’s unique love affair with conspiracies, particularly in the time since the conclusion of the second World War. Topics ranging from the Red Scare of the 1950s and Joe McCarthy’s crusade against communists infiltrating the media, entertainment, and highest levels of government all the way to the recent revelations of government surveillance programs uncovered by Edward Snowden, like PRISM, are touched upon throughout the album in the form of visuals – physical copies of Real Enemies come with an expansive booklet containing imagery used throughout the original live performance, a few examples of which I’ve included throughout here – and historical soundbites. Rather than simply tracing a chronology of these instances throughout the past century though, Argue – Secret Society’s ambitious composer, conductor, and self-proclaimed “ringleader” – and his collaborators for the project, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini, took a different path that, while perhaps not exactly sympathetic, is at least not entirely dismissive.
Leading off with PRISM and the realities of the modern surveillance state in “You Are Here,” Real Enemies draws you in with just that: reality. One of the central tenets of the piece is that conspiracy theories have flourished in America not just because of the allure of the fantastical, but because at so many points the American government has given its people reason to suspect its motives and actions, only to be vindicated at a later time. In fact, for nearly the first half of Real Enemies’ duration, we are in the world of either conspiracies proven to either be true or at least highly possible. “The Enemy Within” drops us back in the aforementioned era of McCarthyism, the period that has fueled so much of America’s modern conspiracies and paranoid angst, either from members of the right convinced that communists are in a never-ending fight to overthrow the American government and destroy capitalism as we know it or from factions on the left convinced that the government is spying on them and seeking to destroy them. And though history has shown that both sides have been correct at one point or another, Real Enemies – rightly – approaches the issue more from the side of government surveillance and persecution against leftist groups or utterly benign groups suspected of being communist sympathizers.
“Dark Alliance,” meanwhile, further illustrates the ramifications of the right’s obsession with the communist “menace” as we warp to the 1980s and the Reagan era’s “War on Drugs,” contrasting their incredibly draconian stance against crack cocaine with their secret funding of the Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting the leftist Sandinista government. Though the details and conspiracy behind how the Contras received American funds – through the also highly secretive (and illegal) sale of arms to Iran, thus giving the name to the Iran-Contra scandal – were made public and proven to be 100% correct, the conspiracy goes further than that, suggesting that the Reagan administration knowingly allowed the Contras to traffic cocaine into the US, which would further serve their aims in destroying urban black communities where crack proliferated the most. Though that aspect of the conspiracy has never been proven to certainty, there is ample evidence that Reagan and conservatives of the era used the War on Drugs as a tool to imprison blacks and prevent them from organizing or voting against them. Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th expounds on this topic at great length.
Beyond this, Real Enemies continues in the realm of the believable or proven, touching upon the CIA’s manipulation of foreign and national media through falsely fed stories in “Trust No One,” the CIA’s secret mind-control tests on civilians in “Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars,” and the ubiquitous military-industrial complex and the commodification of war in “Best Friends Forever.” By choosing to frame so much of the content around reality and the realm of the possible, it forces even the most cynical of listeners down the rabbit hole of plausibility, allowing them to step inside the mind of the paranoid and draw the connections from point A to Z. By the time we get to weather-control machines, chemtrails, New World Order, and lizard people, you’re already in too deep to simply laugh it off.
The music of Real Enemies also manages to expertly draw the listeners down this rabbit hole by largely playing to the subject matter’s seriousness on face value, only occasionally providing a winking moment of levity. The compositions employ 12-tone theory throughout – a compositional style and technique that carries its own history of conspiracism – creating a general sense of unease, but Argue smartly brings in many other influences and elements throughout to match the topics at hand. The 80s electro-funk and Nicaraguan revolution motifs of “Dark Alliance” combine to form a retro-futuristic masterpiece that’s part caper, part dance party, and all thrilling. You also have elements like the Phillip Glass-ian rapidfires of triads and arpeggios in “Best Friends Forever” that calls to mind his soundtrack work from great documentaries like Fog of War, and by the time we get to the reptilian outer space fever dreams of “Never A Straight Answer,” we’re inundated with Sun Ra-infused cosmic jazz colliding with the other twelve-tone themes, eventually devolving into a chaotic mass of conspiratorial dread. Twelve-tone becomes the listener’s home base though, an unnerving but steady hand guiding the listener down the path from reasonable suspicion to utter insanity.
This structure is all very much by design though. As they state at the end of “Who Do You Trust?” in the form of a monologue from actor James Urbaniak:
Paranoid writing begins with certain defensible judgments. The government really can read all of our e-mails. The CIA really did conduct mind control experiments on unsuspecting Canadian housewives. There really was a secret FBI within the FBI dedicated to destroying the American left. It then carefully accumulates facts, or at least what appears to be facts, and marshals these facts towards an overwhelming proof of the particular conspiracy that is to be established. It is nothing if not coherent. In fact the paranoid mentality is far more coherent than the real world. It simply leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.
The central tenet of Real Enemies is certainly not that the people who engage in the wildest of these conspiracies are entirely justified in doing so, but nor is it that those people should be dismissed as simply crazy. Rather, they point to a kind of hyper-logic and coherence, a need to attribute every action and reaction to the calculated will of an individual or group. And when the American government has gone out of its way time and time again to either break the trust or take advantage of the trust of its citizenry, either intentionally or inadvertently, it is not at all surprising that a culture of conspiracy not only persists in the US, but has only thrived and accelerated in the age of the Internet and social media, as well as a time when the public is convinced more than ever that our government and politics are broken.
You Are Here: 2016’s Conspiracy-Consumed Politics
At the time that this article is published, we will be merely a little over one week away from Election Day in the United States. Though the media certainly has a vested interest in portraying each election cycle as the craziest and most important election cycle ever, it truly is not an exaggeration to call this one the most unusual and possibly dangerous elections in modern American history. It will be one that historians and political scientists will be pulling apart and referring to for decades to come, either as a major turning point in American politics, a culmination of several major forces coming to a head, or at the very least as a very troubling aberration. But even excepting one Mr. Donald J Trump, who I’ll be returning to plenty shortly, this has been an extraordinary election on all sides, and it’s been one that has often either flirted with or has been largely consumed by an utter distrust of the government/institutions in power and conspiracies surrounding them.
Though it may seem like a distant memory now, it was less than one year ago that the Democratic Party was facing a major fissure of its own in its respective primary, with Hillary Clinton facing an insurgency campaign from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Then, as in now, Clinton was facing strong headwinds and resistance due, in part, to her deep connections with the political establishment and financial elite, as well as her long history and penchant for secrecy. These have made her ripe as a target for conspiracy theories of all stripes, ranging from the more transparently motivated and debunked – her involvement in the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in September 2011 – to the more complicated and less defensible (albeit still largely overblown) use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as Secretary of State and subsequent disappearance of thousands of e-mails from said server. This isn’t even touching the sphere of utterly baseless conspiracies still persisting around her at the fringes from her time as First Lady in the 1990s (Whitewater-gate, Vince Foster, the list goes on and on). The problem is that it becomes difficult to dismiss all of them immediately when she continues to do things like hide that she has pneumonia to the point that she collapses at a public appearance before revealing it, and only at that point to stem the tide of conspiracies about her health and fitness to serve as president.
Then there’s the matter of foreign interference in this election and what role it’s played in creating and fueling cycles of conspiracy here at home. In the first of what is strongly believed to be a series of coordinated cyberattacks by Russian hackers connected to the government of Vladimir Putin, the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails were stolen and handed over to the international cyber-vigilante group WikiLeaks. The e-mails that were then leaked out from there only confirmed what Sanders supporters had already suspected and had been accused of conspiracy for – that the highest levels of the DNC openly supported and preferred Clinton, and at several points went out of their way to give her and her campaign preferential treatment. Subsequent cyber-attacks on Clinton’s campaign and her advisors have further complicated matters for her as excerpts from paid speeches she’s given to Wall Street bankers and other, more trivial and personally embarrassing exchanges, have made the rounds, calling into question the motives behind these hacks and fueling conspiracies that the Russian government is actively seeking to get Trump elected either with or without his knowledge.
Of course, this all pales in comparison to the maelstrom of conspiracy that Republican nominee Donald Trump has unleashed on the American public in both the years leading up to and the time since his run for the presidency. It may be easy to forget now, but Trump’s political ambitions became known as soon as he launched his “birtherism” crusade against President Barack Obama in 2011, serving as a figurehead of the conspiracy that Obama was not an American citizen and in fact a “secret” Kenyan Muslim/terrorist sympathizer. Real Enemies makes note of this phenomenon in the closing track in the form of a soundbite from the other major leader taking the charge of propagating the conspiracy, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Since then, Trump has utterly divorced himself from reality at an alarming rate, at times claiming that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese government, that Ted Cruz’s father – Rafael Cruz – was directly linked to the assassination of John F Kennedy, that Clinton not only isn’t physically fit to serve as president, but that she is also actively seeking to destroy the American working class by making backroom deals with the “global power structure,” and, more recently, that the media and government are rigging the elections against him and the voters who would theoretically otherwise vote to elect him (more on that later).
And yet, in spite of all of this and the leagues of other seemingly damning evidence and behavior from him, it is likely that at least 40% of the country will still vote for Trump on Election Day, and regardless of which way the results go, he will come out with a sizable and significant base of Americans ready to believe his every word. All of this, of course, begs the question: “How in the hell did we even get here”? The lessons of Real Enemies certainly helps explain much of it, as it illustrates the rationality behind such anti-establishment sentiments but also paints a picture of the archetypical individual or group that serves as the boilerplate root of all things wrong with the world:
The enemy is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.
Replace the “he”s with “she”s, and you pretty much have the basis for an Alex Jones Infowars rant against Hillary Clinton, who has come to represent so much of what people despise and fear of the government and institutions of power. But more than that, the entire basis of Trump’s campaign, down to “Make America Great Again,” speaks to a conspiratorial mindset in which malignant forces have actively disrupted and destroyed the things that have supposedly made this country great in the eyes of its citizens, and that both these external and internal elements must be eliminated to restore the natural order of things. A recent New Republic article tackles this topic head-on, stating:
This is Trump’s prescription for America, and also for his campaign. Only if we deport, keep out, disempower, or imprison those people actively conspiring to keep America down—Muslims, Hispanics, the Clintons, free traders, cosmopolitans, etc.—only then will everything be great again. Conspiracy theories, in this way, are a means of explaining and rationalizing failure without having to conclude that one has, in fact, failed. They are the satisfying, easy answers, the balm to a wounded pride, and it is for this reason that many find them attractive.
Trump, like many figures that have come before him, is playing the role of autocratic strongman, casting doubt upon entire systems and norms that modern societies have relied on for so long – aside from lambasting everything related to the US government, Trump has also harshly criticized our membership in NATO, was a strong supporter of the Brexit vote, has come to the defense of dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Putin, and has even suggested that the US reverse its course of nuclear non-proliferation and allow countries to develop and defend themselves with nuclear arms as they please. He does all of this with the hook that he is the only man smart enough and strong enough to fix it. To listen to Trump describe the state of the world is akin to listening to a man screaming at you before running head-first into his doomsday bunker. Immigrants are flooding in over the border, bringing in drugs, taking our jobs, and raping our women. Syrian refugees are mostly just ISIS operative in disguise, waiting for the right moment to strike where we’re most vulnerable. Any place outside of the safe confines of the suburbs or rural communities – what has been referred to as “real America” in the past – is an “inner city” tearing itself apart by gun and drug-slinging blacks and hispanics. And even outside of there all of our roads, bridges, and airports are falling apart, like a “third-world country” (forget how insulting that phrase is in this context). The world is on fire, and he’s the only man carrying a fire-hose to put it out.
All of this would be more laughable than concerning if it weren’t for the millions of people in the country who believe every word he’s spouting from his lips. The problem with Trump isn’t that he’s an aberration, but rather that he’s a culmination of decades of concerning trends colliding into each other and might prove to be only a sign of things to come. All of which is what makes his recent stunts calling into question the legitimacy of US elections and votes exceedingly dangerous.
Trust No One: The Dangerous Cycle Of Americans’ Eroded Trust In Government
Of all the things that Real Enemies does well, perhaps the most impressive – and frightening – aspect of it is how well it has been able to predict our current state of affairs and where we might be headed. Take this portion of Urbaniak’s monologue in the closing track, “You Are Here (reprise)”:
When citizens cannot trust their government to tell the truth, they become more susceptible to that dread disease – conspiracism. They become less likely to trust their government to do anything, to conduct fair elections, say, or spend their tax money, or protect their children or their planet. The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting, and more problems left unaddressed for a future generation, that is even more cynical about the possibility of reforms.
Though there have been a couple of bumps along the way, the general trend since the 1950s is that the American people’s trust in government has utterly cratered, plummeting from a high of 77% in 1964 – the year of Goldwater – to 19% last year, which only rivals 2011 as the lowest point at 15%. This means that even before this year’s presidential campaign kicked into its highest gear, only 1 in 5 Americans could say that they trusted the government to do the right thing most or nearly all of the time. This isn’t something that happens overnight. There have been two major forces at play causing this collapse in public trust. The first is that the US government has, as Real Enemies already established, done many things over the past 60 years to force its citizens to question its motives. From McCarthyism to its handling of the Vietnam War to Watergate to Iran-Contra to the Iraq War and now the culture of government surveillance on the public and clandestine drone warfare, there is a very clear through-line that leaves no president or party free of blame for losing the trust of the people they serve.
What has managed to escalate this trend over time though is the fact that along the way, one major political party has staked their brand on the notion that government doesn’t work and that they and the people who work for it (or can even be associated with them somehow) cannot and should not be trusted. This has been the rallying cry of the Republican rank-and-file for decades, with Ronald Reagan serving as its initial figurehead. For years and years we have heard arguments from politicians and pundits that the government cannot be trusted to spend our taxes well, to regulate our industries and financial institutions, to even protect us from destroying the planet (if the planet is even being destroyed, that is), and in the age of niche markets and fracturing of media consumption, the American people’s attitudes towards the government have become more and more balkanized and divided along ideological lines. And though it is certainly not an incorrect view to hold that the US government does not do many things nearly as well as it should and is in grave need of improvements, the conservative movement over the past few decades has been consumed with such a fierce hatred of government that the only conclusion they and their followers can come to is that the government must not just be reformed, but wholly rejected and destroyed so it can be rebuilt from the ground up in their image.
Thus you have part of the country in an apocalyptic struggle to wrest control of the government and country before all of their worst fears come true, and you have other parts of the citizenry who may not share these feelings but can only see the conflict, logjams, and utter lack of compromise and progress in Congress and other areas of the government and simply become further disillusioned. This all serves to further erode the public’s trust in government and its ability to tackle even the most basic of functions. This is perhaps the most dangerous threat to a healthy democratic society, as a recent TIME article (alas, hidden behind a paywall) laid out:
Democratic societies function on faith in strangers–in police and judges to do their job without fear or favor; in government agencies to fairly enforce laws; and in experts of all stripes, from scientists to journalists to economists, to accurately report on what is happening in the world. Trump’s central argument is that faith has been lost, and he has put himself forward as the only solution. “We will never fix our rigged system by relying on the people who rigged it in the first place.”
Once you are primed to believe that, then the idea that the government cannot even be trusted to carry out fair and free elections doesn’t seem like a stretch, especially as supporters of a strongman like Trump believe that he is being unfairly taken down by the establishment he is trying to fight. From the TIME article again:
When Trump talks about a rigged system, he is not just accusing Clinton of corruption. He is talking about the institutions that facilitate democracy: Election Day poll workers, who he says may try to swing the election for Clinton; the Federal Reserve, which he has accused of favoring Obama; the debate moderators, who he has falsely accused of being Democrats; and the rest of the national press, including the pages you are reading right now, which he claims function as agents of the established elite.
This kind of rabid conspiracism against all institutions can create a spiraling effect, in which more and more people either believe that the entire system is rigged and actively fight against it or believe that it is incapable of accomplishing anything, thus causing fewer and fewer people to participate in elections or any other form of productive citizen action and allowing the fervent masses to assume control. The good news thus far is the level of pushback across the political spectrum at Trump’s insistence about rigged elections and his petulant refusal to state that he will accept the election’s results even if he loses. The only problem is that even if Trump loses and ultimately accepts it, the cycle is unlikely to be broken. To return to Real Enemies, which excerpted part of the Hofstadter essay nearly verbatim:
Nothing but complete victory will do. This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustration, in turn strengthening his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
Compare this to another quote from the TIME article:
A Clinton victory will not usher in a return to truth and accuracy or restore American faith in institutions. If anything, a Trump loss could convince his supporters that the system is just as rigged as they’ve been led to believe it is. Pandora’s box has been opened, and once enough people believe something false, it begins to sound almost true.
With rumors and hints already circulating that Trump and his team are already preparing for their next move behind the scenes in the form of a new media empire that would cater specifically to his most loyal followers and fellow conspiracy aficionados, it seems more and more likely that this is only the beginning of a new phase of American politics. In the age of Fox News (which is set for a major shakeup in light of recent events) and alternative media like the Breitbarts and Alex Joneses carving out “safe spaces” for the terrified, conspiratorial masses to congregate, Trump TV and all that it brings is the next logical step.
Perhaps the threat of this will ultimately prove to be a bit overblown. Perhaps we’ll see a course-correction of sorts in the next 4 years and beyond as Americans’ trust in government slowly improves once again, elected officials work together to address the issues their electorates are most concerned with, and the Trumps of the world are once again relegated to the corner to shout at the ultimately insignificant fringes of society. But given the degree to which that Trump and his brazen level of conspiracism has been absorbed and normalized by the public at large the past year and change, and given similar trends we’re seeing in other parts of the world, Europe specifically, that all seems unlikely. To use one more quote from Real Enemies/Hofstadter: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by reality, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” This may be true, but what happens when the paranoids of the world come to make their fantasies a reality? It may be that the rest of us are truly the ones who come to suffer.