Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, we have entered a new “age of paranoia” in America.
Until recently, most Americans had no idea what the criminal gang MS-13 was, even less to what extent it might be a threat to their way of life. If interrogated, some, wishing to show their familiarity with social problems, would have responded, “Yes, multiple sclerosis is a terrible disease.”
Now, The Huffington Post informs us that about half of Donald Trump voters and a significant number of Hillary Clinton voters (32%) are “worried” for the safety of their families about the threat posed by MS-13.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Emotionally responsive to the repeated lies of politicians about groups of people that one has had no contact or direct knowledge
“Worry” should be defined as the principle electoral asset of clever politicians in the US. A worried population proves eager to support outlandish proposals, such as building an inviolable wall across its borders. Since Donald Trump’s election, we seem to have entered a new “age of paranoia,” the original one referring to the McCarthy era in which murderous communists could be found behind every creaking door. And it isn’t Trump alone who has created and nourished the paranoia.
Getting people worried has become the main focus of every self-respecting politician’s discourse. All the analysts agree that Trump’s electoral base — the 40% who continue to approve his performance in the polls — is preoccupied by everything and everyone who is foreign to their way of life, meaning their habits, superficial values (essentially as consumers), and external appearance and “style” (including speech and skin color). What’s different is perceived as a threat, especially when the belief exists that the number of “people that are different” is increasing.
As we recently mentioned, Samuel Huntington promoted this brand of worry in his 2005 book, Who We Are, America’s Great Debate. Whether that really was the “great debate” at the time, as Huntington claimed, he effectively “made it great again,” putting it at center stage and preparing the terrain for MAGA.
The new age of paranoia began with negative campaigning, as Republicans vilified their opponents by focusing on their “anti-American” values and Democrats on their antisocial values (particularly greed). As needed, they could complement the diatribe with an appropriate amount of innuendo about the opponent’s shady dealings and associations in a recent or even distant past.
Politicians thus learned the art of getting people to worry about what their electoral opponent might do, if elected. Republicans routinely pushed a brand of worry associated with raising taxes and being soft on crime and hard on guns. The Democrats insisted on their opponents’ indifference to human needs, their intention to degrade economic security of the average Jane and Joe by cutting back essential services such as health and education and worsening the unenviable plight of minorities.
But those positions focused on short-term and non-categorical worry, limited to the question of what the victorious candidate might do to the nation’s legal framework. After, the election life would return to normal. People would return to their usual occupations, watch the news and find reasons to complain about the discomfort and inconvenience associated with policies put forward by the politicians they didn’t vote for.
In an age of paranoia, things are different. Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes branded people who thought about politics and economics and reached conclusions that contradicted the established dogmas about “free markets” and economic “democracy” as communists. This wasn’t because they were members of a party with that name (why shouldn’t they be, if that’s their personal conviction?), even less because they were loyal to a hostile nation (they weren’t), but because both they and the Soviet Union deemed that the economic system of the US was flawed. Having a critical attitude — especially when it was elaborated in rational terms — was enough to be classified as a dangerous enemy, plotting subversion.
In the new age of paranoia, negative campaigns have given way to hyper-negative, wholesale condemnations of ill-defined groups of people. In 2016, the nation elected a president who routinely proclaims that Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, black athletes who kneel are criminals. Kneeling itself, Trump suggests, is an act of violence.
At the same time — and to combat Trump’s visible paranoia — the Democrats have embraced the McCarthy playbook and now suspect of anti-American collusion anyone who has ever smiled at a (non-communist) Russian. Shaking hands with a Russian can be seen as an act of treason. And like McCarthy, they have total faith in the FBI and intelligence agencies who can accuse without proof and act arbitrarily to arrest, punish and harass those (including independent news outlets) who show the wrong tendencies.
The real question Trump’s critics should be asking is this: If the Democrats were to return to power, would they shake off their cultivated paranoia and try to return things to “normal”? Given that we no longer know whether “normal” is normal, there’s considerable room for doubt.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.