Reject the Paranoid Style of Politics

The paranoid style of politics, amplified and made global in the digital age, sucks people into alternate realities. We cannot ignore it or give it a subtle wink and a nod. Unequivocally reject it.

I was halfway finished writing a different newsletter for this week on something that I had been planning for a while, but events last week made me change my plans. That can wait. 

Donald Trump, the President of the United States, the “leader” of the free world, went to a rally of his supporters and repeated to them lies about a stolen election. He told his supporters to march on Capitol Hill. He incited an insurrectionist mob that stormed Capitol Hill, delayed the certification of the election outcome, vandalized the seat of American democracy, and abetted the death of six people, including two police officers and a young woman. Trump’s behaviour was supported and encouraged by  spineless and conniving Republican Senators and Congressmen who gave oxygen to Trump, the mob, and the notion that Congress could or should overturn the will of voters. 

That’s what happened. Trump has done a lot of shameful things in the last four years. This tops them all. American democracy was interrupted and people died because of the words and lies of the President and his sycophantic enablers. He should be removed from office and face consequences for this, as should the people who participated in this shocking act of political violence. If you watch some of the footage, you realize how close this was to being a genuine massacre:

I admit to being genuinely shook by what happened. I don’t fixate on American stuff and I sometimes get accused of naively just wanting to ignore America. I don’t. What I want people to do is try and consciously treat America as a foreign country and treat its politics as such, and not turn their own politics into American proxy wars. America is still the global hegemon, and those of us in the english speaking world in particular cannot escape our status as peripheral provinces of the American empire. But at the very least we could try and not acquiesce to turning our politics into proxy wars. 

I published a newsletter November 6th and then didn't’ publish another one until December. But towards the end of November I got ~40 new subscribers. Not that many, but it was weird considering I hadn’t published anything for a bit. The reason for the sudden surge? Because the newsletter is called Dominion. As far as I can tell, a good chunk of these new subscribers found out about this because they’d been searching the batshit conspiracy theories and lies being spread by Trump and his minions about voting machines. I’ve received emails about it. It’s a supreme irony to me that when I started this in July the name choice elicited a few accusations of colonial dog whistles, and just a few months later it resulted in accusations of being part of a “globalist” cabal. Political lunacy takes many forms. 

Paranoid Politics 

American politics is tinged by what has been called the “paranoid style of politics.” The characterization comes from a very famous 1964 essay, eventually turned into a book, by the historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstader calls 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.” 

Writing in the context of the rise of Barry Goldwater, what he’s describing is a proclivity for Americans to be drawn to ideas and movements that turn politics into grand battles over secret conspiracies and nefarious groups. He offers examples throughout American history, from anti-Jesuit conspiracies to Masons to the Illuminati, and traces this lineage up to the McCarthyism of his day. This paranoid style: 

“is made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary.”

Conspiracy theories are not just an American phenomenon of course, virtually all other countries and societies have long histories with this sort of thing. But the paranoid politics of today cannot be understood absent the American fertile digital and social media environments in which it thrives, and the Americanization of our politics which results.

The digital realm connects people from all over the world, it produces truly global communities. An unbelievable and uncontrollable amount of information, and misinformation, can circulate in an instance. The algorithms that drive social media platforms change how we think. They reward the most incendiary and bombastic content. They encourage extremity and discourage moderation. People can construct entirely alternative epistemic bubbles, where they are only exposed to the information and views they want to see. One of the most surreal and revealing parts of watching the mob storm Congress was how many of them had their phones out the whole time, how many of them had those stupid selfie sticks, and how many of them were performing for a digital audience: 

The online world is an American world, and digital politics expands America’s cultural hegemony. When we use social media we become online Americans, and paranoid politics is part of the package. This year, and since the American election especially, there has been a noticeable ratcheting up of this paranoid style not just with American conservatives, but with Canadian conservatives too. It’s not just about the completely unsubstantiated and crazy conspiracies about the election being stolen that polls suggest a not-insignificant number of Canadians also believe, it’s infecting broader discourse. 

At least part of this is COVID induced. People are stuck at home, not socializing, and many having lost their jobs. People are spending more time online viewing the world increasingly just through a digital lense with minimal real world interaction with others. It’s driving people crazy. The explosion in conspiracy theories like QAnon, and all the conspiracy theories about the US election have been accelerated and catalyzed by this COVID induced madness. And it fuels this paranoid style of politics especially as it makes people more and more unhinged and drives them online. 

Sanewashing the “Great Reset”

You’ve heard of whitewashing, but what about sanewashing? It’s a term I was introduced to by a friend recently to describe the process by which responsible people make irresponsible ideas and suggestions seem responsible by misleadingly dressing them up as something they are not. So let’s talk about the “Great Reset.” 

There’s definitely a real thing called the Great Reset, it even has a website. It’s a project of the World Economic Forum, an NGO founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab. The WEF is a forum that “engages the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” You’ve probably heard of its annual meetings in Davos, where elites get together and schmooze in a luxurious backdrop. It’s harmless. The kinds of people that attend Davos meetings are indeed powerful people, but it’s really just the ultimate glorified and decadent networking conference. 

The same is true of the “Great Reset” agenda. In May the WEF organized a summit of world leaders under the Great Reset banner to discuss the challenges of the post-pandemic economic recovery and climate change. The basic message of the conference was that the world is inevitably going to look different coming out of the pandemic, and it will require some creative thinking to address these challenges. 

No one would have paid any attention to it were it not for a clip circulating of Prime Minister Trudeau speaking to a UN conference in the summer in which he said “This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems.” The Great Reset label is vague and the “agenda” is full of meaningless and vague corporatese platitudes about social change and transformation that make it ripe to be filled with darker and more nefarious meanings. 

Very quickly it grew online into an outright conspiracy theory, that the COVID pandemic was a deliberate ruse manufactured by global elites to bring about a globalist transformation and usher in a new world order. What exactly this looks like ranges from communism to socialism to a green new deal to a global social credit surveillance system. In some versions COVID is a giant hoax, in other versions it was actually manufactured by this global cabal. 

But it’s been given mainstream traction in Canada by politicians, pundits, and public figures alike urging us to resist and stop the reset. This is where the sanewashing comes in. When this happens, these people aren’t pushing the crazy conspiracy theory version of it, they rightly point out it’s a real thing, and usually end up doing their own filling in the blanks on the vague language about transformation to make it about green stuff and socialism. 

These people aren’t conspiracy theorists, but it’s a way of sanewashing and bringing conspiracy theorists into the fold. They point to the website as proof it’s not a conspiracy. Sure, but the very fact that there is a website for it is why it’s also not some plot by a global cabal! If you’ve got plans for a new world order you don’t put it all on a silly website. 

Criticize Trudeau, he deserves it. Absolutely criticize the way he’s openly discussing using COVID as an opportunity to push pet projects and ideological goals. But be careful. Sanewashing legitimizes these crazier elements of the online world and brings them into the mainstream. Responsible people should not do this. 

Words Matter 

If there’s anything people should learn from last week, it’s that words and rhetoric matter. Trump world has constructed an alternate reality on top of this paranoid style in which they insist the election was stolen and that Trump won. He told his supporters to march on the Capitol Building, he told them that they couldn’t stand for this stolen election and it had to stop. Well guess what? Sooner or later people take you at your word. And that’s what happened. It’s been said that Trump’s supporters take him ‘seriously, but not literally’. In this instance, to take him seriously was to take him literally. And people are dead as a result.

It’s why public figures and officials have to think seriously about the words and rhetoric they use. And not just the right, by the way. If everyone to the right of John Tory is a Nazi, what is the logical end of this kind of rhetoric? Can you be neighbours, friends, or even live in a society where every other person is a Nazi? If you don’t mean it, shame on you for using that kind of language. And if you do acutually believe everyone is a Nazi, then surely you should be doing more than just tweeting dumb things about them? Words matter. Labels matter. 

But I’m more interested here in policing my own side so to speak. There is extremely dangerous rhetoric coming from across the political spectrum, but I have more responsibility to police people on my “team” than people who aren’t. And the rhetoric that this paranoid politics produces here too, not just in America, is worrying. 

Let me give you an example. Back in October, Leslyn Lewis, the Conservative Party’s rising star and someone that I was extremely enthusiastic about and supportive of during the leadership election wrote that “Canada is quietly going through a socialist coup.”

What? A coup is an attempt to overthrow a government by non-democratic means. Suggesting that a coup is taking place is no laughing matter. I don’t quibble with her using the word socialism. She describes Trudeau “as an evangelist for a new type of 21st-century socialism — a quiet and bloodless revolution that seeks to control our lives through economic dependency.” I don’t think Trudeau is a socialist, and I don’t think his green agenda or high levels of public spending constitute socialism, but this is in my view perfectly acceptable political rhetoric even if I wouldn’t use it. But calling it a coup is serious. 

Lewis sort of backs down as the piece goes on, and she ends by saying “we still have a democracy. For Trudeau to remake Canada into a socialist state, he will have to go through us first. He cannot do that if we get engaged, vote and volunteer.” Now this is again better. But this isn’t a coup. If we can go out and vote and we still have democracy then there is no coup taking place, and we absolutely shouldn’t use language like that. 

I’m sure some of you will accuse me of being overdramatic here, but I ask you again what the logical ends of a statement claiming a socialist coup taking place are. Lots of other people and supposedly respectable figures use the language of coups, and of course Harper was ludicrously called a dictator by esteemed morons like Elizabeth May. It’s dumb, it’s incendiary, and it’s wrong. But “they do it too” is not a reason for you to do it. Be better.   

If a socialist coup is taking place you aren’t just going to worry about getting out the vote and signing up volunteers to knock on doors. Is Lewis suggesting people should do anything more than participate in the political process? Of course not, but that’s precisely why she shouldn’t be throwing around the language of a coup. I still like Lewis, even if I probably get myself on the naughty list by criticizing her. But I criticize because I think she can have a bright future, and I don’t want to see her go down the path of paranoid politics. 

Let me give you another example I stumbled across last week. Paul Hinman, the interim leader of the Wildrose Independence Party in Alberta, a party that, if any recent polls are to be believed, is polling in double digits, released a statement on Alberta’s vacationing politicians and the political scandal that has ensued:

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The bit that jumped out to me are the last two paragraphs. Specifically Hinman claiming “If Albertans don’t rise up Kenney and Trudeau will continue to do this until we are forced to be part of Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset.” This would fulfil one of Trudeau’s lifelong ambitions, to be the first postnational country to sign on to a global government of unelected fascists.” Hinman and the WIP are still a relatively small minority, but this little statement here perfectly encapsulates the paranoid and increasingly unhinged politics taking a hold of a not insignificant portion of the conservative base. 

Claiming that Trudeau and Kenney are ready to sign Canada on to a global government of unelected fascists” is again a fantastical claim. Words matter. If this were actually happening, what is the logical end point to resisting the rise of a fascist world government? This is paranoid politics “made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted.”

Cutting and harsh political rhetoric is not a problem, but there are limits to what responsible people can and should say. Let me illustrate the difference in one more little way. I notice all the time now that #TrudeauMustGo trends fairly frequently. But increasingly I come across #TrudeauTraitor and #TrudeauTreason. Calling Trudeau corrupt, incompetent, inept, a radical or a socialist are all perfectly legitimate. But words like traitor and treason are not thrown around lightly. Words matter. And once again, ask yourself what is the logical end of this kind of rhetoric? What is to be done if Trudeau is truly treasonous or a traitor?

Most people are capable of using this kind of hyperbole, and mean no genuine harm. But all it takes is for one person to take the language of treason and treachery to a dangerous end. In July a man rammed a truck through the gates of Rideau Hall armed with two shotguns, a rifle and a revolver looking for the Prime Minister. According to the RCMP the man was “seeking to have the prime minister arrested for his policies related to firearms restrictions and COVID responses." 

Is this a problem exclusively on the right? No. It’s a serious problem across the spectrum. But those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. If we condemn dangerous rhetoric from “the other side” we have to police our own even more. There’s been a lot of whataboutism this week, pointing to violence from the summer as proof that political violence isn’t just a right wing problem. Left wing political violence in America is also a problem and whataboutism isn’t always wrong. It’s important to point out hypocrisy. But you cannot do this if you are incapable of policing and holding yourself to account as well. 

Gatekeeping an Alternate Reality

Canada doesn’t face the threats of political violence on the scale like what we saw in Washington last week. For that we should be thankful. But we are not immune from these forces and paranoid politics has made its way here too. Politicians increasingly do face intimidation, threats, and harassment. 

Canadian conservatism has not been hijacked by a demagogue. Trumpism has not come north. Accusations contrary to this that come from the left and Liberals contributes to political polarization. But there is a not-insignificant  portion of the conservative base that has undoubtedly embraced this paranoid style of politics, including Trump’s lies about the election. Yes, that is a problem, and if you can’t see this there’s not much I can say to you. If you think Trump won the election and if you’re a Canadian who builds your politics around this lie I’m not going to convince you otherwise, but you and I cannot be on the same team. You live in an alternate reality and the real people you should be mad at are the people you think are heroes that are knowingly deceiving you. 

But this gets to the fundamental problem. There are degrees of paranoid politics. All of it is unwelcome and needs to be shunned, but some versions of it are worse than others. The most extreme versions of it would have you believe Trump’s lies, or that COVID is a hoax. But this is precisely why things like sanewashing are worrisome, because they offer a wink and a nudge to the genuinely unhinged views that the true believers take as dogma. It brings crazy theories into the mainstream.  

If we don’t do our own gatekeeping and police our own, you leave others to do it for you. For instance, Erin O’Toole’s slogan during his leadership campaign was “Take Canada Back.” This has invited predictable accusations of it being a dog whistle to the darker forces in contemporary politics. “Take back X” is a common political slogan, and has been used across the spectrum. For instance in the 2009 British Columbia provincial election the BC NDP used “Take Back Your BC” as their slogan.

Take back is perfectly legitimate democratic rhetoric, and vigorous policing of our own rhetoric gives us the authority to decide for ourselves what is and isn’t legitimate. Now I don’t recommend that O’Toole use it going forward, it certainly invites the kinds of attacks that the Liberals are eager to make even if they are unfair. But we don’t have to let everyone else decide for us what is legitimate rhetoric, we can and must do so ourselves. 

Conservative politicians and figures in Canada don’t need to spend all day denouncing these people and offering themselves as flagellants for political opponents who need to also take a look at the problems in their own factions. But silence isn’t enough either. Sometimes the strategy is to remain silent, while using things like sanewashing or surrogates to offer the wink and nudge that keep the true believers in the flock without directly endorsing or shunning them. 

This isn’t about imposing a strict litmus test on conservatism. It’s not about excising minority, but legitimate beliefs. It’s not about saying you can’t be a conservative if you’re pro-life, or can’t be a conservative if you’re a protectionist. It’s about gatekeeping some basic sense of reality, and not acknowledging unreality. 

And this is the problem for people who want to kind of maintain an entente cordiale with the unreality dwellers. The wink and the nudge won’t be enough. What these people want isn’t for you to recognize alternative policy ideas or even basic principles, they expect you to acknowledge an alternate reality. Sooner or later you’ll have to make a choice. I suggest affirming reality. 

There will be a political cost to this. These people are not a majority or even a plurality of the base, but they are a growing fringe. It’s COVID induced, but I doubt it will disappear when the pandemic is over. Social media and digital networks allow them to connect and organize, and it makes them feel much bigger than they are. Trying to placate and keep these people as part of any conservative coalition abandons the mainstream to others, and makes conservatism itself increasingly fringe. 

A new Canadian conservative coalition needs to be built, but expanding beyond the base is going to be impossible if we are forced to placate the unreality dwellers. The goal should be to govern, and govern well. Governing parties think beyond their base, and realise their voters are always more than their base, parties of perpetual opposition don’t. 

One last point. So much of the rhetoric and language that is used to excuse bad behaviour of the crazy parts of the right is framed as being about ‘respecting’ people’s concerns and frustrations. The pathetic US senators who fuelled Trump’s conspiracies by saying they were giving a voice to Trump voters (even though they themselves indulged in the conspiracies to begin with) are the perfect example of this. The fundamental premise of all this is that we have to respect people’s views and beliefs and you’re disrespecting them if you don’t take them seriously. 

Bullshit. You want to know what respect means? It means treating adults like adults, it means treating people like they aren’t idiots.  Political leaders that willingly add fuel to things they know are lies to “respect” voters who have been duped aren’t showing them respect, they are treating them like morons. They are telling you that you are too stupid to distinguish fact from fiction. You’re ripe to be conned and be taken advantage of. Knowingly lying to people for your own political benefit is a betrayal. It’s an abdication of your responsibilities as a leader, and it makes you a scumbag. And of course it’s those saying that they want to “stop the steal” who are actually the ones trying to steal an election.

This is the key to “Trumpism” as well. Trumpism is not an ideology, it isn’t a set of ideas or policy prescriptions, even if some tried to post-facto graft an ideology onto him. Trumpism is about one man. It’s a cult of personality built around massaging Trump’s ego. It’s about affirming the unreality and paranoia of Trump world. I’ve made no secret I’m encouraged by some of the intellectual shifts on the right in the last few years, but Trumpism isn’t about ideas. It’s not about helping people. It’s about one man. And down that path lies destruction and ruin.

The underlying conditions and causes that have fuelled discontent across the west aren’t going away. Something needs to be done to reverse the slide that is taking place across the western world, and it’s going to require serious leadership. We need to deal with the conditions, especially the structural economic and social conditions, that are increasingly creating a legitimacy crisis of democracy and make people vulnerable to demagogic forces. But far too many of the populists who claim to speak for the unheard have no interest in this. Their interest is in fuelling the grievance and outrage machine, not public policy. That’s not about dignity and respect, that’s just a new kind of elite that wants to rise to fame and fortune on the back of lies. 

It is incumbent upon serious and responsible people that recognize these grievances as serious and recognize what is happening as portions of the right become increasingly untethered from reality to address this. And it has to start with not indulging demagogic lies and calling that respect. Reject the paranoid style of politics.