What comedy! What a circus! Melania Trump’s speech was ripped off from one of Michelle Obama’s. Donald Trump’s affectionate, er, grope of his daughter Ivanka was weirdly inappropriate. His air kiss of vice-presidential pick Mike Pence was an air miss. And the new Republican rock anthem Make America Great Again appeared to have been written by the creators of South Park.
This is a representative sample of the things said by members of the American elite about last week’s Republican national convention in Cleveland. Ignore it all. Their sneering is just irrelevant noise. The signal was what mattered and, though it was loud (and at times monotonous), it was also very clear.
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech was a ghastly masterclass in what Richard Hofstadter more than 50 years ago called “the paranoid style in American politics”. Citing late 18th-century attacks on freemasons and 19th-century attacks on Roman Catholics, Hofstadter argued that this political tradition had resurfaced in the 1950s with the anti-communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, and in the 1960s with the conscience of conservatism Barry Goldwater.
As Hofstadter summarised it, the paranoid view was that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old, but major statesmen who are at the very centres of American power”.
The paranoid world-view verged on the religious: “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms . . . He is always manning the barricades of civilisation . . . Like religious millennialists, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days.” Yet even as he denounces the corrupt, cosmopolitan elite, the political paranoiac is implicitly expressing a kind of attraction. He hates intellectuals, yet he provides extensive footnotes.
This — including the footnotes, 282 of which the Trump campaign supplied on Friday — is about all you need to know about Trump’s acceptance speech. It was all here, beginning with the conspiracy theory. “America is a nation of believers, dreamers and strivers,” yelled Trump, “that is being led by a group of censors, critics and cynics . . . No longer can we rely on those same people in the media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
“Big business, elite media and major donors” were backing Hillary Clinton, Trump declared, “because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.” As a result, “corruption has reached a level like never before”. In a striking moment of candour, Trump then added: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Yes, there is something strangely attractive about all that corruption, come to think of it. Now, which job in the administration would you prefer, Ivanka?
Also present and correct was the classic paranoid vision of a country on the edge of Armageddon. This was “a moment of crisis for our nation”, thundered Trump, for once eschewing comedy. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” Whole communities were being “crushed”.
Sometimes it takes one to know one. The best summary of Trump’s speech, revealingly, was by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, who tweeted: “Great Trump speech, America first! Stop wars! Defeat the corrupt elites! Protect our borders! Fair trade! Couldn’t have said it better!”
Quite so. The speech had the usual drastic remedies for the country’s ills, and not only the border wall to keep out the illegal immigrants Trump falsely blames for a non-existent crime wave. (At least when Richard Nixon played this card in 1968 there actually was a crisis of law and order.) For the economy he promised renegotiation of trade deals, tax cuts, deregulation and the kind of infrastructure spending all those Keynesian economists should be rushing to endorse. As for foreign policy, he repeated his standard vague pledge to “defeat the barbarians of Isis”.
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, is always with us. What determines its political salience is its appeal to people who feel “dispossessed” — who believe that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it”. The more such people find themselves denied “access to political bargaining or the making of decisions”, the more “their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious” is confirmed.
This is the key to Trump’s success, and he knows it. The most powerful part of his acceptance speech was directed squarely at “the forgotten men and women of our country” — “people who work hard but no longer have a voice”. For those people, Trump had two powerful messages: “I am your voice” and “I’m with you”, the latter an inspired retort to Clinton’s faintly smug campaign slogan “I’m with her”.
“I’m with her,” is the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to bluff your way into the Facebook party at Davos by standing behind Sheryl Sandberg. “I am your voice,” by contrast, is the paranoid style at its most effective.
At the heart of the paranoid style there is always nostalgia. In Hofstadter’s day, people looked back to before the First World War. In our time, they yearn for the era before Vietnam. (Trump’s hairstyle itself is an allusion to Happy Days.) Watch Douglas MacArthur’s keynote speech at the 1952 convention, or Barry Goldwater’s speech accepting the Republican nomination in 1964, to see just why Trump’s speech resonated.
Yet there is a difference. In those days, the paranoid style appealed to the Republican Party faithful. The convention floor went nuts for MacArthur and Goldwater. Last week in Cleveland was different because — as was very obvious in and around the convention centre — Trump is fundamentally a foreign body in the Grand Old Party. As one young Republican explained to me, he is really an independent candidate who seized the nomination by mobilising voters who had been drifting away from the Bush-era GOP. That is why regular convention attendees referred disdainfully to Trump supporters as “Republidents”.
Trump’s insurgency against the elite continues to confound political experts who are themselves members of the elite. Undeterred by all that has happened in the past year, they continue to underestimate his chances in November. They have failed to understand the power of the paranoid style. If Trump can inspire and energise not only Republicans but also Republidents — independent voters who choose him over Clinton — he could surprise us all again.
Despise him all you like, but Donald Trump could yet be the first Republident president. And no: I’m not just being paranoid.