The Coddling of the American President: The Paranoid Style & Truth Decay in America, Part #2

The Coddling of the American President: The Paranoid Style & Truth Decay in America, Part #2 January 11, 2021

How bad has it gotten? Well, the CEO of Parler, a social media platform popular among conservatives, told Mediaite that it removed a post from attorney Lin Wood calling for Vice President Mike Pence to be executed by “firing squads. “Take a moment and think about that: VP Pence, a true believer if there ever was one. Wood may not represent the views of most people on the National Mall last week — but he represents something.  I’d personally like to know what that “something” is…

60 years ago, in the midst of the Goldwater campaign, Richard Hofstadter described the “paranoid style” of American politics. Even then, he wrote, there had been a long history. The early 1960s came in the wake of the communist scare and the McCarthy “Un-American” trials of the 50s. So there was already a great deal of suspicion, confusion, and downright fear at work in American life.

Those were the “good old days,” as some would have it. What would Hofstadter think about the recent events surrounding the events of January 6 in Washington?

Every American interested and/or horrified by the Capitol siege and how such a mess occurs might find it useful to take another look at Hofstadter and his theory. He begins with a claim: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement.” behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call 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. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Of course, Hofstadter quotes the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose rants and conspiracy theories mortified a nation for years. Here’s Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the calamitous situation of the United States, as he saw it:

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.”

In retrospect, of course, this “conspiracy of infamy” turned out to be the witch-hunt itself, not the so-called witches. The phenomenon of the “witch-hunt” is analyzed at some length in one of the most important books of recent years, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and it has a relation to last week’s debacle. The relation comes down to a simple concept that has become deeply problematic in recent years in America: us vs. them. Good guys vs. the bad guys. Tribal truths.

Coddling is an interesting concept, and at the center of the analysis of Lukianoff and Haidt.  It refers to a sort of institutionalized overprotection, or a “safetyism.” Thus, some key elements of “coddling” our American president would be functions like enabling, co-dependency, and extreme polarization–along with advocating conspiracy theory. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, right? Above all, remember that whoever he/she/ is, Q = a “true insider.”

In many ways, QAnon is the culmination of Trump’s America: paranoid, deeply critical of journalists and experts, obsessive in its defense of the president. It’s also interesting that some dislike the word “coddling.” In fact, one of the authors has mentioned in interviews that they did not choose the term. Lukianoff wanted to call the book “Disempowered” because, as he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We [Haidt and Lukianoff] believe we [society at large] have unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people, and we need to rethink how we do everything from parenting in K-12, through, of course, higher education.”

Ed Stetzer, Dean of Wheaton College, has written: “Years ago, Mark Noll wrote about the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” If there is anything that represents the scandal of the evangelical mind right now, it’s the gullibility of Christians who need to be discipled into critical thinking about how to engage the world around them. We need to be able to see through the bias and discern conspiracy theories that have risen to the level of messianic religion.

“As seekers of truth, we need pastors, leaders, and everyday Christians to address this conspiracy, and others like it, before others are fooled. It’s the Christian’s role to speak up about this and against this, even when the president does not, and before more people get hurt.”

So I am committing here in early 2021 to speaking out myself. QAnon is a serious threat to the nation and the church. I’m suggesting that we are all becoming both “coddled” and “disempowered” by our broken public culture in America. We are all in danger of attaining “the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people,” and this was on full display in DC on Jan. 6. Have you or someone you love become paranoid and obsessively in defense of this broken and dishonored president? Help is on the way, I hope… because many Americans are suddenly waking up to the threat posed by Q.

Where might this all go from here?? Stay tuned. But beware: truth continues its march toward decay…

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