Although ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ by Richard Hofstadter was written in 1964, its messages and themes are more relevant than ever. In his groundbreaking essay, Hofstadter establishes the notion that psychological projection–a defense method consisting of shifting blame and projecting insecurities–and paranoia play critical roles in US politics and are the foundation of certain political ideologies. Specifically, he explores the influences of suspicion toward authority figures and conspiracy theories on the American public and political parties. With the rise of the internet, conspiracy theories have only gotten more popular amongst people of all ages: some genuinely believe these theories while others find them a form of entertainment. It only takes a few clicks to access websites filled with conspiracy theories and misinformation provided by people scrambling to find a deeper meaning and connection behind every event and tragedy. It can be hard to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to these theories. Humans are naturally curious and taught to question anything, but in the past two decades conspiracy theorists have taken that ‘curiosity’ to a dangerous new level: these new theorists place others and themselves in danger. The danger of these conspiracy theories is clearer than ever due to the spread of COVID-19. ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ has essentially been a playbook for politicians and political pundits who have played off of the public’s fears in a politically divided Americans.
COVID-19 has pitted Americans against each other, both in regard to wearing masks and listening to health professionals, but also its very existence: some simply don’t believe the virus exists. Under the Trump administration, we’ve seen a renewed interest in QAnon, an alt-right conspiracy theorist group, that questions the true damage caused by COVID-19 and the motives of political officials and “Hollywood elites”. Rather than quashing this narrative and providing consistent information to the American people, the Trump administration has encouraged these conspiracy theorists by publicly supporting figures known for spreading conspiracies, and retweeting those theories on social media. As well as routinely casting doubt on the credibility of health professionals and referring to COVID-19 as the ‘China Virus,’ this administration’s support of conspiracy theorists have had significant effects on the public perception of the virus.
‘Plandemic’ is a 26-minute documentary-style conspiracy theory video released in May 2020 and it quickly began circulating on social media platforms. In this movie, a discredited virologist named Judy Mikovitz claims that the virus was manipulated and either accidentally or purposefully released. She goes on to claim that her previous research found vaccines were harmful and that it was purposefully buried by political and “Hollywood elites.” In just one week, ‘Plandemic’ was viewed over 8 million times on streaming platforms and social media, garnering not only the attention of the general public but that of celebrities and politicians as well.
The problem isn’t that these conspiracy theories exist; it is that they have real-world consequences as they shape the public perception of the virus and their actions regarding it. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that “COVID-19 conspiracy theories are not only commonplace, they’re gaining traction.” Their survey of 840 U.S. adults showed that 37% believed COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the Chinese government, compared to the 28% that believed so in March. The study also found that 32% believed the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the effects of the virus to undermine Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. These conspiracy theories not only weaken the public’s trust in the government, but also increase the severity of the consequences of COVID-19, and dictate the way people act. The same Annenberg study found that of coronavirus conspiracy theorists, only 62% were likely to wear a mask compared to the 95% of non-believers who were likely to wear masks.
The current administration has failed on both parts as they haven’t either unified Americans or proposed long term solutions to systemic problems. The Trump administration’s actions regarding COVID-19 could have defined Trump’s presidency as one that valued science, prioritized public health, and valued its citizens. Instead, this administration’s actions have resulted in an America that is more deeply divided than ever and one in which life is defined by one’s political ties. As we approach election day, we can only hope that the Trump Administration recognizes that they are enabling misinformation and places American unity over political agenda. Until then, it is more critical than ever that Americans receive information from credible sources and don’t fall into the trap that is conspiracy theories.
Kaurwaki Babu is a senior at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM in North) Carolina. Since a young age, she’s had a passion for political issues ranging from gun control to climate change. By taking part in several protests, joining Speech and Debate, and participating in the U.S. Senate Page Program, she has found several ways to enter the world of political discourse through social justice and policy change. She’s part of the leadership committee at Discovery Place Science, a science museum in Charlotte, NC, where she advocates for environmental consciousness and helps high schooler gets actively involved in environmental justice. She’s excited to write for NGP and to foster political discourse among youth!