Suspicious Minds

When a political regime is overtly oppressive, paranoia becomes a coping strategy

To call American politics driven by paranoia feels so obvious that it must somehow contain a hidden truth. The President launched his political career by latching onto the racist birther conspiracy. He campaigned on more conspiracies and delights in calling critical reporting “fake news.” At the same time, he regurgitates wild articles from conspiracy sites like InfoWars. Congressional Republicans, following Trump’s lead, have taken to talking about outside agitators and paid protesters when they face criticism.

Meanwhile, evidence of Russian influence on the election and the administration accumulates, but the truth — whatever it is — has been perpetually obscured by tidbits like the faked image of Russian internet activity or the more lurid details of the intelligence dossier prepared on the subject before the election. After Michael Flynn was fired for lying about meeting with the Russian ambassador, the Russian government accused Americans of being paranoid.

To open Facebook or Twitter is to be exposed to frenzied readings of isolated pieces of information, trying to construct the “real story.” Is “President Bannon” pulling the strings? Or is it Jared Kushner? Stephen Miller? Everything they do and everything the President himself tweets is a possible distraction from the real menace, which is constituted by, well, everything else.

What the paranoid is eager to establish as mind-blowing certainty is often already an open secret. The difference between methodical evil and casual, ignorant cruelty is negligible

It’s difficult to imagine a climate more conducive to the growth of paranoia. And why not give in to it? Fear can be a powerful motivator. It can prompt the otherwise apathetic or defeated into a stance of engaged resistance. But it also operates by limiting the sphere of possibility. Paranoia zooms in on a few choice explanations for events and sticks with them no matter what. As the old solutions continue to fail disastrously, paranoia’s attack on imagination is dangerous.

The paranoid’s quest for the “truth” is, after all, a frantic form of reverse engineering. Even before investigating, the conspiracy devotee is convinced of the truth of their suspicions — otherwise how would they know what to look for? Theorists spinning Twitter webs tend to claim they’re “just asking questions,” but people seem to “just ask” questions about things they think they already know — usually secrets explaining the underlying structure of the world. Persisting in the search for “answers” allows the questioner to continue holding their beliefs without doing anything about them, other than continuing to “uncover” more proof about what’s really happening.

In reality, what the paranoid is eager to establish as mind-blowing certainty is often already an open secret. In a conversation with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS pandemic — and related conspiracy theorizing about the Reagan administration’s role in the spread of the virus — the sociologist Cindy Patton asked her, “Suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things — what would we know then that we don’t already know?”

Patton’s rhetorical question reframes our obsession with gathering and connecting the elements of a conspiracy: Would it really be so shocking and important to discover the smoking gun that “proved” the Reagan administration didn’t care about HIV or AIDS, and in fact relished the suffering of gay Americans? His government’s non-action and willingness to condemn victims, and the apparently unremarkable deaths of thousands of people, said more than enough. As Sedgwick points out in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” the difference between methodical evil and casual, ignorant cruelty is negligible.

This distinction between active, planned malice and brutish incompetence has little effect on the victims of oppression, but to the paranoid mind it remains a monumental stumbling block. While an outside observer may (correctly) perceive the paranoid’s argument as tautological, the paranoid writer experiences it as a breakthrough, a “triumphant advance toward truth and vindication.” It’s difficult to overstate how intoxicating this approach can be.

One of the main problems with paranoid thinking, Sedgwick argues, is that it is often incapable, by its very nature, of achieving anything. Trying relentlessly to “prove” the existence of the conspiracy makes it more difficult to respond to genuinely new information — especially if it complicates the paranoid person’s previously existing picture of the intrigue. But it also makes it harder to actually act against the conspiracy (or institutional equivalent). And isn’t that the whole point?

Often, what the paranoid reader regards as conspiracy is simply an institution functioning as intended, as when the Democratic National Committee worked to deny Bernie Sanders the party’s nomination. These efforts can be treated as a conspiracy only if you ignore the party’s creaky, purposefully anti-democratic machinery. Insisting otherwise obfuscates the mechanisms at work in a given instance of injustice and muddles what, exactly, one is fighting against. Assuming some grand conspiracy replaces the real system that must be changed with a fictional cabal of masterminds, infinitely more clever and meticulous than they actually are.

The idea that exposure and outrage lead directly to political action assumes that the public needs to maintain plausible deniability in order to tolerate evil. It doesn’t

If confirmation were found of even deeper ties between Trump and Putin tomorrow, would we really know anything we didn’t already know? Who clicks on links announcing big new breaks in the Trump-Russia investigation or reads a tweetstorm of tenuous accusations to find out new information about the world? These reports no longer seem capable of revealing or describing anything fresh or urgent; instead, they feed into a framework in which news can only deepen our conviction in what we already knew. To consume the news is to enter a psychic hall of mirrors, where the appearance of depth buries the obvious reality.

This isn’t a surprise: It’s the same thing that happens in other cases of excessive paranoid reading. If you look for structural systems of oppression — for instance, racism, sexism, classism, discrimination against LGBTQ people — in any given situation, you will almost certainly find them, because systemic oppression is, by nature, everywhere. Injustice is overwhelming and it resists easy solutions, which is why the paranoid hunt for evidence frequently privileges the symbolic, the representational, and the trivial: It’s easier to extract evidence of ill will from a text than it is to engage with it in the world. The paranoid’s perfect enemy, then, is too powerful to fight and too mysterious to correctly identify.

Political journalism frequently operates on the assumption that evidence of something like blatant racism will have an effect if presented clearly to the public, as if the culprits would of necessity be ashamed. But confronted with a president who asked a black journalist to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, pointing out individual instances of rhetorical racism feels silly. In fact, the administration’s supporters delight in the exposure of their bigotry as a means of producing “liberal tears.”

Everyone knows who the president is — who, exactly, are we trying to convince otherwise? What does it mean to “report” the news when very little of the news is actually new? In paranoid reading, the lack of real information is a feature rather than a bug. Sedgwick argues that for the paranoid, violence “must always be presumed or self-assumed — even, where necessary, imposed — simply on the ground that it can never be finally ruled out.” But this assumption is imposed and restated over and over again, making it impossible to move beyond the revelation of violence even when it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Paranoia is, of course, a long-standing pillar of American politics. Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (which Sedgwick references) tracks the way paranoid politics moved from the fringes to the mainstream, from vague Masonic conspiracies to specific theories about presidents and other public figures in the 1960s. He diagnoses the paranoid’s worldview as transmuting all political antagonisms from ideological clashes or shortsightedness into cold, calculating betrayal.

For the paranoid person, pointing out injustice feels like it should be, must be, enough. As Sedgwick puts it, paranoia places its faith in exposure, meaning that if someone can just see what you see, they’ll understand the conspiracy and become your ally: “Paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.” But American liberals bent on exposing the possible machinations of the Trump regime are exposing a different unpleasant truth: that uncovering the conspiracy doesn’t actually do anything.

Everyone knows who the president is — who, exactly, are we trying to convince otherwise? A paranoid reading makes it impossible to move beyond the revelation of violence even when it’s the most obvious thing in the world

The paranoid mind thinks that proving that Jeff Sessions is a racist should have stopped Congress from confirming him and that pointing out Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy is a decisive rhetorical blow. This is deeply misguided. “For someone to have an unmystified, angry view of large and genuinely systemic oppression,” Sedgwick argues, “does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences.” Exposing hypocrisy or corruption can just as easily confirm suspicions of their inescapability. The idea that exposure and outrage lead directly to political action — a view that motivates everything from the obsession over police body cam videos to the obsessive cataloging of false Trump statements — rests on an assumption that the public needs to maintain plausible deniability in the face of evil in order to tolerate it. It doesn’t.

Still, believing that exposing some fatal flaw in your enemies’ logic will save you is very comforting. Sedgwick characterizes paranoia as a “strong theory”: it can account for a vast array of experiences, meaning it totally organizes the way the paranoid person sees the world. Paranoia is defined by an “aversion to surprise,” whereby the paranoiac accounts for the possibility of catastrophe in any given case. It is not surprising that many of the people shocked by Donald Trump’s election have been primed to now adopt a paranoid strategy. They underestimated or willfully ignored the racist and sexist underpinnings of the country and have heightened their paranoid response as a way to declare: Never again! But this wariness in the face of surprise serves only to insulate the paranoid from an unpleasant reaction without doing anything to prevent the affliction.

Recognizing the fundamental role that chaos plays in our own lives is hard to admit, let alone world affairs. Conspiracy is more comforting than complexity, and it’s safer than admitting stupidity or ignorance. The paranoid depends on an assumption of comprehensible, narrative order — even though, as Hofstadter puts it, the morass of history is often “a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence.”

The paranoid’s presumption of treason over idiocy is, then, a sort of defense mechanism. Whether it’s the comfort of fiction (even Voldemort took over Hogwarts before Harry’s final victory!) or too-easy historical parallels (where is the administration’s equivalent of the Reichstag Fire?), the paranoid hunts for neat similarities to confirm that the future can definitively, coherently, be known.

Acknowledging that somebody could be limited or incompetent rather than actively evil is hard. Different scenarios require different approaches that the paranoid person, by definition, refuses

The appeal of this kind of thinking is powerful. Sedgwick calls paranoia “contagious,” which means the empathy required to understand the paranoid requires the listener to, briefly, assume their mode of thinking. Paranoid reading thrives on seductive, blanketing “what if” questions and the ease with which they can account for all possibilities. And nowhere is paranoia more accessible or easy to fall into than the internet with its tweetstorms and Medium theories, all of which seem just plausible enough to capture unsuspecting readers.

In this light, sharing is more paranoid than informative, Actually believing a Medium essay proves the existence of a coup is less important than the fact that the coup, or something like it, must be happening — and everyone in your social circles need to know it. (Or, at least, to know that you know it.) Paranoia is a tool for building a twisted form of solidarity.

It’s impossible to stamp out paranoia in a linear fashion. Its patterns turn everything into circles, circuits, and circuses, mirroring the sprawl of its elaborate theories — a sprawl that is often aided by the disjointed nature of a tweet or image showing up in your feed. So how can people move past paranoia, or at least step away from it momentarily? Logging off isn’t enough. Paranoia’s embrace will still be there when you come back.

As a remedy, Sedgwick encourages cultivating the capacity for surprise, a mode she calls “reparative reading.” Being open to the possibility of being wrong, or of misinterpreting, or of simply acknowledging that somebody could be limited or incompetent rather than actively evil is hard. It necessitates giving up a warm sense of certainty, and forces the admission that intellectual security is frequently an illusion.

Certainly, the regime doesn’t deserve any credit. But it’s useful to consciously maintain a degree of psychic vulnerability in political debates, especially when we have largely the same goals as our interlocutors. And paranoia isn’t always the worst way to approach the world; it’s just one way to read among many. Different scenarios require different approaches and a degree of self-awareness that the paranoid person, by definition, refuses.

It’s easier than ever to succumb to the temptations of paranoid reading. Our daily consumption of information is scaffolded by algorithmic feeds, and we are given all kinds of incentives to share sensational claims. But that merely makes the choice to read reparatively more important. It may feel obvious to say that people should approach politics with a measure of charity, but it’s such a clear recommendation that there must be a secret truth lurking in it somewhere.

Eric Thurm would rather be watching The Young Pope or playing Pandemic: Legacy. He also writes for, among other outlets, GQ, Esquire, and the Guardian, and is the founder and host of the extremely non-TED affiliated event Drunk TED Talks.