A few years ago, the publishers of the leading satirical newspaper in the U.S., The Onion, brought out a collection of historic front pages from the twentieth century. Sandwiched somewhere in-between the sinking of the Titanic (‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-berg’) and misadventures in the Middle East (‘Iran Has the Car Bomb’) stands the headline for November 22, 1963: ‘Kennedy slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons.’ JFK was shot, the subheading declared, ‘129 Times from 43 Different Angles.’
The death of a president breathed life into conspiracy theory. Incapable of accepting the findings of the government’s Warren Commission, which had concluded a lone gunman – Lee Harvey Oswald – fired the fatal shots – sceptics strove to illuminate the shadowy network that they were convinced had orchestrated the assassination. Before long, the list of suspects exceeded even The Onion’s fantastical list, and thanks to books, film, and the interstices of the internet, doubts about Oswald’s sole guilt have spread. A recent poll found 61% of Americans believe he did not kill Kennedy alone.
When we are bombarded by dodgy dossiers, Wikileaks, and the Snowden revelations, mistrust in government is rife. And so it should be. Conspiracy theorists share with historians the assumption that to understand power we need to look beneath the surface; conspiracies themselves can be very real. Yet to believe – as 20% of Americans supposedly did according to a 2003 poll – that Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, lay behind the assassination is preposterous. No more ridiculous, though, than the 30% of Republicans persuaded that Obama is a devout Muslim, the 14% of voters who think the CIA deliberately flooded inner cities with crack cocaine, or the 28% of citizens who fear a secretive international cabal are plotting to institute a New World Order. Here, healthy scepticism gives way to make-believe, yet to make the case, supposition after supposition is garbed in the cloak of historical science. Various conspiracy theories offer close readings of birth certificates, magic bullets, and collapsing buildings, and seem at first glance to follow established rules of evidence. Only on closer scrutiny do the elisions, misrepresentations, and imaginative leaps become apparent.
It’s tempting to see the flights of fancy of Tea Party fanatics and 9/11 Truthers as a trait of our own time. The steady erosion of bedrocks of traditional authority – major newspapers and TV stations, the post-Watergate White House – and the easy circulation of ideas online fertilises the soil in which conspiracy theories to take root. But as the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter noted in an influential article for Harper’s, the ‘paranoid style’ of American public life has a much longer history: one that reaches back to the colonial era and belongs exclusively to neither left nor right. From the Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century via antebellum anxieties about masonic mysteries and papist plots to the McCarthy purges of his own day, Hofstadter found ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ in the minds of ‘more or less normal people.’ Influenced by the postwar vogue for mass psychology, he put what he called ‘a modest minority’ of Americans past and present on the couch, listened to what they had to say, and arrived at a diagnosis. The paranoid, he concluded, is ‘afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.’
Hofstadter’s article began life as a lecture, given fifty years ago today at Oxford University. The following day, Oswald took aim from the Texas book depository at JFK’s motorcade. For suspicious minds, the proximity of Hofstadter’s talk to the president’s murder might send the imagination into overdrive; for most of us, it just marks an intriguing coincidence: that the century’s most penetrating analysis of the paranoid style came the day before its most notorious political murder gave birth to the mother of all conspiracy theories.
Even as the paranoid style reared its head again in the wake of the assassination, though, Hofstadter’s influence waned. He remained – indeed remains – highly regarded as an essayist, but his ironic appreciation of the underlying continuities in American thought left him isolated in the polarised politics of the Civil Rights era. His students, Eric Foner among them, often went on to great things, yet by emphasising conflict rather than consensus, and rejecting the social psychologising that characterized ‘The Paranoid Style’, they took U.S. history in a different direction to their teacher. Hofstadter died in 1970 aged 54, and though historians enjoy ransacking his work for quotes – he may be the closest epigrammist the American historical profession has to AJP Taylor – few would admit to following his findings. Yet the enduring power of conspiracy theories in the modern world suggests there’s much to learn from Hofstadter’s analysis. A recent project on the phenomenon at Cambridge, for instance, became the subject of an elaborate conspiracy theory itself, when one of its directors implied that incompetence, rather than malevolence, tends to offer a better working hypothesis for why things go wrong.
As I’ve begun to explore aspects of the paranoid style in post-Civil War American politics – in particular a non-existent monarchist plot which gave Americans sleepless nights over the fear that crowned heads lurked under their beds – I’ve found myself returning to Hofstadter’s essay and book. Over the next few days, the JFK commemorations will dominate the news cycle, but when doubts about his death are aired – as they inevitably will be – consider giving Hofstadter’s ‘Paranoid Style’ a try. Even if it doesn’t convince you of LBJ’s innocence, it might help explain why, according to the survey cited earlier, 13% of American voters believe Obama is the anti-Christ.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. You can read Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: JFK’s limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination, 22 November 1963 [Wikicommons]
 Hofstadter never implied all Americans were susceptible to the paranoid style, and nor did he suggest that the phenomenon belonged exclusively to the U.S.
 Foner’s tribute to his teacher, ‘The Education of Richard Hofstadter’, can be found in Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World.