Richard Hofstadter gave the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford on 21 November 1963, on the rhetoric and superstitions of the American right. The next presidential election was a year away, but Barry Goldwater, a US senator from Arizona, owner of a department store in Phoenix and author of an influential book about his conservative politics, who promised to roll back Roosevelt’s New Deal, was likely to be the Republican candidate. No one thought he had a chance of winning, but he appealed to large numbers of white voters opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. In November 1963 it appeared possible that the Republicans might win the South the following year: the purpose of Kennedy’s trip to Texas that month was to shore-up the Democrat vote in the Lone Star State.
‘Mr President,’ a journalist asked Kennedy at a press conference three weeks earlier, ‘Senator Goldwater accused your administration today of falsification of the news in order to perpetuate itself in office. Do you care to comment on that?’
‘I am confident that he will be making charges even more serious than this one in coming months,’ Kennedy replied. ‘In addition, he’s had a busy week … suggesting that military commanders overseas be permitted to use nuclear weapons, and attacking the president of Bolivia while he was here in the United States, and involving himself in the Greek elections.’ (Not that the Kennedy administration was uninvolved in the politics of other countries; in Paris, on the morning of 22 November, Desmond Fitzgerald of the CIA handed over a fountain pen whose ink was laced with poison to a man who said he’d assassinate Fidel Castro.)
Hofstadter’s lecture was published in Harper’s a year later, on the eve of the election, as ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’:
In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But 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.
For the paranoid style it isn’t enough to have an opponent; an enemy is necessary:
This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman – sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid's interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will.
The day after Hofstadter gave his lecture, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That led to the Warren Commission, whose conclusions were seen as the biggest cover-up of all time. Murray Kempton wrote a response to the report in the New Republic:
Most of the speculation which afflicted public discussion about the Kennedy assassination can be blamed on – or perhaps credited to – the refusal of many of us to accept the absurd. But the Warren Report, when it most persuades, is a recital of a series of accidents which ends by convincing us that the absurd really does explain it all, and that Mr. Kennedy really might as well have been killed by a bolt of lightning. Thinking of that, it is possible to sympathise with those who cannot accept such chaos except as the result of the work of a highly rationalised conspiracy.
The Grassy Knoll is less arresting than it once was – most people seem to accept that maybe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy on his own after all – but it made a brief appearance in the election campaign this year. The National Enquirer ran a photo of Oswald standing with another man in New Orleans a few days before the assassination – a man the tabloid said was, of all people, Ted Cruz’s father. Donald Trump seized upon it at a press conference in Cleveland. ‘I know nothing about his father,’ Trump said, ‘I know nothing about Lee Harvey Oswald. But there was a picture on the front page of the National Enquirer which does have credibility, and they’re not going to do pictures like that because they get sued for a lot of money if things are wrong. There’s a picture, and that’s the only thing I know.’ Trump said the National Enquirer deserved to be respected and ought to get a Pulitzer Prize.
Reaganites in the 1980s looked back on Goldwater as the harbinger of their victory, and while there’s never been a president-elect as grotesque as Donald Trump, there may be less that’s new to his way of making things up, or to his exaggeration, or to his supporters. A week after the election, Declan Walsh, who had been covering the campaign for the New York Times from the perspective of a foreign correspondent, wrote:
The broad topography of Trump country is, in many respects, easy to trace. It is a place of anger and frustration, gripped by a feverish anti-establishment sentiment. People wanted change – and a chance to raise a throbbing finger to the forces they blame for their lot in life.
Trump country, it seems, is Goldwater country revisited.
Soon after the Republican convention in 1964, Lyndon Johnson held a press conference:
Q: Mr President, even though Senator Goldwater said he would not indulge in personalities in the campaign, you have already been called a phoney and a faker, and Governor Brown [the Democratic governor of California] has declared that the stench of Fascism is in the air. Are you looking forward to a real dirty campaign?
Johnson: No, I don't anticipate, so far as the Democratic Party is concerned, that there will be anything about our campaign that is dirty or there'll be any mudslinging.
With absolutely no chance of losing – Goldwater had considered withdrawing from the race because the contest against Johnson was hopeless – the Democrats went ahead all the same with their anti-Goldwater ‘daisy’ ad in September 1964: a little girl plucks the petals off a daisy, counting up to ten, followed by the countdown to the explosion of a nuclear bomb – the message, that Goldwater was too dangerous to be given the codes to the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Whether it was mudslinging or fair warning we’ll never know, however, since unlike Trump, Goldwater didn’t win.