Noëlle McAfee on Our Paranoid Politics

In exploring the fear of breakdown that underlies human existence, Noëlle McAfee creates a genuine intellectual breakthrough—her book is a stunningly original exploration of the political significance of mourning. This is one of the most thrilling books I have read in years.

~Mari Ruti, author of Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Our Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy virtual exhibit continues today with a guest post by Noëlle McAfee, author of Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, which contends that politics needs something that only psychoanalysis has been able to offer: an understanding of how to work through anxieties, ambiguity, fragility, and loss in order to create a more democratic politics.

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Over the past four years there has been much hand-wringing over our post-truth, media-siloed, fake news era—an era that has spawned, among other things, false ideas of Trump safeguarding the world, as Time magazine put it, “from a ‘deep state’ cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who run a global sex-trafficking ring, harvesting the blood of children for life-sustaining chemicals.”[1] Despite efforts to ward off these false narratives, conspiracy movements like Q-Anon and the Boogaloo keep sprouting groups on social media no matter how quickly they are rooted out. Many people think that, if only the American people had a better grasp of the facts, they’d be better able to distinguish truth from conspiracy fictions. Millions of people wouldn’t be taken in by Q-Anon, and no one would be signing up to march with Boogaloo militias. People in the path of wildfires wouldn’t dismiss them as the work of antifa. According to this take, the problem with politics today is rampant misinformation. If people had their facts straight, they would stop believing in false conspiracy theories.

I am going to wager that the problem is not one of misinformation but of something deeper, something closer to what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 called “the paranoid style in American politics.” This style has surfaced as delusions of persecutions throughout U.S. history, from the Masons to the Communists. It is replete, Hofstadter wrote, with “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”[2] It is a mindset that is predisposed to latch on to delusions of persecution, and, I would add, it is surely not a feature of American politics alone. The world over, as I discussed in Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis (Columbia, 2019), social and political bodies easily succumb to what Melanie Klein saw as delusions of persecution and their concomitant defenses: splitting, projection, and denial.[3]

Consider the case of Michael Caputo, who recently took a leave of absence from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services after posting a half-hour video on Facebook complaining of long shadows on his wall, as well as sedition within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where scientists were supposedly withholding COVID-19 treatment from the public in order to hurt Donald Trump politically. Caputo urged Trump supporters to stock up on ammunition to stave off a violent left-wing rebellion should Trump win reelection. CBS News reported, “At one point during the Facebook Live session in which Caputo made the comments, he said that ‘there are hit squads being trained all over this country’ to prevent a second term for Mr. Trump. When he added, ‘You understand that they’re going to have to kill me—unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,’ Caputo claimed he was reacting in real time to a man driving by his house screaming, ‘You’re a dead man, Caputo.’”[4] Shortly thereafter Caputo resigned and checked himself into treatment.

Was this the case of one person who happened to be a Trump loyalist experiencing paranoia—or a symptom of a larger paranoid politics?

Was this the case of one person who happened to be a Trump loyalist experiencing paranoia—or a symptom of a larger paranoid politics? Whereas Klein examined individual psychology, what Hofstadter saw and what Caputo evidences is political; it is a group phenomenon. Caputo is hardly alone in these delusions. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, according the New York Times, warned “that the United States would be on the brink of destruction if Mr. Trump lost” and “that the nation could find itself ‘irrevocably committed to the socialist path’ if Mr. Trump lost and that the country faced ‘a clear fork in the road.’”[5]

I see Caputo and Barr engaging in a feature of what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan describes as what happens to large groups under duress, succumbing to archaic fanatasies, such as paranoid delusions, splitting, and denial. When I first started writing about this phenomenon I was thinking of the duress of social and ethnic conflict. But now we have the exponentially higher distress of a global pandemic coupled with unprecedented natural disasters. All these are leading to ever more archaic fantasies.

When people’s social, political, and group identities become threatened, anxieties mount and fantasied ideals lead to demonization and extremism. This is a tendency that all people have, under duress, to split the world into forces of light and forces of darkness; to project paranoid, Manichaean views on to others. People caught in the grip of a paranoid politics will gravitate to whatever “facts” fit their delusions. No “fact-checkers” will be able to set them straight. No account of Trump’s tens of thousands of lies will unsettle their certitude that Trump is their savior. Those archaic defenses of splitting, projection, and denial kick in, all in some variation of “we are good and they are trying to destroy us.” Adversaries become enemies. One’s own group becomes idealized. Peaceful protesters appear as domestic terrorists trying to destroy the nation. Any disagreement is tantamount to imminent violence and destruction.

When people’s social, political, and group identities become threatened, anxieties mount and fantasied ideals lead to demonization and extremism.

These delusions operate at a preverbal level, what Freud called primary processes. Splitting, projection, and denial serve unconsciously to protect the anxious body. Making others the enemy serves as a way to split off bad feelings from ourselves and deposit them in others, who become suitable repositories for intolerable affects. Fantasies of “law and order” promise reprieve from destruction. When anxieties become intolerable, rather than experience them or mentalize them, they remain in primary process, thing presentations, not word presentations. I think this is what makes political discourse in times like these difficult if not impossible.

But there’s the rub. So long as these anxieties remain at the level of primary processes, we can never get over them. They have to be verbalized, put into words, and exchanged with others. I think the best experiments in political processes of working through our paranoid politics involve a “talking cure.” Look into the work of the nonprofit Better Angels, the work that Volkan has done with parties engaged in violent ethnic conflict around the world, or the work the National Issues Forums does in communities around the country. What they all share is a process of talking across differences, trying to understand how the other sees the world. In the process—a secondary process of putting anxieties into words and exchanging these words with others—outsized notions of the other as a monster or a demon get punctured and brought to earth. As I witnessed in a deliberative poll some time ago, when one small group discussion included a rich woman from the New York suburbs and a working-class woman from the projects in Chicago, a few hours of discussion upended stereotypes of “rich bitch” and “welfare queen” so that, by the end, each woman could remark on the other with genuine wonder, “she really loves her kids.”


[1] Charlotte Alter, “How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy,” Time Magazine, 9/20/2020. https://time.com/5887437/conspiracy-theories-2020-election/
[2] Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964. https://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/
[3] See Melanie Klein, The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell, New York: Free Press, 1986.
[4] Weijia Jiang, “HHS Spokesman Michael Caputo Claims he received death threat during Facebook Live session,” CBS News, 9/15/2020.  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/michael-caputo-hhs-facebook-live-video-death-threat-claims/
[5] Katie Benner, “Barr Told Prosecutors to Consider Sedition Charges for Protest Violence,” New York Times, 9/22/2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/us/politics/william-barr-sedition.html

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