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Rightwing Paranoia and the Problem with Persecution Complexes

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The killing of ten black Americans in Buffalo, New York by an 18-year-old suspect who was reportedly radicalized by racist hate speech he encountered online should be an event that transcends politics. It was a hideous, evil act, and the mania to which the alleged shooter subscribed doesn’t merit serious scrutiny. That would be a better world, but it is not the one in which we live. The temptations in modern political discourse to write the discrete criminal actions committed by individuals into wholesale indictments of the society they inhabit is too great. Indeed, overcomplicating events to place ourselves within stories in which we don’t belong has become a feature of the political landscape, and it’s doing our politics no favors.

Though there is as yet no evidence that the Buffalo shooter had any particular affinity for Republican politics or mainstream conservative media, center-left venues have been quick to note the extent to which elected GOP officials have flirted with the toxic conspiracy theory to which he subscribed. The “great replacement” theory posits that an ill-defined cabal of elites seeks to supplant native-born Americans and replace them with migrants, who would presumably be more amenable to their designs. The theory and the paranoia that accompanies Republican officeholders and right-wing commentators alike have lent it credence. Though none have shown that the massacre in Buffalo was motivated by this idea more than the shooter’s mental illness, the legitimization of this narrative is nonetheless irresponsible and has the potential to radicalize the unstable.

Hold on, note critics of progressivism’s attachment to tidy and exculpatory narratives. The right didn’t exactly invent the idea that demographic change in America would lead to a wholesale revision of the social compact. Democratic elected officials, leftwing activists, and respected political scientists spent the better part of this century advancing the idea that demographic trends have set the party on a predestined course toward prohibitive political dominance. When it comes to the trajectory of demographic change in America, the distinction between the right and left seems to be that the right has noticed what the left says about this phenomenon in private.

This is a misunderstanding of the theory advanced by the likes of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, and it’s a misapprehension common to much conspiratorial thinking. Among other predictions, these authors posited, and Democrats subsequently adopted, a theory of demographic change predicated on a straight-line projection. But it was always an organic phenomenon that would develop entropically—not something that an organized cabal was or even could do to anyone else. Most important, their theory was wrong!

U.S. citizens with immigrant roots are not lockstep Democratic voters; in fact, they’re trending away from Democrats. The American left did not maintain its hold over an American working class of all ethnic stripes; they’re trending away from Democrats as the party caters increasingly to its educated, affluent activist class. The socio-economic dominance of major metropolitan areas has not grown; geographic political relevance has disaggregated as the professional classes retreated from urban centers during the pandemic.

So much of the conspiratorial thinking that is popular today among the most engaged elements of the American right is characterized by similarly fallacious thinking. Specifically, they reject the likeliest explanation for events and trends they find distasteful and attribute them to a Rube Goldberg doomsday device. What they call “globalism” isn’t an outgrowth of Adam Smith’s theories of comparative advantage, which have contributed to a dramatic increase in standards of living around the world. It’s a plan designed to displace an undesirable class of laborers from perfectly viable industries. Donald Trump didn’t lose the 2020 election, as head-to-head and job approval polling predicted he would for months. A sinister plot spanning six states and involving hundreds of conspirators robbed him of his due. Those who are inclined toward these ideas abjure the simple and rational in favor of the complex, all in the effort to preserve the idea that someone is doing this to me.

This trait did not arise in a vacuum, and the right’s left-wing opponents often reinforce the right’s persecution complex. Too much of what progressive activists and their comrades in media reflexively deem conspiracy talk is vindicated in retrospect. The supposedly sophisticated campaign of Russian disinformation that produced Hunter Biden’s laptop turned out to be exactly what the right said it was: a boneheaded error by the president’s hapless son. The novel coronavirus that crippled the planet in 2020 may, indeed, have been released as a result of Chinese negligence, which happens all too frequently. Like the right, the left, too, prefers the complex and comprehensive to the simple but messy in the pursuit of their own psychologically soothing narratives. And when they wield the levers of cultural power to enforce their preferred fictions, it absolutely does reinforce the right’s belief that they are the victims of a vast enterprise arrayed against their interests.

The collapse of these rearguard actions should have helped the right balance its belief in the left’s ability to bend reality to accord with its will. Like “great replacement” theory, though, the right seems more inclined to cling to its sense of victimization than revel in the left’s humiliations. Many on the right are sacrificing Occam’s Razor in the process. While there is short-term political gain in reinforcing a fashionable persecution complex, the long-term sacrifice of raw political power isn’t worth it. It steals from the right not only the opportunity to revel in their opponents’ mistakes but also the chance to explain to persuadable voters why those mistakes happened in the first place. And in succumbing to their own paranoia, Republicans become less relatable and, thus, less electable. Those on the right who would trade the right’s political preferences for their own celebrity at the cost of their voters’ sanity have earned their shame.



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