The Historical Society: Glenn Beck, the Slave Power Conspiracy, and the Paranoid Style

By Michael Bonner|The Historical Society

Fox News host Glenn Beck has accumulated enough public prestige, through widespread media exposure, to alter the nation’s political dialogue. How did Beck evolve into such a potent source of political opinion?

It is the style of delivery, not the message, that drives Beck’s success. Beck is a master practitioner of the “paranoid style.” (More on that below.) This is not a new approach to building a political base nor is it confined to either the right or left. To simply compare Beck’s popularity with other right-wing examples of the paranoid style would be pointless.

However, to analyze Beck’s success alongside the most revered American progressives, abolitionists in the 1850’s, will show that, not only is the “paranoid style” a recurrent theme in American political thought, but implementation of a similar rhetorical strategy made both Beck and creators of the “slave power conspiracy” powerful voices in their respective political dialogues.

Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter spelled out this phenomenon in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1952), and defined it as “a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself” that included a “feeling of persecution . . . [and] grandiose theories of conspiracy.” The paranoid style is constructed from several foundational themes.

First, one must believe in “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character,” and society is at war with “a vast and sinister conspiracy . . . set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”

Second, paranoid stylists are incredulous about others’ sincerity—opposing arguments, they think, are not based on reasonable deliberation, but must originate from some other source. As a result, they tend to believe that “history is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power,” which cannot be conquered by “the usual methods of political give-and-take,” but instead require the constant efforts of “an all-out crusade.” The final element of the paranoid style is what Hofstadter called the “conclusive jump.”

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