Ever since Republicans first nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate in 2016, I have struggled to understand the nature of the disorder within the party that gave rise to the most destructive politician in US history. It’s not a simple diagnosis, but the deepest source of the dysfunction, I believe, is the acquiescence of the party’s “conservative mind,” under threat, to its “paranoid mind.”
The paranoid mind is neither a pure clinical concept nor an original idea of mine. In his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter first described the chronic suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasies that dog the extreme right wing of the Republican Party as the “paranoid style” or “paranoid improvisation.” I prefer “paranoid mind” because it locates the dysfunction within the brain itself, rather than outside it, and because it communicates a greater depth of malady and intractability than Hofstadter’s variable language.
It is well known that the paranoid mind has long occupied a place at the fringes of the GOP, only occasionally threatening the dominant conservative mind, as Sen. Joe McCarthy did so brazenly in the 1950s. In that bygone era, conservative stalwarts held the line, combating McCarthy’s anti-communist hysterics and ultimately condemning and censuring him in the Senate. After that, McCarthy was shunned. His colleagues in Congress avoided him, and the media stopped reporting on his lying rants. The senator from Wisconsin died 2 1/2 years later of liver disease related to alcoholism.
Contrast this vigor of the conservative mind in the 1950s with the abject surrender of conservative values by Republican leaders today. Truly, how is it possible that only two Republican politicians, Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — out of tens of thousands in the nation — are actively campaigning for the truth and the Constitution? It is a song of sadness, one that mourns the loss not of the soul of the nation but the soul of the Republican Party.
Thinking hard about the dysfunctions of the Republican Party, I do not believe there is a pathway back to true conservatism within it. The paranoid mind has overtaken the party. The competing conservative mind simply cannot regain its strength — and sanity — if it keeps such company. The formation of a new conservative party is the only rational way forward for the nation.
Some observers will conclude that the surrender of the conservative mind to its paranoid counterpart in the Trump era is yet another corrupt bargain undertaken by Republicans to gain electoral advantage. But this interpretation misses something important. The conservative mind is not in fact inherently corrupt. On the Contrary, as described by Russell Kirk in his influential 1953 book “The Conservative Mind,” this mindset stands foremost for the twin values of constitutionalism and the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.”
Kirk’s book is proof that a healthy conservative mind — one exemplified by historical figures such as England’s Edmund Burke and America’s John Adams — would never knowingly and willingly surrender the Constitution and civic virtue to the base forces of paranoia and demagoguery simply to win seats in government .
This means, by implication, that today’s conservative mind in the United States is not healthy. If it were, it would be championing moral courage and the rule of law, not the Big Lie. It would be standing up for Cheney and Sen. Mitt Romney, not Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Under the command of a healthy conservative mind, the Republican Party would have long since dispatched thought leaders with integrity into every corner of the nation to repudiate Trump’s lies, big and small, and to apologize for the harm inflicted by the party on political discourse not only since the inauguration of 2016 but since Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich first took a torch to truth and decorum in the early 1990s.
Today, the conservative mind in America is weak and unmoored. So, out of desperation, it has co-opted the paranoid mind as a vehicle of survival for the Republican Party. That’s the crux of the matter. At the level of gut instinct, it’s about conservatives’ fear of the death of the party and the unscrupulous measures they are adopting for the sake of self-preservation.
A new party would hold the promise of restoring not only free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of presidential power — principles upon which republics stand or fall — but the dignity and self-respect of conservatives.
Some will dismiss the notion as far-fetched and naive, but I see no other pathway forward for the rescue of our democracy from ongoing decline and worsening political violence.
Eli Merritt is a psychiatrist and political historian at Vanderbilt University. He writes the Substack newsletter American Commonwealth.
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