The Paranoid Style in Michiko Kakutani

In this past Sunday’s print edition, the New York Times’s former book reviewer Michiko Kakutani treated us to a 3,000-word summary of everything that’s wrong with American life and politics, entitled “The End of Normal” (December 29, 2019).

At least, the column is attributed to Ms. Kakutani, and carries her byline. Actually this farrago of nonsense looks like something a committee of ghosts might produce if asked to flesh out eight or ten talking points from Media Matters for America. We get such laughable clichés as:

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dazzling 2015 musical “Hamilton” . . . embodied the hopes and diversity of America during the Obama years . . .
  • Fear and distrust are ascendant now. At home, hate-crime violence reached a 16-year high . . .
  • Mr. Trump has . . . cruelly amplified existing division and resentments in America . . . fueling suspicion of immigrants and minorities and injecting white nationalist views into the mainstream, in efforts to gin up his base.
  • With his calls to “Make America Great Again,” Mr. Trump appealed to… nostalgia for an era when white men were in charge and women, African-Americans, Hispanics and immigrants knew their place.
  • The president’s hard-core supporters . . . repeat lies and conspiracy theories . . . connecting him with Russian trolls, white nationalists, and random crackpots . . .
  • Without commonly agreed-upon facts, we . . . become susceptible to the fear-mongering of demagogues.
  • It was fitting . . . that in January 2017 . . . George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” shot to the top of best-seller lists. The nearly 70-year-old novel suddenly felt unbearably timely . . .

But for my money, the giveaway that this piece is a derivative and collective effort is the author’s (or authors’) invocation of the 1964 Richard Hofstadter essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This is one of those famous screeds whose title is often cited, though the text is seldom read, let alone critiqued. Published in Harper’s on the eve of the LBJ-Goldwater election (November 1964), “Paranoid Style” was one of a number of smear pieces targeting the Right-wing that season. Another famous one was Ralph Ginzburg’s libelous takeout in Fact magazine, more or less claiming that nine out of ten leading psychiatrists agreed that Barry Goldwater was too mentally ill to be President.

The Hoftstadter essay is about 6,000 words of Lefty pabulum. It begins with a quick survey of random “conspiracy theories”—about the Illuminati, the Masons, the Jesuits—then finally circles close to home by indicting the sort of Rightist nuts and apostate Communists who ranted about the “alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.”

The Paranoids are that way, explains Hofstadter, because they feel “dispossessed” and they need to find scapegoats. “America has largely been taken away from them . . . The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals . . .” [1]

And who are these “cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” do you think (wink-wink)? Hofstadter doesn’t go into that. He does goes on and on about Robert Welch and the Birchers, and McCarthyism, and obscure anti-Catholic divines from the early 1800s, but never tells us what’s really on his mind. But not to worry; his fans were savvy. As such folk liked to boast, they could “read between the lines.”

Hofstadter was a name-brand history professor at Columbia for many years. If you don’t know the name, you can place him in context if you know that of his protegés was your favorite Red Diaper Baby and race-hustler, Eric Foner.

The 1964 essay is such gaseous, evasive blather that I always marvel when someone cites it as though it were a landmark in political philosophy. But people still do; “Paranoid Style” has a cool title and its fame precedes it. So the Kakutani column invokes it as gospel, and instructs us that there are murky-minded conspiracy theorists out there, and these are the true villains in the story:

Although the United States was founded on Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and progress, there has long been another strain of thinking at work beneath the surface—what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style.”

It’s an outlook characterized by a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.” . . . The paranoid style, Hofstadter observed, tends to occur in “episodic waves,” The modern right wing, he wrote, feels dispossessed . . .

And on and on we go, through the business I quoted earlier about how “America has largely been taken away . . . by cosmopolitans and intellectuals.”

It’s stating the obvious to point out that the delusional ones here are Kakutani and her ghostwriters, and the organizations that feed them their talking points. Or perhaps they’re not delusional at all; they’re lying out of convenience, laying the party line on as thick as they can. They know perfectly well that the sudden popularity of Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t because millions of people believed Donald Trump was Big Brother. It was because the bookshops were suddenly laying big stacks of the novel on their display tables, at the same time that the book was being talked up in the mainstream press. If there was a Big Brother entity in play, it was clearly the Fake News machine at CNN and the Washington Post.

Regardless of who wrote this column, “The End of Normal,” it wasn’t done from scratch. It’s largely a précis of Kakutani’s 2018 book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. [2] There the author or authors had a lot more elbow-room, and scattered innuendo around like confetti. The book reads like a parody of the whole anti-Trump genre. We still get Richard Hofstadter, and Philip Roth, and Trump-Is-Big-Brother, and Russian Trolls Stole the Election. We also get imagined endorsements from Yeats (“Things fall apart,” yada-yada) and Margaret Atwood and Pat Moynihan and Pope Francis and—Heaven help us—even Tom Wolfe.

Just so you know what the book is really all about, the Introduction opens up with Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or convinced Communist, but the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false…no longer to exist.

What’s alarming to the contemporary reader is that Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling mirror of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today—a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories…

Industrial volume, comrade!

And now we must switch gears and talk about how this is all a big change of course for the Kakutani brand. In 2017, like many old-timers at the Paper of Record, she took a buyout from the New York Times. She’d been with the paper for 38 years, most of them reviewing books. She was sometimes noted for her cranky opinions, especially toward the end, but at no time was she a strident Lefty, or any kind of politico.

She was noted early on for her sharp-eyed but easy-flowing critical prose, and so succeeded to the role of lead book reviewer quite young, when she was only eight or nine years out of Yale. Michi was young and different, not an academic or mossy book editor, equipped with a magpie curiosity that must have given her a range of insights inaccessible to such old warhorses as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. And let us not discount the novelty factor. You saw the name Michiko Kakutani, and you didn’t forget it.

Her reviewing style was quite amiable at first. She mainly covered new fiction, in the same chirrupy idiom that publishers use in press releases and cover blurbs. It was very important in those days to be upbeat and positive when reviewing at the Times. People still laughed grimly over the Legend of Renata Adler. Adler was a tough young movie reviewer in the late 1960s who’d taken a hatchet to every film. “We need positive quotes, Renata, things they can put in the movie ads,” her editors supposedly admonished her. In those days there was a movie house on every block of Midtown, and the Sunday Times ran six or seven pages of display ads for the local cinemas. Renata didn’t care. After a year she got the boot.

But as the calendar pages fell off the wall—ten years, fifteen, twenty—young Michi gradually moved into Dale (“Hatchet Man”) Peck territory. She started mocking the latest offerings, chopping away just to get a rise out of people. Jonathan Franzen, you odious jackass! Slam, bang, take that, Harry Potter! Shut up, Norman Mailer, you garrulous, self-absorbed old man! Nassim Nicholas Taleb, you pompous, pretentious bully!

It appears she was at her most hatchety in her non-fiction reviews, perhaps because in such cases you actually have to read the book and engage with its thesis; you can’t get away with just extrapolating from the press release, the way reviewers do in LA or DC.

In the last decade of her hitch, Michi’s output sometimes got totally loopy. She would write reviews in the “voice” of Holly Golightly or Holden Caulfield. When she reviewed a biography of Adolf Hitler by Volker Ullrich in 2016, she described Adolf as Donald Trump, as imagined by the fever-swamp Left:

  • Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who ‘only loved himself’ — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a ‘characteristic fondness for superlatives.’
  • A former finance minister wrote that Hitler ‘was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth’ and editors of one edition of Mein Kampf described it as a ‘swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.’
  • Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising ‘to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,’ though he was typically vague about his actual plans.

Clearly she was having too much fun with this. Maybe she was getting bored. In The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp recalled how he once had a job as an engineer’s tracer, siting electrical pylons across a map of the countryside. Just for fun, he began to place the pylons in people’s back gardens, in schoolyards and football pitches.

I wonder if Michi has been doing something along those lines in the last couple years, parodying Leftist cant with such exact phraseology that no one’s rumbled her yet. If that’s the case, I really must reconsider my theory that her recent, politically freighted stuff is being concocted by a tableful of ghostwriting gnomes.

“Industrial volume Russian troll factories” may be the giveaway here. How long, you think, before they find her out?


[1] Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s, November 1964.

[2] Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. New York: Tim Dugga

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