The Politics of Paranoia

December 1, 1997

Suzanne Johnson

Look at the all the social disasters of this century and you'll find at least one common element: a strong, charismatic leader with a seriously distorted world view. From Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin, from David Koresh to the Rev. Jim Jones, from Pol Pot to Idi Amin--these guys were paranoid.

Paranoia--that old, familiar feeling that someone is out to get you--is something many of us have experienced to some degree. It's a natural part of the human condition. But when true paranoia colors the outlook and actions of a political leader, particularly in a closed society among a vulnerable population, the outcome can be tragic.

A new book by Tulane political science professor and deputy provost Robert S. Robins and his colleague at George Washington University, Jerrold M. Post, M.D., explores what can happen when a paranoid leader comes to power.

Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, published this fall by Yale University Press, brings together political scientist Robins and psychiatrist Post in a work made rare by its combination of two such disparate disciplines. The authors previously collaborated on a 1996 book, When Illness Strikes the Leader, about the politics around ill leaders. By focusing the new book on political paranoia, they return to a topic that has interested them for years, and one that is a natural for two experts in political psychology.

Paranoia, they say, has seven primary elements: suspiciousness, centrality, grandiosity, hostility, fear of loss of autonomy, projection and delusional thinking.

"Characteristics that are particularly important in political paranoia are the sense that the world is hostile, a belief that politics is driven by conspiracy, a great fear of loss of autonomy and a belief that other people are thinking about you," Robins says. "A paranoid leader takes these ideas and manages to convince a group of people that they are affected just as he is. You have a distressed people and he explains the cause of their distress, even though it's a false explanation. And he becomes their leader because he's offered them a solution."

"We use the analogy that a paranoid leader is a malign therapist. But rather than the psychiatrist trying to bring one out of paranoia, the politician says, 'Yes, you're right. They are plotting against you, and you ought to shoot them.' " What makes the paranoid leader so difficult to analyze, Robins says, is that there is often a germ of truth at the heart of the paranoia. "People who are successful in politics are typically not those who say that the light bulbs are controlling their lives. Those kind of people are shoved aside. It's the leaders who find some aspect of truth, grossly distort it, give it greater importance than it has, and then call for the destruction of their tormentors."

A popular T-shirt and poster philosophy claims, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me." And that has its own germ of truth, Robins says. "It's important to remember that there are societies in which there are a lot of plots and conspiracies and in which people are trying to ruin other people," Robins says. "Many of the paranoid leaders in those societies really do have something to worry about; it's just that their reactions are so distorted and disproportional as to be ultimately self-defeating and destructive."

Robins points to the "big three"--Adolf Hitler, who directed the blame for his people's economic disillusionment after World War I upon its Jewish citizenry and caused the murder of 10 million people; Joseph Stalin, who ruthlessly eliminated an estimated 40 million "enemies" in the name of socialism; and Cambodia's Pol Pot.

"Even Hitler's and Stalin's records pale in comparison to that of Pol Pot in terms of the violence and misery that were wreaked upon a single society," Robins notes. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot's paranoid plan to form a perfect society by destroying anything not Khmer, or non-ethnic Cambodian, resulted in the death of 15 percent of Cambodia's population.

The open, democratic system of government in the United States tends to keep paranoid leaders from ascending to national power, Robins says. Even the two figures most commonly thought of as paranoid--Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy--were not truly paranoid but were, respectively, "hyper-suspicious" and "using a paranoid message that he didn't really believe."

America's paranoid leaders tend to rise to power within fringe groups that have created closed societies: David Koresh and his Branch Davidian cult, for example. "Closed societies tend to make people paranoid," Robins says. "When you don't know what's happening, you tend to create conspiracies."

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