The Public Interest

The gas lines of ‘79

Stephen Champan

Summer 1980

FASCINATION with conspiracies, real or imagined, appears to be an inherited American taste. Satanic conspiracies often figured prominently in the sermons of colonial New England ministers; later Satan was replaced by more worldly but no less malevolent agents. In his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter noted that at various points in the Republic’s history, dark conspiracies have been attributed to Masons, Catholics, slaveholders, international bankers, munitions manufacturers, and the House of Hapsburg. Hofstadter called such thinking “paranoid” because “no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy I have in mind.” It was the characteristic of the conspirator in each of these theories, wrote Hofstadter, that “[he] wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”

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