Hofstadter's subject is the strand of American politics that tends towards "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" and that had revealed itself in moral panics over such issues as immigration, Mormonism and Freemasonry. He makes clear that he is not using the term "paranoid" in its psychiatric sense - the problem was that the ideas that he outlined were embraced not simply by mentally deranged fantasists but by "normal" people.
Hofstadter's principal target was the conservative revival associated with Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign; he also takes swipes at Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society. Consistent with this, the essay tends to be quoted today by liberals against their conservative opponents (to the understandable annoyance of the latter), but Hofstadter makes it explicitly clear that his targets are not confined to the political right. Among the guilty men whom he fingers are the left-wing Populists of the late 19th century, as well as some sections of the anti-slavery movement and the pacifist opposition to World War I. It wasn't enough for slavery to be a moral evil - it had to be the product of a conspiracy of slaveowners. It wasn't enough for the Great War to be an atrocious bloodbath - the hidden hand of arms manufacturers had to be involved. Closer to Hofstadter's own time, he pointed to the symmetrical racist paranoia of segregationist Southerners and radical Black separatists.
Nor did Hofstadter see the paranoiacs as always being wrong. Sometimes there were reds under the bed:
Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivably pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Hofstadter regarded the phenomenon he was writing about as being misguided and pernicious.
Historically, Hofstadter starts with the first great conspiracy theory of modern times - the Masonic conspiracy theory of the French Revolution. He blames the Scottish writer John Robison, rather than the better-known Augustin Barruel, for bringing the theory to America. This essentially right-wing moral panic was followed a generation later, in the 1820s and 30s, by a left-wing anti-Masonic scare. This in turn was succeeded by an anti-Catholic scare, in which it was seriously claimed that a conspiracy existed to subject the United States to the rule of the Austrian Habsburg emperor.
In more recent times, such ideas were replaced by McCarthyism and the notion that the United Nations was a front for international communism. Hofstadter writes:
The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism....Hofstadter draws an interesting distinction here. The old paranoiacs feared that their country was about to be taken away from them by Masons, bankers or priests. Their modern descendants thought that it already had been taken away from them by assorted cosmopolitans, socialists, intellectuals and other traitors. Hofstadter observes that "the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all".
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy... has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents... so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
In the paranoid mindset, says Hofstadter, no compromise with the enemy is possible - only annihilation will suffice. The enemy is archetypally evil. Hofstadter further claims that the enemy is in fact merely a self-projection of the paraoiacs themselves, but I wonder whether this piece of armchair psychology is entirely correct.
Hofstadter is more convincing when he writes:
The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.It is precisely this fallacious way of thinking, which no doubt has some kind of evolutionary origin, that underlies a great deal of conspiracy theorising. Effects must have simple - and preferably personalised - causes. Explaining an important event as the outcome of long-term trends or mere chance is less satisfying than looking for a conscious actor who has sought to bring it about. Impersonal socio-economic forces are harder and less intuitively plausible to think with than individuals or groups. I suspect that we all have these mental blind-spots to some extent.
Hofstadter's work is obviously applicable outside the ambit of hard-right American politics. Indeed, he himself noted parallels between his ideas and Norman Cohn's historical work on apocalyptic sects in Europe. Paranoia and conspiracism, and the psychological forces that drive them, are not the monopoly of any political movement, any country or any time.