State of paranoia the norm in American politics

Tom Fowdy
Political campaign and rhetoric in the US revolves around not only relentlessly smearing opponents, but also weaponizing fear and framing everything as a "worst case scenario."
Tom Fowdy

The past week has been nothing short of hysterical.

Following the revelations of a so-called Chinese "spy balloon" drifted over the United States, the country has descended into a frenzy. The reactions of opportunistic politicians and media have been to whip up hysteria which resulted in a pretentious show of force as the Biden administration, for little more than political brownie points, opted to shoot the original balloon down off the coast of south Carolina. As more and more of these unspecified "objects" have been sighted, the past seven days has been oversaturated with theatrical displays of anger, contempt, frenzy and manufactured outrage, as if a metrological balloon of all things represented a brazen attack on the United States.

None of this should be surprising to anyone. This cultivated state of paranoia has become the norm in American politics when dealing with all things China-related, a culture which is played upon and amplified by the mainstream media, which ultimately serve to hamstring the presidential administration's ability to forge a stable, predictable and mature relationship with China. Despite fingers being pointed at Beijing, it is the United States who is the active player in derailing the relationship, as well as global peace and security at large, through its broken political system.

American politics is toxic. Need any more be said? The political culture of the United States revolves around the hyper-dramatization of everything, intentionally weaponized hysteria, and the deliberative promulgation of falsehoods. It is ugly, it is nasty and it is unhinged. Domestic political campaigning and rhetoric in the US revolves around not only relentlessly smearing opponents, but also weaponizing fear and framing everything as a definitive "worst case scenario." Everything is fair game, and the product of this poisonous atmosphere in the era of mass communications has been to create an increasingly divided and polarized country, leading to the events of the past few years.

Of course, this institutional culture has a roll-over effect on foreign policy too. First of all, as beginning with the Cold War, American presidential administrations have learnt that they can weaponize mass paranoia and fear of an opponent to manufacture consent for foreign policy objectives. This almost always involves the notion that the country is under "imminent threat" by the target and will undermine US values and democracy (even if real goal is overseas). While this famously started with the former Soviet Union, after the Cold War it has been applicable to Iraq (weapons of mass destruction), Democratic People's Republic of Korea (they would repeatedly say the country will preemptively nuke the US) and of course China.

In a nutshell, it's the same story over and over again, but people always buy into it. And now when it comes to China, beginning with the Trump administration, the United States has cultivated mass-paranoia of China pertaining to almost everything, from TikTok, to students, to Huawei and as to an article I wrote lately, even manufactured consumer fridges. As per the tone of McCarthyism, this paranoia makes unfounded allegations of espionage which are never based on actual evidence or proof, but circumstantial guilt by association.

This has been most evident in how media and government discourse forthright assume that the metrological balloon is a "spy balloon" and that label is simply taken as a given. The hysterical and opportunistic label becomes mainstream understanding, and this is how the US controls global discourse.

The decision to escalate it into a large-scale political drama is a choice, opted for by hawks in the administration, which creates a domestic political confrontation of which the presidency cannot back down from. It was revealed earlier that such flights are a common occurrence, and had happened four times under the Trump administration but the decision had been made not to publicize it. Although this claim was used to attack Trump supporters who accused Biden of being "weak," it nonetheless shows how the decision to go public with this was deliberative, and therefore a textbook example of the US actively weaponizes political drama in order to ramp up anger and paranoia of China. It is a form of mass manipulation.

And it is precisely because of things like this, why US-China relations cannot stabilize. Leading hawkish figures in the US have learnt that by whipping up large scale political fear regarding China, they can create domestic political drama, which subsequently forces the administration's hand and makes it "punishing" for them to soften their positions or compromise with China, hence Anthony Blinken's visit was cancelled.

This shows that the United States is inherently dangerous, unpredictable and unreliable. American politics is about drama in an ugly and hyper-aggressive game of tit-for-tat, which gets worse and worse with every passing year. The world has been subject to a theatrical display of mass paranoia and mass hysteria generated from Washington's political classes, who are in every measure of themselves an absolute disgrace.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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