April 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Don’t Give Paranoids Too Much Credit

Some minds can't trust anything or anyone not on their side.

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Let’s not give these people too much benefit of the doubt, shall we? Thousands of demonstrators rallied at Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing Wednesday to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. “Conservatives, including state lawmakers, argued it went too far and was inconsistent,” according to the Post.

The evidence?

“Confused shoppers found they could buy liquor and lottery tickets … but couldn’t visit the vegetable seed aisle … The order required large stores to shut down plant nurseries and rope off sections where carpet, flooring and paint were sold, provisions that conservatives found both arbitrary and harmful to business owners.

Michigan’s order does appear to be rather strict. But most people most of the time are willing to temporarily tolerate bureaucratic oddities—like not being able to purchase paint—in the name of public health and the greater good. Some people, however, will not recognize their civic duties. They will exploit oddities to grind yet another ax.

There is a simple way to test whether Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is trustworthy—if just one protester dies.

More significantly, some people will never recognize good faith in their political enemies even when good faith can be measured in bodies. Michigan has the third-highest death toll in the US right now from a viral pandemic that has killed more than 28,500 Americans in just over a month. Whitmer isn’t ordering people to stay home to violate lives and liberty. She’s ordering them to stay home to protect lives and liberty.

I’m guessing most Michiganders get it. The death toll itself is proof they can trust their governor to act in their best interest. Some minds, however, are hardwired to distrust the evidence of their eyes. For some people, it’s just not possible to trust anything—or anyone—that’s not on their side. They can’t, because, to them, there is no such thing as truth independent of self-interest. They can’t believe anyone would act in the interest of the common good, so when someone does, it’s cause for deep suspicion.

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I agree with Charlie Sykes, who said this morning that protest, even mindless protest, is embedded in our nation’s psyche. “The Michigan protest had a sort of Zombie Tea Party vibe, a grassroots-like movement complete with a full-throated Don’t Tread On Me ethos,” he said. “And that ethos has deep roots, not just in conservative politics, but also in the national character, so don’t be too quick to simply dismiss it.” We shouldn’t dismiss it, but we also shouldn’t give it too much benefit of the doubt.

The paranoid mind tends to express itself with a kind of chronic intellectual dishonesty. If demonstrators were truly protesting overreach or unfair rules, they wouldn’t also be flying Confederate flags and chanting “Lock her up!” If they were honest about protesting Whitmer—because they don’t like her, which is totally fair—they wouldn’t bother rationalizing their grievance with absurd anecdotes about confused shopping. The paranoid mind is socially aware enough to know it can’t attack the enemy for no reason. So it invents one, regardless of whether it has bearing in real reality.

The flip-side of intellectual dishonesty is anti-intellectualism, which was the beating heart of yesterday’s protest. Whitmer and her public-health managerial elite can’t possibly know what they say they know about the coronavirus for reasons that don’t matter because those reasons have no bearing in real reality. What matters, to the paranoid, is that Whitmer is a Democrat acting in service of the common good, something they are hardwired to misunderstand as dispossession and tyranny.

Death won’t change the paranoid’s mind, though.

Those reasons don’t matter to the paranoid, so they shouldn’t matter to everyone else. Unfortunately, intellectuals like Sykes end up making them matter when they use fancy phrases like “populist libertarianism,” as if the paranoid worldview were not a closed circuit of rage and resentment hostile to the very idea of republican governance.

Worse is when public intellectuals weaponize the paranoid complaint against fellow intellectuals with the singular goal of one-upping rivals instead of being wrong or right. Anti-intellectualism usually means anti-expert. But there are plenty of otherwise respectable intellectuals who care less about morality than they do about winning.

There is a simple way to test whether Gretchen Whitmer is trustworthy—if protesters get sick after getting out of their cars, shaking bands, hugging and (for God’s sake!) handing out candy to kids. If none of them dies, she’s wrong. It’s one dies, she’s right. The ultimate truth—death—won’t change the paranoid’s mind, though. There is no such thing as truth independent of self-interest. We shouldn’t dismiss paranoids.

But we shouldn’t give them too much benefit of the doubt, either.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 8:10 am

    I quite like Sykes and the Bulwark, even if I often disagree with them. The Bulwark team is, refreshingly, engaged in a project of true, meaningful conservatism.

    But his take on the Michigan situation struck me as odd. If only the rules were entirely rational and perfectly appropriate, he says, people wouldn’t lose patience and storm the capitol. Absent clear guidelines, people will patience.

    Yes. But also, no. The “protestors” would have found *something* to complain about, *something* to justify their paranoid (and Devos-funded!) spasms of rage. Whitmer should make the rules clearer for everyone in the state. But no one should think the folks flying Confederate flags with AR-14s are sincere.

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