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Beggaring the Imagination



Authors as Published

Writing at the end of July as the nation’s primary nomination electoral cycle was in full swing for this fall’s midterm election, national political columnist Charles Pierce highlighted the following as an example of very typical GOP-hopeful rhetoric:

In early July, at a town hall meeting in southwest Washington state, congressional Republican Joe Kent told his audience that the ‘phony riot’ on Jan. 6 was being ‘weaponized against anybody who dissents what the government is telling us. …’ ‘These are the types of tactics that I would see in Third World countries when I was serving overseas. …You’d see the Praetorian Guard or the intelligence services grab the opposition and throw them in the dungeons. I never thought I’d see that In America.’1

        In fact, Kent had not seen anything remotely like his description occur in the United States. The would-be congressman was offering his listeners a perspective that not only had no relationship to truth, but also went much further into fantasy and assigned active culpability to unnamed “Democrat” others for the now infamous events that occurred on January 6, even as he trivialized the atrocities and murder committed during that abomination. The upshot of these wild assertions was to contend that the Democratic Party is willfully and knowingly undermining U.S. governance. Nothing could be further from reality. Kent’s grotesque imaginings bear no connection to anything that occurred on that fateful day in January 2021 or since.

        What seems to be occurring instead is a manufactured conflict predicated on paranoic fantasies conjured for the purpose of political mobilization around the enduring tropes of racism, conspiratorial extremism and xenophobia in American culture. As Pierce memorably put this point:

But a civil war against commonly held paranoid fantasies is a conflict that never ends. The human imagination is limitless, for good and ill, and there is now an industry dedicated to the manufacture of bogeymen for political use on a mass scale. The casus beli can multiply with incredible speed as there is no substance to weigh them down and slow their progress through the national mind.2 

        This pattern has only deepened among GOP hopefuls as the electoral cycle has worn on, with many making equally antic fearmongering claims on no evidence, including J.D. Vance, a Republican nominee  running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, and former President Donald Trump. For his part, Trump has most recently argued that the FBI and National Archives conspired to place the files that he stole and retained illegally at his residence in Florida, in his custody. There is zero evidence for his assertion, but his ridiculous story fits the pattern of a party and its supporters willing to offer the unreal, believe the unbelievable and to live in fantasy if it stokes their fears, feeds their illusions or buttresses their discriminatory beliefs. Vance has meanwhile careened cynically into abject and crude absurdity and embraced an especially egregious position on migration as a partisan effort to “replace” white Americans during his campaign:

‘Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans,’ says the ad, ‘with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.’ The claim that migrants represent ‘Democrat voters’ is a form of ‘great replacement theory’ rhetoric. This idea, which posits a nefarious elite scheme to replace native-born Americans with outsiders via migration-enhanced demographic change, comes in various forms.3

        These are cruelly ignorant and misleading assertions unrelated to any empirical reality. They nonetheless bespeak the phenomenon to which Pierce and others have pointed: a party now devoid of any aspiration but power and willing to offer crazed fearmongering and xenophobic trash to its partisans if those claims, no matter how morally despicable, dangerous, ethically bankrupt or empirically false, appear likely to garner a positive response.

        The nation’s mainstream media has fitfully and slowly responded to this descent into dispiriting mindlessness among GOP officials and many of that party’s faithful. Our own response at the Institute to the Republican Party’s shift toward the unimaginable and unspeakable has been to seek to reveal and speak truth as we press ahead with our work. I here offer two recent examples of our continuing efforts to provide fact-based and thoughtful responses to the willfully paranoic, frequently bizarre and savagely discriminatory policy imaginings that have now become broadly acceptable in the Republican Party.

        The Institute partnered with Professor Bob Leonard and his colleagues in the Department of Theatre Arts and Cinema as well as leaders of the School of Performing Arts and the co-directors of The Frontera Project, Jessica Bauman and Ramón Verdugo, to bring that production to Virginia Tech on October 1. In addition, many entities on campus supported the play and a companion residency by the Tijuana Hace Teatro troupe, which staged it. During their three and one half-day visit, the drama’s directors and actors also offered several workshops to different groups on campus designed to encourage and enliven empathetic imagination and deepen awareness of the human proclivity to other and fear based on perceived difference. The production, described by Bauman in the Frontera playbill as a bilingual exploration of a “place of complexity, contradiction and beauty,” offers a portrait of the daily lived experiences of those who reside along the U.S. Mexican border. The play demonstrates that the days of Fronterizos, as those who live along the border and who are often citizens of both Mexico and the U.S. are known, are full of the same experiences of love, struggle, travail and hope that typify those of any human being. These individuals are not inhuman, vicious resource-sucking animals as GOP rhetoric today so often depicts them. The play instead captures the reality of the lives of this population as those characteristic of all people: complex, layered and ambiguity-filled, laden with a search for what it means to be human and to be fulfilled. The GOP’s dehumanizing caricatures cannot capture the lives of those who traverse the border and who live along it as they  do not depict reality, but instead offer an abstract, brutal and racist fantasy aimed at inciting hatred.

        A second example of the Institute’s ongoing efforts to describe realities in the face of rhetoric conceived to inflame and mislead, occurred with a recent visit to Virginia Tech by the Vice Rector and Dean of Agronomy of the University of Fondwa in Haiti. Professor Laura Zanotti, of the Department of Political Science, and I partnered with many other offices and individuals across campus to provide opportunities for our guests to consider information on university governance, leadership and fiscal systems during their visit. In addition, they met with a range of faculty members from our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Fralin Biomedical Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion to learn more about how their small rural private university may better assist the largely subsistence farmer population it serves through changes in its organization and agricultural and veterinary medicine programs.

        Dr. Zanotti and I have worked with the University of Fondwa for more than a decade and it was a privilege and pleasure to partner with the Vice Rector and Dean on this visit. Our colleagues from Fondwa are extremely smart, disciplined, deeply devoted to improving life in Haiti, and imaginative and adaptive in how they might go about their efforts to do so. Trump, however, has depicted Haitians as coming from a “s-hole country” and constituting a threat to the United States. Our guests and countless others in that nation are neither, but instead are gifted individuals working diligently to do all they can to improve conditions in their country amidst formidable challenges. Our research and experiences with the University of Fondwa faculty, students and leaders differ profoundly from the dehumanizing rhetoric of the GOP concerning Haiti, designed foremost to mobilize a share of Americans on the basis of fear, lies and contrived hatred.

        These two examples provide a larger story concerning the roles the academy and scholarship can play in offering U.S. citizens descriptions and evocations of reality amidst relentless fearmongering and xenophobic and racist propagandizing by one of our country’s major political parties. One need not contend that all this nation’s policies, including its approach to immigration, are without flaw to conclude that dehumanizing entire populations based on their race, ethnicity or any other ascribed characteristic is false, anti-democratic and morally wrong. As these examples attest, what seems clear in our present context is that there is a vital role for researchers and scholarship in providing the information necessary to counteract relentless lies and proselytization of what Pierce aptly labeled “phantoms and fears.” Such is necessary if Americans are to be able to recognize and address the restless ambiguity, pluralism and difference that characterize their daily existence. We can promise to do our part at the Institute to trace, explore and depict reality, even as others seek to mobilize this nation’s citizens based on conjured hatreds and fantastic paranoic abstractions. The Frontera Project and hosting our University of Fondwa colleagues represent two examples of the role that scholarship can play in a nation now purposely being regaled and roiled by demagoguery and lies that truly beggar the imagination.


1 Pierce, Charles P. “How Do You Fight a War Against Fear and Phantoms?” Last Call With Charles P. Pierce, Esquire, July 30, 2022,, Accessed October 8, 2022.

2 Pierce, “How Do You Fight a War Against Fear and Phantoms?”

3 Sargent, Greg. “As Vile as It Gets: J.D. Vance Goes Full ‘Great Replacement Theory,’” The Washington Post, April 6, 2022,, Accessed October 8, 2022.

Publication Date

October 1, 2022