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Mobilization Politics, Democracy and the Human Quest for Order

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Soundings

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At a press event earlier this month at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, President Donald Trump spent 30 minutes railing against those he considers his enemies, as well as declaiming his fantasized dangers concerning voting by mail. And then, as The Washington Post reported,

He called on S.V. Dáte, HuffPost’s White House correspondent.                                        

‘Mr. President, after three and a half years, do you regret at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people?’ Dáte asked.                                                                            

Trump looked confused. ‘What?’ he asked.                                                                                   

‘All the lying. All the dishonesties,’ Dáte repeated.                                                                  

‘That who has done?’ Trump asked.                                                                                     

‘You have done,’ Dáte said.                                                                                              

Trump paused briefly, then called on another reporter without answering.[1]

This moment quickly went viral on social media and highlighted the fact that, as the Post story concerning the event put it,

Trump has been a prodigious spreader of misinformation. As of July, he’s made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims while in office, according to an ongoing tally by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. He’s done so at an even greater rate in the last 14 months, tallying an average of 23 claims per day as the nation has been roiled by an impeachment trial and a pandemic.[2]

I was reminded when I read this account that, as this exchange was occurring, Trump was promoting a false claim that Democratic Party Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection as his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, was “not really” an American citizen and therefore not eligible to be Vice President because of her parents’ immigrant status when she was born, just as he had previously dishonestly smeared President Barack Obama as “not an American” for many years. He has never, to my knowledge, apologized for his lies concerning Obama, and while his gambit concerning Harris faltered at the proverbial gate, his most avid supporters are likely nonetheless to embrace it and echo it as a rationale for their continued backing of Trump and his Party.

It is that question—why, fundamentally, individuals would embrace such a story, more than their acceptance of Trump’s well-known daily lies and ugly caprices per se—that intrigues me and that I wish to explore briefly. I do so on the premise that those who have chosen to believe in Trump and the GOP or rationalize the mendacity of both, and who continue to support the president, are unlikely to change their view as a result of me or anyone else pointing out once more how deeply cynical and self-serving his stance is and how strongly corrosive of democratic institutions his and his party’s constant deceit and self-evident corruption continue to be.  Plainly, those who support a chronic liar and narcissist who claims that his corruption and incompetence can be explained away by supposed “hoaxes” and “conspiracies” against him, must have specific motivations to accord his fantastical falsehoods credence or to rationalize them. It is that question, coupled with the fact that a major political institution, one of the nation’s two principal political parties, has wedded itself to the pernicious phenomenon that permitted Trump’s rise, that I find deeply significant.

As it happened, political columnist Charles Pierce published an excellent column on the power of conspiracy theories, e.g., Trump’s various hoaxes and wild fantasies, on the day after the president’s remarks in New Jersey. In that essay he contended that such conceptions or narratives can, paradoxically, sometimes create positive consequences, but when allowed to run riot and become simply the product of utter fantasy,

Conspiracy theories can poison the present to the point where they weaponize the future against it. We attack imaginary threats now to avoid imaginary threats yet to come. The political imagination runs riot, melting into psychopathology.[3]

This appears to be an apt description of the social condition Trump has nurtured for many devotees of today’s GOP, a growing share of whom profess to believe in the completely crackpot

QAnon premise that Democrats are “officiating over a global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles” plotting against Trump and his supporters.[4] Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a GOP congressional primary in Georgia earlier this month and is likely to go on to serve in the House of Representatives, has not only endorsed that monstrous assertion, but gone further baselessly to accuse former Senator and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton of murder, to assert that investor and philanthropist George Soros (a Jew who fled the Holocaust) is a Nazi and to claim that a plane did not crash into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.[5] These patently absurd contentions have gained an increasing following among members of the GOP’s base. More, Trump has hailed Greene as a “future star” of his Party.[6] That is, this nonsense has now not only been legitimated, but also feted by the leader of the Republican Party. This phenomenon surely represents, in Pierce’s insightful terms, a form of especially degraded social psychopathology.

Ultimately, those embracing these claims do so as a way to make order of the existential disorder the world otherwise presents to humankind. Here is how the distinguished poet Gregory Orr put this point in a book devoted to exploring the role that lyric poetry may play in helping individuals create order in an otherwise chaotic world. Orr contended that human beings confront an odd reality when all is said and done:

Behind us, the Vanished Past; before us, the Unknowable Next. And within us? Does anybody’s consciousness resemble a well-ordered room—all the furniture neatly arranged, and in the dresser the socks and shirts and blouses precisely folded and the contents of our closets color-coded also? If you were to pause right now, close your eyes, and listen to your mind for sixty successive seconds, you would undoubtedly encounter a ceaseless jumble of emotions and ideas and thoughts and body sensations and memory images and a voice jabbering away like a twenty-four-hour-a-day-radio station.[7]

Orr went further to argue that humans do not abide disorder willingly, even as they encounter it each day:

And this unbearableness of disorder brings us to a second awareness: that each of us needs a sense of order, a sense that some patterns or enduring principles are at work in our lives. Though the tolerance for disorder varies from individual to individual, no one can live in a world of complete randomness. … To be human is to have a deep craving for order.[8]

Importantly, and as Orr emphasized, individuals exercise their imagination to make sense of the world they encounter. As they cross the thresholds of the entries to their homes with their known boundaries and move into the unpredictably chaotic world beyond, people rely on stories to help them make sense of the realities they encounter. But they cannot do so unless they first acknowledge the disorder they confront, or as Orr put the point: “It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves.” [9] An individual cannot seek to create a narrative to order her world unless she first recognizes the disorder in which she is enmeshed.

All of this is of moment for our nation’s politics, as it points up the fact that it matters what stories elected leaders offer individuals who may otherwise perceive themselves at sea within an unforgiving social or economic order. Most basically, our Constitution and Declaration of Independence provide a national narrative or set of values that presuppose the good faith and honor of those elected to serve the United States. Those founding documents embrace in principle, however unevenly in practice, the ideal that all people are equal, free and entitled to the rights that their humanity accords each. Given that foundation, it matters profoundly when one of our country’s two major political parties decides, for purposes of maintaining power and serving those who provide it the bulk of its funds, to undermine those principles and to embrace and offer a competing narrative of inequality and the abridgement of the rights of specific groups.

And this is precisely what the GOP has done ever more boldly during the past fifty years. The Party has attacked government and governance as less legitimate than the market and capitalism and it has persistently and openly also embraced a view that white males and the rich should rule and that all others should accord themselves with that imperative. Trump has adopted these previously artfully presented views (artful because they were subtly crafted and sold as so much soap under the banner of individual freedom of choice). But, in his case, he has offered them as sledgehammers, embracing from the start of his campaign racist and misogynist tropes and offering ever more fantastical rationales for his daily lawless and undemocratic assertions and actions.

As a consequence, as I write, the Republican Party finds itself about to renominate an individual for the Presidency who has presided over an economic catastrophe, is responsible for tens of thousands of Americans’ deaths by dint of his unwillingness and inability to respond effectively to COVID-19 and who has been shown to have actively conspired with enemies of the United States to secure his election and for personal gain.[10] Trump is the personification of corruption and incompetence. Nonetheless, his Party continues to back him because many GOP adherents support his corruption and his fascistic story that “others” can be blamed for their concerns and he alone can save them from those imagined enemies. Why this is so lies in the dynamics of the Party’s decades-long mobilization of millions of citizens on the basis of a narrative that self-governance is the source of their perceived woes and that only belief in the lies offered them concerning the market as lone social and political arbiter will allay their fears. The result is a share of the polity accepting ever more outlandish and cruel “explanations” of a corruption that daily undermines the civil and human rights of those they willingly target and of themselves as well. Those fantasies play the singular role of ordering disordered worlds while simultaneously offering false narratives that “explain” reality, however outrageous those may be in empirical terms.

Adolf Hitler famously took up the question of offering a disquieted population a grand or “Big Lie” that provides order in Mein Kampf:

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true in itself— that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie. … It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.[11]

The deep shame of our present moment is that many leaders of one of our nation’s major

political parties have elected for decades intentionally to attack the principles of self-governance with a “Big Lie” and now also have chosen to back a completely corrupt purveyor of that falsehood and countless other fabrications. They have done this in the name of power and service to a small elite that does not believe in popular sovereignty and that wishes only to secure its short-term economic gain.[12] This sad and fascinating political phenomenon represents a betrayal of the nation, even as, ultimately, it imperils all of those who support its purveyors, including the architects themselves. The United States and its allies militarily defeated Hitler and his “Big Lie.”  As I write, it is unclear whether the country’s voters can be prevented by Trump and his sycophants from casting their ballots to defeat his party’s challenge to its rightful role in November. Trump and the GOP have made it plain they will bend every effort to prevent Americans who might not support them from voting.

Nevertheless, the nation’s population must find a means to do so and must also mobilize its now tattered governing institutions to address the enduring conditions that have prompted so many to embrace an autocratic fool and to accept his rationalizations for his corruption as well as his party’s “Big Lie” that popular sovereignty is the citizens’ biggest burden rather than their most precious gift. Thankfully, millions are working to overcome the President and his party’s lies and many state governments as well are just as assiduously seeking to ensure that all of those citizens who wish to do so will be able to vote in November.

Clearly, the human desire for order amidst the disorienting vagaries of globalization and social change has prompted too many Americans to adopt anti-democratic narratives to address them. Millions have gone further to scapegoat innocent groups for their real and perceived challenges. The GOP has betrayed the nation and its governing principles in adopting these nativist and demeaning tropes to secure and maintain its power, whatever the costs imposed by doing so. In a very real sense, Trump and his party have betrayed the national imagination, to use Orr’s terms, and in so doing they have willingly chosen to imperil the country. The democratic possibility represented by our national experiment is now at an inflection point and in profound danger as a result.

Former President Barack Obama captured our nation’s perilous current status and the

individual and collective mettle needed to address it in his recent speech from Philadelphia to the Democratic Party convention and the American people. There, in rhetoric that reminded many analysts of President Abraham Lincoln, he contended, “What we do echoes through the generations.” 13 He asked Americans to persist in their quest for full rights and freedom for all of our country’s citizens in the name of the nation’s guiding ideals and aims that Trump and the GOP have abandoned, and to do so notwithstanding the challenge that a full realization of those aspirations poses for an increasingly diverse and now deeply divided people. Calling on our country’s young people especially, Obama observed:

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient—the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed. That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So, we have to get busy building it up—by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before … so that we leave no doubt about what this country we love stands for today and for all our days to come.14

Notes

[1] Elfrink, Tim. “‘Do you regret, at all, all the lying you’ve done?’: A reporter’s blunt question to Trump goes unanswered,” The Washington Post, August 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/14/trump-lying-huffpost-date-video/, Accessed August, 20, 2020.

[2] Elfrink, “Do you regret?,” August 14, 2020.

[3] Pierce, Charles. “Conspiracy Theories can Weaponize the Future Against the Present,” Esquire, August 15, 2020, https://link.esquire.com/view/5f0232556a52b25201322b9acmm20.85a/b1b671c2, Accessed August 22, 2020.

[4] Rich, Frank. “Against Harris, Trump Tries to Run the Birther Playbook,” New York Magazine, August 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/08/frank-rich-trump-trying-to-run-birther-playbook-on-harris.html, Accessed August 15, 2020.

[5] Rich, “Against Harris.” August 15, 2020.

[6] Holmes, Jack. “The President is Now Lauding QAnon Believers as Future Republican Stars,” Esquire, August 12, 2020, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a33583857/trump-praise-qanon-candidate-marjorie-taylor-greene/, Accessed August 22, 2020. 

[7] Orr, Gregory. Poetry As Survival, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2002, p. 15.

[8] Orr, p.16.

[9] Orr, p. 47.

[10] Vogel, Kenneth P. “Beyond the Partisan Fight, a Wealth of Evidence About Trump and Ukraine,” The New York Times, February 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/us/politics/trump-ukraine-evidence.html, Accessed August 22, 2020;  Mazzetti, Mark, “G.O.P.-Led Senate Panel Details Ties Between 2016 Trump Campaign and Russia,” The New York Times, August 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/us/politics/senate-intelligence-russian-interference-report.html, Accessed August 18, 2020. 

[11] Jewish Virtual Library, “Hitler on the Big Lie,” https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hitler-on-the-big-lie, Accessed August 22, 2020.

[12] Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War, New York: Oxford university Press, 2020.

13 Saul, Stephanie, “Watch Obama’s Full Speech at the Democratic National Convention (and Transcript of Obama’s Remarks),” The New York Times, August 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/us/politics/obama-speech.html, Accessed August, 19, 2020.

14 Saul, “Watch Obama’s Full Speech.” August 19, 2020.

Publication Date

August 31, 2020

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