A Descent into Popular Madness and a Central Truth of Self-Governance
In an extraordinary recent turn that illustrates deeper human tendencies as well as the complete cynicism and degradation of its purveyor, former President Donald Trump has openly embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory that Democrats are led by a satanic cult of child traffickers from whose evil clutches only he can free the nation.1 As the Associated Press has reported:
On Tuesday [September 13], using his Truth Social platform, the Republican former president reposted an image of himself wearing a Q lapel pin overlaid with the words ‘The Storm is Coming.’ In QAnon lore, the ‘storm’ refers to Trump's final victory, when supposedly he will regain power and his opponents will be tried, and potentially executed, on live television. As Trump contemplates another run for the presidency and has become increasingly assertive in the Republican primary process during the midterm election, his actions show that far from distancing himself from the political fringe, he is welcoming it. He's published dozens of recent Q-related posts, in contrast to 2020, when he claimed that while he didn't know much about QAnon, he couldn't disprove its conspiracy theory. Pressed on QAnon theories that Trump allegedly is saving the nation from a satanic cult of child sex traffickers, he claimed ignorance but asked, ‘Is that supposed to be a bad thing?’2
This twist illustrates the unbridled radicalization of a significant share of the Republican Party and its leader’s belief that he must embrace that group’s perverse fecklessness to prevail, should he seek that party’s presidential nomination in the next election cycle. In fact, of the almost 75 accounts Trump has reposted on his social media site in the last month, a third have promoted QAnon images or claims. Trump has gone still further to use music associated with Q believers to close out one of his recent rallies in Pennsylvania.3 This is all dangerous, since those individuals attributing messianic status to Trump have openly embraced and called for violence, including active participation in the deadly attempted coup at our nation’s Capitol. Trump is now aggressively promoting their baseless formulations. It is as if he is willing, if not to accompany this group that comprises perhaps 15 percent of the U.S. adult population into a bottomless pit of insanity, at least to encourage them in their path if it will support him personally or his quest for power.4 While surely extreme, because the mantra of this group is so despicably false and demented, such lies do not constitute new ground for Trump. Consider these examples:
· With zero evidence, he has asserted the lie that he won the 2020 presidential election and convinced millions of it, continuously suggesting it was “stolen” from him,
· During his presidency Trump accorded the autocratic leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, no friend of the United States, privileged diplomatic standing while ceaselessly attacking this nation’s democratic allies and disparaging its alliances aimed at thwarting Putin’s (and others) tyranny,
· Again, without evidence, Trump claimed that a group principally composed of central American women and children fleeing their home nations and nearing the U.S.-Mexico border constituted a “threat” to this nation so grave that he mobilized 5200 troops in late October 2018 to address the nonexistent “danger,”5
· Finally, Trump has consistently employed lies to encourage his followers to disagree with and actively hate those with different perspectives, and increasingly to contemplate violence against them as well. The purported threats and need to other and hate, however, exist only in the imaginations of those willing to believe Trump’s lies.
This situation has me wondering whether Trump believes the divisive, cruel and deadly claptrap he daily tenders. If he does, it may be that his personal madness tracks the fantasies of those whose inhumanity he encourages. In this, if so, he would mimic Adolf Hitler, whose descent into a self-absorbed murderous fantasy Primo Levi has powerfully described:
At any rate the entire history of the brief ‘millennial’ Reich can be reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality. … Like all gamblers he erected around himself a stage set woven out of superstitious lies, which he ended by believing with the same fanatical faith that he demanded from every German.6
Whether Trump believes the lies he has propounded, including his recent embrace of QAnon’s folly, it nonetheless appears he has decided to wage war against memory and reality and engage in a companion battle against the idea of an American people in his quest for power. He has convinced millions of followers of his lies and now has at least nominally paid obeisance, in QAnon, to an even more militant and contemptible unreality. The picture that emerges of Trump and these adherents is one of a bellicose descent into a fantasy in which they divide themselves from their fellow citizens based on concocted fears, lies and illusions.
More gravely, each has taken the step of eradicating the evidence and memory of their daily lives and substituting wild and abstract myths for that embodied reality. What is left is a coterie of ever more radical and radically misled individuals separated from the bulk of the population of their nation by their engulfing hatreds. Again, this seems to be true whether Trump believes his lies or is an artful charlatan leading others to egregious depths. The costs to democracy, to deliberation, and to any idea of a rule of law or commons is grievous in either scenario. And, as the GOP and its allied despotic elements, including QAnon enthusiasts, dive ever more deeply and violently into this dark pool, that damage to the sinews that bind the polity seems set only to deepen.
Put differently, as Republican party supporters and officials, led by Trump, continue to propound lies to engage the [Trump’s] base, they have led millions who believe those fabrications to use them to make sense of the realities of their lives, rather than living free of the veil of hatred they engender. For those embracing these tortured views, abstract binaries of “us” and “them” become truth and truth becomes, as the QAnon phenomenon has revealed, sensemaking via ignorant and callous idolatry. QAnon is so vile, prescriptively violent and false that the Republican Party leader’s very public effort to align with it constitutes a perfect metaphor for the danger implicit in what has happened to his party and many of its supporters. They appear willing to tear down their nation in the pursuit of not only a false challenge and idol, but non-existent ones. It is, however framed, an extraordinary situation.
Nonetheless, however difficult, this scenario is not new in historical terms. Those supporting slavery in the years prior to the Civil War offered similar hate-filled abstractions and lies to “justify” holding individuals in chains. Like many in today’s GOP, and in a perfect example of projection, those demanding the continuation of chattel slavery embraced sordid conspiracies about the alleged depravity of any who would serve as the architects of freedom for that population. That bitter reality led Abraham Lincoln to argue in his first Inaugural Address just prior to the onset of civil war that:
A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend it.’ … We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.7
Lincoln asked those who called for violence and chains in the name of a falsehood, an inhuman unreality, to rethink their bonds with their fellow citizens and to reclaim their shared privilege of self-governance. The New Yorker recently published a charming brief profile of Shahin Tivay Sadatolhosseini, an Iranian gymnast, artmaker and filmmaker now residing in Aachen, Germany, which reminded me of Lincoln’s clarion invitation.8 Sadatolhosseini has spent more than a thousand days walking across Europe and the Middle East accompanied by a two-meter-tall gymnastics wheel, which he has dubbed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse, in the name of improving Iran’s relations with nations in those regions. He calls his effort Yavash, Yavash, which translates from the Persian as “Slowly, Slowly.” He recently flew to New York to walk similarly through that city and then to traverse the 270 miles to Washington, D.C., to the White House. Along the way, he has relied on the goodwill of those he encounters to continue his travels. When chatting with the magazine’s reporter, the amateur diplomat suggested:
You know, all people should be friends. It’s important for Iran to have U.S. as an enemy, and for the U.S. it’s very important to have Iran as an enemy. And that’s so sad. But it’s not important. Important is to make friendships between normal people.9
This apparently naive, but in truth, deeply complex formulation by a perhaps eccentric, but profoundly driven and perceptive individual, captures the nub of the matter that today confronts the United States. Millions of Americans have rallied to the banner of rigid unreality and mad hatred against an immaterial other, rather than choose to acknowledge their common claim and to address conditions and circumstances as they exist and to negotiate with the fellow citizens with whom they daily interact to do so. They have refused to call on their better natures, in Lincoln’s terms, in favor of embracing a sort of collective insanity predicated on myth to press autocracy instead.
I realize I am suggesting that some share of this population accepts baseless abstract hatreds willingly. Once that fact is acknowledged, one must seek to understand the complexities of the rationales and rationalizations of those doing so. As Levi has observed of Nazi leaders, many of whom denied the plain fact of their heinous actions following World War II,
there are, it is true, those who lie consciously, falsifying reality itself, but more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever, from genuine memories and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality. … The substitution may begin in full awareness, with an invented scenario, mendacious, restored, but less painful than the real one; in repeating its description to others, but also to themselves, the distinction between true and false progressively loses its contours and man ends by fully believing the story he has told so many times and still continues to tell, polishing and retouching here and there the details which are least credible, incongruous or incompatible with the acquired picture of historically accepted events: initial bad faith has become good faith.10
Sadatolhosseini has reminded Europeans, Middle East nation residents and Americans, as Lincoln reminded his fellow citizens 150 and more years before, that there is a straightforward alternative to the descent into mindless animosity that Levi dispassionately chronicled: It is to see instead the dignity and possibility inherent in one’s fellow human beings and to wrestle with the vicissitudes of life’s realities, good, bad and ugly, together. This is no easy task, but to sacrifice the privilege of freedom to wild lies aimed at cruel division seems an extraordinary price to pay for a temporary, malicious and too often, bestial, consolation. It is clear that Trump and the GOP will continue to lead those willing to enter the realm of unalloyed hatred along a path to democratic self-destruction. One may hope that the broader American public will employ the ballot box to end peaceably the efforts of those now pressing in the United States for such unabridged brutality before it can wholly control and destroy the institutions of self-governance. That challenge remains.
1 Klepper, David and Ali Swenson. “Trump Openly Embraces, Amplifies, QAnon Conspiracy Theories,” The Associated Press, September 16, 2022, https://www.yahoo.com/news/trump-openly-embraces-amplifies-qanon-100112440.html. Accessed September 16, 2022.
2 Klepper and Swenson, “Trump Openly Embraces, Amplifies, QAnon Conspiracy Theories.”
3 Klepper and Swenson, “Trump Openly Embraces, Amplifies, QAnon Conspiracy Theories.”
4 Russonello, Giovanni. “QAnon Now as Popular in U.S. as Some Major Religions, Poll Suggests,” The New York Times, August 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/27/us/politics/qanon-republicans-trump.html, Accessed September 16, 2022.
5 Shear, Michael D. and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “Trump Sending 5200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/us/politics/border-security-troops-trump.html, Accessed September 16, 2022.
6 Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. London: Little Brown Book Group (Abacus), 2013, pp.25-26.
7 Lincoln, Abraham. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861. New Haven, CN: Yale University, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp, Accessed September 16, 2022.
8 Iscoe, Adam. “Visiting Dignitary: Slowly, Slowly,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2022, p.14.
9 Iscoe, “Visiting Dignitary,” p. 14.
10 Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, p.20.
September 19, 2022