Haven’t done one of these in a while and was thinking I need to get back into the habit of posting shorter things on a more regular basis, just to keep the pump primed her for the handful of people who actually read my blog (you few, you happy few).
Each of the items I’m mentioning here is worthy of a longer, deeper dive, and indeed I jotted notes in my journal to that end. But discretion being the better part of something or other, I acknowledged to myself that were I to attempt three ambitious posts I would almost certainly end up writing none, and the other more ambitious posts I have in the hopper would also probably fall by the wayside. So without further ado …
My dissertation is now old enough to vote, but it’s not gonna ‘cause it’s all RIGGED, man! I suddenly realized that this past Saturday was the eighteenth anniversary of my doctoral dissertation defense. That day remains one of my fondest memories of which I have little memory—the three hours of the defense itself is muddled in my mind because of the intellectual exhaustion that sets in after a certain point, which was then almost certainly compounded by the drinking that ensued.1
It is however a serendipitous bit of timing. My dissertation was titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination,” and was a study of conspiracy theory and paranoia as expressions of American postmodernity. This week we get into my fourth-year seminar on 21st century apocalypticism in earnest, and we’re diving into the novel Fight Club, the cultural earthquakes caused by 9/11, and the conspiracism endemic to both.
This class is a new iteration on a graduate class I taught in winter 2021; that class began mere days after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a concurrence that seemed uncannily appropriate. In one of my more inspired off-the-cuff classroom riffs, I drew a line between Jacob Chansley—aka the QAnon Shaman, aka the most bonkers and thus most indelible image to emerge from a day replete with bonkers and indelible images—and the 1990s-era “crisis of masculinity.” This putative crisis inspired some men, influenced by Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), to go on men’s retreats into the woods where they donned loincloths, painted their faces, banged drums, and otherwise attempted to get in touch with some sort of elemental, primal, “authentic” manhood that had been erased by a combination of apathy, an excess of civilization, feminism, and a culture in general that repressed or denigrated “traditional” masculinity.
Then as now, the first novel we did was Fight Club—then it was fortuitous, now it is deliberate. As much as I dislike the novel, it’s a little too apt to my topic not to cover.
That class I titled “The Specter of Catastrophe,” which referred to the post-9/11 shift in disaster narratives from the spectacle of apocalyptic destruction (e.g. the alien ships blowing up New York and L.A. in Independence Day) to a specter haunting the devasted and/or depopulated landscapes of The Road or The Walking Dead. The current version of the course is mostly unchanged, but my focus has shifted slightly. It is now titled “Hopeful Nihilism,” which is partly an inversion of Lauren Berlant’s conception of “cruel optimism,” and a way of characterizing the burn-it-all-down ethos of Trumpism: the inchoate rage at a system perceived as broken coupled with the vague sense that its destruction will bring about better circumstances.2
I was at a loss for what image to use for a course poster until it occurred to me to run an image of the QAnon Shaman through the Obama “Hope and Change” poster filter:
It seems appropriate to lean into the conspiracy theory dimension of these topics, especially considering …
Trump unequivocally embraces QAnon. Yup. At a rally in Ohio last week for Hillbilly Elegy author, Republican senate candidate, and shameless political panderer J.D. Vance, Trump delivered a somewhat more scripted speech than is his usual wont while portentous music played underneath his words and a clot of rallygoers saluted him with a gesture that looked as though a bunch of people sieg heiling were also saying “Over there!” That is, a bunch of people raised their arms at an angle with their index fingers pointed, which is apparently a salute that has been adopted by QAnon enthusiasts. The single raised finger is a reference to the Q slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (itself adopted, weirdly, from White Squall, Ridley Scott’s most forgettable film). The music playing beneath Trump’s speech is also, apparently, music specific to the QAnon movement, titled “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for the above slogan.
Trump has been flirting with QAnon for at least as long as journalists have been asking him about it. As with most things that fall into Trump’s orbit, it’s difficult to know whether he actually knows much about it, or whether he just automatically gloms onto it because the adoration of deranged people is impossible for him to resist (the true Q believers refer to Trump as their “God Emperor,” and you can be 100% certain he loves that). But he’s been coy about it—or as coy as someone as unsubtle as Trump can be, anyway—teasing it with his showman’s instincts, but never explicitly going all in with it.
Until now, that is. On Truth Social, his MAGA Twitter knockoff, he retweeted—sorry, “re-truthed”—a post featuring a stern and heroic-looking image of him overlaid with the words “the storm is coming.” For those less familiar with QAnon parlance, the “storm” is key to their mythology—referring to the long-deferred comeuppance for the Deep State and liberal elites (who are all, let’s not forget, human-trafficking pedophile cannibals) in which Trump will reveal his master plan by arresting all the malefactors and re-assuming his rightful place as President of the United States.3
To be clear, Trump isn’t openly accusing Biden and Hillary Clinton of being sex-trafficking pedophiles (yet), but it is notable that he’s now gone as far as he has. He is not a subtle thinker, to put it mildly, but he has a very canny instinct for running a con: he knows how to string his marks along, whether they be MAGA enthusiasts, Republican pols desperate to tap into his base’s enthusiasm, or deranged conspiracists like the Q people (there’s a Venn diagram for you!). Much of that entails not giving more away than you have to, so it’s interesting that he seems to be leaning into it now.
Part of me finds this new development vaguely hopeful, even as it presages worse to come in terms of possible violence and mayhem. The true believers will almost certainly be roused to action of one sort or another, but this also makes it more difficult for his apologists to ignore his worse excesses. It may all indicate that Trump is losing relevance: out of office, off Twitter, ensconced in his Florida retirement home, and subject to ever-escalating investigations over which he has no control, and with ambitious rivals like Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who stars in the third section of this post) smelling weakness, this might be him trying to regain traction. But part of the problem with being outrageous is that you need ever-larger displays of outrageousness to keep the focus on you, especially when others have learned your lessons and deploy them more deftly. And that brings us to …
The politics of cruelty. Though Terry Pratchett’s voluminous Discworld series of over forty novels articulates a sophisticated moral philosophy, one of its principal axioms is a simple premise. Though it is present throughout the novels, it is articulated most specifically by the curmudgeonly witch Granny Weatherwax: evil, she says, comes from treating people—oneself included—like objects. When the earnest young missionary with whom she’s speaking4 protests that surely there are worse crimes than that, she agrees, but points out that most such crimes start with treating people as objects.
Every so often I circle back around to wanting to write an article on the consonance between Pratchett’s philosophy and American pragmatism as defined by thinkers like John Dewey, Judith Shklar, and Richard Rorty. Granny Weatherwax’s assertion is of a piece with Shklar and Rorty’s premise that liberal thought proceeds from the understanding that cruelty is the worst thing we do. This premise informs much of Pratchett’s fiction, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I have taken enormous comfort in rereading his work at the various nadirs of the past several years.
The most dispiriting episodes of what I assume we must needs call the Trump Era have all been those instances that have demonstrated the appetite for cruelty not as an occasional gambit or the collateral damage of a given policy shift, but as a new normal in which cruelty is business as usual. One of the most astute insights on this front was Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay that observed the cruelty of Trumpism isn’t incidental: the cruelty is the point. This recent idiocy in which Ron DeSantis put asylum seekers fleeing Venezuela on a chartered flight to Martha’s Vineyard is just the most recent iteration of a political ethos more concerned with disruption and “owning the libs” than with any coherent ideological project. The whole exercise was an effort to expose the hypocrisy of affluent liberals, who were supposed to react with horror at having migrants suddenly in their midst. The people of the Vineyard did react with horror, but at DeSantis’ callous use of the refugees (who, as refugees, were in fact in the U.S. legally) as pawns in his political stunt. (The refugees were themselves welcomed and treated well, given food and shelter). Whatever one’s position on the current fraught state of immigration in the U.S., the basic, irreducible humanity of migrants—be they legal or illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers—should always be the central factor in any consideration. Instead, we’re treated once again to the spectacle of a cruel man treating people as objects in the name of scoring points with a rump of the populace mobilized by Trump’s performative cruelty, all in the hope that he might one day take Trump’s place as their venerated leader. All of which tells us that the Trump Era is far from over.
1. There was, conveniently, a departmental function that afternoon at the Grad Club, a meet & greet for new graduate students, current ones, and faculty. One of the few vivid memories I have of that day is the newest hire—a young Shakespearean I had become good friends with—come scurrying over with a pen to edit my nametag, putting “Dr.” in front of my name.
2. I proposed an article on this subject for The Conversation apropos of the first anniversary of January 6th. It was published, but the editorial process was laborious and I was profoundly unsatisfied with the finished product … but still, might be worth a read.
3. Depending on who you talk to, the malefactors will either be subjected to humiliating show trials and imprisoned or summarily executed. Like all mythologies, there are variant versions, many of which have been necessitated by the fact that “the storm” has now been promised for six or seven years and has yet to occur.
4. The novel in which this exchange occurs is Carpe Jugulum (1998), the twenty-third Discworld novel; and the missionary in question is named Mightily Oats—which is the short version of his full name, “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats.” There’s a book to be written just about Sir Terry’s character names.