… and I don’t particularly mean that as a compliment.
Literally minutes before he is stabbed to death by a posse of conspiring senators, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar declares himself to be the lone unshakeable, unmoving, stalwart man among his flip-flopping compatriots. He makes this claim as he arrogantly dismisses the petition of Metellus Cimber, who pleads for the reversal of his brother’s banishment. Cimber’s fellow conspirators echo his plea, prostrating themselves before Caesar, who finally declares in disgust,
I could be well moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fixed and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, But there’s but one in all doth hold his place. So in the world. ‘Tis furnished well with men, And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive, Yet in the number I do know but one That unassailable holds on his rank, Unshaked of motion. And that I am he.
Caesar mistakes the senators’ begging for weakness, not grasping that they are importuning him as a ploy to get close enough to stab him until it is too late.
Fear not, I’m not comparing Liz Cheney to Julius Caesar. I suppose you could argue that Cheney’s current anti-Trump stance is akin to Caesar’s sanctimonious declaration if you wanted to suggest that it’s more performative than principled. To be clear, I’m not making that argument—not because I don’t see it’s possible merits, but because I really don’t care.
I come not to praise Liz Cheney, whose political beliefs I find vile; nor do I come to bury her. The latter I’ll leave to her erstwhile comrades, and I confess I will watch the proceedings with a big metaphorical bowl of popcorn in my lap, for I will be a gratified observer no matter what the outcome. If the Trumpists succeed in burying her, well, I’m not about to mourn a torture apologist whose politics have always perfectly aligned with those of her father. If she soldiers on and continues to embarrass Trump’s sycophants by telling the truth, that also works for me.
Either way, I’m not about to offer encomiums for Cheney’s courage. I do think it’s admirable that she’s sticking to her guns, but as Adam Serwer recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “the [GOP’s] rejection of the rule of law is also an extension of a political logic that Cheney herself has cultivated for years.” During Obama’s tenure, she frequently went on Fox News to accuse the president of being sympathetic to jihadists, and just as frequently opined that American Muslims were a national security threat. During her run for a Wyoming Senate seat in 2014, she threw her lesbian sister Mary under the bus with her loud opposition to same-sex marriage, a point on which she stands to the right of her father. And, not to repeat myself, but she remains an enthusiastic advocate of torture. To say nothing of the fact that, up until the January 6th assault on the Capitol, was a reliable purveyor of the Trump agenda, celebrated then by such current critics as Steve Scalise and Matt Gaetz.
Serwer notes that the Cheney’s “political logic”—the logic of the War on Terror—is consonant with that of Trumpism not so much in policy as in spirit: the premise that there’s them and us, and that “The Enemy has no rights, and anyone who imagines otherwise, let alone seeks to uphold them, is also The Enemy.” In the Bush years, this meant the Manichaean opposition between America and Terrorism, and that any ameliorating sentiment about, say, the inequities of American foreign policy, meant you were With the Terrorists. In the present moment, the Enemy of the Trumpists is everyone who isn’t wholly on board with Trump. The ongoing promulgation of the Big Lie—that Biden didn’t actually win the election—is a variation of the theme of “the Enemy has no rights,” which is to say, that anyone who does not vote for Trump or his people is an illegitimate voter. Serwer writes:
This is the logic of the War on Terror, and also the logic of the party of Trump. As George W. Bush famously put it, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” You are Real Americans or The Enemy. And if you are The Enemy, you have no rights. As Spencer Ackerman writes in his forthcoming book, Reign of Terror, the politics of endless war inevitably gives way to this authoritarian logic. Cheney now finds herself on the wrong side of a line she spent much of her political career enforcing.
All of which is by way of saying: Liz Cheney has made her bed. The fact that she’s chosen the hill of democracy to die on is a good thing, but this brings us back to my Julius Caesar allusion. The frustration being expressed by her Republican detractors, especially House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is at least partially rational: she’s supposed to be a party leader, and in so vocally rejecting the party line, she’s not doing her actual job. She is being as constant as the Northern Star here, and those of us addicted to following American politics are being treated to a slow-motion assassination on the Senate (well, actually the House) floor.
But it is that constancy that is most telling in this moment. Cheney is anchored in her father’s neoconservative convictions, and in that respect, she’s something of a relic—an echo of the Bush years. As Serwer notes, however, while common wisdom says Trump effectively swept aside the Bush-Cheney legacy in his rise to be the presidential candidate, his candidacy and then presidency only deepened the bellicosity of Bush’s Us v. Them ethos, in which They are always already illegitimate. It’s just now that the Them is anyone opposed to Trump.
In the present moment, I think it’s useful to think of Liz Cheney as an unmoving point in the Republican firmament: to remember that her politics are as toxic and cruel as her father’s, and that there is little to no daylight between them. The fact that she is almost certainly going to lose both her leadership position and lose a primary in the next election to a Trump loyalist, is not a sign that she has changed. No: she is as constant as the Northern Star, and the Trump-addled GOP has moved around her. She is not become more virtuous; her party has just become so very much more debased.
There is a moment early in the film The Death of Stalin in which, as the titular dictator lays dying, the circle of Soviet officials just beneath Stalin (Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov) panic at the prospect of finding a reputable doctor to treat him. Why? Because a few years earlier, Stalin, in a fit of characteristic paranoia, had become convinced that doctors were conspiring against him, and he had many of them arrested, tortured, and killed.
I thought of this cinematic moment—the very definition of gallows humour—while reading an article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic observing that part of the appeal of QAnon (the number of whose adherents have, counter-intuitively perhaps, inflated since Biden’s election) is precisely because of its many disparate components. “I’m not saying I believe everything about Q,” the article quotes one Q follower as saying. “I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.”
As [Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark] explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
If you’ll recall, the “Deep State” bogeyman was central to Steve Bannon’s rhetoric during his tenure early in the Trump Administration, alongside his antipathy to globalism. The two, indeed, were in his figuration allied to the point of being inextricable, which is also one of the key premises underlying the QAnon conspiracy. And throughout the Trump Administration, especially during his two impeachments and the Mueller investigation, the spectre of the Deep State was constantly blamed as the shadowy, malevolent force behind any and all attempts to bring down Donald Trump (and was, of course, behind the putative fraud that handed Joe Biden the election).
Now, precisely why this article made me think of this moment in The Death of Stalin is a product of my own weird stream of consciousness, so bear with me: while I’ve always found Bannon & co.’s conspiracist depiction of the Deep State more than a little absurd, so too I’ve had to shake my head whenever any of Trump’s detractors and critics declare that there’s no such thing as a Deep State.
Because of course there’s a deep state, just one that doesn’t merit ominous capitalization. It also doesn’t merit the name “deep state,” but let’s just stick with that now for the sake of argument. All we’re really talking about here is the vast and complex bureaucracy that sustains any sizable human endeavour—universities to corporations to government. And when we’re talking about the government of a country as large as the United States, that bureaucracy is massive. The U.S. government employs over two million people, the vast majority of them civil servants working innocuous jobs that make the country run. Without them, nothing would ever get done.
Probably the best piece of advice I ever received as a university student was in my very first year of undergrad; a T.A. told me to never ask a professor about anything like degree requirements or course-drop deadlines, or, really, anything to do with the administrative dimension of being a student. Ask the departmental secretaries, he said. In fact, he added, do your best to cultivate their respect and affection. Never talk down to them or treat them as the help. They may not have a cluster of letters after their name or grade your papers, but they make the university run.
I’d like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would ever be the kind of asshole to berate secretaries or support staff, but I took my T.A.’s advice to heart, and went out of my way to be friendly and express gratitude, to be apologetic when I brought them a problem. It wasn’t long before I was greeted with smiles whenever I had paperwork that needed processing, and I never had any issues getting into courses (by contrast, in my thirty years in academia from undergrad to grad student to professor, I have seen many people—students and faculty—suffer indignities of mysterious provenance because they were condescending or disrespectful to support staff).
The point here is that, for all the negative connotations that attach to bureaucracy, it is an engine necessary for any institution or nation to run. Can it become bloated and sclerotic? Of course, though in my experience that tends to happen when one expands the ranks of upper management. But when Steve Bannon declared, in the early days of the Trump Administration, that his aim was “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” I felt a keen sense of cognitive dissonance in that statement—for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a non-administrative state.
Which brings us back, albeit circuitously, to The Death of Stalin. There is no greater example of a sclerotic and constipated bureaucracy than that of the former Soviet Union, a point not infrequently made in libertarian and anti-statist arguments for small government. But I think the question that rarely gets raised when addressing dysfunctional bureaucracy—at least in the abstract—is why is it dysfunctional? There are probably any number of reasons why that question doesn’t come up, but I have to imagine that a big one is because we’ve been conditioned to think of bureaucracy as inevitably dysfunctional—a sense reinforced by every negative encounter experienced when renewing a driver’s license, waiting on hold with your bank, filing taxes, dealing with governmental red tape, or figuring out what prescriptions are covered by your employee health plan. But a second question we should ask when having such negative experiences is: are they negative because of an excess of bureaucracy, or too little? The inability of Stalin’s minions to find a competent doctor is a profound metaphor for what happens when we strip out the redundancies in a given system—in this case, the state-sponsored murder of thousands of doctors because of a dictator’s paranoia, such that one is left with (at best) mediocre medical professionals too terrified of state retribution to be dispassionately clinical, which is of course what one needs from a doctor.
I’m not a student of the history of the U.S.S.R., so I have no idea if anyone has written about whether the ineptitude of the Soviet bureaucracy was a legacy of Stalinist terror and subsequent Party orthodoxy, in which actually competent people were marginalized, violently or otherwise; I have to assume there’s probably a lot of literature on the topic (certainly, Masha Gessen’s critical review of the HBO series Chernobyl has something to say on the subject). But there’s something of an irony in the fact that Republican administrations since that of Ronald Reagan have created their own versions of The Death of Stalin’s doctor problem through their evisceration of government. Reagan famously said that the nine most frightening words were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” and since then conservative governments—in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere—have worked hard to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has chronicled this tendency, in which Republican distrust of government tends to translate into the rampant gutting of social services, governmental agencies from the Post Office to the various cabinet departments, which then dramatically denudes the government’s ability to do anything. All of the failures that then inevitably occur are held up as proof of the basic premise of government’s inability to get anything right (and that therefore its basic services should be outsourced to the private sector).
In my brief moments of hope I wonder if perhaps the Trump Administration’s explicit practice of putting hacks and incompetent loyalists in key positions (such as Jared Kushner’s bizarrely massive portfolio) made this longstanding Republican exercise too glaring to ignore or excuse. Certainly, the contrast between Trump’s band of lickspittles and Biden’s army of sober professionals is about the most glaring difference we’ve seen between administrations, ever. What I hope we’re seeing, at any rate, is the reconstruction of the administrative state.
And it’s worth noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci has been resurrected from Trump’s symbolic purge of the doctors.
I was reading an article about QAnon in Politico yesterday. This, as anyone who has read this blog over the past few months knows, is hardly unusual for me. What struck me about this article, however—“When QAnon Invades American Homes” by Anastasiia Carrier, which is all about people who have lost family members to the Q-cult—was a more profound sense of how this patently absurd conspiracy theory is genuinely infectious, indoctrinating people to the point where their closest loved ones have to decide whether to abandon them. The article tells the story of Emily and her husband Peter (not their real names); forced by the pandemic to work from home, Peter started going down the rabbit hole of QAnon message boards and YouTube videos. Emily was vaguely aware of QAnon, but it was only this past October that, slowly realizing the hold it had on her husband’s imagination, she sat down and watched a handful of videos he’d been talking about: “That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses ‘deep state elites’ of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.”
Emily’s husband, whom she loved dearly and who she described as having previously been a compassionate and attentive man, had become a stranger to her, treating her with anger and disdain—sometimes in front of their children—when she pushed back on his newfound bigotry and the assertion that such people as Tom Hanks were pedophiles. “I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” she says.
Eventually, Emily found her way to a Redditt forum called “QAnonCasualties,” in which people like her who have had loved ones become obsessed with the absurd conspiracy theory share their experiences and console one another. Her relief at finding a space to share her grief was mitigated by just how many others like her there were:
Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year,growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.
Such numbers are shocking, not least because the basic elements of the QAnon conspiracy are so objectively absurd. It is, indeed, all too easy to dismiss QAnon: while it has become increasingly baroque in all its moving parts, its most basic premise is that Donald Trump has been working surreptitiously to foil a monstrous cabal that includes the Deep State, prominent Democrats (especially the Obamas and the Clintons) and the Hollywood elite, all of whom are accused of being pedophiles who sex-traffic children and drink their blood for the purpose of prolonging their lives. Some day soon (March is now the new forecast, apparently, after many disappointments) Trump will emerge to declare martial law and bring such malefactors as Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks to justice. This much-anticipated event is referred to as “The Storm.”
Conspiracy theory and conspiracism is nothing new, especially not in American culture, a point made quite thoroughly in Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Like so much else in the age of social media, QAnon is not different in kind but in degree—it is a massive amplification of tendencies that have been around for centuries. That amplification is not merely one of size and scope, but also of its adherents’ devotion. As detailed in the Politico article, QAnon is very much a cult, and like most cults it features a leader in whom the cultists invest all of their hopes and adoration—Donald Trump. Indeed, if there is one aspect in which QAnon differs from most conspiracy theories, it is in its figuration of a saviour figure leading the fight against the malevolent conspirators.
What is also remarkable about QAnon is how it functions as an all-encompassing sort of “key to all mythologies” for the conspiracism-inclined, welcoming any and all other extant conspiracies: 9/11 trutherism, anti-vax rhetoric, the old chestnut about lizard people, anti-Semitic and white supremacist fantasies about malevolent globalists, paranoia about world government, “the Great Replacement,” and of course the more recent assertion that Biden’s election was the result of election fraud on a massive scale. The alacrity with which QAnon incorporates such disparate threads keeps me coming back around to Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which now comes to seem prophetic—not least because, like all good prophecies, it deals entirely with things that have already happened.
The novel is about a trio of young, overeducated and underemployed graduate students, who find themselves working at a scam publishing house. The publisher’s business model is to lavish praise on submitted manuscripts—which find their way there because they’ve been rejected by all respectable publishers for being ludicrous, awful, or clinically insane—and then charge the starry-eyed authors an exorbitant sum to publish their books (with the assurance that their inevitable massive success will soon earn their investment back). They then only print a fraction of the run promised while pocketing the extra cash.
As you might imagine, the manuscript submissions they receive are largely the work of execrable novelists and crackpots—many of whom in the latter category are conspiracy theorists determined to share with the public their earth-shattering exposés of the Templars, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, or a host of other shadowy cabals responsible for anything and everything that happens in the world. Our trio of disaffected intellectuals—Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi—are predictably disdainful of these authors, referring to them as the “Diabolicals.” For their own entertainment, they create a narrative-building computer program into which they input the plots outlined in these manuscripts, building them into a massive, overarching conspiracy theory they simply call The Plan.
TL;DR: the Diabolicals catch wind of The Plan, and conclude that these too-clever-by-half smartarses actually hold the key to the secrets they’ve been seeking all this time. Determined to know the “truth” of The Plan, they pursue our heroes, whose lives are now in danger.
Or to put it another way: our heroes create a conspiracy theory so compelling that all those who “want to believe” essentially give it substance through their belief.
In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum tells a story in six hundred pages that Jorge Luis Borges told in less than fifteen. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator stumbles across a secret project begun by an eccentric American millionaire to exhaustively imagine a planet—“Tlön”—over forty volumes of an encyclopedia, because “he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.” When the encyclopedia makes it out into the world, people are so captivated by the planet of Tlön that they allow it to infect their minds and displace reality:
Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?
Borges’ allegory is not less troubling for being heavy-handed; neither is Eco’s (whose debt to Borges is writ large in all his fiction). QAnon might be a cult, but it is a cult that needs no suave and persuasive recruiters who target vulnerable new acolytes—that work is done by the algorithms of social media, and the ease with which reality yields in our current cultural and political environment. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the character of Casaubon outlines the basic rules for constructing a conspiracy theory:
Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to something else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape … Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, then the connecting works … So it’s right. Rule Three: the connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are Obvious.
Tout se tient—“everything fits.” Or, as Thomas Pynchon phrased it in Gravity’s Rainbow (aka the Ulysses of conspiracy novels), “paranoia … is the leading edge of the awareness that everything is connected.” Paranoia lends itself, ironically, to inclusivity; almost anything can function as evidence for the truth of one’s paranoid projections. One of the most striking examples of this was detailed by Michael Kelly in a New Yorker article from 1995, titled “The Road to Paranoia,” in which he profiled the Militia of Montana (MOM), one of the many anti-government paramilitary groups that proliferated in the 1990s. The militia’s bible was what they called “the Blue Book,” which purported to contain the proof of the U.S. government’s ultimate plot to disenfranchise American citizens, take their guns, and accede to world government under the U.N. As Kelly observed, however, the Blue Book was in fact
an ordinary three-ring binder to which [MOM] is always busily adding what [they] regard as further evidence of conspiracy, so that it bulges like an eccentric lawyer’s briefcase with scraps of this and that, from here and there, which purport to show that the globalists’ scheme to subvert American sovereignty and American citizens to vassalage is in its final hours.
Exhibits in “The Blue Book” ranged from newspaper clippings to UN development reports (in which the conspirators openly discuss world government), photographs of the notorious black helicopters, and an illustrated map of the US taken from the back of a 1993 Kix cereal box. MOM’s leaders declared that the division of the states shown in this last item—eleven regions, such as the mountain region, the coasts, the Heartland, etc.—was “a representation of the New World Order plan for dividing the United States into regional departments after the invaders emerge to take over the country.”
The Militia of Montana’s Blue Book is as apt a metaphor for QAnon’s all-encompassing umbrella of conspiracism as any, though it’s probably safe to say that the sheer volume of connections it makes probably wouldn’t fit in a single binder—as some industrious chart-makers have shown us.
The most troubling aspect of the Borges/Eco allegory is the prospect of how easy it would be for QAnon to become reality. I don’t mean that somehow the power of its adherents’ belief could literally transform the Obamas and Clintons into pedophiles—hopefully that’s obvious—but how it could become the accepted reality under certain circumstances. The ubiquity of QAnon followers taking part in the Capitol assault should give us pause, almost as much as the assault itself should. The numbers cited in the Politico article most likely reflect a spectrum ranging from passionate believers to people who don’t necessarily buy into the Q myth, but who wouldn’t be surprised to find out it is true; one doesn’t have to imagine a violent coup to overthrow the Biden Administration, but a 2024 election in which Trump cruises back to power with a supine Justice Department infested with Q-cultists, who begin legal proceedings against all of Q’s villains. The unrest that would greet such a scenario would be met by armed Trumpists who spent the previous four years nursing their sense of grievance and hatreds, and martial law could be invoked … at which point the show trials of the Deep Staters, the pedophile Democrats, and Hollywood elite could proceed. Reality would yield.
I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a likely scenario. It is, indeed, a highly unlikely scenario. But in a nation where thirty percent of Republicans find amenable the idea that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children, it is not unimaginable.
Rush Limbaugh has died at the age of 70. And as far as I’m concerned, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead is rendered moot when the dead person in question spent the better part of his adult life speaking ill of the living. To repurpose Christopher Hitchens’ words on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death: if you’d given Rush Limbaugh a moral enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.
I am not sad he is gone. I am sad that his legacy flourishes.
A year ago, when Donald Trump broke with tradition to award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union Address, I thought to myself “That would be like Obama giving that honour to …” And I realized I could not finish the sentence because I could not think of a prominent liberal or progressive person who would fit the analogy. Oh, I quite quickly had a huge laundry-list of examples of people who would be sure to infuriate Republicans and send Sean Hannity et al in paroxysms of bile-flavoured spittle, but nobody who quite played a comparable role on the left to Limbaugh.
The first name that leapt to mind is Michael Moore, and that might be about as close as we come: Moore is, after all, a left-wing provocateur who doesn’t mind erring on the side of embellishment and untruth in the name of stirring an uncritical and emotional response. But even then, when Michael Moore dies, he will do so having built more than he tore down—indeed, his legacy will be having been a tireless advocate for the less privileged. At his best, he spoke on behalf of the voiceless, whether they were out-of-work auto workers in Roger & Me or people bereaved or literally wounded by gun violence in Bowling for Columbine. At his worst, he took cheap shots; at his best, he made powerful arguments for positive social and political change.
I cycled through the list in my head. Bill Ayers? Angela Davis? Noam Chomsky? Tom Morello? The problem was, the more radical the choice, the less likely they were to (a) accept the award, and (b) be chosen in the first place. Most of the time, honorees are relatively uncontroversial figures, and largely non-partisan. Trump’s decision to award Limbaugh was at once typical of his compulsive determination to reward people who lavish praise on him, but also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the semantic equivalent of bile is now the standard form of discourse on the Right.
And in no case would any of the names in my head function as a proper analogy to Limbaugh: we can argue over whether the criminal actions of Angela Davis or Bill Ayers were justified or not, or whether the good work they’ve done later in life obviates it, but they’re people who have exhibited passion for their causes born of love for the people they represent. Since he first went on air shortly after Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Rush Limbaugh’s entire schtick has been incessant attack—attacking liberals, feminists, people of colour, LGBTQ people, Democrats, insufficiently conservative Republicans, the disabled—the list goes on—largely in the name of inciting rage and fear among his almost exclusively white audience, and dehumanizing those he targets.
If Limbaugh, even with his enormous audience, had proved to be an outlier, it wouldn’t be worth noting his passing. But of course he wasn’t an outlier, or at least not for long: he tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of resentment and created a template for a model of rage-based conservatism that Roger Ailes would soon employ when he launched Fox News in 1996. It’s entirely likely that Newt Gingrich would have led his 1994 insurgency to a successful conclusion without Limbaugh on the airwaves, but it would be disingenuous to suggest Limbaugh had no influence.
So I guess in a perverse sense, he has built something: he built the foundation on which American conservatism went from the self-described ideology of ideas to the ideology of owning the libs. I have to assume that when he received his surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was suffused with pride at being granted an honour from a president who probably would not be president without Limbaugh’s media business model having become the default setting for the Right.
At least he lived long enough to see Trump voted out of office and impeached for a second time.
A good friend of mine is fond of saying that Nazis make the best villains. Why? Because you don’t need to expend any exposition on why they are villainous. (This is, he continues, a lesson Stephen Spielberg learned early in his career).
I have had many occasions in the past few years to reflect that we have been ill-served by American popular culture on this front. The post-WWII figuration of Hitler and the Nazis as Absolute Evil across all media was of course understandable, but it has served to drain all nuance from the historical record—not the least of which was the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the American populace in the 1930s thought fascism an entirely reasonable system of governance, and many were actively supportive of Hitler’s regime.
But America’s entry into the war served to suppress such sentiments, and the images that emerged from the Nazi death camps effectively silenced them (it is telling that, even today, actual neo-Nazis dance a bizarre two-step in which they feel obliged to deny that the Holocaust actually happened, while hinting that it would have been a good idea).
Half a century’s worth of movies, television, media, and politics, have unfortunately denatured and decontextualized fascism. It’s an insult that has become too cheaply used, so much so that when Donald Trump’s candidacy and then presidency exhibited fascistic rhetoric and then policies, it was easy for naysayers to scoff—to invoke Godwin’s Law, or otherwise accuse those crying fascism of histrionics.
But in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and the revelations that have emerged since, the label becomes more and more apposite. And the current schism in the G.O.P. that has Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene as its points of inflection is instructive in this respect when you consider the nature of their respective offenses.
On one hand, you have Greene: a QAnon-subscribing conspiracist who has said such mass shootings as Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged; to that end, has harassed—on camera—Parkland survivor David Hogg; tacitly endorsed the execution of Nancy Pelosi; has claimed that no airplane struck the Pentagon on 9/11; has made numerous anti-Semitic comments, not least among them is the now-notorious claim that California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by the Rothschilds. You’d think that when we arrive at the Jewish space laser stage of delusion, there might be more consensus among her peers that she is categorically unfit for office—or at the very least, unfit to sit on committees and draft legislation. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that if people are going to vote for her, there’s little to be done about that; but does anyone want someone who denies school shootings sitting on the House education committee?
On the other hand, there is Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, and very much cut from her father’s ideological cloth. And while someone like myself might find everything about her politics reprehensible, it cannot be denied that she is at least tethered enough to reality to have seen the January 6th assault on the Capitol for what it was: a violent uprising against a free and fair election incited by the sitting president. She and nine of her peers in the Republican House Caucus had courage enough of their convictions to vote to impeach Donald Trump.
Both Greene and Cheney faced sanction and censure this week. The pressure to punish Greene came largely from outside the G.O.P. as Democrats railed against her lunacy, at once genuinely outraged, but also astute enough to see that tarring the Republicans with the QAnon brush would be politically advantageous. A number of Republicans also made that calculation, and denounced Greene’s public comments as “loony” and unacceptable. But when the House Republican Caucus had their first meeting this week, about half of them gave her a standing ovation when she stood to speak.
The movement to discipline Cheney, by contrast, emerged from within her own party, in retaliation for her impeachment vote. She isn’t the only one: other Republicans in and out of office have received backlash for not supporting Trump, often from Republican state parties. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, and Cindy McCain were all censured by the Arizona G.O.P. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who also voted to impeach Trump, was similarly censured by Republican officials in his district. Ditto South Carolina Representative Tom Rice.
Neither Greene nor Cheney, conversely, ended up being punished by their own party (Greene was stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic majority). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ultimately decided not to censure Greene, even as he condemned her words. And a secret ballot passed comfortably in Cheney’s favour (145-61-1).
That Cheney’s position as the #3 House Republican was saved by a secret ballot speaks volumes, as it confirms a general, if empirically unconfirmed, wisdom—that a critical mass of Republicans want to be rid of Trump and Trumpism, but are mostly afraid of saying so out loud. One wonders what the vote on Cheney would have looked like if it hadn’t been secret; how many of those who voted to keep her in her position would have balked in fear of retribution from the Trump base?
And herein lies the rub: those in opposition to Marjorie Taylor Greene are opposed to the idea that someone so divorced from reality should wield anything resembling political power. Those supporting Greene are of a piece with those attacking Liz Cheney et al—their larger preoccupation is their slavish devotion to Donald Trump. Greene’s adherence to QAnon is merely the most extreme manifestation of this devotion: putting aside the distractions of blood-quaffing Satanist Democrat and Hollywood pedophiles such as depicted in Q’s fevered imagination, the core of the QAnon belief system is the conviction that Donald Trump—the “god emperor,” as he’s characterized—is the saviour who will bring all of these truths to light and all of those malefactors to justice. Whether or not Greene’s tepid apologies for her Q-influenced words and behaviour were sincere, she continues to make her slavish devotion to Trump clear. Whether or not Greene’s fellow travelers who want to punish Cheney, Kinzinger, Rice, and the rest, buy into her delusions is immaterial—the point is that their devotion is not to the United States of America, but to Donald Trump.
And that is the difference: however much Liz Cheney might be a vehicle carrying forward her father’s pernicious politics, she has at least made it clear that her first loyalty is to her nation. As have all the others attacked by the MAGA mob. And if we’re going to seriously consider what fascism is, and what fascism means, this is the starting point: the conflation of nationalism not with nation, but with a strongman leader.
Let’s have a moment of review: what are the hallmarks of fascism? First and foremost is a nativist—and populist—ethno-nationalism. Second is a cult of personality attached to a strongman who doesn’t represent the idea of the nation so much as embody it—he becomes conflated with his followers’ national identity. Third is that it is invariably a “he,” because fascism is emphatically patriarchal and masculinist. Fourth is a necessary and pervasive mendacity, in which the lies of the leader supplant reality. In what is possibly the most-quoted passage of political philosophy over the past few years, Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist,” and further that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” Let’s remember that it was on January 22, 2017—a mere two days into Donald Trump’s tenure—that Kellyanne Conway entered “alternative facts” into the Trumpist lexicon.
Part of the problem people have had with the “fascist” label these past four or five years is because of how we’ve represented it to ourselves, which is to say, it has become synonymous with the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent with Mussolini’s Italy)—that is, with an established dictatorship. The writers and thinkers who have most consistently labelled Trumpism as fascistic have been those who recognize that fascism is more a method and style than specific ideology—that it is in fact something of a moving target, and if we think of it in static terms, we’re certain to miss the warning signs. Several months before Trump’s election, Adam Gopnik wrote an article in the New Yorker that alarmed me at the time, and remains, for me, one of the most astute (and prescient) comments the propriety of applying the fascist label to Trump and Trumpism:
[T]o call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
As I’ve observed in a handful of previous posts, it is difficult to delineate precisely what Trump’s followers—whether the MAGA hordes or his acolytes in elected office—actually want, vis à vis policy, aside from immigration restrictions. They, like Trump, are defined less by their ideas than by their enemies. People at Trump rallies and at the Capitol assault, when asked, speak in angrily vague terms about freedom, and when pressed, express their conviction that somehow Biden et al will take their freedom away; but really, the gist of their actual goals seems basically to be “more Trump.” The mob attacking the Capitol sported many flags—a good number of American flags, some Confederate flags and others bearing white-supremacist symbols, but the greatest number were Trump flags of one form or another. Images such as the one below should be exhibit A at the impeachment trial.
Further, Trump’s devotees in Congress have signalled that their highest loyalty is to him. Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a mask with the words “Trump Won” on the floor of Congress, and said that whenever Trump reveals his “plan,” she’ll be on board. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a frat paddle in human form (h/t to Crooked Media for that lovely description), recently said on Steve Bannon’s podcast,
I would leave my House seat, I would leave my home, I would do anything I had to do to ensure that the greatest president in my lifetime—one of the greatest presidents our country has ever had, maybe the greatest president our country has ever had—got a full-throated defense that wasn’t crouched down, that wasn’t in fear of losing some moderate Republican senator but that was worthy of the fight that he gave to the great people of this country for four years.
Gaetz, let us not forget, also travelled to Wyoming—in the winter, in case we question his fervor—to speak at a rally condemning Liz Cheney.
Such slavish devotion to a buffoon such as Trump is baffling, but authoritarians are clownish figures more often than not—and absurdity is invariably a component of fascist tendencies, not least because it requires belief in the outlandish. The idea of Jewish space lasers is risible, but then so too were the Nazis’ laundry-list of supposed Jewish offences. Taken out of context, the contradictory suggestion that international Jewry is responsible for both Communism and the predations of the big banks is similarly absurd; taken in context, it is sinister and pernicious.
About the best thing that can be said of the past five years is that they’ve been … educational. Comfortable myths and assumptions have been shattered, and we’ve been given a crash course in what is law and what is convention. Hopefully one of the most valuable lessons going forward will be a clearer and more nuanced understanding of fascism, and, more importantly, how it stalks the always-fungible borders of democracy, looking for weaknesses. This will be an important lesson to keep in mind when we remember that the Hitler’s Beer Hall Pustch of 1923 was a failed coup that was roundly mocked.
This morning as we sat on the couch with our coffee, Stephanie looked up from her phone and asked, “Did we get right-wing propaganda in our mailbox this week?” She was referring to The Epoch Times, a well-funded anti-Chinese “newspaper” that has been one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. According to the Reddit thread she was reading, it has been showing up in mailboxes in Newfoundland. Curious, I stepped outside and checked—and sure enough, there it was.
As I flipped through it with distaste—seeing headlines claiming that Mark Zuckerberg donated $500M for the purposes of undermining the U.S. Election, or “With Coronavirus, Chinese Regime Launched a Geopolitical Masterstroke,” authored by none other than Conrad Black, and my personal favourite, “The Destructive Fallout of Male Emasculation” (to be distinguished, presumably, from female emasculation)—Stephanie read out loud some of the comments being made. While many of them were helpful suggestions about what to do with the paper, such as using it to kindle your wood stove or clean shit from your boots, there were of course the inevitable commenters yelling about how The Epoch Times got it right and that Canada is on its way to being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese regime.
My favourite one, however, was the person castigating the naysayers with every conspiracy theorist’s favourite term of derision—“sheeple”—and suggesting that we wake up and engage in a little critical thinking for once.
I love it when conspiracists tell me to think critically, especially considering that I wrote a doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory in American literature and popular culture. I appreciate the concern that we should think critically, but it’s the “wake up” that is the more familiar refrain of the conspiratorially-minded.
Conspiracist thinking is magical thinking: it is predicated on the promise of revelation. In this respect it possesses an element of religiosity, to say nothing of religious fervour. This should not, perhaps, be surprising, given that conspiracy is usually figured as vast, omnipresent, and omniscient, while simultaneously being all but invisible, revealing itself only in elusive but suggestive fragments that mean nothing to the casual observer but everything to the conspiracist. Belief in conspiracy thus functions as a kind of displaced theism. Sociologist Karl Popper suggested that conspiracism becomes more prevalent when societies become more secular—that with the waning of religion as a life-organizing principle, in its place there arise cabals of shadowy figures who are the true, secret power of the world. Or, as novelist Don DeLillo put it more succinctly, “Conspiracy is the new faith.”
Conspiracy as a trope in fiction is animated by the promise of revelation, that what was hidden will be seen. There is no more perfect articulation of this premise than a scene from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when his protagonist Oedipa Maas—just before she is to get caught up in the machinations of the mysterious conspiratorial group the Tristero—has something approaching a vision when she looks down on the city of San Narciso:
She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.
Aside from being one of my favourite passages in prose fiction, Pynchon conveys the hallucinogenic quality of conspiracy, and its allure: the promise of secret and arcane knowledge (“a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning”).
If conspiracy in fiction trades on the promise of revelation, in real life conspiracism is animated by the conviction of having experienced that revelation, of having had the scales fall from one’s eyes and seen the true, malevolent shape of things. It’s not coincidental that one of the filmic touchstones of conspiracism, especially amongst its “men’s rights” iterations, is The Matrix—a film whose premise is a veritable apotheosis of the conspiratorial imagination. In it, the world as we know it is false, a computer program humanity inhabits that keeps them ignorant of the reality that they are being used by intelligent machines as a power source. The choice Morpheus gives Neo—a blue pill, that will let him remain blissfully ignorant, or a red pill, which will make him “wake up” to reality—has passed into conspiracist jargon. For the men’s rights advocates (MRAs) and other virulently anti-feminist fellow-travelers, to be “red-pilled” is to come to the realization that women effectively run the world and men are the true victims. Though the metaphor of the red pill is specific to the so-called manosphere, the sense of waking up to the true, conspiratorial reality of the world is held in common across the broad range of conspiratorial thinking.
Such thinking, I would hope it goes without saying, is the antithesis of critical thinking. It is the difference between theology and dogmatism, both of which entail a basis of faith—”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)—but the former of which entails the intellectual labour of sorting through ethical and moral armatures by way of dialectical reasoning; the latter is slavish devotion to an idea and does not brook heresy.
Like unthinking piety, conspiracism is not easily persuaded by facts or logic. It is sobering to think of the number of American voters who probably agree with many of the policies Democrats mean to pursue in the coming years, but still voted for Trump because they just couldn’t get past the fact that Joe Biden is a human-trafficking pedophile who drinks the blood of children. That, in a nutshell, is the core belief of the QAnon fantasy: that such high-ranking democrats as Biden, Obama, and the Clintons are the heart of an evil cabal that also includes George Soros and economic and political elites the world over, and that Donald Trump is the bulwark against their malevolence, that he has been working throughout his presidency to bring these malefactors down. QAnon covers probably the largest amount of real estate on our conspiracy Venn diagram, but overlaps with the Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, MRAs, and a host of others eluding my memory right now, in its anti-Semitism, white grievance and white supremacism, anti-feminism, anti-globalism, and above all in its veneration of Donald Trump—who has become an unlikely standard-bearer for all of these people.
Why Trump? How did such a preening, vain, manifestly physically unfit whiner whose only clothing choices seem to be overlarge blue suits and golfingwear become the object of adulation for hordes of masculinist ammosexuals given to paramilitary cosplay? I think there are any number of answers to that question—not least is the fact that he gave them license to say the quiet part of their racism and misogyny out loud—but I think a big one is that he’s the perfect amorphous vessel for their hatred, resentment, and longing for something that makes sense. In all of the articles I’ve read about the people who stormed the Capitol, all of the interviews with such people I’ve seen, not one person has offered a coherent account of what they want, and what sort of alternative they envision to the current system. They talk a lot about freedom and seem pretty convinced that Biden and his people are determined to take that freedom away, but nothing of what they say bears even a passing resemblance to reality. As for the “coup,” it further appears that the only concrete political goal they have is more Trump. In the QAnon lexicon, Trump is the “god-emperor,” and while that is typical of QAnon’s absurdly hyperbolic discourse, the larger MAGA devotion to him is indiscernible from religious fanaticism.
Which means that for a not-insignificant number of Americans, Donald Trump is their revealed truth. Which does not bode well for the Republic.
Trump’s ongoing crusade to overturn the election has had a weird split-screen quality that would be hilarious if it weren’t so dystopian. On one hand, you have all the overblown rhetoric and accusations of fraud and election-rigging, elaborate conspiracy theories about voting machines being manipulated by China and Venezuela, dead people voting by the hundreds of thousands, and the active suppression of Republican poll-watchers. On the other hand, you have the fact that Trump et al have had, at this time of this writing, thirty-two of their legal challenges often literally laughed out of court, while they’ve only succeeded twice, on minor procedural questions. Notably, once in the courtroom, the allegations of fraud, never mind fraud on a massive conspiratorial scale, evaporate—because unlike one of Rudy Giuliani’s hysterically inchoate press conferences, the courts demand that evidence be presented.
You might think that this contradiction between what the Trump people allege and their inability to produce evidence in court, coupled with the glaring fact of their 2-32 win/loss record so far, would start to sink in and make Trump’s followers start to understand that there was no fraud and that Biden won what Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called “the most secure election in American history.” But then, in order to think that, you’d probably have had to be in a coma these past four years. About a week ago I broke a personal rule and got into an argument with someone on social media who was convinced that election fraud had been perpetrated. When I pointed to the fact that the Trump people had not been able to produce any evidence of systematic wrongdoing, he repeatedly and sarcastically demanded, “Oh, are you a lawyer? Are you there in the courtroom? You don’t know what evidence they have!” I have since seen this line of argument repeated, most prominently by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, as if these court cases are black boxes and not publicly available … or that if Trump and Giuliani actually had any actual evidence, that they wouldn’t be putting it on public display 24/7. (My argument with the fraud-advocate ended when he told me he was “terrified” for my students, as it was “obvious” that I couldn’t be trusted to let them offer opposing perspectives in class).
Meanwhile, as his legal teams racks up losses like the New York Jets on Dramamine, Trump keeps tweeting his confidence that his re-election is all but a done deal, and his supporters continue to close ranks. Even Trump’s most voluble advocates aren’t safe from their wrath should they voice even the slightest doubt, as Tucker Carlson found when he made the rather glaringly obvious observation that such subtly orchestrated fraud on a vast scale—which leaves no trace—strains credulity: “What [Trump lawyer Sydney] Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson said on his show this past Thursday. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” The backlash from Trump supporters and other Trump-friendly media figures was immediate, with Rush Limbaugh’s producer asking (and betraying an ignorance of how evidence and the law works), “Where is the ‘evidence’ the election was fair?” With trenchant understatement, the NY Times Jeremy W. Peters observes that “The backlash against Mr. Carlson and Fox for daring to exert even a moment of independence underscores how little willingness exists among Republicans to challenge the president and his false narrative about the election he insists was stolen.”
It goes without saying that this state of affairs is deeply dangerous, and serves to obviate any kind of amusement or schadenfreude at the spectacle of Trump’s presidency figuratively—and Giuliani literally—melting down.
As I wrote in a recent post, the incoherence of the aggregate accusations being thrown around is a feature, not a bug, of conspiracism. All it all needs to do is cement in the minds of Trump voters—not all Trump voters, but a critical mass of them, to be certain—the illegitimacy of the Democrats and the impossibility that Biden could have won without cheating. It was always a given that Trump would not concede, but there was always the milder possibility that he’d resign with high dudgeon and Nixonian resentment (“You won’t have Donald Trump to kick around any more!”), claiming that he’d been cheated, accept a federal pardon from President Mike Pence, and retire to Mar-a-Lago to sulk and tweet and plan his comeback.
But no. It seems he’s determined to go all-in. Whether he actually believes he has a chance to steal the election with his scheme to have state electors overturn the results is something we’ll likely never know; but what seems more likely is that he wants to be forced from office. He wants to be seen going down fighting, a victim of Democratic malfeasance, the Deep State, interference from China, Venezuela, and Cuba, and whatever other fecal matter they want to fling at the wall. And while the prospect of seeing Trump literally frog-marched out of the White House by the Secret Service one minute after noon on January 20th is too delicious to contemplate, that is probably one of the worst scenarios. Why? Because all of those people who have gone all-in on Trump and the narrative of the election being stolen will look up from their phones on January 20th to see Biden taking the oath of office, and see the culmination of their present fears and convictions. And what happens then is anyone’s guess, though the one absolute certainty is that a not-insignificant proportion of the U.S. populace will believe it has been stabbed in the back by the rest of the country.
More than a few times I’ve seen the fantasy being built by Trump et al called the “stab in the back” narrative, and it never fails to chill. When Germany surrendered at the end of the First World War, it came as an utter shock to the soldiers and much of the civilian population. They had thought they were winning, due to a series of gains they had made in the spring of 1918, but in truth, there was nothing left with which to continue the war. The gains they had made were the result of the Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s Battle”—more commonly known as the “Spring Offensive,” that began in March 1918 and carried on for several months. The offensive was a gamble, and a risky one: the German High Command knew their resources were running low. The recent entry of the United States on the side of the Allies made the situation even more dire. So they went all-in on a massive series of attacks in the hopes of breaking the enemy lines and forcing them into a peace negotiation that would be favourable to Germany.
They failed, but they failed while looking as if they were winning. But the tank was empty. They could keep fighting, of course, with vastly denuded stocks of weapons and ammunition, with an ever-more demoralized army, and with starvation at home. They chose instead to surrender rather than put the military through the inevitable meat grinder.
But as is the nature or quasi-dictatorial monarchies, the German government wasn’t adept at messaging … the end came as a shock to the army and the civilian population because they had no idea how bad the situation actually was. And after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, unsurprisingly, people looked for whom to blame. One of the most persistent theories was the “stab in the back” narrative, which held that powerful business interests with an internationalist character and therefore disloyal to Germany—i.e., the Jews—were responsible for bringing about Germany’s cowardly capitulation. For stabbing Germany in the back.
Yes, yes, insert Godwin’s Law disclaimer here. But it is more than a little uncanny to consider that these events occurred almost precisely one century ago—and doubly uncanny to further consider that 1918-1919 was the last occurrence of a truly global pandemic.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Unlike most rhymes, however, these one can be discordant and jarring to the soul.
For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.
It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.
Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.
The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.
The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.
But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.
But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.
The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.
Sixteen years ago I defended my doctoral dissertation, which I’d titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination: Economies of Paranoia in Postmodern Culture.” You’d think that would make me an expert on conspiracism, and it does, but I have to admit that the proliferation of conspiracy theory over the past ten years or so—from Birtherism to Glenn Beck’s manic chalkboardsto the frenzied speculation over the Mueller investigation to the juggernaut of QAnon—makes my head spin. Every time I’ve had the thought that I should dust off the old thesis and revise it for publication in this context of renewed relevance, my mind has shrunk from the prospect. There was just too much. I would most likely have to start from scratch, and in the Age of Trump, where does one find an Archimedean foothold from which to form a critical methodology?
One thing I am finding rather fascinating, however, as we watch the election returns trickle in with excruciating slowness, is this bizarre conspiratorial split-screen in which Trump makes accusation after accusation of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, accusations which are themselves part of the execution of his own longstanding conspiracy to disrupt the election in the hopes of stealing it.
Though I suppose to call what Trump’s doing a “conspiracy” founders a bit on definitional shoals. Trump and his people—as the saying has gone these past four years—always say the quiet part out loud. Can we properly call something a conspiracy when it unfolds out in the open? It has long been something approaching a certainty that Trump would not go easily into the night if he lost, that he would accuse his enemies (a group that comprises anyone who isn’t a sycophant) of rigging the election. He did it in 2016, and he has been sounding that horn again at least since the Democratic primaries began. But then, over the past few months, he has sketched out his plan in greater detail: repeatedly claiming (falsely) that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud; “enlisting” an “army” of poll-watchers to monitor voting for the fraud he claimed was inevitable (and, presumably, intimidate voters and poll-workers, though mercifully there doesn’t seem to have been much of that so far); promising that he would challenge an election loss in the courts; and to that end, ramming through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett prior to the election, because—again, he said this out loud and repeatedly—he wanted a 6-3 majority on SCOTUS to adjudicate his court challenges (and though he didn’t say as much, Trump’s nakedly transactional nature dictates he believes Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch owe him).
And now, as his prospects for victory dim with every tallied mail-in vote, he has twice addressed the nation and (a) claimed victory, (b) accused his opponents of voter fraud and a long list of other nefarious acts. His address from the White House on Thursday night was really quite shocking in the sheer number of blatant lies he told—and after four years of Trump’s rank mendacity, the fact that he can still shock is nauseatingly impressive. The gist of his speech, however, was an inchoate laundry-list of the ways in which his enemies have conspired to steal the election from him, starting with the accusation that the pre-election polling, which erroneously showed large leads for Biden and other Democrats, was deliberately inflated: “These really phony polls, I have to call them phony polls, fake polls, were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden and diminish Republican’s ability to raise funds. They were what’s called suppression polls, everyone knows that now.” He then went on to tell bald lies about how Republicans had been barred from poll-watching, that millions of unsolicited ballots had been mailed out, and continually suggested that the “whittling down” of his leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia was happening because the poll workers kept mysteriously “finding” ballots … and, oh, wasn’t it sointeresting how one-sided the mail-in ballots were proving to be?
Never mind the fact that the scenario of Trump’s early leads evaporating wasn’t just predicted over and again, but that it was entirely predictable from the moment he started vilifying mail-in ballots and thus turning them into a partisan issue; predictable also because he turned the pandemic into a partisan issue, with Democrats believing the science and behaving accordingly, while Trump’s enthusiasts flouted mask-wearing and social distancing. Never mind the fact that he never made clear precisely how voter fraud on a massive scale was supposed to be perpetrated. Never mind that fact that, if the polls showing a significant Biden lead and the likelihood of a blue wave were consciously fabricated, then everybody in the news media and the polling industry at large is doing a really good job of pretending to wring their hands and beat their breasts at their abject failure. And finally, never mind the fact that if Trump’s enemies had in fact managed to orchestrate voter fraud on a huge scale, why would they have let Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins keep their Senate seats?
But of course, that is how conspiracism works: you have to never mind the facts. It is essentially the antithesis of Occam’s Razor: conspiracist thought flourishes on obfuscatory complexity in which apparent contradictions are actually subtle connections to which non-conspiracists are blind. Take a half hour to read about QAnon for what is perhaps the most spectacular example of this thinking to date. And as Fredric Jameson notes in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the two basic elements of conspiracy theory are contradictory: the predication of a vast, omniscient cabal or group, and its invisibility. Where most conspiracy theories fall apart is in the assumption that a huge group of people can conspire to malevolent ends with preternatural silence and competence. Faking the moon landing would have entailed the labour of thousands of people. My simple question to 9/11 Truthers is: do you honestly believe that the Bush Administration was competent enough to carry that off without a hitch? And for the same reason, I never believed that there was a complex conspiracy between Trump and the Russians. Were Trump et al collusion-curious? Absolutely. But the smoking gun, the desire for a spectacular revelation that lies at the heart of conspiracism’s appeal, was never in the cards. And as for the spectral conspiracy Trump keeps flinging about, Stephen Colbert did a tidy job of summing up just how ludicrous it is: “If Donald Trump is right—if Joe Biden did pull the strings behind the scenes in Republican states like Arizona and Georgia while coordinating with Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Nevada and Wisconsin and Michigan and throwing in the red herring of letting the Republicans keep the Senate and gain a few seats in the House while just barely removing Donald Trump—wow! I mean, kudos to that level of interstate coordination. I mean, anyone who could accomplish that many things at once right now really would be the president we need during a global pandemic.”
There have been moments in the past four years when I’ve looked at Trump’s mendacity and the obvious fact that he has, at best, a tenuous grasp of reality; and I’ve looked at the stubborn support he has from forty percent of America’s electorate; and I’ve listened to the torturous logic employed by his enablers and mouthpieces to support and justify his presidency; and I’ve had moments in which I’ve honestly had to wonder whether it wasn’t me getting everything wrong. To be clear, these moments are rare, but they’re worrisome—not least because they are reflective of the broader cultural trend in which such touchstones as science, fact, and just a generally shared reality have been so deeply eroded—and are, in fact, anathema to Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.
So however anxiety-inducing and—as regards the Senate—disappointing this election has so far been, it’s been a weird comfort to see these two forms of conspiracy: the actual conspiracy articulated openly by Trump, and the manic conspiracism he flails about in as the reality of the election results encroach. It’s distressing to know that millions of people accept his conspiracy theories without question, but at least the contrast offers me a bit of mental stability in the moment.
Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.
I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.
A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.
Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,
It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”
Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.
Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.
I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).
All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.
Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.
And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.
Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?
Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.
Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.
As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.
This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.
We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,
By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.
It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.
And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.