Although it appears Joe Biden will be the 46th President, many people are wondering today how the election could be so close, and how could so many Americans have voted for such an abject failure of a man as Donald Trump. Nancy LeTourneau sums it up:
While data eventually showed Trump’s 2016 win in the Electoral College was fueled by xenophobia, there was at least the specter of crediting the president’s so-called “populism” as a factor. But none of that materialized once he got into office. The majority of working Americans disapproved of his tax cuts aimed primarily at the wealthy. The president never got around to infrastructure, and his trade war left most farmers in a state of uncertainty. Biden was right when he said that Trump would be “the first president of the United States to leave office, having fewer jobs in his administration than when he became president.” To cap that off, the president basically ignored a pandemic that has so far resulted in the death of over 230,000 Americans.
That summarizes Trump’s first-term. What did he promise to do in a second term? Nothing. The GOP didn’t even propose a platform, and the only thing the president released was a three-page document full of vague statements—most of which he’s been promising to do but never accomplished.
LeTourneau points to the lies and disinformation that have snookered so many. And, of course, racism and xenophobia are big factors also. But I think it goes deeper than that. We are looking at a wholesale rejection of the European Enlightenment and a resurgence of modes of thinking from the Dark Ages.
The United States was born from the Enlightenment. This was, briefly, the 18th century European philosophical movement that promoted reason, science, individual liberty, and equality as its highest ideals. I don’t want to write a long review of the Enlightenment here, but there’s a good overview at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
More than anything else, Trumpism is a rejection of the Enlightenment. Reason and science are out the window, obviously. Trumpers fancy themselves as champions of liberty, but of course the whole object of right-wing extremism in the U.S., throughout the nation’s history, has been to weaken civil rights and the rule of law in favor of the rule of power. I seem to write another complaint every few months about how the Right loves to holler about FREEDOM even as they are doing their damnedest to destroy it. The Right has stripped the word freedom of all meaning and turned it into a tribal totem.
Something I realized years ago is that American right-wingers, maybe right-wingers everywhere, tend to “think” in symbols, archetypes, and allegories rather than use conceptual thought. This is illustrated by something my Facebook friend Jeffrey Feldman wrote on Monday:
Trumpism is the rejection of discursive politics—our system of government based in talk as a form of persuasion. In discursive politics, talk is protected above all else. Hence: The First Amendment is first. Our laws are words that we follow. Our elected officials debate. We take words seriously. Trumpism rejects all this for a politics of stagecraft, drama, and violence. In their world, all that matters is sentiment, rage, and threats. Ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump and they don’t talk policy or programs. They tell you how he makes them feel—what it’s like when they see him—who they want to hurt. In Trumpism, arguments are replaced by call outs. Kamala Harris is…socialist! (yeah right). Biden’s “whole family” is…corrupt! (um…). In Trumpism, the names of politicians become epithets. In Minnesota, Trump just shouts “Ilan Omar” and his crowds go crazy.
So, the flags fit into this alternate universe. While Democrats are calling, texting, trying to persuade—Trumpists just drive around waving his name and snarling. Democrats are talking healthcare and Covid-19–Trumpists are driving around shouting “Hunter Biden!” out their car windows. It’s a different reality and one we don’t want to have control of our daily lives. Is it Fascism? Sure. If it takes over it will become that. But it’s bad enough as is.
This is thinking in archetypes. Representative Omar, Hunter Biden, Senator Harris, etc. are archetypes to them, not real people. These archetypes repesent something dark and frightening slopping around in the depths of the Trumpain id. You can spend weeks lecturing a Trumper about what socialism is and why Kamala Harris isn’t a socialist, and this effort would go nowhere, because all the Trumper would hear is “blah blah blah.” It doesn’t matter what socialism is, or what Kamala Harris actually proposes. The designations “socialist” and “Kamala Harris” represent something dark and evil, and that’s it.
This is the old mythos versus logos dichotomy; in brief, righties think mythologically rather than conceptually. See my old post from 2007, The Power of (Right Wing) Myth. People from both history and current politics are either embraced or hated by the Right not because of who they really were or are, or what they really did, but because of how those people make them feel and what they represent as archetypes.
And that’s why we don’t communicate. Most of us these days don’t think in archetypes and allegories, at least not exclusively. Ancient people were much more into mythos than we are. Ancient people wrote the world’s scriptures in the language of mythos that was never meant to be taken literally, for example. Then came the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment philosophers grappled with the distinctions between empericism and subjectivism. Empericism is about things that can be observed objectively and understood rationally and conceptually. When we discuss these things, we are using the language of logos.
Subjectivism touches on psychology, personal experience, emotions, what things and people and events mean or represent to us, not what they objectively are. Mythos is a way of using language to express subjectivism on a social, cultural, or even national scale. It’s not at all surprising that the fascist regimes of the 20th century made generous use of symbolism from ancient myths, whether Nordic (Hitler) or myths about ancient Rome (Mussolini). Today’s righties tap into myths and symbolism from both the Confederacy and from the Third Reich in a similar way.
You can have mythos without tribalism, but I doubt you can have tribalism without mythos. Shared mythology is what holds tribes together, especially these days when tribes join together through the internet and don’t always share physical space.
A big part of tribalism is loyalty. Moral Foundation Theory says that loyalty is much more important to conservatives than it is to liberals, and loyalty is everything to a tribe. This loyalty is the foundation of all groupthink.
For example, in September this year a Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans thought they were better off now than four years ago. Seriously? People commenting on this came up with all kinds of rationalizations about how anyone could think that. But I postulate a lot of people who said yes are Trump supporters who are not at all better off now than they were four years ago, but who answered yes to the question because they are supposed to be better off because Trump is president. They cannot answer no without admitting that Trump is failing, and they cannot admit that, even to themselves.
This explains rejection of masks, also; masks must represent something to them that is unspeakably awful, and not wearing one is an expression of tribal loyalty.
So here we are. Trump may be hauled kicking and screaming out of the White House, but the rejection of the Enlightenment by a substantial portion of our population is still with us. And we’re going to be dealing with people who have bought into the QAnon Conspiracy and who think Democrats work for the Devil. And they could very well become more unhinged and more dangerous. And I don’t know what the antidote is.
Trump did not create Trumpism; he stumbled into it. Back in 2012 I wrote a post called GOP: A Cult Looking for a Personality. In 2012 the GOP was going through a phase of getting nuttier and nuttier, but there was no one Big Giant Head directing the nuttiness. Hence, it was a personality cult looking for a personality. Eventually it found Trump.
The post contains a quote from Billmon (remember Billmon?):
There simply is no getting around the fact that the mentality of the modern grassroots conservative movement is in almost all particulars the spitting image of a 20th century totalitarian political party–an “epistemically closed” loop of self-reference and self-delusion. In other words: a cult.
“’Epistemically closed’ loop of self-reference and self-delusion” is brilliant. This is what the American Right is, and I have no idea how to break the loop. I really don’t. But I don’t think the United States can survive as a representative democracy with so many people completely obvlivious to the Enlightenment principles upon which it was founded.