“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” —Matthew 24:24
“At first we thought they were just another snake cult, but now their towers are everywhere.” —Conan the Barbarian 1982
At the dawn of my congressional career, after some of us staffers endured a particularly egregious dose of idiocy, one of my colleagues was moved to compare our office to Saint Elizabeth’s, then still functioning as a mental hospital in DC (and now, fittingly, as headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security). “Not quite,” I responded. “Here the lunatics are in charge.”
That exchange, alas, has become a prophecy for the nation at large. It begins, as we are made aware by each daily tweet-storm, at the very top, but this insanity could not persist without broad and intense public support. It has become commonplace to characterize such supporters as haters, but while it would be dangerous to underestimate the role of sheer malice, Trumpism could only sustain itself with tens of millions of people who might not fit the profile of a hater, but are assuredly either borderline imbeciles or not-quite-certifiably insane. Examples there are in profusion; but rather than ringing the changes on every single winner of the Darwin Awards, let us examine three cases that have wider policy implications.
Item. Measles, an infectious disease that each year once killed several hundred people and caused about a thousand cases of encephalitis in America, was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000. But thanks to a kind of misbegotten Hitler-Stalin alliance between right-wing religious nuts and New Age-Hollywood Hills types, the disease has come roaring back.
"It has become commonplace to characterize such supporters as haters, but while it would be dangerous to underestimate the role of sheer malice, Trumpism could only sustain itself with tens of millions of people who might not fit the profile of a hater, but are assuredly either borderline imbeciles or not-quite-certifiably insane."
What other topic could unite such a disparate gaggle of characters as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., trading on his father’s martyr credibility to whisk us back to pre-Enlightenment times, and Texas Republican State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, (apparently such an extreme Neanderthal that even Texas’ own hardline Freedom Caucus was too liberal for him) who has called vaccinations “sorcery?”
Mimicking the measles that their evangelism spreads, American anti-vaxxers are also some of the most industrious Internet pests known to science, even if their trolling is supplemented by bots from a certain foreign country.
Item. One of the “noble lies” undergirding modern society is the myth of the rational actor. So-called enlightened self-interest suffuses economics (although corporations know better, which explains their lavish expenditures on advertising); as well as game theory, which supposedly prevents nuclear war from breaking out; and politics.
Political scientists (and some psychologists) are fond of proving that people “vote their interests” by the simple, circular expedient of defining a subject’s true interests as whatever they opt for. It is time for a sweeping reevaluation of this canard.
In 2016, American farmers voted by a margin of between 3 and 4 to 1 in favor of Donald Trump over the Democrat. This happened in spite of the fact that he told them in clear and unmistakable terms that he would, if elected, ignite a trade war with their most lucrative export market. Further, he would cut off their supply of the low cost, often undocumented labor needed for fruit and vegetable picking as well as beef, pork, and poultry processing.
As a result, farm income is down, even though the income calculation includes the Market Facilitation Program, money extorted from the rest of us to reward Trump’s political base. Farm bankruptcies have soared. There is alleged evidence (not quantified by polling) that “farmers are losing their patience” amid mealy-mouthed equivocating from farm belt, GOP-elected officials over Trump’s latest tariff threats.
For now, though, it appears that farmers are sticking with Trump. If his electoral margin among them should even fall to 2½ to 1 in 2020, Democrats will think of it as a miraculous breakthrough. The bulk of farmers would likely prefer to go down in whatever fate decides will be America’s functional equivalent of the rubble of Berlin.
Item. For decades, American religious fundamentalists have ceaselessly worked to poison whole departments of knowledge – from geology to history to herpetology – with ignorance and disinformation. All of this in the service of a project to turn the country into a living tableau of The Handmaid’s Tale.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Apocalypse. They seem to have dropped Jesus altogether as the ostensible object of their adoration and instead became a cult of the Antichrist. Every single sin they claimed to revile—adultery, fornication, false witness, the Mephistophelean sin of overweening pride—is now embodied in their new god incarnate, Donald Trump.
Like Lucifer, he led them to the mountaintop and offered them the world if they would but bow down to him. And they obediently dropped like ninepins.
Ecclesiastical dervishes like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress seem to be working out the theology to replace Jesus in the holy trinity with Donald Trump. And the faithful lap it all up like bulimics at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
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How in the world did we get here? Journalist Kurt Andersen, writing in his abundantly detailed Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, believes craziness was baked into the American cake from the moment the Mayflower hove to at Plymouth Rock. Whether the holy man was Cotton Mather, P.T. Barnum, or Deepak Chopra, Americans have been primed to believe with the faith of a five-year-old in Santa Claus. That said, he posits that there were cycles of remission, when rationality was apparently on top, and then outbreaks of fever, when the passion burned with naked flame. The latter applies to an age like this.
My own pet theory is that American craziness, while always abundant, was relatively contained until 9/11, which opened a Pandora’s Box of hysterical fear, one of the basic ingredients of irrationality. It was quickly followed by the invasion of Iraq, which unloosed an avalanche of vaunting that we were endowed with special powers to remake the world. Note an essential component of stupidity: we retaliated for 9/11 by invading a country which had nothing to do with it.
On the heels of the mournful realization that remaking the Middle East wasn’t all it was cracked up to be came the financial crash of 2008, a folly of such greed and wishful thinking that it pushed a sizable portion of the public, already emotionally labile from the previous two shocks, right over the edge. Everything that followed, like the birther mania, was a signal flare that the Republican Party and its assorted hangers-on had devolved from merely being a pack of cynical crooks to full-dress nihilistic cultists.
All of this was supercharged by the Internet, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News – media nonexistent during previous bouts of mania. They acted as an electronic petri dish to purify and amplify the craziness.
We are now seeing the infection of lunacy on full display, like the alien monster in John Carpenter’s The Thing bursting out of its human hosts. Where exactly it will all end is anyone’s guess, but the odds are not good that it will end well.