November 11, 2022
This issue's contents Current issue My Back Pages Search The Ethical Spectacle


by Jonathan Wallace

On 9/11/2001, I emerged from the subway under the World Trade Center a minute after the second plane had hit. I have attended demonstrations where NYPD brutally beat protesters bloody a few feet away from me, for offenses such as wearing bandannas while crossing the street on a green light. I have been struck by cops twice myself, though not as hard. Twice hostile strangers have pointed weapons at me (once a semi-automatic weapon, once a rifle) and decided not to shoot me. I don't speak of "PTSD", but I certainly am hypervigilant at all times, scoping out public spaces for exits and then for hiding places. I didn't buy my house principally for that reason, but I am increasingly content to live in a rural area, on a dune, where I can easily watch the approaches, and a stranger stands out like a sore thumb.

But I naively never expected until a few years ago to live under totalitarianism (despite those intermittent minutes with NYPD). During the Trump campaign, when the "scales fell away" and I saw there was really nothing that would prevent him from being elected President, I began to imagine a world that was not only absolutist, but absolutely crazy, which seemed like a kind of cruel joke. The introduction of the adjective "post-truth" that year seemed like the crossing of a huge divide. Most historical dictatorships, even the Nazis, had some strong realistic and pragmatic elements, whereas our prospective one seemed to be a collective of the batshit, of people who eagerly and avidly believed, not just lies, but bizarre nonsense, like the Q Anon stuff about pedophile pizzerias, and John Kennedy Jr. being alive.

Both here in the Spectacle and in the 13,400 page (no shit) free speech disquisition I call the Mad Manuscript, I began to focus on the Wicked Problem of how people can be conned into voting against their own lives, jobs, health, and mortgages. I very quickly rejected the proposition that humans can ever be simple mindless robots, though I am still struggling with the question of whether true brainwashing is ever possible under any conditions. In general, when someone points you to a brainwashing story, a close examination reveals some traces of human Agency, for example, the African American soldier who chose to stay in China after being released from a POW camp, surmising he would face less racism than at home (which was true). The world is also full of collaborators and opportunists who feign believing things (of whom Lindsey Graham is exemplary). And people seek out and accept racist, violent authoritarian narratives that tell them they are deserving and special, and have been robbed by the black guy or undocumented immigrant-- or the Jewish person-- next door.

After Pope Urban II began propagandizing for the First Crusade in 1096, a crowd of 100,000 peasants, including women and children, began to walk to Constantinople, murdering Jews and pillaging towns along the way. The Donald Trump of the situation was one Peter the Hermit, their leader, who lost control later. Their still numerous remnant made it all the way to Turkey, where they were massacred in their first real battle. In investigating this for the Mad Manuscript, it was soon evident that no one was truly brainwashed. Norman Cohn wrote of them, "[T]hese were the people who were most frequently hit by disasters and least able to cope with them. And these were the people who, when faced with overwhelming problems and tormented by intolerable anxieties, were prone to seek messianic leaders and imagine themselves as warrior-Saints". There is your MAGA base.

That said, I believed that the rush to insanity was happening with disturbing conformity and speed. The best analogy has seemed to me Germany in 1932, when Germans sprinted to vote their own democracy out of existence, and worked together to place a man in control who would decimate their society and send millions of them to their deaths in just twelve years.

I thought this election would be the watershed or turning point, in which the crazies, with similar celerity and certainty, would pick up fifty or sixty seats in the House and enough in the Senate to control both houses, launching Trump or De Santis to victory and control of all three branches in 2024. I regarded the years after that as democracy's, and my own, end game, like Germany after 1934, where my survival strategy (not wishing to be a refugee, partly from pride, mostly from having nowhere to go) would be to sit in my dune house watching all the approaches.

That didn't happen. I have a few fragmentary thoughts about why.

Speaking of Agency, I mainly credit the voters, not the Democratic Party. People voted with clarity, concern, and self protection. While the MAGA base wants to join the bullies, be protected by the bullies and bully people themselves, the rest of us didn't want to be ruled by schoolyard bullies. This bullying thing may actually be playing out. The bully-in-chief, the Trumpoid Object, does not appear to be thriving, and neither is the Kingdom of Bullying,Twitter. The number of wanna-be bullies in America may be finite. I would like to be able to read the mind of ambitious, dishonorable politicians (like Lindsay Graham) privately thinking that maybe this thing of jumping in to help punch the victim is not working out.

The Democrats, though they at least have been on message towards the end and spent (Billionaire) money freely (its own problem in a democracy), have represented a huge Wasted Opportunity. They simply have been too old, too tired, too distracted, and too complacent (they are all rich already, and have little at personal stake, except of course the danger of being jailed or killed in a dictatorship) to muster the energy, the indignation, the travel and the rhetoric needed to defend us. I never liked Joe Biden, even when he was young; he is neither very smart or very honest--- but old Joe Biden should never have been our President, and is weaker than Jimmy Carter. Neither he nor Nancy Pelosi (who is much smarter) have trained and enabled any obvious successors (Biden has heartbreakingly kept Kamala Harris invisible). The Democrats simply have no "bench" of charismatic forty or fifty year olds, and they don't even enable any Michael Moore types officially to be out there jawboning the adversary. There should have been a team traveling the country, showing up in red enclaves the day after an elected politician or Trump acolyte said something vile, applying withering sarcasm. The Democrats instead have almost completely, except at the last moment, failed to push back.

It is an old failure. I can trace it back to 1948, when the Democrats were blindsided by the Republican onslaught against mainly imaginary Communists (they had nothing else to run on), and to 1968, when Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for re-election put the party on a downslope that has never ended. I cast my first vote in 1972, fifty years ago (for George McGovern) and have continually observed the appalling spectacle of the Democrats leaning in to their own humiliation, as in the Reagan years, frequently sounding like a self-insult comedian, who expects at all times to be stepped on, and is oddly satisfied when it happens. The crowning jewel was REDMAP, the program under which the Republicans picked up 1000 state legislature seats in the 2000's while Democrats daydreamed, ensuring that the right would control gerrymandering. When a Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate comments that, if he is elected, Democrats will never win an election in the state again, he is not exaggerating.

Since I believe Our World is Ending for so many other reasons, such as climate change, I have been a pessimist for a long time, but decided years ago to live as if I were an optimist, which I did not know until later was a variation on Pascal's Wager, to live as if God existed. A gamble is something you might win; when it seemed clear there was no path to victory, then the way became ever starker, and I was left with Krishna's advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, to "perform action without attachment to the fruits". The MAGA non-landslide this week restores me to actual hope in lieu of betting on optimism.