A thousand attempts have been made to try to explain our political moment, from the left (or even from the center). Many of these end up in frustration – “well, they’re just crazy on the far right”, “Trump has a mental disorder”, “They’re just racist/white supremacist”, “There is a transactional relationship – people are getting what they want, and so they overlook the rest.”
I’ve never been very happy with these conclusions. Not that they don’t have an element of truth, but they don’t really explain anything. Pathologizing a person or a group is an admission that there’s no real rational account, that those people over there have a mental disorder and so nothing else is needed.
So, I’m going to take another crack at it. I don’t claim that any of this is original to me – if you dig hard enough, you can find others saying some of this.
I think one problem on the left is that we have a hard time getting out of our frame of reference. That’s probably true of anyone, but the problem is, on the right, no one has to get out of their frame of reference. All that’s required is to frustrate anything other than their own. On the left, on the other hand, there’s a need to explain. That’s part of the commitment to science, research, all the rest. And that’s a good impulse, but it also leaves blind spots.
The blind spot in this case has to do with the assumptions of the right, and the goal. So, let’s start in a common place – with the president. He’s so obviously terrible, right? How many lies has he told – over 20,000 at this point? He cheats, he steals, he behaves like a big baby, and his base stands by him. How is that even possible?
Well, it’s possible because he comes out of a version of American positivity, linked with a particular strain of individualism, that renders all those problems irrelevant. For him, and for those who are all in on his program, the key is imagination. This goes back to Norman Vincent Peale, and comes through Neville Goddard, and Julius Evola, and Ayn Rand, and we could probably include a few more in the list. Guillaume Faye.
In all these cases, there is a belief that imagination creates reality. Trump doesn’t lie, he tells the truth according to the reality he wants to exist. And his followers understand that. He doesn’t cheat, he creates a reality. It is his reality, and the reason he has support is that it’s an attractive reality to a lot of other people as well. Why is it attractive? Because they were prepared to accept it through the influence of evangelicalism, and especially the health and wealth gospel strand of evangelicalism. If you believe hard enough, God brings your reality into being.
Now, there’s more than this. Why not bring a reality into being that is equitable, fair, etc? Because there’s a version of individualism at work. Not the self-reliance kind of individualism that might recognize that we are members of communities, but the “I am the measure of all things” kind. The “I am John Galt” kind. It’s not just willpower, it’s more than that. Some of the figures mentioned earlier believed in a kind of mythical or magical reality, the kind that our current age of science has no access to.
This kind of individualism is also channeled through evangelicalism. Many evangelicals do not subscribe to the health and wealth gospel, that is, the idea that if you only believe enough and commit enough, God will bless you materially and physically. However, the logic is there even if the practices are not. It is highly individualistic – it is all about what you believe as an individual. Prayer is often (not always) magical, accessing an unseen causal force in the world.
And there’s one other part I haven’t mentioned, which is key to all of this: hope. For evangelicals, the hope is in things unseen. For others, the logic holds – believe and it will be real, it will be given unto you.
That’s what Trump taps into – hope. He had a ripe field for that, especially after Obama used the term “hope” in his campaign, but from the point of view of Trump followers, did not and could not deliver. How could he? He was basically a technocrat, trying to tweak the systems of power in society to produce better outcomes. Hilary Clinton: same thing, but with baggage as well.
Trump, on the other hand, gives a specific kind of hope. He doesn’t lie, as far as his followers are concerned, he talks about the world that should be, rather than the world that is. He doesn’t look back at all the problems and blame people for how they got to be that way, like they think the left does. He offers them hope. What kind of hope? The hope that they could be like him, creating a reality to his own liking. Trump followers are temporarily stymied billionaires, every one of them. All these people accusing them of racism, of white supremacy, of misogyny, all the rest of it – they don’t get that none of that matters in the world they want to create.
So what does that world look like? It is a world in which things magically appear. For Trump they do – if he wants a helicopter to take him somewhere, it’s there. If he wants to golf, it’s there. If he wants a burger, it’s there. Doesn’t matter who had to do what in order to get it there, it’s there. That’s the order he wants, and his people want. That’s why they want the economy restarted during a pandemic – the invisible and seamless supply chain has been broken, and their freedom has been compromised. That’s why racism doesn’t matter – they don’t want black people gone, they want them subservient, invisible labor making things work.
The thing is, we all believe in magic, at least a little bit. When we plug something in to a power outlet, we don’t give a second thought to exactly where that power came from. We don’t think about where our fuel comes from, or even where our groceries come from (even though they go out of their way to label them with their place of origin). As long as they are there on command, we’re good. And so extrapolate that to much larger things, and you have the world that Trump and others are imagining they are entitled to. It’s like the movie Metropolis – a society in the clouds, neither knowing or caring where things come from, and an underclass making it all work. All those superhero movies? They are about protection against threat, yes, but they are also about the magical providing of what’s needed, even if we have to posit automation or elves or some other source. (This is obviously not a new analysis – Marx did it much better than I’m doing it here).
Why all the conspiracies, then? Because there needs to be some explanation for why imagination isn’t becoming real for either the president or his followers. And the deep state works really well for that – a secret cabal whose goal is to undermine the new reality from coming into existence. They’re Jewish feminist pedophiles? Sure, why not? Let’s pile in everything we don’t like, to make the line brighter between our imagination and what’s keeping us from it.
But hope is still the key here. Hope is what evangelicalism gives, it’s what Trump gives. It’s not based in reality, but who cares? Imagining makes reality.
So how do you fight that? There’s no argument that will work. You’re not even on the same playing field. You construct your careful premises, rebut objections, question assumptions – all they have to do is destabilize, confuse, undermine, obfuscate, because the path to realizing the imagined hope goes through the fall of what we currently think of as reality. Science is great, they think, when it agrees with them, and the rest can be ignored. The Constitution is great when it agrees with them, and the rest is irrelevant. There’s no sense of compromising, no idea that each of us has only a partial picture – what is imagined is right, and what gets in its way is wrong.
That seems to be impossible to address. And yet, it’s worth noting that some evangelicals rethink this scenario, to a greater or lesser extent. And not just young people coming to maturity, meeting new people, and being influenced by them. Sometimes it is older people. Sometimes it is even prominent people, preachers, musicians, theologians. It’s not impossible for someone to realize that this model of imagination is unsustainable, and brutal, and ultimately anti-Christian. It’s a golden calf.
But there are others, hard-core believers in the Trump doctrine, who will never change. So my question is, how do we get beyond the polarization, and how can those people who can be appealed to be reached?
Back to hope. What would it look like for the left to talk about hope? Not just the hope of a utopia, once everyone is equal and all the brutalities of the past are fixed and we accept everyone in a great rainbow nation? That’s hope, sure – and it’s a long way off, if it’s even attainable. Trumps appeal is that the imagination can be brought into reality now. All that’s standing in the way is those with no imagination, but who instead want to tinker with things to bring about incremental change. Play twelve-dimensional chess. Social engineer things. None of that helps now, but imagining the world you want, that does help. The power of positive thinking.
People are sometimes reached when the thing they deny exists actually affects them. Every so often, some right-wing person discovers that the pandemic is real because someone they care about is affected, and they announce this in surprised tones to their people. Sometimes reality becomes undeniable. Police brutality – that can be denied. Global warming – can be denied. Systemic racism – definitely can be denied. Most of the pandemic – statistics on a page, can be denied. Until there’s an effect that imagination can’t negate or change.
I had hoped that the pandemic would change a lot of peoples’ minds, and maybe it did. It’s a real thing in the real world that doesn’t care about wealth or status or media cycles. Who knows, maybe it did change peoples’ minds. We don’t know yet. But I keep wondering, what kind of hope is there to offer against this, to someone who is willing to believe in imagination and what it can bring over reality?