Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Triumph of Make Believe

“Lying” is such an ugly word. We are told not to say “The Republicans won by lying.” Even if it’s true (and fact checkers say it is) it’s so unpleasant.

Let’s say it another way. Republicans are very good at Magical Thinking. (Prime example: Trickle Down Economics) They won by Pretending. They have ushered in a new era of Make Believe.

The first bit of Let’s Pretend that turned this election cycle was when Chief Justice John Roberts announced that racism and prejudice was over and done with in the South where it had been so bad that (at least in some history books) white people owned black people as slaves. After slavery went away white Southerners spent another hundred years keeping their black brothers and sisters down by not letting them vote or sit at soda fountains or work at various jobs or walk on a sidewalk a white woman might want to use. An ugly time… if you believe those darn history books. But that was over and done, said John Roberts. So it was with joy and pride that he announced the Voting Rights Act no longer needed to be upheld in the South. No more protection of black and minority voters was necessary. Hurrah! He said it with such a convincing smile a lot of people applauded.

The response was immediate. Republicans quickly and gleefully reinstated exactly the kind of voter suppression laws that the Voting Rights Act’s supervision had prevented. Some even boasted about the achievement. Job done. The Chief Justice is very good at Make Believe and didn’t even notice the mockery of what he had said. Maybe someone close to him saw him wink.

PBS/Frontline reported the rapid surge in voter suppression that followed this Supreme Court ruling. As did ProPublica and McClatchy news service. The fair and reliable framework for our democracy was sent back into the kind of corruptions that existed during Jim Crow.

This voter suppression is not confined to the South, though it’s history is more outrageous there. Northern states Republicans have been emboldened by the Supreme Court to propose cynical, racist and antidemocratic laws in many states. They’re on the books in some key swing states. One of their tricks is to demand all voters purchase a special photo ID and then to make it hard to obtain them, placing the ID centers far from historically black or Democratic areas. A conservative judge skilled at Make Believe can pretend that none of this has anything to do with bigotry or Republican bias and the laws remain. In Wisconsin it’s estimated that 300,000 voters were barred from voting by not being able to produce the magic ID or having their ID challenged. Trump won Wisconsin by 27,000 votes adding to his Electoral College total.

This was reported by a Wisconsin NBC affiliate.

Did this make the difference? Several reliable sources say No, it was not the deciding factor. (VOX, who I cite very often is one of these.) That the suppressed voter was less likely to vote anyway. I point out that the surge among the rural Republican voters was also unlikely. Who would have expected devout rural people and respectable suburbanites to vote for a man who boasts of groping women, who mocks the handicapped, who encourages mob violence, a man who faces charges this month of defrauding thousands of ordinary people like themselves? It required magical thinking.

I suspect that a clear public rejection of one candidate’s lies and bigotry would help suppress his turnout even among people who believed the lies and the bigotry. That did not happen this year. For most of the year mass media broadcast hours and hours of Donald Trump’s outright lies… excuse me, Make Believe… and his downright bigotry without comment or criticism. While they were giving free air time to this ugly demagogue they were aggressively reporting the endless investigation of unsubstantiated charges against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Those two factors gave Trump a major updraft and Hillary a major downdraft. It was not enough to explain what happened but it contributed to it, it gave it a boost.

We look to our news media for truth. When they promote Make Believe and give lengthy air time to bogus accusations they make us doubt what is real. They make us more receptive to Magical Thinking and Make Believe. (And Lies.)

Donald Trump’s entire career has been flim-flam. When he had catastrophic setbacks in real estate he turned to what’s called Reality TV. Reality TV is not reality at all. It is Make Believe. But it’s label is persuasive. The networks broadcasting it knows it is a total fabrication, a lie, but it is good for ratings and good for profits. If you promote falsehood as truth, truth is degraded and falsehood becomes part of conventional thinking. Here I could go into the teachings of Joseph Goebbels on this topic, the uses and execution of the Big Lie, but conventional thinking has barred that from any modern day discussion. Supposedly because Trump voters are not wearing brown shirts while attacking Jews and immigrants and people of color they are not the same as Hitler’s mob. Hitler is He Who Must Not Be Named. We mustn’t speak of these things. They are history and nobody cares about history anymore. Pretend those things didn’t happen. It makes it easier to pretend they won’t happen again.

But let’s get back to Make Believe.

Let’s pretend for a minute that Donald Trump is a Man of the People. That has been the media narrative, and you know how authentic that is. His followers have spent the past year believing this myth. The Man of the People is a man who lives in marble halls with gilt furniture and large oil paintings of himself in gilt frames. (Hillary’s credibility has been endlessly attacked because she sides with working class interests from an expensive home in Westchester. Trump doesn’t pretend to embrace the laboring classes at all. (He’s famously phobic about touching regular people unless they are sufficiently young, female and “hot”.) He does not embrace their interests. He only embraces their resentments and hatreds. He is an America First hero who builds his exclusive towers with imported steel and imports his flash neckties and Trump label suits from Mexico. He refuses to pay the builders and tradesmen he hires to do work on his properties. He is bogus from his ludicrous hair to the manicured fingernails on his tiny hands. He has contempt for the working classes and their mundane unglamorous lives. But he does voice their anger. He has replanted the idea that outright bigotry is OK and All American, a sad notion that many in the working classes are receptive to. The bogus reality star has legitimized our ugliest tendencies and television has turned him into a hero. We spent a century and a half since Lincoln slowly repudiating this lie of white superiority and in one election year Trump has relegitimized it, with the eager collaboration of popular media. It’s ironic that such an inferior specimen is now the show pony of white supremacy. He isn’t even white, he’s orange.

So Donald Trump is a make believe business success, a make believe Man of the People. The picture we have of him is a television fairy tale. He is a creature of the media he pretends to despise. But we are here. The package has arrived. We have opened it. No returns allowed. Does it belong to us, or do we belong to it?

I won’t spend a lot of time sorting out the empty promises he’s made. He’s already walked back some of them. The wall he promised to build was another piece of make believe. The swamp of lobbyist influence he promised to drain he is now stocking with more lobbyists, ones who owed their new status to him. He only pretended to want to end the influence of the big bankers. They are now in his posse.

The most dangerous promise he made remains. He said he’d end all efforts to combat Climate Change, because he says Climate Change is a Chinese hoax, and his transition and cabinet have a strong odor of oil and coal, not mine workers or oil field workers but lobbyists and PR geniuses. The authors of Big Oil’s successful campaign to discredit the science are all for Trump because they know his millions of devotees will believe whatever they say. We have come to a dangerous point in our history when the most powerful person in our nation is a con man, facing significant indictment this month for a massive fraud related to his bogus Trump University scheme, and the scientists, the people we trust to find out the essential truths about our world, are accused of fraud. And the news media collaborated with this inversion by giving his falsehoods equal credence and equal time. The fact checking sites found her statements mostly honest (are any of us completely honest?) and Trump’s mostly false, and mostly very very false. He thinks science is bunk. Millions of his followers who presumably passed their science classes in schools have now endorsed this dangerous idea. They cannot pretend they haven’t. So millions of others who didn’t really know or don’t fully understand are now convinced that science is something we vote on. That it isn’t true if we decide to not believe it.

Science doesn’t care whether we believe in it. It will happen whether we believe it or not.

We may think we are hostages to Trump now. But Trump has made us hostages to the horrible scientific consequences that are now going to unfold. We could have wished Trump away by voting more emphatically against him, by not trusting the cozy belief that Americans would reject something like this without every single person voting against it. But we cannot keep climate change from unfolding unless we enact and keep in place key policies which Trump has promised to oppose and reverse. This is an insane kind of make believe. Like a person who steps out of a 15 story window believing he can fly, or that angels will rescue him.

As delusions go this is not as much of an outlier as you might think. There are millions of devout right wing Christians who honestly believe that if we screw up this planet badly enough that Jesus will come. They long for this to happen.

This was reported recently in The Atlantic.

We pass these people on the street and they seem like other people we know, until they begin to discuss their beliefs. Stepping politely away from them is the safest social response but it is not going to keep us safe from the final ascension of their kind to power. Donald Trump is not a churchgoing religious zealot but his Vice President is. Mike Pence is an intense believer in Christian fairy tales and magical thinking. He not only believes the proven climate science is a hoax, he believes that the whole science of evolution from Darwin to the present day is a hoax and a lie. (In terms of ethics and morals, the New Testament is a very useful and humane document, but the superChristians evade the humane elements and prefer the more dubiously interpreted bits, the ones that provoked holy wars and inquisitions down through the Christian era. The Biblical fragments that seem to endorse slavery and oppression of women seem particularly popular among superChristians.) Mike Pence firmly believes the earth is exactly as old as the Bible says it is and that everything that is in the Bible happened exactly as written. He does not like to go into the hundreds of huge contradictions in the Bible any more than he likes to address Trump’s own almost daily contradictions because he is a Man of Faith. To him science is myth and the Bible is fact. If scientific evidence is worth anything at all today he is evidence that we have returned to the Middle Ages, before the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, before Galileo and Newton and Darwin and Einstein and Crick. The Nazis burned thousands of books in their era. In our era we don’t need to burn them because the vast majority of people aren’t aware that books exist, except the one they clutch on Sunday. They have made us a near twin of the Sharia Law extremist Islam they profess to despise. Anti-modern, anti-toleration, out of the reach of questions and proofs.

Kids used to play a particular game of Make Believe. “Let’s pretend Diane doesn’t exist,” they’d say, and Diane would find people she knew walking past her in the school hallway and not hearing the things she said. It was a fun game and very popular. Kids were very good at it in junior high and then outgrew it. Gay teenagers experienced this in an earlier time, as did teenagers of color. Each new wave of immigrants experienced this, Italians, Swedes, Irish, eastern Europeans included. They were treated like they didn’t exist. Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it disappear.

Recently, there was a woman in Montana interviewed by a reporter on NPR. She was opposed to the settling of Syrian and other refugees in Montana. The reporter asked her if this was racist. She replied that there couldn’t possibly be any racism in Montana because there weren’t any black people there. A GOP chairwoman in Ohio said to a reporter that there was no racism in this country until Obama became president. For millions of Americans this is absolutely true, because they believe it is true. If they never saw any other races they didn’t despise them. It was those other races coming within their range of vision that caused the racism, impinging on their lives, breathing white people’s air, walking on white people’s sidewalks and demanding to eat at their lunch counters. This uppityness is what caused racism. It wasn’t their fault. Racism was not their problem, it was the problem of the other races. The problem with this is that those other races are a majority of people on this earth and white people are a diminishing minority. This magical thinking about race is a dangerous self-deception but it is now the norm because the Trump presidency has validated it. It is very difficult to change people’s beliefs.

Mike Pence believes no one is born gay, despite the clear science on this. Mike Pence says science is bunk and his beliefs are true and he is the Vice President elect, and his frank, polite Indiana way of looking at you convinces you that he has no interest in hearing otherwise. He is firm in his bigotry. If Trump has as short an attention span as he has demonstrated up to now Mike Pence will be the acting president the way Dick Cheney was for eight years. And we know how well that went. At least Dick Cheney was able to understand the difference between science and fairy tales but he exploited this vulnerability in others. We are now led by a fake with no center and a true believer in magical thinking.

Was it our own magical thinking that allowed it to happen? At crucial moments in history the worst possible reaction is to doubt the science and the truth. The failure of the polling experts to predict the late Trump surge has undermined our trust in all experts. How did they fail to see this? They failed to see this outcome because they underestimated the likelihood that America might fall for nonsense this evident and this dangerous. They trusted us. In fact more Americans voted for science and honesty and trustworthiness than voted for fraud and deception and fairy tales. The fact that a lot of Americans were uncertain might be explained by the news media’s dangerous habit of always presenting both sides as equally true. As if it’s biased to say truth is more honest than falsehood or safety is no better than clear danger and enormous corruption is no worse than petty indiscretion. The American public was poorly served. We were delivered to this place. Magical thinkers believe we can shape things to suit our private fantasies, but the universe doesn't care about our private fantasies. We may soon reach a point where mankind cannot walk back the harm we have done. The scientists do not deal in fairy tales, and they have warned us. Covering our ears and chanting USA! USA! or Trump! Trump! Trump! will not keep the oceans from flooding our ports and shorelines. Prayer will not keep the crop growing regions we depend on for food from drying up or washing away or civilization from collapsing around us. If you believe in the teachings of the Bible, heed the part where we are instructed to be good stewards of this creation, to choose truth over lies, to oppose bullies and aid the poor in their struggles rather than falling in with the rich. Over thousands of years our wisest teachers have taught us what to do, how to make wise humane choices, and we seem poised to do the opposite.

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