The poison goes much deeper now, his infection, this contagion of unreason and cultish worship. What other words would do justice to the present faith in Trump, this singular performer, this grotesque antithetical to truth and decency and civility and kindness and competence and honesty?
This ‘faith’ is not stupidity. Those who believe separate the rest of their problem-solving, children-loving, job-holding competencies from their faith in Trump. It would be impossible to operate in a daily life in a pragmatic world by holding to the same process of decision making as that which has led them to Trump and now continues to enthrall them. What they have decided to do is consciously abandon reason in one very specific facet of public life.
Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century describes how tyranny moves through the bloodstream of a polis, person by person, through propaganda, fueled by resentment and fear, and through a belief that supporters of the tyrant have become victims. First comes “the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts” (66-67).
Then comes “ ‘endless repetition’, designed to make the fiction plausible and the criminal desirable.” Say something again and again and again, have sycophants repeat it in the universe of propaganda outlets — Breitbart, NewsMax, Fox News, InfoWars — and it becomes an “incantation”, a magic phrase meant to banish opposition, to wave it off as if it were a fly on the skin: “Lock her up!” “Comey is a liar.” “I’ve been vindicated!”
Then comes “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. Trump promised to “[cut] taxes for everyone, [eliminate] the national debt, and [increase] spending on both social policy and national defense. … It is as if a farmer said he were taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it for his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches.”
Finally comes the act of “misplaced faith … which involves the sort of self-deifying claims the President made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” It is the ideal of truth becoming “oracular rather than factual.” Once that occurs, “evidence [becomes] irrelevant.” Snyder quotes a German worker at the end of the War, his country starving and in ruins. He said, even after everything, “Understanding is useless. You have to have faith. I believe in the Fuhrer” (69). Once ‘good germans’ swear their allegiance, it proves very difficult to renounce.
This system of belief finds its way into civil life. Political hatred trickles down through its believers into meetings that become confrontations, rants, violent action, murder. Witness schoolchildren copying Trump’s words to harass their classmates. Witness Jeremy Christian in Portland. Witness Eric Trump’s description of tens of millions of people: “Democrats are not even people.” Witness an incident at Starbucks where a man spouted these lines to black customers before sucker punching someone in the parking lot: “Shut up, slave. Do not talk to me.” “Get on all fours right now. Don’t walk off on two legs.” “Your children are disposable vermin.”
Where have we heard that last line before?
Once this poison circulates it cannot be contained. It begins to seep left — a Donald Trump figure knifed to death on a New York stage. If it were a Barack Obama figure portrayed in Julius Caesar, what would the reaction have been? And then Wednesday’s attack on Republican Reps at a baseball field by someone who hated Trump.
One must be an agnostic about immense power, not a follower. Whether corporate or political, such power should always be questioned and regulated and approached with a wary eye. One must be an agnostic about those who wield it. One might admire some politicians or CEO’s (or pop stars, sports’ figures, etc. etc.), but one should never give him or her the certainty of faith or pledge an absence of doubt. That way lies a desire for someone to serve as a savior, for he or she to become the one who rides to the rescue, for a fuhrer to save us from all those designated as ‘threats’.
We have our capacity for reason. We can think, research, try to see clearly, hold to fundamental rules of goodness in our conduct and in our judgment of others in public life. To give those qualities up for anyone* would be wrong, but to do so for Donald Trump is an act of surrender to the darkest impulses of American life.
*Obama, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, anyone!