Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Pseudo Events: Trump and the White Rabbit

"White Rabbit" 
by Nicolas Munoz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0\

Trump has an uncanny ability to orchestrate pseudo events.

Any doubts I might have had were erased after  talking to an acquaintance, a smart, honest, and successful trades-person. I  had always found him confident and upbeat, but today he felt besieged: he explained he’d been on edge since the election but now was on high alert after receiving a text warning that a BLM (Black Lives Matter) gang was headed to NH, including his town, to loot and plunder. He said he was ready: “my whole family is “locked and loaded.” 

Unfortunately, fantasy has been winning the battle against reality, long before Trump.  I first became aware of this dangerous trend after reading The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, published in 1962, by the political historian Daniel Boorstin.  Praising the book 54 years later, Atlantic Magazine said it had predicted the future “so neatly that it reads, in 2016, not just as prescience, but as prophesy.⁠1

Boorstin defined a pseudo-event as an ambiguous truth that appeals to people's desire to be informed. He argued that being in the media spotlight was a strong incentive for public figures to stage artificial events, which became real and important once they had been validated by media coverage. Boorstin further warned that if the voting public continued to be inundated with pseudo-events, these media stars would soon dominate the political landscape⁠2

Think Trump and his mass rallies.

P.T. Barnum proved not only that people could be fooled, but that they wanted to be, according to Boorstin. We have made illusions so vivid they have become our lives: Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”⁠3

 Boorstin’s book first came out when I was a junior in high school, but I didn’t discover it until attending college, after a long tour in Vietnam. As a suspicious Vietnam vet, this book flung me down a twisting rabbit-hole without end, stranger than any drug trip. Wrapping my head around our crazy descent into pseudo-reality was like listening to Gracie Slick sing her anthem at Woodstock about the White Rabbit and Alice ten-feet tall. History since then continues to be this wild ride through an increasingly socially constructed fantasy.

Flashing closer to today, Chris Hedges wrote Empire of Illusions in 2009, at a time when the gap between the affluent, well-educated folks and the rest of the country was rapidly widening. As NPR said, after reviewing the book: “One side is based in reality and able to separate illusion from truth; the other side is rooted in fantasy.”⁠4

We are all, by now, familiar with how Trump was able to hone his P.T. Barnum skills during the years he was  the star of The Appendice, a virtuosity he now practices daily, having expanded  his reality show to include the whole nation.

Chris Hedges takes us further back in Trump’s career to when he was a professional westling promoter, revealing how he  first learned how to tap into and validate the rage and hopelessness of alienated white workers. He was really good at it, even getting induced into the celebrity division of the wrestler’s hall of fame.

Professional wrestling, according to Hedges, is a venue expressing the “raw unvarnished expressions of the white working class…appealing to nationalism and a dislike and distrust of all who were racially, ethnically, or religiously different ⁠5  Using his old wrestling promoter skills, Trump is able create super pseudo-events at his rallies: ratcheting up the audience’s raw, angry passion to a fever pitch, and then channelling all that negative energy toward the designated fall guy (or a woman named Hillary). 

Though Trump will soon be gone, there are no easy answers on how to restore reality after our long slide into fantasy. Two things could do it but are probably as likely as seeing a white rabbit ten-feet tall: A stimulus program to lift up all boats, ensuring that every American is able to live a secure and dignified life. And a quality and affordable public education system, available to everyone, from cradle to grave.



2 From wikipedia

3 Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion (p. 15). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.


5 Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion (p. 6). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Death of Democracy?

CC Jean Stimmell

Richard Rorty, a prominent 20th-century  philosopher and public intellectual, wrote an obscure book in 1998, “Achieving Our Country,” looking back on America from a vantage point 100 years in the future. Defying belief, he correctly predicted the election of a strongman in our country in 2014, missing  by only two years the rise of Trump. 

Rorty based his prophecy on a trend that he saw already developing because democrats were abandoning working-class interests. Check out, in his own words, how dead-on his predictions were:

It’s dawning on working folks that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.⁠1

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

Rorty correctly foresaw that this betrayal by the Democrats would have momentous consequences, resulting in an explosive  release of bottled-up rage by “poorly educated Americans having their manners dictated to them by college graduates .”

At the time his book was published, he was roundly criticized from both the left and right, including a NYT critic who called his warnings about our vulnerability to the charms of an autocrat “a form of intellectual bullying.”⁠2

Rorty was renowned for having controversial ideas and for thinking outside the box. Although some issues have changed since his death in 2007, we can still profit from what he wrote about ways to strengthen our democracy.

Perhaps the most crucial fix, he would say, is to rescue the working class from the increasing income inequality they face. He would agree with Bernie Sanders that the working class is now in the worst shape since the Great Depression, and that’s why we need to pass a progressive agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, provides universal healthcare, affordable education, among other things.

A second related issue is globalization. He would have agreed with Bernie (and Trump) that, thanks to globalization, economic instability and inequality are increasing. Rorty bluntly predicted that“This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900.”⁠3

Third, he doesn’t  mince words in criticizing the democratic left, calling it unpatriotic for its behavior in the wake of our Vietnam war debacle:  In the name of ‘the politics of difference’, it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.⁠4   He writes that this repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism, a community of communities, and multiculturalism which “is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.”

Rorty doesn’t deny that identity politics has been beneficial for minorities, but points out how, at the same time, it has been a stick-in-the-eye to working folks, who feel ignored as they slip from the middle class into poverty. Sadly, it took almost 20 years for a democratic leader to respond, as Bernie Sander did, bursting on the scene in 2016 to “channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed.”⁠5  

Part of the problem, Rorty says, is our obsession with rights, a free-for-all where every identity group demands complete freedom to exercise their rights, even if it hurts other groups – or society as a whole. A family would disintegrate if each member insisted on their own agenda, based on the supremacy of individual rights, and refused to compromise with others. As it is for families, so it is for our country. What we need, Rorty says, is a shift from our total emphasis on defending individual rights to more talk about fraternity:

For Rorty, Fraternity is an inclination of the heart, one that produces a sense of shame at having much when others have little. It is not the sort of thing that anybody can have a theory about or that people can be argued into having.⁠6 That’s because, as I see it, the ability to open our hearts goes beyond politics, requiring a spiritual awakening.

Rorty, iconoclast that he was, gives us much to think about in these tumultuous times.


Note: Photo taken at a Climate Change Extinction Protest, 9/20/19, at the State House in Concord, NH


2 ibid

3 Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

4 Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope (p. 252). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

5 ibid

6 Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope (p. 248). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition

Friday, November 6, 2020

Are Trump Voters Delusional?


Outdoor Mural in Portsmouth NH 
CC Jean Stimmell 10/14/18

Are Trump voters delusional?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a delusional disorder, previously called paranoid disorder, is a serious mental illness in which a person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined. The main feature of this disorder is the presence of delusions, which are unshakable beliefs in something untrue.⁠1

Delusional disorders can be the result of genetic or biological factors but can also be caused by environmental or psychological stress. Karl Jaspers, a ground-breaking psychiatrist, showed how stress, resulting from “shattering, mortifying” experiences⁠2 can profoundly affect a person’s sense of reality.

It can’t be denied that the Trump voter has been buffeted by a series of shattering and mortifying experiences. I am well aware that it is patronizing and patently unfair to generalize about any group of folks. But for this tongue-in-check piece, I am going to do exactly that!

 I am going to call  my generic Trump voter, Ken, based on some Trump supporters I am familiar with. His good-paying job is gone, transferred overseas. He now feels humiliated by his loss of status, forced to compete with immigrants for menial, low-paying jobs to support his family.

Because Ken is still held captive to his old-fashioned, straight male world, his mind is blown by the very idea of feminism and GLBTQ. On top of that, he feels picked on by the “liberal elite,” who, he believes, look down at him for driving a big gas-guzzling truck and dismiss him as a knuckle-dragging troglodyte because he likes guns and hunting. 

Rather than being at least tolerated as one more spoke in the big wheel of diversity that liberals celebrate, he feel scorned as an untouchable.

Meanwhile, black and brown minorities, soon to be the majority of the U.S., threaten what he considers to be his principal identity,  that of a white man. Good-paying jobs in oil and coal are disappearing as the world shifts to renewables to combat the calamitous effects of unrestrained climate change. Regrettably, Ken has been duped by Republican and fossil fuel industry propaganda to believe human-caused climate change is fake news propagated by the liberal media – in the same way he believes Covid-19 is a hoax. 

Ken was feeling dizzy and unsure of himself, cheated out of the American dream in the midst of unprecedented social change he didn’t understand. It was too much to handle, but just when things seemed most bleak, the ground shifted under his feet: His mind exploded like fireworks on 4th of July, as a new vision lit up the sky – choreographed by Trump and his allies –with the promise of an alternative reality: A version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where everyone is white, straight, prosperous, and above-average.

His vision, of course, is a delusion.

Just as psychology is discovering that trauma can be collective as well as individual, so it is with delusions. Due to social media, Trump folks can effortlessly find and join forces with like-minded folks on the internet, strengthening their delusion by a process we call conformational bias until they have constructed their own world that appears realer than real.

Like children huddled around the campfire on a moonless night at Halloween, they tell scary stories to each other about the dreaded Democrat bogeymen, relentlessly creeping closer: immigrant rapists,  rights-robbing socialists, black thugs, and blood-soaked abortion doctors. Their fear level ramps up so much, they almost pee their pants.

Strangely, through this process, at least in the short term, the Trump base has been able to set themselves free, blaming everything on the Democrats. They have nothing else to fear: Coronavirus and climate change don’t’ exist, just more democrat fake news. Ken can drive his big, gas-guzzling truck all he wants with no guilt. It’s like breaking your diet: now you can binge because you don’t care anymore.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe Trump’s loss will break through Ken’s delusion; after all, more folks voted for Trump this time around than in the last election, despite his pitiful performance. What will it take: for Ken’s father to die of Covid-19, for his coastal town to disappear into the ocean, for his daughter to marry a black lesbian?

 A popular slogan among Trump voters for this election has been: “Make Liberals Cry Again!” Unfortunately, by the time the day of reckoning arrives that does crumble the Trump delusion,  we will all be crying.