Can reality finally defeat the Trumpian reality TV delusion?
Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and liberals; Trumpists and progressives — technically, they live on the same plane of existence, but in very different realities.
They do not consume the same news media. They do not go to the same schools. They do not live in the same communities. They rarely encounter one another in meaningful ways in person. They do not pray or worship together. They live in the same country but not the same nation. They do not share the same values. They do not communicate with one another in meaningful ways. They do not speak the same political language.
What happens when these worlds collide? We have no certain answer.
But we know one thing: Trumpism must be defeated on Election Day if the United States is to have any chance of remaining a democracy and then healing itself from the immediate and long-term harm done by Donald Trump and his movement over the last four-plus years.
For this to happen there can and should be no compromise between Trump and his movement, and Americans of conscience who are committed to the country's multiracial democracy.
Ultimately, the differences between TrumpWorld and reality are irreconcilable.
Donald Trump and his movement are antisocial and sociopathic. They literally are a death cult.
Trumpism is authoritarian, fascistic and committed to conspiracy theories, right-wing Christian fundamentalism and other forms of extremism. Democrats and their allies reject such things.
Trump has shown himself to be a sociopath, if not a psychopath. By comparison, Joe Biden — whether or not you approve of his ideology or his policy proposals — is emotionally healthy, well-balanced and humane. Leaders fulfill a permission function: In that role Donald Trump has encouraged his followers and other supporters to engage in the worst kinds of human behavior.
Joe Biden and the Democrats, whatever their numerous failings, represent healing and the possibility that the human species may survive global climate disaster and ecocide. Because of their rejection of science and their often-hypocritical embrace of right-wing Christian fascism and eschatological thinking, Donald Trump, the Republican Party and their allies represent an existential threat to human survival.
Cruelty and evil are the core values of Trumpism. Trump and his followers and allies have no shame, guilt, contrition or even embarrassment for the racist, white supremacist, anti-life and anti-family policies which have targeted nonwhite people for abuse and marginalization in a new Jim Crow America.
During last week's debate, when Trump was asked about the brown and Black children in his concentration camps — almost 550 of whom cannot be returned to their families because the Trump regime did not keep proper records — he displayed no apparent care or concern. Indeed, Trump went beyond callous indifference, suggestion that the children in his concentration camps and detention centers had somehow been done a favor because they were "clean" and "safe." Of course, that is not true: human rights organizations have documented physical and emotional abuse in those places. There have been many deaths from the COVID virus in those camps. Women and girls in those hellholes have been subjected to forced sterilization, along with other crimes such as rape and sexual assault.
Given Trump's belief in white supremacy — made into policy by his senior adviser, overt white supremacist Stephen Miller — it should be no surprise that he resorted to Nazi-style propaganda in his talk of "clean" and "safe" concentration camps.
Last week's debate also highlighted that Trump and his party have embraced a form of social Darwinist or Malthusian thinking, where the poor and weak and vulnerable are to suffer and be sacrificed for "the economy" and capitalism.
In a moment of unintentional honesty, Trump shared his commitment to such an anti-life ethic when he suggested that people who die from environmental pollution in some sense deserve their fate, because they made more money by living near toxic factories, waste dumps and other centers of poison.
Such claims are of course nonsensical — but internally consistent with a right-wing, libertarian, anti-democratic ideology where there are "makers" and "takers", the "deserving" and "the undeserving," and there should be no social compact or shared sense of care, concern and obligation to other human beings.
Joe Biden has repeatedly shown himself to be more empathetic, humane and decent than Donald Trump — again, irrespective of how one perceives Biden's politics. Because he is a malignant narcissist and displays evidence of other mental pathologies, Trump cannot imagine himself as another person, or mobilize the type of empathy and concern for others that is dependent upon going beyond one's own core sense of self.
When asked during last week's presidential debate about the need for parents, caregivers and mentors of Black (and brown) young people to deliver "the talk" about the possibility of violent or fatal encounters with police, Trump avoided the question altogether, veering into delusional comments about being a 21st-century Abraham Lincoln who has done so much for Black people.
By contrast, Biden was reflective and caring and made substantive promises about how his administration would try to confront institutional racism.
The hearts and minds of those people who live within TrumpWorld and those who live outside it are very different.
Trump supporters and Republicans tend to be more authoritarian and committed to maintaining social hierarchy and social dominance. They possess higher levels of ethnic antagonism, racial resentment and outright racism, as compared to Democrats, liberals and progressives.
Trumpists, Republicans and right-leaning independents also possess more death anxieties (social psychologists describe this is "terror management theory") and related fears of personal and societal change. They are also more likely to manifest what is known as the dark triad of personality traits (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism) as compared to others.
Donald Trump is effectively a cult leader. His movement and today's Republican Party are a form of religious politics. Critical thinking is not allowed, as it is anathema to the movement's victory. By comparison, the Democrats are a coalition in which dissent is allowed, if not encouraged.
Because Trumpism is a cult the relationship between Donald Trump and his followers is fundamentally unhealthy. Writing at the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum explains that "in this election year we are grappling with something entirely new":
The president, the Republican Party, and its campaign machine are collectively seeking to create a completely false picture of the world. This isn't just a matter of wishful thinking or a few white lies. The president's campaign staff needs voters to believe that the pandemic is over, or else that it never mattered; that 200,000 people did not really die; that schools aren't closed; that shops aren't boarded up; that nothing much happened to the economy; that America is ever more respected around the world; that climate change isn't real; that the U.S. has no legitimate protesters, only violent thugs who have been paid by secretive groups. This fantasy has to be repeated every day, in multiple forms, on Fox News, in GOP Facebook ads, on websites like RedState. Inevitably, it will affect people's brains.
Trump's followers have surrendered their sense of self and their individual identities to the cult movement through collective narcissism. Once reality reasserts itself, as is inevitable in cults, Trump loyalists will likely experience great emotional and psychological pain before they are able to return to normal society.
There has been much excellent writing in these last few weeks and months about the collective feelings of permanent "brokenness," civic disfigurement, cataclysm and doom in Trump's pandemic America.
In his much-read essay "The Unraveling of America" at Rolling Stone, Wade Davis reflects on the implications of this moment, with a broken America beset with self-inflicted calamities and exposed before the world.
Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined. One shudders to think of what it will mean to the world if Americans in November, knowing all that they do, elect to keep such a man in political power. But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it's not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.
The Guardian's Richard Seymour sees the United States as a pathocracy, likely to be undone by its violence, racism, right-wing omnicide and Christian "end times" fantasies:
There is a broader context for America's turn toward what writer Huw Lemmey accurately characterizes as a sub-Verhoeven dystopia. Rapture-seeking movements such as QAnon, or those prepping for the "boogaloo", are working the margins of a culturally mainstream phenomenon. Although the US has always been immersed in the fantasy of "regeneration through violence", rarely has so much of the country been so thoroughly in the grip of adrenaline-pumping, apocalyptic excitement and conspiracist paranoia.
In both conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fantasies, life is reduced to a cosmic showdown between good and evil. The traumas and disappointments of life are folded into a millenarian revenge fantasy-cum-death wish, as in the enormously popular series of Left Behind novels about rapture and the struggle with the papal antichrist. Such apocalyptic thinking reverberates through a network of institutions, including white evangelical churches, Fox News and the Republican party itself.
Time magazine's Charlotte Alter took an expedition into America's "battleground" states where the 2020 election will likely be decided. There she witnessed the intoxicating power of "unreason" and its unbreakable hold over too many Americans:
For every two people who offered a rational and informed reason for why they were supporting Biden or Trump, there was another — almost always a Trump supporter — who offered an explanation divorced from reality. You could call this persistent style of untethered reasoning "unlogic." Unlogic is not ignorance or stupidity; it is reason distorted by suspicion and misinformation, an Orwellian state of mind that arranges itself around convenient fictions rather than established facts….
With so many voters ignoring the headlines, it became increasingly hard to tell where most Americans fall on the continuum from reason to unlogic. In the absence of agreed-upon facts, the possibility of consensus itself seemed to be disappearing, and the effect was unsettling.
In a new essay at the Boston Review, Jonathan Metzl reflects on the power of white anxiety, and how it is further fracturing American society in the Age of Trump and the pandemic:
Clearing a new path forward ... depends not only on a new relationship to the psychologies of white anxiety but also to the structures and finances that propagate, sustain, and shamelessly benefit from it. Leave those structures intact, and the United States will continue to burn in what historian Timothy Snyder calls a "slow-motion Reichstag Fire."
Such change takes time. For now we must do our part to remind our fellow voters that this election is, as much as anything, a referendum on the ways that racial but also economic inequities have rendered many Americans uniquely vulnerable to a novel, fatal viral invader.
Salon's Lucian K. Truscott IV channels the pathos born of a season of death and its effect on the American people's sense of time and collective well-being, when so much else is also wrong and broken in their country: "We can't be mournful enough in this plague. All we can do is go on and try to make [its victims'] lives count by remembering them. We will vote and make a better world, because that is our duty, but the world will never be the same after this."
During the second and final presidential debate last week, there was one perfect moment that captured the collective frustration and disgust of the American people and likely the world. "Zeitgeist" is an overused and misapplied word — but in this moment, it applies. As Trump spewed out his lies, delusions and fantasies, Joe Biden looked down, flummoxed, and said quietly, "Oh, God." With those words, he spoke for all sane and decent human beings watching the president of the United States humiliate himself, and us.
Future historians may conclude that was the precise symbolic moment when Biden won the 2020 election.