Often, the best way to come to terms with present circumstances and perils is to look to the words of past observers of the American experiment. America is a young nation and the current test of political wills underscores that it is still in the experimental stage.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule [are] people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ... and the distinction between true and false ... no longer exist.”
Though those words were written over 40 years ago by political theorist Hannah Arendt, they are mind-blowingly relevant to the status quo of “alternative facts” and “truth that isn’t truth.”
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. But I know also that the laws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened ... and manners and opinions change with the change in circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
These words were written by Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago and they, too, are presciently relevant given today’s heated debate over the Second Amendment and the power tug-of-war between Congress and the White House.
Though Jefferson would decline the praise due to his presidential sense of honor and innate humility, these words indeed display a wisdom more than human. The current occupant of the Oval Office can make no claim to such a wisdom – or honor and humility.
“In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated […] how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
So wrote political analyst Richard Hofstadter in 1964 with the likes of Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy in mind. I’ve got the likes of Donald J. Trump and William Barr, along with their congressional cohorts, in mind.
From Trump himself, doing his best imitation of someone on a bad acid trip, we hear that if he loses the election, it is rigged; that Obama tapped his phone at Trump Tower; that the fake news is out to get him; that global warming is a Chinese hoax ... ad nauseam.
Keeping in mind that paranoia is delusion of grandeur as well as persecution, Trump lays claim to a bankroll of $10 billion, the biggest inaugural crowd ever, biggest electoral win since Reagan, highest IQ, again – ad nauseam.
The disease is spreading. Congressional Merry Pranksters Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., John Ratliffe, R-Texas, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., all claim knowledge of an anti-Trump “Deep State” governed by “Secret Societies” within the FBI.
Cabals have always been the cornerstone of conspiracies. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., spoke for this group of paranoiacs on Fox News: “It’s more than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and that secret society. We have an informant that is talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There is so much smoke here, there is so much suspicion.”
To no one’s surprise, Sean Hannity – he who thinks with his mouth – hopped on board the Magic Bus: “[The Deep State] ... is so much bigger than Watergate. It’s about our Constitution, about the rule of law. It has been shredded. All because powerful people at the highest level in the DOJ and the FBI thought they knew better than you as to who should be president. There needs to be serious ramifications if we are going to save our country in all of this. People must be held accountable, they must be investigated, they must be indicted, and probably many of them thrown in jail.” He nailed our current dilemma, except for the actual perpetrators.
We’ve entered a new era in American political life. The most frightening collusion isn’t between Trump and Russia, but between Trump and the likes of Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell who, for the sake of transient political gain, ignore Trump’s power grabs.
Lies from the White House have become the norm. Political fibbery is excused as “that’s just the way he is.”
The way he is is the problem: the ease with which he lies and the frequency and pointlessness of his lies. To complete the equation, we have the willing participation of his supporters.
After all, lies are useless if no one is a believer. That means there are millions of Americans who value a few moments of partisan vainglory over the soul of America. That is the antithesis of their touted patriotism.
The year 2020 may be witness to a failed experiment.
Malcolm E. Hein lives in Newburyport.