I spent nine days on safari recently, and saw a lot of wild stuff. Literally “wild.” But one of the most surprisingly surreal experiences was to see a pride of lions lounging on the side of the dirt road, drive right up to within a few feet of them, windows down, engine rumbling, and watch them … ignore us. Well, not really ignore, because they would look up at the Land Cruiser and, presumably, the prey animals within it, but they looked at us as if we were behind a one-way mirror. Like they were looking at some kind of minor disturbance in their reality field, but not at us. They definitely saw us and yet, somehow, they didn’t.
I was reminded of this seeing/not seeing by a recent essay in the New York Times called “Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish in Trump’s America” (gift article). Thomas B. Edsall’s essay reads like a term paper written by an uncertain sophomore, jumping from one extended quote to another like a frog jumping lily-pad to lily-pad trying to get across a pond without getting wet. Edsall cites well over a dozen researchers and professional ponderers talking about how politicians use conspiracy theories and how these delusions serve various political strategies, but he never actually tackles the question suggested in the essay’s title: Why? Why do these outlandish ideas have so much potency in America these days?
Edsall begins the piece by establishing what he thinks Trump is up to:
Donald Trump deploys conspiracy theory as a political mobilizing tool designed to capture anger at the liberal establishment, to legitimize racial resentment and to unite voters who feel oppressed by what they see as a dominant socially progressive culture.
OK, but so what? Surely, we expect politicians in representative democracies to represent constituencies, so capturing anger, legitimizing resentment, and uniting the oppressed would be pretty central to the job description, no? Nothing inherently evil about this. Yes, this was the modus operandi of Hitler and Mussolini, but don’t we celebrate Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Winston Churchill for having done the same thing — for having embodied and articulated the anger and resentment of the oppressed?
So there’s nothing historically unique about our situation so far.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Tangentially Speaking with Chris Ryan to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.