Monday, November 2, 2020

The Politics of Superstition


trump on stageI know a thing or two about Donald Trump. I grew up with him. 

We were both born in the same borough and more precisely, in the same hospital. Over the 24 years between our births, the populations served by that hospital had changed. For me, that change became part of my identity and for him, a repudiation that could only be salvaged by slapping his name on it. 

Throughout my childhood, our local media afforded Trump attention that out-sized his accomplishment. In those rough years, the seventies into the Reagan eighties, the media wanted something or someone to look at that wasn't the blighted hangover of the previous decade. Instead, we were served Trump's self-manufactured over-confidence, a salesman, as the nation turned away from its problems to fix on the shiny object Reagan had promised, but would never deliver. 

In this past, Trump's vainglory, gold-plated hucksterism and bald-faced opportunism was self-serving. Apart from the misguided attention provided by a talk TV media industry always in search of content, his effect on most of us, then, was negligible.

Yet, here we are, today, in a confused haze, a political fog of war.  On the precipice of this election, whose over-stimulation of the senses is experienced by the political spectrum, I cannot escape my supposition that our political body has a tickle of calamity in its throat. A deep, possibly unconscious, metastasization of threat and decline that may have begun with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or was it the election of 2000? Hard to say -it was all too easy to dismiss the subtle symptoms back then.

Social, cultural, or political conservatism has roots in the fear underpinning the premise of stability. If I were to discard Trump's means, leaving only ends, I would say this opportunist has successfully re-established the minority's conservative vision of defunded government (so-called tax cuts), reduced environmental regulation, religious fundamentalism, "law and order," racially-stratified liberty, extraordinary defense spending, and more. These ends are not new, but Trump's simple arithmetic of means and ends cannot possibly calculate all the potential consequences his means can bloom.

What began as a circus of comedic take-downs of various GOP suitors has become a theater of tragedy. What makes a tragedy is simple: it wasn't inevitable; it didn't have to be. Maybe the western wildfires are an apt metaphor. This tinderbox, full as it is with combustibles, shouldn't be governed by those apt to play with fire. Yet this president revels in flicking lit matches. His support is easily ingratiated; their laughter and applause entertain him; he becomes bored without it. His boredom excites his drive to upset those who've long had disdain for him. It is easy to get the political class yammering and even easier to attract the cameras. Trump thrives with this attention, more so than most when it's negative. Now, on the stage that political norms ushered him to, he uses it to destroy the vehicle on which he arrived. There may be no way back.

Is Trump irresponsible? His support doesn't think so, not as long as he is satisfying their belief systems. Yet, beliefs do little to solve the problems our nation or species have before us. Under threat of calamity and fear, beliefs have a history of promulgating persecution, mayhem, imprisonment and murder. First, identities are grouped into others, then they are targeted. The ravings of Q Anon have grouped Democrats, for instance, as pedophilic satan worshipers stealing children from pizza joints. The "China plague," it has been suggested, is a communist plot to destroy the United States with a manufactured virus. In China, conspiracies promoted on the web suggest Covid-19 is a U.S. plot to destroy China. Undoubtedly, we will see countless conspiracies around manipulation of our election, many not resolving for years -if ever.

Conspiracies are born out of a union of fear, ignorance, and an invisibility of mechanisms. Conspiracy-thinking is a form of political superstition -a mental salve and impetus for action. Can any good come from overwhelming ignorance (of which we are all capable), fear, or acting on that which is indemonstrable? We should all say not, were we to fully believe that we act from a place of unknowing. 

Superstare [suˈper.starə], the Latin root of the word superstition, means 'to stand over,' sometimes implies 'to survive.' To stand over, of course, is to overcome, even to conquer. The Latin root indicates, to me, standing over reason, standing over what is knowable -the material earth, from which facts and reason can begin to be derived. Facts, reason, rational argument -these are underfoot, stood over, and overcome under the spell of superstition. This is the characterization I would apply to the base support of Donald Trump. Even if I were to stretch superstare to the meaning survive, it could be easily shaped to describe an identity politics of survival based in personal belief. This is the politics of superstition.

Where do we go from here? Some scholars believe the recurring European plagues of the 14th through 16th centuries led Western civilizations to the period known as the Enlightenment, from which many of our social and political ideals were founded. But, I understand if you think three centuries of change doesn't offer much hope today. If you have the time this winter, watch The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague. And, if not so much for its contemporary analogue, the historical description of a small pox outbreak in Montreal, documented in Outbreak: Anatomy of a Plague, assures us that the psychological and political responses to wide spread infectious disease are entirely unchanged. See -order can be provided by knowledge.

As for Donald Trump and his rhetoric of disinformation, racial othering, blame, conspiracy, hubris and guile? I'd rather ignore him, because it deflates him, and consider this election, more than anything, a referendum on our nation's citizenry.

Vote, stay safe, reason, touch the earth.



  1. didn't read this until well after the election, but agree with every word. Hopefully we will find some way to face our division and look for places we can agree and start to come together again as a nation. It will be very difficult.


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