That New Old-Time Religion

The recent behavior of thousands of members of the GOP sent me to Google to read up on collective delusions. One academic has explained such delusions, and differentiated them from mass hysteria. (Hysteria evidently involves physical symptoms.) Collective delusions are defined as the spontaneous spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a region, culture or country.

I found the term “temporarily” soothing…

What I certainly did not find soothing was an article by Andrew Sullivan, sent to me by a friend. I’ve always found Sullivan thoughtful, although I have philosophical disagreements with him. In this essay, he makes a very persuasive case for the marriage of Evangelical Christianity with Trumpism. I say “persuasive” because his theory offers an explanation for what is otherwise inexplicable: the belief that an election lost decisively in the Electoral College and by over seven million popular votes–an election overseen in many states by Republicans, an election in which down-ballot Republicans did well–was “rigged” against Trump.

In a post-election Marist poll, 60 percent of white evangelicals said they did not believe the 2020 election result was accurate, and 50 percent believed that Trump should not concede.

Sullivan has coined the term “Christianist” to describe the Evangelicals to whom he refers:

In a manner very hard to understand from the outside, American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse. They are not in denial about Trump’s personal iniquities, but they see them as perfectly consistent with God’s use of terribly flawed human beings, throughout the Old Testament and the New, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.

This belief is now held with the same, unwavering fundamentalist certainty as a Biblical text. And white evangelical Christianists are the most critical constituency in Republican politics. If you ask yourself how on earth so many people have become convinced that the 2020 election was rigged, with no solid evidence, and are now prepared to tear the country apart to overturn an election result, you’ve got to take this into account. This faction, fused with Trump, is the heart and soul of the GOP. You have no future in Republican politics if you cross them. That’s why 19 Republican attorneys general, Ted Cruz, and now 106 Congressional Republicans have backed a bonkers lawsuit to try to get the Supreme Court to overturn the result.

Sullivan says that these beliefs don’t simply characterize a few “fringe nutcases.” He offers examples of what he calls “the fusion of Trumpism with religious fundamentalism,” and Evangelicals’ ahistorical insistence that the United States was founded as a Christian, rather than a secular, nation.

As most Americans, religious or not, recognize, the word “faith” means a belief for which there is no empirical evidence.  Believers who reject science are threatened not simply by this or that scientific conclusion, but by the scientific method itself– by its approach to reality and insistence upon falsification. (They shouldn’t be, of course–many things we all believe in cannot be falsified: beauty, love…but they seem unable to grasp that distinction.)

I suppose if one has been raised in a religious culture that puts primacy on faith in the unknown and unknowable, a culture that insists on the superiority of one’s religion and skin color (because make no mistake, this particular version of “Christianity” incorporates white supremacy, along with male dominance), being forced to confront a reality that challenges those beliefs is intolerable.

I’d love to dismiss members of the cult that was once a political party as inconsequential, but I’ve read enough history to know how much war, devastation and human misery fundamentalisms have caused. (The nation’s founders read that history too–which is why they separated church from state..)

I sure hope this eruption of a “collective delusion” proves temporary.



Andrew Sullivan has a different “take” on the reason for Trump’s slavish devotion to Vladimir Putin.

It’s a fascinating read, if ultimately unpersuasive–as others have noted, at the end of the day, the fact that the two men share a distasteful and dangerous worldview is insufficient to explain Trump’s puppy-dog fidelity–but it is wickedly perceptive as far as it goes.

Sullivan’s opening presents his thesis:

It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says.

I realize, of course, that this is technically impossible from moment to moment. But bear with me. The slackened jaws, widened eyes, and general shock that greeted his chuffed endorsement of the Kremlin over Washington this past week were understandable but misplaced. Everything Trump did in Europe — every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation — is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.

Those “deeper convictions” are the ones that drive rational people crazy. As Sullivan says, they are pretty much the same as the convictions (“impulses” might be a more accurate term) of the strongmen and thugs with whom he has always surrounded himself.


The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes?

This rings true. As we’ve seen with his phony Foundation, “generosity” is the last word one would apply to Trump.

Sullivan’s entire description of Trump is devastating because it is so consistent with what we have seen every day from the embarrassing buffoon who has soiled the Oval Office for the past 18 plus months. After describing the post-WWII world that America was instrumental in building, Sullivan writes

That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multinational summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.

This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way.

Why look for collusion when this agreement of worldviews explains so much? Yes, Sullivan says, it’s perfectly possible that Trump knowingly accepted Russian help. It’s perfectly possible that he is still encouraging Russia to help him again.

But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.

Sullivan concludes that Trump simply wants an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.

The descriptions of Trump and Putin that emerge from this essay are devastatingly negative–and yet, I think Sullivan ends up giving Trump too much credit. Much like other critics who ascribe sinister and devious strategies to our pathetic President, he attributes “vision” to a man I see as utterly incapable of formulating a vision– even a dark and self-serving one. Urges, yes. Vision? Not so much.

Sullivan does get one description absolutely right: that of today’s GOP.

And we know now that the whole Kabuki drama in which we keep asking when the GOP will resist this, or stop it, or come to its senses, is simply a category error. This is what the GOP now is. It’s an authoritarian, nationalist leadership cult, hostile to the global order. Republican voters increasingly like Putin, and 71 percent of Republicans backTrump’s handling of Russia in the Reuters/Ipsos poll. A whole third of Republicans do not believe the Kremlin attacked our democracy in 2016, despite every single intelligence agency and the Republicans in the House saying so. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans in a SurveyMonkey poll actually approved of Trump’s performance in the Helsinki press conference.

This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak.

And it is all infinitely depressing.


Giving Voice to My Fears….

Andrew Sullivan has a lengthy new article in New York Magazine. It’s terrifying. And it’s hard to dismiss.

For Democrats looking at the polls and anticipating a “wave” election if Trump is the GOP nominee, Sullivan’s article should be required reading–a cautionary tale, and a frighteningly hard-headed analysis of how, yes, it could happen here.

A few paragraphs will give you the general tenor of the article, but I really, really urge you to click through and read the whole thing.

Sullivan’s thesis is that America is ripe for tyranny.

In the wake of his most recent primary triumphs, at a time when [Trump] is perilously close to winning enough delegates to grab the Republican nomination outright, I think we must confront this dread and be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself…..

He considers, at some length, the function of so-called “elites” in a constitutional democracy, the pluses and minuses of “direct democracy,” and the varying diagnoses of contemporary ills.

The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics….

Sullivan’s description of the role played by the media in the age of the Internet is particularly perceptive.

What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy — in a truly revolutionary form. If late-stage political democracy has taken two centuries to ripen, the media equivalent took around two decades, swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse. The process had its origins in partisan talk radio at the end of the past century. The rise of the internet — an event so swift and pervasive its political effect is only now beginning to be understood — further democratized every source of information, dramatically expanded each outlet’s readership, and gave everyone a platform. All the old barriers to entry — the cost of print and paper and distribution — crumbled….

The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.

Yes, occasional rational points still fly back and forth, but there are dramatically fewer elite arbiters to establish which of those points is actually true or valid or relevant. We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.

Anyone who cares about America, and especially anyone who dismisses the very real threat posed by a Trump candidacy–the very real possibility that he could win– needs to read the entire essay.


The Death of Language….

One of my constant complaints–one that undoubtedly gets tiresome–is that the words we use in political discourse no longer mean what they used to. Or for that matter, much of anything.

Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, “liberal”–which used to refer to 18th Century libertarian Enlightenment thinkers and later was used to mean “open minded”– was twisted into an epithet and replaced by “progressive.” (“Progressive” gets applied to pretty much anyone who doesn’t hate government and gay people, and send racist emails.)

I used to consider myself something of a cross between an Eighteenth-Century liberal and an Edmund Burke conservative, back before the term “conservative” didn’t call up the image of an angry old white guy in a tricorner hat demanding the return of “his” country. So I was nostalgic reading this recent post about Burke by Andrew Sullivan. I really encourage you to read it in its entirety, but here’s a taste:

For a conservative should not be implacably hostile to liberalism (let alone demonize it), but should be alert to its insights, and deeply aware of the need to change laws and government in response to unstoppable change in human society. Equally, a liberal can learn a lot from conservatism’s doubts about utopia, from the conservative concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from conservatism’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future. The goal should not be some new country or a new world order or even a return to a pristine past that never existed: but to adapt to necessary social and cultural change by trying as hard as one can to make it coherent with what the country has long been; to recognize, as Orwell did, that a country, even if it is to change quite markedly, should always be trying somehow to remain the same.


This means a true conservative – who is, above all, an anti-ideologue – will often be attacked for alleged inconsistency, for changing positions, for promising change but not a radical break with the past, for pursuing two objectives – like liberty and authority, or change and continuity  – that seem to all ideologues as completely contradictory.

I miss the days when labels had content.


Tribal Nihilism

A recent study found that self-identified conservatives were less likely to buy a product, even if the purchase was cost-effective (i.e., better price or longer-lasting product), if it carried a label indicating that the item was good for the environment. This was true even if they had previously purchased the same item–an energy-efficient light-bulb, for example–when it didn’t carry the environmental endorsement.

Evidently, these political conservatives are so hostile to environmental protection measures, they will prefer–and purposely choose to purchase–products that increase environmental degradation.

Words fail.

Andrew Sullivan’s take on this study’s result is absolutely correct. “This is really a form of tribal nihilism. One party has become entirely about a posture, not a set of feasible policies. I can see no reason whatever that conservatism must mean destroying the environment – or refusing to do even small ameliorative things that can help…Snark is not a policy, although it may be a successful talk radio gimmick.’