For four years I have lived in bafflement.
How can so many of us have suddenly taken leave of our senses
and dived or fallen so deep into delusion?
No answer yet.
But—here’s the flash—what if the question was wrong?
Over the last four years I reckon I have
devoured thousands of news articles and analytical essays,
read perhaps dozens of books (and burned one),
engaged in hundreds of conversations with friends and former friends,
dug into scripture from different angles with new questions,
and logged hundreds of bicycle miles,
rolling down the trails and the country roads,
either “reading” (audiobooks) or thinking
(in quest of insight),
or—the vast majority of the hours—
(in quest of relief from the quest for insight)
feeling the wind in my face and the exertion in my body
and soaking in the sunshine and the wind,
the trees and the sky,
the Thornapple River and so many lakes and ponds,
the fields, cows, and horses,
the fast-hopping bunny rabbits and the small road-killed fur-friends.
Is it possible that early this morning reading one more column
has finally cracked the code? solved the problem?
Seems unlikely, but feels like it.
Dana Milbank asked several political scientists
“to put this moment into historical and psychological context.”
What he got back:
“The good news: Americans are no ‘crazier’—
that is, no more paranoid or predisposed to conspiracy thinking—
than in the past.
“The bad news: For the first time in our history,
a president and a major political party
have weaponized paranoia, to destabilizing effect.”
From what I have read, I am thinking he is right about the good news
and not completely wrong about the bad news.
There is a long history of paranoia and conspiracy thinking in America.
This is one of the surprises from reading historians
like Jill Lepore and Heather Cox Richardson:
the crazy goes way back.
For several years one of the books sitting on my night table,
waiting its turn as others have kept jumping queue,
is Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland,
and more recently I bought an older title recommended by a friend,
Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions
and the Madness of Crowds.
I both look forward to and dread reading both of these,
because from reading the historians I already know
that the crazy is not all “them.”
I know that my people and I have participated in the crazy.
And I also know that seeing and leaving the crazy is,
as Thomas Kuhn taught us with regard to scientific revolutions,
not just a matter of taking one more step up the staircase to Parnassus.
Rather, it is a question of what happens
after the straw breaks the camel’s back.
It is earthquake, tectonic shift, metanoia, conversion,
it can be something like nuclear reaction,
it can produce either a new level of wonderful
or an unmitigated disaster.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The point right here is that Dana Milbank’s good news is true.
The good news is not that we are not crazy now.
The good news is that we have always been crazy
and it has not killed us.
With regard to Milbank’s bad news,
I said he is not completely wrong,
but he is partly wrong,
because American politicians throughout our history
have harnessed elements of the crazy
to perverse values and aims:
notably racism, oligarchy, xenophobia, nationalism, imperialism;
it’s just that in the past the energy behind these enterprises
has eventually run out,
and America remained what it was,
perhaps even purified a bit.
The idea of America has retained its essential properties
and has prevailed over the merely chemical attempts
to change America into something else.
When Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch
asked Senator Joseph McCarthy,
“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?
“Have you left no sense of decency?”
the answer was that McCarthy did not,
but America still did.
McCarthyism was a fire that was extinguished.
About nuclear reactions:
I do love a good metaphor, simile, parable.
We know that every material substance is composed of chemical elements,
and the smallest unit of every element is the atom,
and the atom has a nucleus.
Humans have utilized chemical reactions for millennia to release energy and get things done.
An example is fire.
From the first campfire to the rocket engine,
combustion (oxidation) has powered human survival and progress.
But even in the very hottest fires, the atom remained intact.
In the twentieth century, though, scientists learned how to split the atom.
When the atom is split, in what is called a nuclear reaction,
energy is released at levels far higher
than was ever possible in a chemical reaction.
The splitting—the fission—changes the element
into another element, with different properties.
It is not the same thing stirred into a different mixture,
or combined into a new compound.
The element is a new element, no longer itself.
Is America—the idea of America, the soul of America—
a mixture, or a compound, or an element?
I don’t know.
I’m not going for allegory here
—a complex, multilevel “this is like that”
with multiple detailed correlations—
only a simple metaphor.
I’m going to say that America is an element.
The question is:
Has Donald Trump just been playing with fire?
Or has he split the atom?
Has this stable genius finally done what other have tried,
and succeeded where their merely chemical prowess has failed?
Has he initiated a fission reaction
that has not just remixed the elements
but has split the nucleus,
altered the properties?
What is the American atom? What are its essential properties?
Life, liberty, personal freedom, political freedom,
common good, justice, equality, diversity,
truth, popular sovereignty, patriotism—
especially truth—do they still mean what they meant before?
Is America still trying to mean these things?
Or is everything changed?
You and I are no crazier, perhaps, than we ever were.
But it is getting pretty hot around here.
Is it a just a fire that will be extinguished like other fires?
Or is it a nuclear chain reaction?
Time will tell.