There is a common refrain coming from many rational people across the political spectrum in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking election to the most powerful political office in the world. The idea is that there are two separate worlds, defined by streams of information that create spheres of experienced reality that are vastly different. The long and insanely well written piece “How America Lost its Mind” by Kurt Anderson does the best job I’ve seen yet of documenting and discussing the source of this narrative.
His piece ends, however, with a flaccid call to action that I hope he does a better job explaining in his book (of which this article is an adapted excerpt). He asks people to teach their children to think and to be rational. This would accomplish exactly nothing. Anyone who’s gotten to the end of his article already resides in the world of empiricism and would thus be the kind of person who already tends to raise their children to approach the world without the credulous lens he spends roughly 15,000 words dissecting.
Rather I think a much stronger and more likely to succeed answer to the “Alternative Facts” crowd lies in direct application of Eric Hoffer’s outline of movements in True Believer. Hoffer articulates convincingly that people who fall into the roughly 1/3 or so of society who support our president right now are ripe for their adherence to a movement to be changed to another belief system and still believe in it fully.
To put it in another frame that is as compelling as it is terrifying, the moment in Orwell’s 1984 when Big Brother changes the enemy nation during a speech and no one flinches is totally realistic. In order to counter the counterfactual and irrational reasoning espoused by Limbaugh, Hannity, Bannon, Spencer, Trump, and others, it is far more powerful to create a dream that teaches different lessons than it is to insist that dreams aren’t real.
I saw this exact phenomenon all the time as a camp director. People don’t believe in facts, they believe in narratives and stories they tell themselves. If I wanted an event to go well, I could influence it to go well by saying it would. It was my job to make sure it went well, so I often did “real” preparation like buying supplies, but all the supplies (or scheduling or organization or “real” prep) in the world wouldn’t make things go well if people believed it wouldn’t. (forgive me for the narcissism of asserting my actions had such large consequences, I’m enough of an Ayn Randian to believe I’m important, but not enough of one to think Paul Ryan isn’t a wanker) One time I messed up a colonial theme day at camp by writing a cheeky sentence into the two-week plan.
The guy running the day was a history buff. He was organized, smart, and did a terrific job writing and preparing the day. The story-line even had a built in counterculture for kids who didn’t fit in or like the theme to protest and lead a revolution to the revolution against the British. Unfortunately for him and for camp, I noted in the schedule that the whole staff saw that every part of our idealism about American Colonialism ignores the genocide we committed concurrently against the Natives to this land. That comment metastasized several staff members’ dislike of the theme and helped torpedo sentiment about the day.
Camp is a microcosm for the rest of the world, which is part of what makes it such a fun place. But the real world is also just a larger version of the fantasyland we create at camp. The answer to Trumpism, and far-right (and far-left Bernie supporters who still believe he is/was/will win the presidency) conspiracy nuts is to create an alternative to their alternative worldview in which you are able to co-opt their passion and so use it to help “real” people. Donald Trump said, as Kurt Anderson points out,
“I will give you everything,” Trump actually promised during the campaign. Yes: “Every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country” will come true.
This means that Democrats, Republicans, and anyone else seeking to use the levers of power in the US government has a credible and malleable tool they can use to accomplish their goals. They just have to jump into the crazy-end of the pool, rope a few dopes, and wade out with them in tow.