Sunday, 8 April 2018

The easiest of all hunting expeditions

In November 2016, 60% of America went nuts when Donald Trump was elected president. It's hard to see it as anything other than a mass hysteria. Don't worry, I can fix this.

The election violated a large swathe of East/West Coast progressive's sense of how the world works in a dramatic fashion. By every metric, these people were supposed to get what they wanted. But when the reality was revealed to them as obverse to their assumptions, their brains tried to rationalise what happened by grasping for any explanation they could find. For at least a year - still continuing in some places - these people went to the streets to protest thinking they had elected Hitler. It was pretty funny to watch.

Now, 18 months have gone by and the worst of the Hitler predictions have not come to pass, which means the same people are completely and totally wrong again. That's gotta suck. US president Donald Trump is doing plenty of unpopular things at the White House, but even those have a pretty good rationale if they are considered at the national level, rather than political.

For instance, a lot of the country hates what he's doing on immigration, but most people can understand that the fundamental description of any country is its borders. Those people might not like the idea of a trade war with China, but they understand why Mr Trump is pushing in that direction.

Let me make a prediction. By the end of 2018, Russia collusion will not be a story anymore. So anyone who was absolutely positive that the only way to explain why they were wrong in 2016 was because Russia helped Mr Trump, is going to be wrong - again. But it gets worse. If the economy is still strong by Christmas and North Korea is denuclearising verifiably and if China decides to negotiate on the tariff lines, then people will think something is working at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even here in April, it looks like all the big things in the US are lining up to enter a Golden Age. I know that's a big call, but I'm sitting comfortably at zero shocks right now.

The anti-Trump faction, if all this happens, could be in for another major cognitive shock. This will be the fourth or fifth major shock in less than two years.  First, there was the election shock, then came the "he's not Hitler" shock, followed by "the country is doing great" shock and finally the "North Korea is being fixed" shock. That's enough to break anyone, adding "he's not a Russian agent" or "the country is still booming" shocks is going to really hurt. This wouldn't be a problem if these people had worked through the mourning process after the first shock. Instead, they shift their energy to the next shock like children, desperately believing that Santa still exists even though they've just seen Dad place the presents under the tree.

This kind of thing is extremely unhealthy and dangerous for society. And the only way to solve a shock that threatens to splinter a community is to create an offramp for the collective brains. Those who have been wrong about everything can't escape that mode of thinking because they don't have a scapegoat. There's no way for them to keep believing they are still smart, even as the world proves them wrong on every model.

The country needs a new thing to be angry at to move their emotions to the next stage. The anti-Trump emotions aren't going away like magic. They need to be redirected and scapegoats do actually work like magic. When a community fights over the same object, blaming the conflict on one thing tends to have a strange, almost divine, effect of calming the community and bringing it together again.

A war would do this. It's worked in the past. But the US doesn't need a war to create the scapegoat effect. All it needs is a person to perform the ritual. And the best person to do this is Hillary Clinton (or maybe Facebook). Yet as long as Hillary stays in the news, complaining at conferences about all the hallucinatory reasons she lost the election, then she is not letting the people ritually murder her (figuratively, of course). She's feeding on the energy when she should be letting that energy flow through her as blame for why everyone got everything so wrong. This would work because Hillary's mere existence explains why there is a president Trump.

Human culture was built on the foundation of the ritualised scapegoat. Rene Girard, the great French ethnologist, wrote that humans tend to imitate each other in their desire for the same objects and lifestyles, inevitably leading to conflict. Human beings, contrary to romantic myth, have no "authentic" core, no deep source of original, self-invented desire. We desire what other people desire, which means other people are the obstacle. We fight because we are the same, not because we're different.

He called the resultant conflict the "mimetic crisis" and to dispel the energy the imitators must turn their conflict upon an agreed third party - the scapegoat. Killing this third party allows the competitors to avoid changing themselves - their anger, carnivorous love of fighting, mimicry and refusal to think for ourselves - by lumping the conflictual energy onto an innocent person or animal. Once that happens, an indescribably ethereal peace settles over the community - even though the object of desire remains - repairing the group. M Girard says this magical effect is the foundation of all religion and human culture, and I tend to agree.

The effect is nullified, however, if people consciously know they are scapegoating a person. It looks fake and loses its potency. The Democratic Party must deliver Hillary metaphorically burn her at the stake to expunge the anger and confusion. This won't fix people's arrogance, but the emotion must go somewhere, otherwise, this whole thing explodes: "when the whole world is globalised," Girard warned, "you're going to be able to set fire to the whole thing with a single match."

Coming together -  the "United " States - is a quintessentially American and Puritan idea stemming from faith in universal values and community. But if the finding a scapegoat only manufactures cohesion, rather than forms it, then is it worth metaphorically or literally killing a scapegoat human just to bring the community together? "It is not killing the innocent as an innocent which dooms a society," wrote the Breton poet Chateaubriand, "it is killing him as guilty."

Maybe it's time the Americans saw that living apart - but in cooperation - might actually be the best way forward. Forget all this union and community nonsense. I know that won't happen. After all, there are two kinds of people in the US: those who want to be left alone, and those who won't leave others alone.

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