In the weeks between election and inauguration, I permitted myself to harbor a trace of general optimism with respect to Trump’s presidency, based on one simple principle: The man, thought I, is as unalloyed—and thin-skinned—a narcissist as any the human race has yet produced; as such, he is consumed by a terrible desire for admiration and acceptance. Given the choice, Trump would sooner be loved than feared. Moreover, he is utterly devoid of ideological conviction, which is why, regardless of what he winds up doing, the Hitler analogies will never bear scrutiny. These points given, couldn’t it perhaps follow that President Trump, governing always with an eye to posterity, would allow himself to become a slave to his own approval ratings? Wouldn’t he be uniquely vulnerable to, and influenced by, the way in which he and his policies are received by the American public? Apparently not.
If the last couple weeks are any indication, Trump is intent on alienating as many people, and making as many political enemies, as humanly possible—even the spineless Republicans in Congress found it difficult to rationalize his absurd travel ban, not to mention his retrograde position on torture. He’s mercurial and vindictive, and his strange relationship with the truth appears to be getting stranger by the day. It’s possible, for example, that he has actually managed to persuade himself that three-to-five million fraudulent votes were cast in the election, costing him the popular vote (and countless hours of sleep). Likewise, he might also believe that the crowd attending his inauguration ceremony was in fact the largest one yet, and that photographic evidence suggesting—nay, proving—otherwise is doctored or perhaps just doesn’t exist. (Which prompts an interesting question: If one is genuinely taken in by one’s own lies, does one cease to be a liar?)
Of course, the concept of alternative facts, to use the enchanting Kellyanne Conway’s felicitous term, is far from novel. On the contrary, alternative facts have long occupied a centralized position in American culture; they’re a salient, inescapable feature of our society. Consider, for instance, that climate change denial—a truly ludicrous position to adopt—essentially functions as a litmus test for the viability of a Republican presidential candidate. Consider also that millions of people in this country still lead their lives, and attempt to make other people lead their lives, according to tenets derived from the greatest alt fact of all time, namely, as comedian George Carlin put it,
that there’s an invisible man living in the sky, who watches everything you do, every minute of every day—and the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do, and if you do any of these ten things he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever till the end of time … but he loves you.
Faith in this mother of alternative facts (another litmus test for Republicans, incidentally) takes a variety of forms, some more odious than others; what they all share, however, is a shameless indifference to evidence, logic and common sense. While it’s true that one can’t prove the inexistence of God (just as one can’t prove the inexistence of Sasquatch), it’s equally true that assuming his (or her, to pacify the feminists) existence is a nonsensical step to take. If you’re going to postulate a God, you’d better be prepared in your next breath to explain who or what created that God, and then who or what created the person or thing that created your God, and on and on, ad infinitum.
It’s much sounder, and wiser, to concede that we simply don’t know whether a God exists, and that until there is compelling evidence to suggest that one does, we’re going to reserve judgment. Somehow this elementary logic escapes a majority of the American public. In fact, a staggering sixty-three percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, are “absolutely certain” that God exists. Absolutely certain, meaning, presumably, that they wouldn’t hesitate to bet their lives on it. An additional twenty percent say they are merely “fairly certain.” In view of these numbers, are we really surprised that “PizzaGate” gained traction in the run-up to the election? Self-delusion is an American pastime.
Needless to say, religious zealotry, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to secular society. Plenty of religious people are perfectly content to keep their superstitious convictions to themselves; I have no real quarrel with these people. It’s with those who seek to inflict their fantastic worldview onto the rest of us that I, and anybody else who takes democracy seriously, have a bone to pick. In the Muslim world these folks are called Islamists. Here in the West they’re known as evangelicals. All of them can rightly be described as religious fascists.
Bible-thumpers have made up a formidable voting bloc since the seventies, thanks in large part to the advent of neoliberalism, which in effect saw government regulation of business shift to business regulation of government. As our legislators prostrated themselves at the altar of high finance, passing law after law designed to maximize corporate profits at the expense of the “ninety-nine percent,” it struck them that they would have to find a new means of securing votes. Enter Jesus, stage right. Suddenly every presidential candidate in the country—especially those representing the not-so-Grand Old Party—had as a major theme of his campaign an obsession with “Judeo-Christian values,” including disdain for homosexuals and a psychotic reverence for unborn life. Thus the evangelicals were mobilized, creating ideal conditions for theocratic swine like Ted Cruz and Mike Pence.
Bringing Pence onto the ticket was an obvious sop to the Christianists. It appears to have worked: According to the Pew Research Center, eighty-one percent of self-described evangelicals voted for Trump, which goes some way, I think, in exposing the bankruptcy of their position. Trump is certainly amoral (particularly with regard to sex, the ultimate Christian obsession), and almost certainly an atheist. Remember when he was asked to cite his favorite biblical passage? He couldn’t do so because he’s never read the Bible (or any other book, for that matter). He’s been married three times. He once described himself as “very pro-choice.” Perhaps most egregiously of all, he openly worships himself. Idolatry, if memory serves, is a mortal sin.
Still, none of the forgoing points deterred the voters for whom respect for the Word of the Lord supposedly takes precedence over all else. Nor can their allegiance to Trump be ascribed to lesser-evil considerations: They were with him out of the gate. In January 2016, when something like a dozen Republicans were still vying for the nomination, Trump enjoyed the most support among white evangelicals: thirty-three percent, according to an NBC News poll. Cruz, an aggressively devout Christian whose father is a pastor, had only twenty-one percent of their support. Trump, it seems, didn’t need Pence at all.
What gives? As I see it there are two possible explanations. Either the evangelicals are without self-respect (Trump did, after all, crassly use their religion as political currency), or else they don’t really care whether a person believes in God, so long as he or she pretends to. In the latter, more likely scenario, dishonesty is a virtue. This is not so surprising. It calls to mind Pascal’s wager: Even if you don’t believe in God, you should pretend that you do, just in case he does in fact exist. But wouldn’t God, being omniscient, be on to the game? After all, a belief cannot be forced. One either believes or one doesn’t. Does Trump believe? The evangelicals couldn’t care less. I’ll offer a third possible explanation: Perhaps the Christianists see a figure to worship in Trump himself; perhaps his God complex, which he wears on his sleeve, has a contagious effect on those whose minds are most vulnerable to subjugation. Don’t pretend that you’d be surprised.
At any rate, thank God the actuaries have Trump comfortably surviving his first (and what is sure to be his last) term in office; Mike Pence as commander in chief is about as unsavory a prospect as I can fathom. Talk about turning the cultural and moral clock back 70 years.
Speaking of clocks, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of their Doomsday Clock, representing the countdown to planetary catastrophe, thirty seconds forward. It now stands at two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest since 1953. And lest we think such a move is purely symbolic, the Bulletin published an article, written for laypeople, explicating the various factors informing their decision.
On the issue of nuclear weapons, the authors point out that the “United States forges ahead with plans to modernize each part of its triad (bombers, land-based missiles, and missile-carrying submarines), adding new capabilities, such as cruise missiles with increased ranges,” in flagrant violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Russia, India and Pakistan are likewise expanding their nuclear potential, while “North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests [in 2016], the second … yielding about twice the explosive power of the first.” Add to this milieu Donald Trump’s evident lack of self-control and general megalomania, and it becomes difficult to disregard the Bulletin as a gang of doomsayers.
With respect to climate change, the authors write, ”[t]he political situation in the United States is of particular concern.” Indeed, our climate change-denying president “has put forward candidates for cabinet-level positions (especially at the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department) who foreshadow the possibility that the new administration will be openly hostile to progress toward even the most modest efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption.” Rick Perry as energy secretary is particularly farcical. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss related a telling anecdote about the dimwitted Texan in a short piece he wrote for the New York Times titled “Rick Perry is the Wrong Choice for Energy Secretary”:
I met Governor Perry once, at the World Economic Forum. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. After finding out I was a physicist, he singled me out in the audience while he was onstage, saying, “As Professor Krauss knows, you can violate the laws of physics, but only for a while.” My answer was, “Well, actually you can’t,” which was followed by a bit of nervous laughter from the crowd.
Ironically, Trump mocked Perry’s intelligence on the campaign trail, reminding his audience at a rally that, in the wake of a failed presidential run in 2012 (during which he committed a number of Dubya-like blunders), the former governor began wearing hipster glasses to project an image of intellectual endowment, which no one bought. “He put glasses on so people will think he’s smart,” Trump said, accurately. “It just doesn’t work. People can see through the glasses.” Unfortunately for Rick, holding a cabinet-level position won’t make them any less transparent. Is there any doubt that Trump surrounds himself with incompetence to satisfy his own deluded sense of superiority?
Getting back to the issue of climate change: 2016, like the two years preceding it, set a new record for global surface temperatures. Data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) illustrates that sixteen of the seventeen hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. But never mind that conspiratorial garbage: according to King Donald I, “nobody really knows” if climate change is, to use the modern parlance, a thing. Hence, plans to install more oil pipelines and jettison EPA regulations. Alt fact #37: Trump is “a very big person when it comes to the environment.”
I’ve seen it argued that Trump’s voters are bound to grow disillusioned with their short-fingered prophet when he reduces the economy, and perhaps the entire planet, to a pile of smoking rubble. This to me seems terribly wrongheaded. Does anybody seriously believe that more than a small fraction of those who pulled the lever for Trump did so based on the strength of his economic proposals? Most of them couldn’t care less about his ability to govern the country, or lack thereof; they like him because he’s a vulgar showman, he’s rich and he talks trash. His voters are rapidly becoming apologists, and, as a general rule, apologists never see the error of their ways. We’re seeing now that there’s nothing they won’t attempt to rationalize, including Trump’s outrageous refusal to publish his tax returns after repeatedly promising to do so. Even the “intelligent right”—outlets like the National Review and the Weekly Standard (both of whom offered up some resistance prior to the election)—have hitched their wagons to the Donald, joining the true believers over at Infowars and Breitbart.
Don’t count on any mass exodus from Trumpland, even as the Doomsday Clock strikes midnight. His disciples are the real deal. Like Major Kong from Dr. Strangelove, they’ll straddle the nuclear bombs like cowboys as they careen toward the Earth, waving their Make America Great Again hats, deluded to the end.