W. J. T. Mitchell
“History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” –James Joyce, Ulysses
“Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Nietzsche
“A single Athenian is a wily fox. A group of Athenians is a flock of sheep.” –Solon
“Every man, seen as an individual, is tolerably shrewd and sensible, see them in corpore, and you will instantly find a fool.” Schiller
“No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” -P.T. Barnum
“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln.
What Lincoln failed to add is, those are pretty good odds for the success of a determined and skilled con artist in the short run.
“We Palestinians love Trump because he is pure Americana. He shows the true face of the American character, and we feel it is important for the world to see that truth for what it is.”
–Conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank, May, 2016.
To which I replied: “That is easy for you to say in the safety of Palestine.”
The shocking election of Donald Trump reminds us that the real location of mental illness, whether it takes the form of anger or a melancholic sense of wounding and resentment, is primarily in the group, not the individual. We sometimes think that the paradigm of madness is to be found in the individual case. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paranoia is most effective when it is shared with others; nurtured in isolation, it shrivels up and dies. It is a long standing commonplace that human reason of the practical sort, the kind that involves the management of one’s own affairs generally prevails at the individual level. Even the famously psychotic Judge Schreber could perform complex feats of legal reasoning, and convince a court that he was capable of managing his own affairs. Reason also operates quite efficiently at the level of tactics and strategy, never more relentlessly than in warfare, the most dramatic form of collective madness known to our species. In politics, the supposedly peaceful sublimation of war, reason moves from the manipulation of weapons and destruction to the skillful manipulation of unreason; it deploys the ancient lessons of rhetoric as opposed to logic, of instrumental, egoistic reason as contrasted with wisdom or Kantian Enlightenment. Calculated appeals to emotion trump (you will forgive the pun) those of reason. The heart has reasons of its own, and it is the chief exercise of cynical, manipulative reason to understand the triggers that set off collective madness in the mass. See Kelly Ann Conway, Trump’s brilliant campaign manager, who showed us the power and “reasonableness” of wiliness, cunning, and clever rhetorical agility.
Trump’s campaign capitalized on all the dark forces in the electorate that lay below the threshold of opinion polls and their data bases, unreachable by rational arguments about policy solutions to shared problems, unembarrassed by transparent lies and demagoguery. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anxiety, resentment, paranoia, and a generalized hatred of elites, experts, and established institutions were all mobilized to produce a wave of collective passion seen in the crowds that chanted “lock her up,” and threatened violent revolution if the “rigged” election went against them.
Now that the election, and the frenzy that has swept the American public for the last 18 months, has passed over us, a strange, ambiguous calm will settle over the country. Everyone will urge us to “come together as a nation,” and to heal the wounds that have been opened. Even Trump will remind us that, at heart, he is just a negotiator who has no principles except “the art of the deal” that favors his perception of national interest. The madness, however, has simply gone underground, the wounds festering, leaving the American dream as always, only the blink of an eye removed from the nightmare of our history.