American madhouse at a turning point: Is our nation finally ready to rejoin reality?

Time has been broken; the United States is ruled by demented evil. If we turn away at last, what happens next?

By Chauncey DeVega
November 3, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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US President Donald Trump walks from the Residence to the West Wing of the White House (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

America in the Age of Trump is a madhouse, a type of malignant reality in which right and wrong have been inverted.

It is a surreality: So much is so wrong, but most people lack the vocabulary, historical perspective and overall ability to describe the full horror of it all.

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It is a place where deviance has been normalized. This goes beyond the normalization of the immoral, where civic disfigurement and its related pain (physical and emotional), along with the violence and death caused by Trump's fascist and authoritarian movement, are imagined as being beautiful and great by his followers and other believers. Such a state of being is something more, and worse: It is a state in which millions of Americans have lost the capacity to know right from wrong — or perhaps never understood such things to begin with. At any rate they have chosen to follow Donald Trump, a Pied Piper for all that is wrong with American society and culture, into the abyss.

Time seems broken: This is what Timothy Snyder describes as "the politics of eternity," in which an authoritarian regime unleashes a torrent of norm-breaking, cruelty, lies and other forces that undermine democracy on a country and its people. The result is a sense of being lost and dislocated from normal time and space.

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Election Day 2020 is a world-historical event. Such moments are, by definition, uncommon. In the case of this year's Election Day, the American people are faced with a choice either to begin a return to some type of sanity or to further surrender to the many political, social, ethical, moral and existential derangements of TrumpWorld.

As the Animals sang more than 50 years ago during the Vietnam War, "We gotta get out of this place; If it's the last thing we ever do; We gotta get out of this place; Girl, there's a better life for me and you."

The details of America's madness are almost overwhelming. To attempt a full accounting threatens to leave a person stuck in a state of paralysis. That is by design: such an outcome is one of the ways through which authoritarianism and fascism dominates and controls a people, breaking their resistance.

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What have the American people and the world witnessed and experienced so far during the Age of Trump?

Donald Trump is a carnival barker, a reality-TV character and a professional wrestling heel, made president of the United States. He is a white supremacist, a nativist and a misogynist. He is an alleged rapist, a pathological liar, mentally pathological and likely guilty of many kinds of criminal corruption. He is ignorant, impulsive and sadistic. He is quite possibly a traitor to the United States, democracy, the American people and the U.S. Constitution.

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In sum, Donald Trump is evil. His movement is evil. All those who support Trump are co-conspirators with evil and are therefore stained by it.

In the punishing dark satire made real that is TrumpWorld, the president is a character straight from legendary science fiction writer Octavia Butler's book "Parable of the Talents":

His speeches during the campaign have been somewhat less inflammatory than his sermons. He's had to distance himself from the worst of his followers. But he still knows how to rouse poor people, and sic them on other poor people. How much of this nonsense does he believe, I wonder, and how much does he say just because he knows the value of dividing in order to conquer and to rule?

Well, now he's conquered. In January of next year, he'll be sworn in, and he'll rule. Then, I suppose we'll see just how much of his own propaganda he believes.

Writing at The New Republic, legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw summarizes the Age of Trump this way:

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This is the stuff of disaster movies: the apocalyptic unraveling of a nation nearing the brink, thrown into crisis after crisis while the very worst character imaginable sits in the Oval Office. As drama, it's a story that should be concluding with a lopsided victory for the not-Trump candidate, yet the fact that there is even a remote possibility Donald Trump may win reelection is what turns this spectacle into horror.

True to the genre, as the bodies pile up, the specter of mistakes, oversights, and outright denial constitutes the cautionary tale of what not to do. The horror is not that its victims are without agency, but that they fail to exercise it responsibly.

And then there are the things which have happened in the Age of Trump which almost defy credulity.

Donald Trump has sabotaged coronavirus relief efforts and made decisions which led, both directly and indirectly, to the deaths of many tens of thousands of people. Donald Trump's sabotage and negligence have also caused financial ruin for the American people.

Trump leads a literal death cult. His followers are willing to sacrifice themselves to his ego in an act of collective narcissism, which they experience as love and loyalty to their savior and leader.

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Trump and his regime have put tens of thousands of nonwhite people into concentration camps. Cruelty is the modus operandi of the Trump regime and drives its commitment to white supremacy and other forms of human misery. Many children have been stolen from their families, and recently we have learned that hundreds of these children may never be reunited with their parents or other relatives.

Women and girls have been raped and suffered other forms of sexual abuse in Trump's detention centers. Some women have been sterilized without their consent. People in need of medical assistance have been left to die on the floors of these facilities, and there are reports that government agents have tortured people. Little or nothing has been done to help those human beings imprisoned for the "crime" of seeking a better, safer life in America. Despite Trump's claims, his detention centers and concentration camps are not "clean" and "safe".

Donald Trump has suggested that people inject themselves with bleach, use ultraviolet light inside their bodies and use unproven, dangerous drugs to combat the coronavirus pandemic. When Trump himself was infected and hospitalized, he was not humbled or frightened into being a more responsible leader or a better human being.

Instead, Trump initially wanted to emerge from Walter Reed Medical Center and tear open his shirt to reveal a Superman logo underneath, as if the virus had somehow augmented his greatness, virility and strength. Trump doesn't even conceal his fascist impulses, in this case his yearning to be a literal Übermensch.

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News networks have reported stories about a child who considers a life-size plastic skeleton to be his best friend. The boy drags the skeleton with him everywhere, including to the playground. Such behavior is the perfect metaphor for the United States, a society stuck in a season of death, where "doom scrolling" has become a national pastime.

Osama bin Laden's niece has publicly endorsed Trump's re-election. By comparison, Joanne Rogers, the widow of children's TV hero "Mister" Fred Rogerssupports Joe Biden, and has condemned Trump for the harm he has done to the country and the world.

Predictably, Trump's mouthpieces have deemed Mister Rogers' fundamental human decency and goodness to be an example of weakness, a trait not desirable in America's presidents.

White right-wing evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians believe that Trump is a type of prophet, perhaps almost a god. In their mythology, Trump's evil behavior is somehow part of God's plan, and very likely a means of creating a racist Christian theocracy.  

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Public opinion surveys show that more than 50 percent of Republicans believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a cabal of Democrats and celebrities are kidnapping children and shipping them around the world hidden inside furniture, to be sexually abused and eaten. Donald Trump has claimed ignorance of this conspiracy theory, but has eagerly welcomed the support of its adherents.

Trump's followers show their allegiance through "boat parades," during which fake naval cannons are fired off in tribute as part of an elaborate 19th-century seamen cosplay. To this point, Trump's supporters have not yet publicly re-enacted the plot of Herman Melville's novel "Billy Budd."

Trump's supporters also participate in caravans, often consisting of hundreds of cars and trucks, flying MAGA banners and the "Blue Lives Matter" flag and engaging in acts of intimidation and often violence against Trump's "enemies."

As they always do, the plutocrats and leaders of the corporate kleptocracy are profiting from the insanity and destruction caused by the Age of Trump and his pandemic.

The madness radiated by the Age of Trump rests on a foundation of political sadism whose harm and suffering empower Trump and his followers. In that unhealthy relationship, Trumpists have been convinced by their leader, his media followers and other right-wing influencers that pain in service to Donald Trump and "real America" is a good thing.

Moreover, death in service to that cause is a desirable goal because it provides a sense of meaning to lonely, alienated white people who fear of their obsolescence in a world that is rapidly changing. Existentially empty inside, they are emotionally sustained by racial anxiety and the opiate of white privilege, and compelled by fear and socialization toward outright authoritarianism. For some, this provides a sense of meaning, a grand narrative of their existence.

Writing at The New Inquiry, literary theorist and philosopher Lauren Berlant describes the relationship between whiteness, Trumpism, and emotions of entitlement and aggrievement:

For some people in the liberal tradition, the equal distribution of suffering has come to look like democracy, which is why they are so excited by the phrase "the 1%." The rich are not suffering! It's not fair! Everyone should be equally vulnerable!

But Trump's people don't use suffering as a metric of virtue. They want fairness of a sort, but mainly they seek freedom from shame. Civil rights and feminism aren't just about the law after all, they are about manners, and emotions too: those "interest groups" get right in there and reject what feels like people's spontaneous, ingrained responses. People get shamed, or lose their jobs, for example, when they're just having a little fun making fun. Anti-PC means "I feel unfree."

The Trump Emotion Machine is delivering feeling ok, acting free. Being ok with one's internal noise, and saying it, and demanding that it matter. Internal Noise Matters. The reason white people can be so reactively literal-minded about Black Lives Matter, reeling off the other "lives" that matter too, isn't only racism. It's that in capitalism, in liberal society, in many personal relationships, they feel used like tools, or ignored, or made to feel small, like gnats. They feel that they don't matter, and they're not wrong.

They're saying, I want to matter. They're saying I want my friends, my group, to matter. Who matters? Why should group x matter more, or first, or get more attention? It's hard for the formerly optimistic and unmarked whites to feel right about other people mattering before they do, because they didn't know that their freedom was bought on the backs of other people's exploitation and exile from protection by the law.

They thought their freedom was their property, constitutionally. They're wrong about that: liberty has always been a bargaining tool. But they've been sold an ideology that hides the truths of structural inequality in an Oz-like image of capitalist democracy and individual sovereignty.

One must be careful and precise: the madness of America in the Age of Trump is not at this point (or perhaps in its origins either) caused by "a crisis of imagination." Historians, political scientists and other experts warned in 2016 and before that electing Donald Trump would further empower the forces of white supremacy, social Darwinism, gangster capitalism and other fascistic forces to the point where American democracy might suffer irreparable damage. 

Moreover, the antecedents of Trumpism and American fascism were long present in the United States — as in the overthrow of Reconstruction, the Black Codes, the Jim and Jane Crow era and other symptoms of institutional white supremacy — as well as visible in many other nations around the world. 

Ultimately, America has become a Trumpian madhouse because it never had a proper reckoning for the genocide against First Nations people, the enslavement of black people, and the other crimes which pose great contradictions to our national mythos as "the greatest country on Earth" and global role model for democracy.

That deep psychological, emotional and material investment by elites and too many "average Americans" in the country's internal contradictions is one of the primary reasons why America succumbed so readily to the madness of Trumpism.

If the madness is purged, what then? What do the American people do with those feelings? Can Donald Trump's lost Americans ever rejoin empirical reality and normal society?

In a short story published in the March 2020 edition of the Sewanee Review, author Ben Fountain reflected on those questions:

For five years now the country has been in a kind of spell or trance in which Trump's reality is our reality, a situation that corporate media has been all too eager to abet, and profit from. Even those of us who reject Trump with every molecule of our heads and hearts are living inside Trump world; even those of us who know damn well the sun's not chicken.

Someday the spell will break, the trance shatter; reality is stronger even than presidents. Maybe this is where morality starts, with basic reality connect. Seeing the world for what it is. Acting and speaking on the basis of that reality, those facts. By this standard the current president is a moral monster, while here in Texas 26 years of morally bankrupt "conservative" rule have put a critical mass of the state's citizens on the cusp of disaster. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," the martyr King once told us. Morality, justice, we have far too little of those, far too much of the kind of toxic fantasizing that kills people, destroys families, ruins communities. When the spell breaks, the trance shatters — when at last we realize we've been sold a bill of goods — there's gonna be hell to pay. These are days of great suspense. What will our world look like in two weeks? A month?

Fountain is correct: There will be hell to pay when TrumpWorld is defeated on Election Day 2020, or whenever that finally occurs. 

At amusement parks in Japan, people who ride rollercoasters are being told to "scream inside their heart." Masks are obligatory because screams of fear and excitement could risk spreading the coronavirus to others.

On Election Day in America, we are all on a rollercoaster, screaming inside our hearts. It is enraging, frustrating, unbelievable. But as the votes are finally counted and a winner decided, perhaps as soon as Tuesday night. some of the screams will become audible. 

And after this day, this week, this era of madness, what comes next?  


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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