This Thanksgiving holiday, we "celebrate" America's departure from reality

Donald Trump's delusions and conspiracy theories are only one aspect of a distinctive American bias against reality

Published November 26, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Group of friends in masks praying over Thanksgiving table at home (Getty Images)
Group of friends in masks praying over Thanksgiving table at home (Getty Images)

On this holiday, millions of Americans are gathering around a homemade feast of comfort food, basking in the warmth of familial love and giving each other a potentially life-threatening virus. One week ago, Erin Burnett asked during the lead segment of her nightly talk show on CNN, "The CDC is warning Americans not to travel or gather in large groups for Thanksgiving. Will they listen?"

Any fool could have answered the question: No. Millions of travelers have moved through the airports to greet their loved ones, perhaps with gestures of physical affection, all but coughing in each other's faces. One cannot help but wonder how many families will share napkins as they debate the efficacy of masks as protection against COVID-19.

A pandemic is dangerous, frightening and chaotic enough in the best circumstances. Throw in a population given to superstition, hatred of experts as diabolical elites and hostility toward science, and reasons to give thanks — other than the ability to breathe without the aid of a ventilator — will rapidly diminish.

The farcical spectacle of ostensible adults screaming about the tyranny of face masks and indulging in megaphone-mad conspiracy theories while their neighbors die would invite howls of laughter, if it weren't so tragic. Far surpassing the death rate of Canada, Germany, Japan and almost every other country on Earth — the planet where seemingly everyone but Americans still reside — the United States has lost more than 260,000 people to the coronavirus. As Joe Biden often said during the presidential campaign, that is 260,000 kitchen tables without a parent, spouse, sibling or child. 

Yet a baffling and terrifying amount of Americans act as if the virus is not real, or at least does not present a threat to them and their loved ones. A nurse in South Dakota, Jodi Doering, has told the surreal horror story of patients denying that COVID-19 exists, up until the moment that they die from it.

While I cannot report anything so extreme, I can say that I've had conversations with several people — all of them college-educated professionals — who repeat the following claims as if they are self-evident: 1) COVID death numbers are significantly inflated, because hospitals make more money from treating those patients; 2) China created the coronavirus in a lab as a biological weapon (this is one particularly incoherent, because even if true it would not negate the danger of the virus); 3) only the elderly die from COVID so we don't have to worry about it (if this were true, it would make adherents to that belief sociopathic, not reasonable); 4) the only way to beat back the pandemic is through herd immunity.

When pressed to give their sources of evidence, they will typically fall back on what has become the favorite line of many Americans, a delightful distillation of the ignorance and arrogance of individualism and anti-intellectualism in one sentence: "I do my own research."

According to polls, most Americans believe that COVID is not a hoax. The majority also regularly wear masks in public, even when there is no mandate. Despite the good news, there is a gap between theory and practice. The staggering amount of Thanksgiving travel is only the latest example of a general public that suffers from what psychologists are calling "pandemic fatigue."

Having grown tired of compliance with CDC protocols, many Americans have adopted a cavalier attitude. They have resumed dining in restaurants, shopping in malls, and having parties in their homes. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California broke his own coronavirus guidelines by dining indoors with several friends, and New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo examined the potential of his family's Thanksgiving gathering to spread the virus, determined that it was significant, and then concluded he was doing it anyway.

With friends like these, everyone concerned about succumbing to a deadly virus might as well throw a mask burning party … indoors. 

Meanwhile, the most pathetic attempt at a coup d'état in world history reaches a merciful end with Rudy Giuliani's hair dye melting in beads down his face as he impersonates Joe Pesci, and his co-counsel on behalf of Trump, Jenna Ellis, telling Republican pollster and frequent Trump critic, Frank Luntz that he has a small penis. Despite the legal weakness of the Venezuela voter-fraud conspiracy theory, not to mention the micropenis defense, upwards of 70 percent of Republicans now believe that Joe Biden won the election by fraudulent means. 

This isn't much different from the 51 percent of Republicans who "doubt" that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, the 50 percent of Republicans who believe that the QAnon theory that a secret ring of pedophiles run the federal government is, at least, "partially true," and the 40 percent of Americans who are creationists.

Most of the American commentariat goes to great lengths to avoid stating the obvious. Its members will discuss the success of Russian disinformation campaigns, the cultish hold that Donald Trump has over his most loyal supporters and the dominance of "negative partisanship" as political calculus. They will not openly acknowledge that a sizable proportion of the American population is some combination or variance of ignorant, delusional or insane.

In a country with many of the best universities in the world and almost unlimited technological resources, a salient inquiry for an engaged intellectual class would be, how the hell did this happen? Why do so many Americans accept lunacy as empirical truth? 

To begin by reaching for the low-lying fruit, let's start with the far right. The late Richard Hofstadter, a Pulitzer-winning historian, authored a famous book in 1964 called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Despite a few errors, Hofstadter's analysis of the delusions and fears of the right gains relevance with each year.

In his introduction, the historian explains that Americans are increasingly responsive to politics as competing gestures of emotional symbolism, rather than debates about material interest or theories of effective governance. On the right, an affinity for symbolism combines with the "apocalyptic carryovers" of the "evangelical spirit" to create the foundation for the paranoid style. Hofstadter's nuanced and detailed definition of the eponymous term of his text is worth reading in full, but here is a key excerpt: 

When I speak of the paranoid style … it is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. Webster defines paranoia, the clinical entity, as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one's own greatness. In the paranoid style, as I conceive it, the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. … His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. 

The contemporary application of Hofstadter's delineation of the "paranoid style" makes it clear that Donald Trump is flypaper for every pathology that Hofstadter, along with many psychiatrists, diagnoses, but also that Trump's following marks the culmination of a right-wing divorce from reality that has unfolded over several decades.

The danger of the "paranoid style" is clear, but becomes profound when Hofstadter describes how the political paranoid sees the opposition, an analysis that should resonate with anyone who has watched a few minutes of Fox News, listened to Rush Limbaugh or gone through the masochistic ritual of attempting to debate a full-fledged Trump supporter: 

He [the paranoid] does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. 

Hofstadter estimated that the extreme right of the John Birch Society and similar movements comprised 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and therefore was able to distinguish between the "working politician," meaning the typical Republican, and his more militant voters. Fox News, social media and Donald Trump have obliterated that distinction. Americans who are curious why their Trump-devoted friends broke off all contact might want to reread the paragraph above. More importantly, people who believe that the political opposition is literally aligned with Satan, as onetime Hollywood star Jon Voight recently said about progressives — in a viral video approvingly shared by many leading Republican pundits — will fall for anything. 

If Democrats are Lucifer's foot soldiers, working to subvert everything that is good in the world, why wouldn't they use a pizza parlor in Washington to traffic children to pedophiles? Stealing an election is a misdemeanor by comparison.

Those who believe that their political opponents are pure evil will also justify anything, which clarifies evangelical Christians' willingness to forgive Donald Trump's countless offenses against decency, and so many Republicans' evident glee as the Trump administration did everything in its power to sabotage American democracy.

Hofstadter was wise to make a connection between paranoid politics and Christian fundamentalism. Like the fundamentalist who suspects the devil of every misfortune or temptation, ranging from a car accident to the temptations of internet pornography, the far right paranoid sees the anti-American, liberal hand at work in every area of life. Wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus infection isn't adhering with public health protocol, but yielding to the arch-conspiracy of global tyranny.

It is difficult to imagine what life must feel life for these people. They believe that a homicidal cabal of demons in human form is running the country, feverishly working to destroy their lives with multiculturalism and communism, yet they still have to pick up groceries at the market, drop their children off at school and pay their taxes. 

Paranoid delusions make them susceptible to a series of cons, from Steve Bannon's "We Build the Wall" campaign to Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" fundraiser, but it also makes ordinary governance of the United States painfully difficult.

Before the rest of us judge our conspiracy-theorist neighbors too harshly, we should perhaps consider how their lives also require some detachment from reality. 

In January of this year, the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the "Doomsday Clock" — a measurement of humanity's proximity to global catastrophe — one minute and 40 seconds from midnight, citing the growing threat of climate change.

The United Nations warned in 2018 that the human species had only 12 years left to take decisive action on climate change, before facing existential disaster. Even the Department of Transportation under the Trump administration predicted that without major reforms, climate change would destroy life as we know it by the end of this century. 

There are inspiring movements to demand aggressive measures to combat climate change, and most Americans support them in theory. In practice, however, most of us carry along without a care in the world. There was almost no discussion of climate change during the recent presidential campaign, and the majority of Americans haven't shown anything resembling the urgency a reasonable observer would expect from people who have learned that their entire species faces the threat of widespread destruction within a relatively brief time span.

In the past two years, major newspapers reported that humanity has eliminated 60 percent of the animal population since 1970, and that 40 percent of the world's plant species are at risk of extinction. But this notional awareness that our planet is dying planet has little effect on political discussion, as powerful officials and influential pundits debate the margins on corporate tax rates, agree that the Green New Deal is "too radical," and argue about Twitter should ban Donald Trump after Biden's inauguration.

Climate change is one reason among many that Democratic calls for a "return to normal" are effectively tickets for a flight from the real world. Except for having a president who respects democratic norms and institutions, the "normal" of 2015 isn't exactly an Edenic paradise to which we should aspire. Extreme inequality, environmental degradation and the subordination of ethics to corporate capitalism — manifesting most clearly in health care, criminal justice and decaying public infrastructure — was shot through American life then. Without transformative action, they will continue to wreak havoc in the lives of countless people long into the future.

After a survey of American culture, an obvious question might be: Where are the real realists?

Wherever they reside and struggle, they will have to live alongside the right-wing paranoiacs who threaten to undermine American democracy, and the more respectable members of the educated liberal classes, who appear content to turn up the music while the tornado siren blasts outside the window. 

Those who are curious how that might work out, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving, might want to ask a Native American.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

MORE FROM David Masciotra