Formation of a black hole: On the spectacular implosion of the Republican Party

Astronomers have never seen a black hole being formed. But we have, and it swallowed an entire political party

Published May 22, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Lately I've been reading about space and time and quarks and protons and neutrons — all things I never learned about in physics, because I never took that course in high school or college. I was a biology major for a couple of years, vaguely pre-med, until I saw physics and organic chemistry looming ahead and changed my major to journalism. While studying the hard sciences, I had also fallen hard for theater, so the shift away from the study of science was partly due to the time-suck of memorizing lines and rehearsals. The gravitational pull exerted by one excellent lecture course on Shakespeare and some superb theater professors set me on a new course.

I never lost interest in the things I walked away from then. I have numerous science books around the house that I thumb through and still hope to read. On my desk right now are two stacks of books which contain (along with novels and poetry and a book about running) "The Mathematics Devotional" and "30-Second Biology." For some years I had a cool retro "Calculus for the Practical Man" that I kept thinking I might be able to comprehend.

Reading about how black holes form, I can't stop thinking about the implosion of the Republican Party. The metaphor is perfect, even when extended.

Astrophysicists tell us a black hole is created when a star of a certain size begins to cool and thus loses the heat that keeps the force of gravity at bay. In his "A Brief History of Time," Stephen Hawking compares the steady state of a star with a balloon, the air inside (representing the star's heat caused by nuclear fusion) pushing against the skin, which pushes back (the star's internal gravity). Once the heat dissipates, the star begins to collapse inward until it becomes so dense that light can no longer escape the gravitational pull. The boundary where light reaches, but can go no further, is called the event horizon.

Sound familiar? Swap in "truth" for "light" (light being a standard metaphor for truth) and you have the current condition of the former Grand Old Party. 

Nothing can go faster than the speed of light, but in human terms we know that falsehoods travel much faster than the truth. One thinks of the quip, often attributed to Mark Twain, which runs something like, A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. (Apparently, the concept goes back to Jonathan Swift, who wrote in 1710: "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.") So lies have a higher velocity than the truth — especially in the age of social media — and continue to be emitted daily from the Republican black hole.

You cannot see a black hole, but it still exerts a gravitational pull on nearby objects. Astronomers can see this by watching other stars orbit around seemingly nothing. (Speaking of "seemingly nothing," a comparison is inescapable, which would be pretty funny if it weren't so scary.)

One wonders whether Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney and others who are now trying to distance themselves from the black hole centered on Mar-a-Lago can garner enough velocity to pull away from the singular density of all the lies, mendacity, grifting, gaslighting, bad-faith dealing, authoritarian praising, anti-democratic espousing, white supremacist messaging and conspiracy-theory reeling.

As Hawking writes: "Stars in the galaxy that come too near this black hole will be torn apart by the differences in the gravitational forces on their near and far sides."

Cheney and Romney are certainly feeling those effects.

Only stars beyond a certain size can become a stellar black hole, something Indian-American astrophysicist and mathematician Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who spent his career at the University of Chicago, noted in a series of papers in the 1930s. He received the Nobel Prize (with British physicist Ralph Fowler) for his work in 1983 — about the time Donald Trump opened his namesake tower on Fifth Avenue.

Although I'm referencing stellar black holes here, it should be noted that Donald Trump was never truly a star. From the first moments he came into public view, he ceaselessly tried to create a name for himself, even stooping to pretend to be a press agent for himself (remember how "John Barron" and "John Miller" sounded exactly like Donald?).

Trump was eventually puffed up into a reality-show star by decades of falsehoods about his prowess as a businessman and one biographer, Tony Schwartz, the true author of "The Art of the Deal," who very much regrets the work he did. Trump was a phony president for the same reasons he was a phony businessman: He couldn't be bothered by work and details; he just bullied and pushed and threatened to get his way. The late Wayne Barrett, the longtime Village Voice reporter who had Trump's number from the beginning, put it best, while introducing his two-part series of articles on Trump published in January 1979: 

Each history — the Brooklyn empire, the Manhattan purchases, and the government contracts — is a tale of overreaching and abuse of power. Like his father, Donald Trump has pushed each deal to the limit, taking from it whatever he can get, turning political connections into private profits at public expense.

At best, then, in this extended metaphor he was an odd star, a white dwarf or a neutron. But then his size was bloated immensely by the false premises of "The Apprentice" and his notoriety then began to reach — let's say, for the purposes of the metaphor — the "Chandrasekhar limit," the point at which a cold star can no longer support itself. What took him over the top was the endless coverage he was gifted by cable news during the 2016 campaign. (I nearly wrote "inexplicably gifted" but of course it's all too easy to understand. Even real news programs are corporate owned and profit-minded, and on the air far too long every day. They have to fill that time with something, and showman Trump knew very well how to take advantage of the hungry maw of 24/7 news coverage.) 

Some 70 percent of Republicans still believe in Trump's falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen. If you don't fight against the lies, as Liz Cheney — who knows a thing or two herself about offering up the Big Lie — recently noted, you only make them stronger: "Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar." It's like a law of physics.

Speaking of lies, the longer version of Jonathan Swift's concept is illuminating, in this context:

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ'd only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv'd, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect … 

No astrophysicist has seen a black hole form, but we have. As with the celestial phenomenon, it has taken a long time; the Republican Party has been gaining unhealthy mass (e.g., Newt Gingrich) at least since the days of Ronald Reagan and his Big Lies about welfare queens and trickle-down economics and small government. Think back, if you can stomach it, to the months leading up to the 2016 election, when all the major media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC, breathlessly ticked down the time to every single Trump campaign lie-fest, where they also rocked out to music that made no sense at all ("Funeral for a Friend," "YMCA"?) that the artists asked them not to use.

Do you remember? As my friend Joel is wont to say, "Sure you do." The GOP black hole was forming right there on television; like a pack of amateur astronomers, we could all observe it happening — Trump's bullied opponents capitulating, journalists and their corporate leaders allowing themselves to be pushed around, party members refusing to comment about the endless stream of disinformation — with the naked eye, in broad daylight.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Astronomy Black Holes Commentary Cosmology Donald Trump Liz Cheney Mitt Romney Physics Republicans Science