10 June 2020
The Popular Delusion
Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds was first published in 1841, and hasn't been out of print since. He begins with an account of the Tulip Mania in 1637 and the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which were investments inflated by speculators - get-rich-quick schemes fueled by hysteria. For example, the South Sea Bubble was essentially a futures contract: it was a grant of monopoly for trade, but the expected trade itself never materialized. Mackay's thesis is essentially that people can be persuaded of damn near anything, when they want to believe it. Like a honey drop, say, or a Ponzi scheme, but Mackay tales it further.
Let's admit the lure of easy money. But how to explain what Mackay calls the Love of the Marvelous? In other words, the embrace of the clearly nutty. Mackay counts among these the Crusades, witch trials, dueling, alchemy, fortune telling, and mesmerism, to name a few. "The cup of life is not bitter enough," he says, contemptuously.
What got me thinking about this was an essay in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum called "History Will Judge the Complicit," which is about collaboration. Somebody else recently suggested we should say collaborations, in the plural, meaning that there are a lot of different ways of accommodating ourselves to betrayal. It often succeeds by taking very small steps, and resolves, in the end, with what Czeslaw Milosz characterizes as relief. Your anxiety has lifted, you have a sudden lightness of heart, you're no longer at war with yourself. Conforming rewards you.
Trump's America is not Vichy France. But as Applebaum points out, the language of Trump's enablers echoes older historical excuses. We can use this to advance our agenda, is one. Or as George Will put it, scathingly: Gorsuch, seriously? We can protect the country from him. This is the "grown-ups in the room" argument. I'll personally profit from it. Okay, this makes a little more sense, and the last and most destructive. I get a hard-on being close to power.
Let's not forget raw fear. People surrendered to Hitler's terror, and Stalin's, because they were simply scared to death. Not only for themselves, but because the Nazis, or KGB, would kill your parents and your children, anybody who was infected with your heresy. Could we somehow recover some of our self-respect? This isn't Occupied France. Why is so much of it about denial, or delusion? We plainly have grievance, and genuine complaint, on both sides, the Need to Believe crazily important, and the Grassy Knoll the least of it.
I remember an exhibition at the New York Public Library some years back, about Vichy collaboration, but about writers and intellectuals specifically. You've got somebody like Celine, your basic scumbag: he wasn't a Nazi sympathizer out of opportunity, he agreed with them; he was all in favor of exterminating the Jews. Then you've got Marguerite Duras, who worked with Vichy during the day, and passed information to the Resistance after hours. And many others in between. The myth de Gaulle tried to sell after the war was that all the French were heroes, to avoid recrimination, but Henri-George Clouzot's famous wartime movie Le Corbeau puts the lie to that. First the Nazis banned it, and then the French. The embarrassment was just too much.
I don't think the Trump years will prove such a gold mine of tension and treachery. I don't see a Casablanca being written about this era. I think a lot of us are just going to hang our heads in shame. But what put our heads in the noose? Trump is clearly an empty suit. I'm not going to rehearse his failures. The thing is, how can people invest in a blank slate? Sure, there are the nut jobs of QAnon, but I mean intelligent, articulate people on the Right, who have seen their principles found guilty by association.
The narrative has gotten lost. If this were a conspiracy story, we'd want the guy behind the curtain exposed, but the guy isn't Dracula, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or even the Wizard of Oz. He turns out to be Howdy Doody.
The delusion is that we ever took it seriously. The box office is terrible. Somebody greenlighted this show back in the era of Bonanza, when color TV was a novelty, and we stayed tuned for the commercials. Trump is the 1960's, and already a trivia question.
How we shape the narrative is up to us.