The Graveyard of Reality

It’s a challenge to retain respect and empathy for the tens of millions of fact-resistant Americans who swear allegiance to the sociopath Donald Trump


As an irregular churchgoer but a dedicated independent theologian, I find an occasional Sunday sermon bracing and useful, and rarely pass up an opportunity to hear a minister whose sermons have been recommended. In this case it was her first Sunday as fulltime minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in the quiet seaside village of Castine, Maine, and Rev. Beckman did not disappoint me. Her sermon on inclusion and fellowship, “Longing for Belonging,” was well thought out and gracefully delivered. But it was the congregation’s impeccably generous covenant, printed in the program and recited aloud at each service, that brought me up short.

“We covenant with each other to listen to each other always with respect and empathy; to remain open to the views of others; to be attentive and attend without judgment …”

“Respect and empathy”? “Without judgment”? The familiar words had taken on a new twist, an impossible challenge, at the end of the summer of 2016. Respect and empathy for the views of these courteous, inclusive Unitarians, yes. No problem. But I’ve just spent a year fighting my family curse of easy contempt for the views of others — in this case the views of the tens of millions of Americans who swear allegiance to the sociopath Donald Trump.

I was raised in a Republican family where I practiced my respect and empathy arguing with my father and grandfather, two educated conservatives who would have refused to speak the name of a man as gross and vulgar as the current Republican nominee for president of the United States. But they would have been in their element expressing contempt for the mob that feeds his ego and eggs him on — their prophet was the great cynic H.L. Mencken, whose deepest fear was that the stupidity of the masses, enabled by America’s careless democracy, would interfere with the personal freedoms of H.L. Mencken and his (few) peers.

“Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fears,” Mencken sneered, back in 1926. “It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavored and colored, and put into cans.” “The rule of the majority,” he concluded, “must tend toward a witless and malignant tyranny.”

I published a book on Mencken last year, and while I was writing it I struggled to resist the uglier strains of elitist, anti-democratic sentiment that are unavoidable in his work. I thought I had made some headway, in spite of my Tory upbringing, against the arrogance of assuming that this majority Mencken dismisses as “undifferentiated human blanks” was perpetually impervious to reason or education — to civilization. And then came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. From the beginning it astonished me that even one person outside his immediate family would chose this transparent fraud, with no relevant experience or qualifications of any kind, to lead the most powerful country in the world.

My revulsion has little to do with partisan politics or ideology. I carry as little ideology as possible, Trump carries none. He echoes the worst rightwing rhetoric when he’s out to seduce the worst rightwing voters. There’s never a sentence that’s authentic Trump, because there is no authentic Trump, beyond the racist, narcissist and pathological liar we hear every time he opens his mouth. He’s a megamillionaire who preaches economic rebellion to the working class, which is unable to grasp that every tax change he proposes sucks up more wealth for the One Percent he represents. He’s a city boy from Queens who cares as much about the Second Amendment as he cares about the Ninth Commandment (or the Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth, for that matter), but the NRA treats him like Wild Bill Hickok. Trump is pure blither, a fountain of hogwash even by the minimal standards of our electoral politics. Everything he says for public consumption sounds like the drunken bully boasting at the bar, the idiot who’s always threatening to “kick some ass.” Most of this talk is so silly that the boys at the bar would laugh at him and push him off his stool — unless he happened to be the toughest customer in the room, or the one who was buying all the drinks.

New Yorkers, who best remember the ridiculous and unsavory career of their bad neighbor, have lodged the most eloquent protests against Trump’s unlikely ascent. My favorite was a reminiscence by Liz Smith, the venerable Manhattan gossip columnist, quoted by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker. “I didn’t even think he would last in New York,” recalls Smith, now 93, “because people hated him once they got to know him. He was a horse’s ass. Still is.”

Listen to your elders. I doubt that there’s a single well-informed, well-intentioned citizen of these United States who honestly believes that Donald Trump would make an excellent president. If someone you had previously respected tells you he’s voting for Trump, you can be sure he’s a cynical bastard who sees some advantage for himself. But what about the others, these angry throngs of white men in Trump baseball caps, who treat this jackass like a messiah? I’m supposed to respect them, to “attend without judgment”? I’ve always had friends who disagreed with me politically. But I’ve always been able to see where they were coming from—-a lifelong allegiance, a deeply held belief I didn’t share, or just a life determined by a set of coordinates very different from my own.

Supporting Trump is different. You cannot be serious, as John McEnroe famously screamed at an umpire. I do not respect your opinion. You are making a tragic mistake.

A year ago I was dismissing comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis as liberal hysteria — though “Make America Great Again” is close enough to “Deutschland Uber Alles,” and with “Germany” inserted for “America” it would have worked fine for the Fuhrer. Today I’m not so sure those liberals were feverish. But where Hitler was both a professional and a madman, Trump is an amateur and a halfwit. A better analogy for the Trump phenomenon is the career of the British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, who according to Tina Brown “mesmerized the angry unemployed left-behinds of London’s East End” in the mid-1930s. Unlike Donald Trump, Mosley was a handsome aristocrat, a war hero and a brilliant orator. But his love affair with Hitler, shared by many of his blue-blooded friends, left a bad smell around Britain’s peerage that lingers to this day. When he returned to run for Parliament in 1959, after years of disgraced exile in France, Mosley campaigned on his promise to repatriate — deport — all Caribbean immigrants and prohibit mixed marriages. Any resemblance to America’s man of the moment? In 1959, however, Mosley won just 8.1% of the vote.

What has happened, what is happening in a country that threatens to offer its highest honor and most powerful office to one of its most ludicrous and repulsive public figures? I don’t buy the theory that Trump’s success is anchored in economics, in an underclass rebelling against a rigged system that perpetuates America’s grotesque misdistribution of wealth. If this was the case, all these white people would have voted for Bernie Sanders. Trump’s most reliable support, the votes and electoral votes he knows he can count on, will be coming from white people in the Deep South who have never accepted a president who is not a white man. These are “the deplorables” Hillary Clinton was accurately describing, in the speech that was turned against her. Racist hatred has been a growth stock ever since Barack Obama was elected, and the racist Trump, the “birther” and whites-only landlord, was the answer to a white supremacist’s prayers. Bigotry is ever the wind beneath The Donald’s wings.

If there’s another key to Trump’s rise, it’s a national epidemic of ignorance and what seems to be a deliberate flight from reality. The columnists of the New York Times and the Washington Post, even the conservatives, have become a kind of Greek chorus chanting “Woe, woe, beware, don’t go there, stop!” at every turn of this strange election, in their anguished disbelief that Trump has failed to disappear. But it was Charles Blow, an African American columnist for the Times — addressing what he described as “lies which usher forth from Trump’s mouth like water from a hose at full throttle”— who best articulated a journalist’s problem with Trump.

“He is not only bending the truth,” Blow wrote, “he is breaking the notion that truth should matter in the first place. This is what is so baffling about the people supporting him: They know he’s lying, but they so want to believe the lies that they have pushed themselves into a universe of irrationality that is devoid of logic.”

This alternate universe of irrationality exists, and it’s thickly populated. I have encountered its inhabitants myself. I was debating the presidential election on a call-in talk show, and suddenly found myself listening to a conspiracy theorist who rejects both Trump and Hillary Clinton as pawns of the Zionist Conspiracy, some consortium of evil Jews who will soon rule the world. What could I say to this caller? But what you know for sure, confronted with one of these people, is that there are dozens of talk shows, websites and social media connections that inform and encourage him, and feed his fever.

This alternate universe, where untruth is truth, is a relatively recent development, a lethal side effect of the fragmentation of the media. It didn’t begin with Fox News, where crackpots were prophets and no shade of Right was too far Right. But Fox and its unspeakable Roger Ailes gave the weird and irrational new size and weight, and radio and new media took it from there. Trumpists do not read the Times or the Post, or The New Yorker. They maintain an entire worldview from sources where the light of actual, verifiable, traditional truth never penetrates. It may already be possible for an American to travel from cradle to grave without encountering a single news source uncontaminated by political or commercial intent. How bad can it get? Heather Digby Parton, in The Progressive Populist, quoted the testimony of a right-wing radio host, Charlie Sykes from Wisconsin, on MSNBC.

“Over the years conservative talk show hosts, and I’m certainly one of them, we’ve done a remarkable job of challenging and attacking the mainstream media. But perhaps what we did was also to destroy any sense of a standard. Where do you go to have any sense of the truth? When you try to point out ‘this is not true, this is a lie’ and then you cite the Washington Post or the Times, their response is ‘Oh that’s the mainstream media. So we’ve done such a good job of discrediting them that there’s almost no place to go to be able to fact check.”

If Charlie’s confession doesn’t make you moan and weep, you’re probably planning to vote for Trump. Don’t expect me to respect you — I curse and fear you. America’s forces of darkness are uniting behind this clueless and utterly unscrupulous fool. I feel fortunate to be a septuagenarian. Trump is the perfect president for a society where privacy and reality are obsolete. What comes after him is perhaps too terrible to contemplate, and what comes long after I’ll never, thank God, live to see.

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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