A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 178

William Jennings Bryan, farmer advocate, anti-imperialist, and three-time Democratic nominee for president.

Wednesday, December 9

Historians will have a hard time explaining the Era of Trump. After all, he’s hardly William Jennings Bryan, able to hold a crowd spellbound with soaring rhetoric that addresses the crowd’s grievances. Hell, he’s a far cry from even being Huey Long.

So how did Trump, a New York City playboy and real estate swindler, win the fervent backing of so many rural and Midwestern working-class voters?  At this point, it only matters because there are sure to be many would-be Trumps vying to pull off the same act in the future.

Just ask MAGA crowd members why they like Trump, and you’ll hear something to the effect of: He tells it like it is. 

But in the face of so many Trump lies (20,000, according to a Washington Post tally), misrepresentations, and bits of disinformation, who could actually believe that? Only people who choose to avert their eyes from reality. Only people for whom things other than absolute accuracy are what really matters. Maybe people subjected to decades of talk-radio conspiracy-mongering.

[Ted Cruz’s father really was involved in the Kennedy assassination, you know.]

It seems like the phenomenon calls more than ever for psycho-historians.

For my part, I think Trump’s popularity boils down to three or four matters: his unvarying pissed-off attitude, his considerable notoriety thanks to his TV shows, and the clear disapproval of educated, somewhat privileged people. 

He is the victim-in-chief, addressing the legions of those who feel they’ve been swindled in the big three-card-monte game of life.

“We’re all victims,” he recently told the crowd at a Georgia rally. Everybody there should wallow in their victimization—with special emphasis on Trump’s loss of the RIGGED election.

Then he adds a side order of racism and sexism—something the white masses know they shouldn’t approve of but they secretly do. 

That friend who used to laugh at something racist that the likes of Andrew Dice Clay might say, or maybe a grotesquely vulgar comment about women— such a person might think: well, I could never say such things out loud…but you know, it’s true!

Get a half-dozen such people together and you’re on your way toward a MAGA rally.

To be honest, one strand of American comedy has contributed as well. Think about how, over the decades, comedians from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Chris Rock have pushed the boundaries about what may be said in public and laughed at. As a result, the very definition of what is vulgar or taboo has shifted. The American public, which once blushed at the mere mention of brassieres, divorce, or toilet paper, has been desensitized.

So when Trump mocks a disabled news reporter or says something profane about women…well it’s crude but, hey, he’s got a point….

Dinner: grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan, and a fresh mozzarella and tomatoes salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Entertainment: Another episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 172

A conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.

Friday, November 20

What is paranoia? In his classic and now much-referenced 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter defines paranoia as “a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness.”

Hofstadter makes it clear that he is not a psychologist and is analyzing only a paranoid style. He finds this phenomenon to have existed in various historical periods among a variety of figures, including 18th century worriers over the activities of the Bavarian Illuminati, a precursor of the fraternity known as the Masons. Primarily, of course, Hofstadter is focused on the activities and writings of the mid-20th-century wacko political right wing in the United States. In the essay, he details some of the proclamations of infamous Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and John Birch Society head Robert Welch.

McCarthy, of course, won notoriety for discovering Reds Under the Beds of key U.S. institutions such as the State Department and the Army. He accused Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson of participating in a Red “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our federal government.” Former Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, to Welch, “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

Setting aside the particular subjects of McCarthy and Welch’s broadsides, the hyperbole, urgency, and delusions are all reminiscent of Trump and his cronies. In his proclamations, Trump wins elections and all other challenges by almost unfathomable margins. Allies and appointees he supports are uniformly, unbelievably marvelous.

But Hofstadter discovers one key difference with the Trumpist proclamations. The mid-20th-century right-wingers were assiduous quoters of sources and wielders of footnotes. Trump never offers any support for his over-the-top claims; it’s as if a Trump assertion alone should be sufficient. And for many Trump rank-and-filers, it seems to be enough.

The pre-Goldwater right wing were no more prone to accuracy than Trump. They simply saw the need to mimic academic and legalistic forms. Thus, Hofstadter notes “the very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.” (Hofstadter’s prose is itself so heroic that the temptation to quote him is overwhelming.) So it is that a 96-page pamphlet by McCarthy contains 313 footnote references, while Welch’s assault on Eisenhower has a hundred pages of bibliography and notes.

Trump and his surrogates, meanwhile, offer only “evidence-free” (in the Times’ phrasing) outbursts about questionable vote-processing in Nevada, purportedly suspicious mail ballots in Pennsylvania, and alleged votes by dead people in Michigan. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has pressured Georgia election officials to throw out absentee ballots since, he says, they were likely phonies. Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has asserted that Detroit voting was “a fraud, an absolute fraud.”

Again, there is no evidence for any of these claims, and whenever they have come before courts, judges have not hesitated to disregard them. Yet, a poll released on Wednesday by Monmouth University found that 44 percent of Americans think the election smells—they say we do not have enough information about the vote count to know who won. Nearly one-third of the public believes Biden won only because of voter fraud.

How can Americans be so gullible? Or maybe the right word is….paranoid. 

Dinner: a frittata with shallots, red bell pepper, and Dubliner cheese, along with braised potatoes and a green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Netflix’ The Crown.

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 157

The Donald’s new look.

Friday, October 9

To my way of thinking, if Trump is going to kill off all further stimulus money and overthrow Obamacare with its protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions, then he should be required to adopt an accent like that of the villainous Boris Badenov of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

I mean, Melania already sounds a good bit like Boris’s co-conspirator Natasha. Every so often Melania could chime in with: “Boris—I mean Donald—you are so evil!” 

Meanwhile, Bill Barr could announce: “Moose and Squirrel—I mean Biden and Harris—must die!”

Wouldn’t that clarify everything for any remaining undecided voters?

It complicates things a bit that Boris, or Donald, is also playing the part of the duo’s much-referenced Fearless Leader. But things were already complicated thanks to the existence of Trump runnin’ buddies Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, who also play Fearless Leaders. Then there are Jair Bolsanario of Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey. Maybe the world can’t have too many Fearless Leaders.

At our house, the strongmen tend to be mechanical. The dictatorial thermostat was overthrown yesterday when it failed to impose order on the furnace; a new fearless thermostat had to be placed in power. Afterwards, Emily and I celebrated by taking our absentee ballots to the post office, getting ice cream, and sitting outside at the admirable but mysteriously now-overgrown Pussy’s Pond, across the street from the legendary Springs General Store. (The Pussy in question has nothing to do with Goldfinger, Billy Bush, or Access Hollywood, I believe, and is simply a name given in a more innocent time, when pussy willows were in bloom.)

Trump says Kamala Harris is a Communist. Yet for some months, one Twitter meme has proclaimed that “Kamala Harris is a cop.” There are, perhaps, Communist cops, although we didn’t see any at all while we were in Cuba a couple of years back. Communist cops perhaps tend to keep a lower profile than candidates for the U.S. vice-presidency. So maybe Trump is wrong…although I wouldn’t want to make any hasty judgments.

“I’m a senior,” Boris/Donald confided in a video yesterday. “I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that.” I mean, who would have guessed?

Looney, too, is the group that planned to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The 13-member strong Wolverine Watchmen had summertime weapons-training sessions and occasional meetings in a shop basement that was accessible only via a trap door concealed beneath a rug. They spied on Whitmer’s vacation home, planned to buy explosives, and hoped to spark a civil war. “I just wanna make the world glow dude,” exclaimed one member of the apparently less-than-shadowy conspiracy. 

This afternoon I have conspired to make a pie crust that will house a quiche for tonight’s dinner. I used to make pie crust all the time with no problem, but in recent years I have lost the knack. Today’s went O.K., although rolling it out required lots of huffing and puffing. I have also been planning dinners for the next dozen days, so we can figure out what must go on the list for Peapod, whose next delivery is scheduled for October 20. The most challenging innovation in days to come will be ropa vieja—a Latin beef dish that I’ll put together after the Peapod delivery.

So, tonight’s dinner: quiche aux lardons and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Better Call Saul, Borgen, and All Creatures Great and Small.