Forthcoming book

I’ve virtually abandoned this website for a few years now. But now that I have a new book on the way, I am thinking I should revive it or replace it. The book won’t be out for a long time–probably spring, 2024–but in the meantime, here are a few paragraphs from its tentative draft conclusion:

Do mountebanks like Trump and Alex Jones, and zealots like the Mikes Flynn and Lindell create paranoia or simply harness it? It’s one of those unanswerable chicken/egg questions, but for whatever it’s worth, I tend to believe the latter. You can’t have winners without losers, and America has more than its share of both. The paranoid style has something for everyone who feels looked down upon or marginalized or cheated out of what they believe should be theirs by right.

Paranoids who are unhappy in matters of money see bankers as the principle of evil, whether they are at the Federal Reserve, the Bank of London, or a New York investment bank with a Jewish-sounding name. Paranoids who are unhappy in love become Men’s Rightists, and theorize about the malevolent principles of misandry and gynocentrism. Paranoids who are worried about the waning of white privilege and the dilution of white sperm may become white nationalists. Paranoids who secretly fear that God hates them can find new targets for His wrath. Every one of their grievances—and there may be a lot of them, as the categories are not mutually exclusive—is personified by an elite figure they find particularly loathsome. George Soros stands in for greedy billionaire Jews, Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi for castrating feminists, Bill Gates for the ultra-wealthy technocratic knowledge class, Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey for the ascendant black overclass, and so on. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez neither comes from nor has a lot of money, but she is elite in a way that hits insecure conservative men with all the force of a punch in the gut: she is that beautiful, straight-A, woke high school classmate who is kind to nerds, disdainful of jocks, and who wouldn’t have dated the likes of them in a million years. Most conspiracists assume their opponents are as dogmatic and literal-minded as they are themselves, only in reverse—that they figuratively (or not so figuratively) hang their crucifixes upside down and say the Lord’s Prayer backwards.

All of this helps explain Trump’s staying power. He makes no bones about who he hates and why, whether it’s a woman accusing him of sexual assault, a business rival who bested him in a deal, a political ally who flaked when the chips were down, or an egghead who forgot that Trump also attended an Ivy League school, and that he is not just smart but a genius. He is all about himself, but at the same time, he is a mirror for all the other disappointed souls who were raised to believe they stood at the center of the universe. Look at me, he says. I am all you want to be—rich, powerful, loved by beautiful women. And see how badly I’m treated.

Trump’s true-believers have another reason to stick with him too, one that should be familiar to anyone who has been betrayed by someone they loved, or conned by someone who lied to their face, which is the sunk cost fallacy. It’s easier to throw good money after bad than admit that you’ve been had. Being played for a sucker, being laughed at, as Trump himself so often says in his monologues, is incredibly painful. If Trump isn’t who he says he is, they have to wonder, then what does that say about me?

I suspect history will come to see that this Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic provides as good an explanation as any for the incredibly destructive epoch we are living through. In their desperate need to deny that they’ve been chumps, all but a handful of Republicans have bound themselves to a Messiah that in their heart of hearts they know is false.


Night thoughts from Barry N. Malzberg

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but yesterday I received an email from my old friend Barry N. Malzberg that I wanted to share.

Awoke as usual with a useless insight: there are very few around now who were present as adults or even adolescents to observe and/or live through the Holocaust, the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich.  Any surviving witnesses who were even in early adolescence then would be in their 80’s and 90’s.  That’s one of the reasons Trump, his sycophants, exploiters and troops have been so successful; the parallel and foreshadowing is trapped in largely unread, unknown material.  (The two Riefenstafhl films, OLYMPIAD and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL had a vogue decades ago and their creator lived to 102 and maintained a presence but they are the property of scholars now.)  Trump is right out of the Goebbels playbook but how relevant or forceful is that comparison?  Who knows Goebbels?

Joe McCarthy got stopped (not soon enough) because he emerged only a couple of years after the liberation of the camps and the Nuremberg trials and the parallels were so obvious that after a brief stalking run he was undone on national television by Joseph Welch  with one question…”Have you at last no shame, Senator?” to which the majority of the adult population could relate.  Parallels like Huey Long, McCarthy, Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, etc., etc. evoke nothing.  Right-wing radio today (which drives the bus) is Father Coughlin redux but how many under 80 recognize that name?

I agree with Barry that Americans of the Trumpist persuasion are stunningly ignorant or indifferent to history. But their aim isn’t to erase it. Just as Hitler successfully reframed Germany’s decades of humiliation, failure, and collapse as the consequence of a stab in the back from a Fifth Column led by Jews, Trumpism, like all conspiracism, gives its true believers a cast of villains–angry blacks, smug over-educated under-sexed feminists, greedy Jews, snobbish Europeans, wild-eyed pro-Biden anarchists–and a new historical framework, in which white middle America is not facing a moral reckoning but is their innocent victim. One really big difference today is that a big swath of the right and a smaller fringe of the far left look to Russia as a model of what the US should be rather than its ideological and military adversary. Back in the McCarthy era, having a sense of decency meant that you understood that it was wrong to baselessly accuse your fellow citizens of treason. Today, as anyone who is paying attention to the J6 hearings knows, sedition is passing itself off as patriotism.

The Freudian roots of Conspiracism

Money quote from an article at Slate. I think when you combine this with cognitive dissonance reduction, you begin to get at the roots of conspiracism.

Conspiracy theories arise not only when they “fit” with certain mixes of personality traits but also when they fill psychological and ideological needs. Freud long ago distinguished between “errors” on the one hand and “illusions” and “delusions” on the other…..Illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes….Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, modern cognitive psychology suggests that Freud was on the right track here. The tenacity of many conspiracy theories in the face of facts suggests that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are rooted in conscious or unconscious wishes, in what cognitive psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”

Conspiracy theorists are people who have a deep-seated need to have the world explained to them in moral terms, and who wish for an authority figure to enforce its categories–a cult leader, a Pope, a king, a populist leader who epitomizes all of the national virtues. To allay the cognitive dissonance that this causes (we are a Democratic, Protestant nation, after all), they project those forbidden wishes onto their enemies: the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Jews, international Communism, the Deep State, Islam.

The New World Order that they fear is a funhouse reflection of the New World Order that they secretly wish for–the dictator who will free them from tyranny.

Impeach Me Twice, Shame on Me

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I woke up bleary-eyed, feeling as gut-punched as I did the mornings after each of my parents died, and tried to organize my thoughts. Let’s face it, I wrote on this blog, we all know that late stage capitalism sucks. Progressives want to fix it; Trump demagogued it. What can we expect over the next four years?

Among the things I didn’t predict was Flynn being fired five minutes into Trump’s presidency; a big scandal over payments to a porn star; a multi-year Russia investigation; children in cages; a pandemic that is killing more than 4,000 Americans a day as of this week; the growth of Q-Anon; Trump’s thwarted love affair with Kim Jong-il; Michael Cohen, George Conway, Joe Walsh, and Bill Kristol emerging as some of Trump’s loudest critics; Biden walking away with the primaries and the election; a Jewish and a black Senator being elected in Georgia; Rudolph Giuliani leading an attempt to overturn the election, followed by a Trump-fomented insurrection and a second impeachment with just days to go in his administration, and so on. I could go on and on and the odds are good that something terrible and shocking will still happen tomorrow and the day after. But I think I did get a few things right.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini (one hopes) [Trump] doesn’t have a program of global conquest or racial and ideological cleansing ready to roll out; he was a vanity candidate and he’ll be a vanity president. Most of the work of governance will be left to the right wing hanger-ons who flatter him the most and they will do their very worst. There’s not going to be a wall, he’s not going to restore smoke stack industries, or fix the cities. Taxes will be cut, environmental protections will be rolled back, and terrible judges will be appointed to the courts. Undocumented immigrants will be deported at the same pace that they were during the Obama administration. The world will be a little safer for ignorant, backwards-looking white people. Globalized capitalism will march on apace, wealth will continue to flow to the top, and the ice caps will keep melting.

We were just as fucked yesterday as we are today, even if we didn’t know it. But now we do. I don’t see much of a bright side this morning, but I do believe that we progressives can pull the same levers of economic discontent that he did and to just as powerful effect, starting in 2018. The backlash will have its own backlash. Let’s start laying the groundwork for it now.

Remembering the J20 Protestors — And Looking Ahead to Trump’s Next Act

No, those aren’t the J20 protestors; they are just a few of the Great Americans who tried to save Trump’s presidency from Pence, Schumer, Pelosi, Romney, and the 80 million-plus people who voted for Biden on Wednesday. But since their story is mostly lost in the mists of history, it’s worth remembering what happened to the protestors who were swept up by the police at Trump’s inauguration after a limousine was smashed up and a Starbuck store’s windows were broken. 234 were jailed and then charged and prosecuted for crimes ranging from riot and property destruction to conspiracy to do the same. “Our job,” Trump declared on the White House website, “Is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” Some of the defendants were acquitted at trial; others spent more than a year in court, facing up to 75 years in prison before the DOJ dropped the charges.

Last June, in the midst of the BLM demonstrations, Trump signed an executive order to protect statues of Confederate heroes. “I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent,” he Tweeted.

I suspect that Washington, DC will be so militarized on Inauguration Day that there won’t be any violence at all–nor will there be crowds or much in the way of public events.

Trump will build or adapt a new media platform to replace his Twitter accounts; Twitter will pay a huge financial price for silencing him. But going forward Trump will have a harder time portraying himself as the enemy of violent disrupters, as he will not want to alienate a single member of the base he will be building on, which will look a lot like Alex Jones’ (which is to say that some of its members will wear Six Million Wasn’t Enough t-shirts to his rallies). Will he continue to control the Republican Party? For a while, certainly. The RNC is packed with loyalists. A disciplined, determined strong man could kindle a revanchist movement out of the ashes that are left of his presidency.

How disciplined, determined, or even strong is he? Six months from now, things may look very different than they do today. But if you read this New York Times article about the RNC’s meeting, you have to worry. Trump’s whole reason for being is grievance; his weakness is his super power.

Indeed, much of Ms. McDaniel’s speech was Republican red meat. There were warnings against socialism, attacks on the four liberal congresswomen known as “the squad” and boasting about the diverse class of lawmakers who helped the party gain House seats in November despite Mr. Trump’s broad unpopularity. “Candidates matter,” she said, alluding to new lawmakers.

David Bossie, one of Mr. Trump’s advisers and the Maryland committeeman, insisted that the party’s losses had been on the margins.

The White House, the House, and the Senate are the margins? If your goal is destruction, maybe they are.

Mike Pence’s Day of Reckoning

Donald Trump’s magical thinking last night, as the black Baptist preacher and the 33-year-old Jew improbably pulled ahead of the self-dealing Republican billionaire and ex-Dollar General CEO: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back!”

Donald Trump’s magical thinking this morning, as Republicans face the loss of the Senate, thanks in no small part to his campaign against Georgia’s Republicans: “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”

We. As if he’s ever thought about anyone but himself.

In Trump’s mind, it all falls on Mike Pence’s broad, bland shoulders–the awesome discretionary power of choosing the country’s next president. True, no vice president before has ever exercised this supremely important constitutional duty, because they hadn’t known that it exists. But someone told Trump that it does, and he believes it because it’s his last chance to hold onto the presidency.

As a person who dined off the absurdity and ubiquity of right-wing conspiracy thinking for a time, I’ve constantly found myself at a loss for words these last four years. I’m like the doctor who wrote a book predicting the spread of a SARS-like disease two publishing seasons too early. How many times can I say the words “as I wrote”? How many times can I say, “it’s so much worse than I thought it would be?” It is, it is, it is. I’ve hated every minute of it, and I don’t for a second believe it’s over. We’ve been here before as a country. The fever breaks for a while, and then it comes back again. The irrationality, the bigotry, the hypocrisy, the self-delusion is never far beneath the surface.

In the event that Mike Pence chokes this afternoon, allow me to quote Dahlia Lithwick’s summation of Trump’s legacy:

Building a culture in which everything is probably illegal and every effort to stop it is probably futile is Trump’s legacy to the country.

The consequence of four years without consequences isn’t going to be a reversion to all the norms and values that came before. It will be a spreading of anti-democratic, illiberal, and purposively small, petty, performative shabbiness that will always seem, in the moment, too silly to matter, and that will continue to be, going forward, too important to ignore. Trump was always the symptom, not the disease, and our distaste for curing it will mean that we spend the coming years coughing, choking, and gasping for air, from something at once too trivial to hurt us and too contagious to be stopped.

It Never Ends

So here we are in the New Year, two months and more since Trump lost by seven-plus million votes, and he is still campaigning–last night in Georgia, last Saturday on the telephone, pleading with Georgia’s secretary of state to just “give him a break” and find him the 11,780 votes he needs to win the state, and 24/7 via his motley crew of surrogates since November 3rd. After his 60-plus failed legal challenges, all that he’d need to be “reelected” if he had Georgia in his grasp is to overturn the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and/or Wisconsin–or to simply browbeat his Vice President into refusing to confirm the election results before Congress tomorrow. As grotesquely authoritarian as his efforts are, as blatantly contemptuous of the “will of the people” and all that, they would be pathetic if there wasn’t a considerable likelihood that they will work. As the still-compliant Republicans keep saying, the evidence for massive Democratic cheating is blatant, obvious, and undeniable, except for the fact that it’s invisible and impossible to prove. Cruz, Hawley et al are betting their careers on Trump rather than democracy.

Trump won’t be able to hold onto power if he does pull off his coup, but how do we ever come back from this as a country? The children have been watching and listening. They’ve seen it all.


Millions of us feel re-enfranchised this morning. And almost as many know for an absolute certainty that the election was stolen by Obama–who is not only neither white nor Christian but wasn’t even born in the US.

Going forward, the word “Dominion” will have the same emotional resonance that “Yalta” did when I was growing up–or that “stab in the back” did for a certain generation of Germans.

Trump’s sulkiness makes me doubt he has the energy or the will to sustain any kind of movement going forward, and it’s hard for me to imagine Biden becoming the kind of lightning rod that Obama did. But who knows? When Trump came down that golden elevator more than five years ago, I never dreamed what would follow. What I do know is that mass media, especially social media, and conspiracism are an even more volatile mix than anyone–even me, who had spent the last decade reading and writing about conspiracism, and covering extreme right wing groups close up–could have imagined. In the coming years, there could be as many Q believers in state legislatures and Congress as there were anti-Masons in the 1830s. Whether it’s Trump himself, his son, or someone smarter and more capable, another demagogue will soon arise to spread another cognitive contagion–and no amount of warning labels can stop it.

What can? The only thing I can think of is a knowledge of history–including that which has yet to be written.