Author: Arthur Goldwag

Arthur Goldwag is the author of THE BELIEFNET GUIDE TO KABBALAH (Doubleday, 2005), ISMS & OLOGIES (Vintage, 2007), CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES (Vintage, 2009), and THE NEW HATE: A HISTORY OF FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE POPULIST RIGHT (Pantheon, 2012).

Things May be Tipping

I get nervous when I am feeling optimistic, because I understand that Trump and Trumpism are symptoms of a much deeper and systemic rot, but it seems to me that things are tipping pretty dramatically right now.

Michael Cohen’s testimony on February 7 is going to be a huge event, and Mueller’s report is likely to follow pretty quickly. If the report is suppressed, that will be almost more devastating than if it is released and it is certain to leak. And I can’t imagine that Trump will even deliver a State of the Union address if the government is still closed.

Yes, a Pence presidency will be worse in many ways than a Trump presidency, because Pence really does have an agenda and the Trump courts and McConnell’s Senate will back him up to the hilt and Lindsay Graham will become his favorite golf partner. And yes, it’s likely that the Democrats are going to make a mess of things during the primary season. But it really does feel like the fever is starting to break.

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The Big Plot Twist

…is that we are all characters in a bad work of fiction. It was a staple of the Twilight Zone and at least one science fiction story I can think of. I read it when I was a kid. The protagonist was this pathetic schmo whose whole life has been one ridiculous pratfall after another. At the end, he finds out that he is the comic relief in a Truman-show like TV production. Somehow he finds the producer, pitches a plot twist in which he becomes the hero, and turns his fortunes around. It was a silly premise but memorable enough that I never forgot it.

It doesn’t seem possible, but this is apparently true. It even features the “I alone can save you, believe me” riff. Could it be that the writers of the story that we are all supernumeraries in are so lazy that they are plagiarizing a ‘50s TV show? Click the video; you’ll be relieved to see that it ends with Trump’s arrest.

Accelerating the Climate of Hate

From the pay-walled History of Economics Review, which means I’ve only read the below quote and have no idea of the context, in re Volume IX of the Collaborative Biography of F.A. Hayek, which is way too expensive for me to afford:

“The pick of this volume is Arthur Goldwag’s brief, balanced and incisive analysis of the Austrian School of Economics, “Hayek and ‘The New Hate’” (Chapter 4), which focuses on his rather ambiguous relationship with hate-mongers on the American far right.”

Would love to see the book and the review some day!

Get me out of here!

This is an amazing moment from the G20–Trump abandoning the president of Argentina on stage, saying “Get me out of here.” Yes, he really is a dotard.

People who live on a diet of fiction expect life to follow its arc too–complications building to a climax and a resolution in which things tip one way or the other, to a sad or a happy conclusion. People who live on a diet of history and biography know that the arcs of lives and civilizations all tend to follow roughly the same trajectories–youthful struggles, brief maturities, followed by either an early death or a long decline.

I submit that we’ve been looking at the Trump presidency through the first instead of the second lens. And we need to recognize that we and not Trump are the protagonists of this narrative. Trump is a symptom of our civilizational decline. He is America’s having to get up and pee three and four times in the course of a night, forgetting the names of people we really should know, telling the same story over and over again, and waking up every morning with a back ache.

Mind you, I say that not as a pessimist, but as someone who believes that we can and will do better than we are, even if we’ve damn near killed the planet getting this far. I just don’t expect to live long enough to see a happy ending, never mind have it happen in the next week or month or year.

The Medium is the Message

I didn’t know what “pride goeth before a fall” meant until I got proud and fell. I didn’t know what “the medium is the message” means, until I started getting so much of my news from social media.

This morning on Twitter, I saw shaky phone-video of a drunken Irish lawyer berating Indian flight attendants while claiming to “run” BDS. “See?” Tweeter after tweeter said. “BDS is a racist movement, and its ‘leader’ is not just a hypocrite but a slattern.” I can and will get this kind of anecdotal garbage from the real social world too, but Twitter amplifies it and scales it and repeats it as relentlessly as a North Korean re-education officer.

If you want to know what’s wrong with Facebook, just look at how it leverages its own worst tendencies to its advantage, enlisting the ADL to deflect criticisms of Zuckerberg and Sanders as antisemitic, while retaining the Republican oppo-research firm Definers to attack George Soros as the presiding spirit behind attacks on Facebook.

Academic theory about the soul-sapping power of cults and the virality of paranoid conspiracy theory turn on their ability to create epistemic bubbles. Cult leaders do it through isolation, rape, starvation, and brainwashing. Conspiracy theorists do it by redefining reality. That’s what Facebook and Twitter do too, by allowing their members to customize their news streams, but mostly by using big data analytics to feed them an experience that will keep them clicking (and thus target-able for advertising).

The Morning After

Trump is a vicious moron, but he has the invaluable property of being a strip of human litmus paper–put someone or something in his ambit and you find out who/what they really are. Jeff Flake: sanctimonious coward. Ted Cruz: spineless opportunist. Lindsey Graham: sycophantic opportunist. John Kelly: authoritarian racist. Crown Prince MBS: Murderous tyrant. Marco Rubio: Ridiculous Little Man. Jeb Bush: Effete Legacy. Or on the other hand, Barack Obama: Great-American-whose- fatal-flaw-was-his-over-estimation-of-his-enemies. James Comey: Flawed-and-bathetic-narcissist-but-a-genuine-patriot-who-is-trying-to-atone.

Dip the whole United States in the Trumpist cup and you realize, like Trump himself might put it, that “We’re not so nice. We kill a lot of people here too.” The voter suppression in Georgia and North Dakota that shocks people today–the only difference now is that it is controversial. Back in the good old days that we all long for, southern blacks only enjoyed the franchise when the federal government put a gun to state authorities’ heads. Native Americans weren’t fully enfranchised until 1924 (the Dawes Act gave some citizenship in 1887, provided they rejected their tribal affiliation) and their votes have been routinely suppressed ever since.

The kind of incendiary racism and know-nothingism that Trump and Fox News have been spouting these last two weeks–that Stacey Abrams, a Yale Law School graduate, minority leader in the state House, voting rights activist, and even a successful romance novelist, for Christ’s sake, is prima facie unqualified for the job she is running for; that hordes of brown-people-with-diseases are being paid by Jews to storm the border–are bedrock beliefs for a good third of the country AND THEY WERE THE CONSENSUS FOR A LOT MORE OF US FOR A LONG TIME BEFORE. “Don’t be a baby,” as Trump might say. “Didn’t you read THE NEW HATE?”

Never-Trump Republicans can belly up to the bar and wax nostalgic among themselves about the glory days when William Buckley purged the crazies from their party (something that never happened) and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan personified all that was good and generous and prosperity-producing (they didn’t), but Democrats need to be more forward-thinking. Trump exposes the weaknesses of the old-line Democrats even more clearly than Bernie did.

I’m not blaming Hillary and Biden, or the Democrats who lost last night–far from it. In fact, I’m looking to some of them (Gillum, O’Rourke, Abrams) to lead us out of this wilderness. But I want to give Trump his due. By showing us how racist and oligarchic this country still is, by showing us how much more corrupt and rotten its economic systems are, how compromised and racist its criminal justice system, he has set a high bar before us. And after last night, we at least have a little bit of power, a foundation to work from.

Nothing worth doing has ever been easy.

Election Day

Somewhere in FIRE AND FURY, Michael Wolff described the 2016 election as a “rent in the space-time continuum.” For left-leaning political obsessives, that’s precisely what the last two years have felt like–a ghastly singularity in which the rules of physics are suspended, up is down, time runs backwards, etc. For millenialist evangelical types, I imagine it’s felt much the same, only in a good way–a foretaste of Jesus coming to restore the rightful rule of white men over women and the lesser races, and to punish the Jews and heretics.

And so I’m off to vote. Tonight, we’ll find out if Trump was a fluke or a harbinger.

It’s a big moment–like sitting outside the doctor’s office, waiting to hear the results of the biopsy.