The new season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast is about mass delusion. It’s about how cultural programming distorts the perception of reality. In the U.S., this story that we’ve told ourselves — America is great, and we defeat the bad guys, and we’ll also give you the means to buy as much stuff as you want — is profoundly pervasive. Ask anyone who came out of public school thinking, “What the fuck was that all about?” Every history lesson, every English lesson: The curriculum springs forth from a deep-seated cultural belief that we are here to set the standard for human civilization and government. It’s why guys like Francis Fukuyama end up bankrolled by political science departments in schools from Cal State to Yale.
I bring up Gladwell only because his journalism is chronicling the biggest story in the world right now: the collapse of democratic institutions in the United States. Now, he doesn’t explicitly cover this topic in his podcast (at least not in any episode yet), but his insistence on “mass delusion” as a journalistic beat is something that demands careful, critical attention right now.
“It can’t happen here.”
That’s the title of Sinclair Lewis’ vital 1935 novel, and I’d recommend any American political observer read it. The narrative arc is far more Hitler than Trump, but Lewis nonetheless points out the common-denominator factors of fascist rule: dehumanization, xenophobic “defense” policies, military supremacy, racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the White House, boundless protections for corporate power, legitimized cronyism and public corruption, and so on. If this sounds familiar, that’s the point I’m getting at. There’s a word for what’s happening: We’ve chosen to call it “authoritarianism,” or, more colloquially, “fascism.” It can happen here, too.
It’s important that we call things by their proper names. This helps prevent self-delusion and gas-lighting.
On a grander, nationwide scale, you can see how an unwillingness to use correct words can turn into tacit approval for authoritarian rule. This really isn’t anything new, in the historical sense. But economist Umair Haque, who’s been cited on this blog before, points out today that Americans’ cultural origin story inherently blinds us. It’s the same story Lewis wrote almost 100 years ago, wherein he eviscerated the mass delusion of post-Depression anger. Lo, and an angel appeared who willed away our penniless nights of hunger! And the angel said: Those other people will pay for our misfortune! And we saw that it was so, and it was good.
Because we defeat the bad guys, and we’ll give you the means to buy as much stuff as you want, there’s no time or cultural leg-room to even consider the slide into authoritarian rule. It can’t happen here!