The Week America’s Collective Bad Trip Resumed
Thanks to Kanye West, Nick Fuentes, Elon Musk, and (of course) Donald Trump
I haven’t felt quite like this since the afternoon of January 6, 2021. I’d felt this way many times over the preceding four years, but it began receding shortly after that horrifying day.
What am I talking about? The feeling that our country is undergoing some kind of nervous breakdown—that madness or psychosis or something demonic has erupted into our world of shared meaning and coherence.
Let me explain what I mean before I point to the sources of what I’m sensing at the moment.
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Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica in 1769, rose to become a French military commander and emperor, and died on the island of Saint Helena in 1821. If I encounter a person on the street in Philadelphia in early December 2022 who insists he is this same Napoleon Bonaparte, I will be quite certain he is wrong about this, which means he is either lying or truly believes it and is insane.
How do I know this? Because I know history. Because I know when the actual Napoleon lived and died. Because I live in a social (intersubjective) world in which widely trusted cultural authorities will vouch for these truths.
But what if other people on the street believe this man and respond to his claim as if what he says about himself is true? What if another set of “experts” emerges to proclaim that, actually, this man is correct? And what if this is followed by the belief spreading further and large numbers of people throughout the country coming to believe it? Before long, newspaper headlines and cable news chyrons scream, “Napoleon Bonaparte Alive and Well in Philadelphia,” as I stand back and observe the spectacle in disbelief and mounting horror.
At what point does this man become sane and I become the madman?
I don’t want this post to become an exploration of epistemological paradoxes, including whether it’s possible to maintain that a given proposition is false when the social context in which the proposition is uttered shifts to affirming that the proposition is true. That would land us in a debate about totalitarianism or maybe 1984 and whether Winston Smith can be coerced into affirming the truth of 2 + 2 = 5.
This is a post about a feeling. And the feeling isn’t one in which the whole world, except for you, flips from affirming X to affirming not-X. It’s about the feeling of living in a world in which some of the people—not all of them, but also not just one or a small handful—begin to affirm an alternative reality from within our still-shared world. I’m convinced the emergence and widespread use of the word “gaslighting” during the Trump presidency was an effort to name this feeling of our social world being invaded by elements of psychosis. That feeling repeatedly surged while Trump was in office, and it reached a peak on January 6, when the madness actually burst into physical reality and briefly tried to remake the concrete political world in its image. Since then, the madness has been in retreat, confined again to the margins of the online world.
Maybe you’ve surmised by now that the occasion for this post is, in part, Kanye West’s utterly deranged appearance (with Nazi-popularizer Nick Fuentes) on Infowars with Alex Jones last Thursday afternoon. That segment—with West wearing a black stocking over his head, playing with toy props, mocking at length the former and incoming Prime Minister of Israel in a high-pitched voice somewhat resembling Elmo of Sesame Street, and of course repeatedly expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler and Nazism—came just a few days after West and Fuentes dined with the former president of the United States. It also came after several weeks of Twitter’s new owner reinstating numerous banned accounts (some of the from Nazis), interacting with others on the far right, and retweeting some of their favorite memes.
The Infowars appearance was followed by lots of condemnation, but also by more than few prominent, influential people saying some version of “Kanye had a point about the Jews.”
How does this feel? A little like I’ve awoken from a life-long dream spent in a world that coheres and makes sense to find myself in the midst of a bad LSD trip.
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