So it begins: Alt-right binge-consumers of Macedonian faux-news feeds are waking up to the reality that Washington insiders will continue to run Washington. This is not a great shock to the rest of us, since it is insiders who tend to know things such as where the spare rolls of toilet paper are stored. And the very stability of our civil service is conductive to business as usual; we have all experienced enough congressionally incited brinksmanship shutdowns to know that it is our civil servants, not our politicians, who keep America’s social contract viable.
This is no doubt distressing news to at least some of the minority of American voters who cast their ballots for Mr. Trump. The naive hope that candidates will do just what they pledge to do while on the campaign trail has a certain innocent charm, rather like our children’s faith in the existence of Santa Claus. It seems a shame to see either illusion shattered; but reality has been well described as that stuff that, no matter what we think about it, won’t go away. Even appointing a cabal of climate change deniers for one’s cabinet won’t stop our feet from getting wet as the sea level inexorably rises and the polar icecaps melt.
But the larger problem is that we now have a robust population of reactionaries with delusions of persecution, who only seem to be interested in talking to each other in coded terms such as “Killery” and “cuck.” (I presume that the former is by way of a libel against our former secretary of state; the latter is more recondite but stands for “cuckold,” which seems to have replaced “sheeple” as the right-fringe term of endearment for those who comply with custom, civility or the law.)
Paranoia, unfortunately, as the respected teaching psychiatrist Sidney Tarachow astutely pointed out half a century ago, is one of the most difficult pathologies for even the most skilled doctor to treat, because the paranoid can always throw a frame around appearances and others’ speech by asserting that these are being manipulated (e.g., “Yes, but you would say that”).
Credence in websites that publish rubbish ungrounded in fact only adds to this epistemic challenge; if we read somewhere online that a former president was involved in drug trafficking, a paranoid predisposition will ensure that we will swallow such slanders whole even when there is not the slightest shred of hard evidence to support them.
So long as the paranoid alt-right is a powerless splinter faction and can be safely and simply ignored, their delusions need not trouble us and their sputtering rants may be safely ignored. But there have been moments in history in which cynical exploitation of that faction in a given society has produced worldwide disasters. Hitler got elected because his Nazi Party was able to convince enough Germans that at the end of the previous war they had been taken advantage of by the rest of the world in general, and by their own Jewish fellow-citizens in particular. The work of convincing them was carefully engineered by propaganda specialists such as Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, who would go on to head the Third Reich propaganda ministry, and Julius Streicher, publisher of the rabidly right-wing Bavarian newspaper Der Stürmer.
It is a pity that most of the people we know who are old enough to have fought against fascism in the Second World War are now one by one being called to their eternal rest. Let us pray that those who are left will not hesitate to recognize the pathological alt-right worldview as virtually identical to what they risked their lives to extirpate three-quarters of a century ago, and that they will speak up so that those of us too young to have lived through it ourselves may learn from their counsel, so tellingly validated by their wartime risks and sacrifices.
But in any event, what we do not want is to wake up one morning to find, as Pogo the Possum put it, that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Hence a commitment to truth, the cultivation of clear thinking and a well-regulated militia would seem our nation’s best hedges against an alt-right putsch.
Trenton and Painesville, Ohio