From the Introduction
“Don’t make fun of madmen. Their madness lasts longer than ours. . . . That’s the only difference.”
--from “The Repairer of Reputations” in The King in Yellow
We like to think, most of us, that we live in a world that makes rational sense. The dominant cultural narratives of the industrial Western world portray the universe as a vast machine governed by rigid and deterministic laws, in which everything that will ever happen could be known in advance, if only we could just gather enough data. Our political expectations are much the same: we elect candidates to office because they claim to be able to make the machinery of representative democracy do what we want it to do, and the mere fact that things never quite manage to work that way never seems to shake the conviction that they will, or at least that they should.
It’s all a pretense, and we know it. The reason we can be sure it’s a pretense is that when some part of the world misbehaves in a way that won’t allow the fantasy to be maintained, a great many of us respond with rage. We aren’t baffled or intrigued or stunned; we’re furious that the universe has seen fit to break the rules again----and of course it’s that “again,” stated or unstated, that gives away the game. We know at some level that the rules in question are simply a set of narratives in the heads of some not very bright social primates on the third lump of rock from a midsized star nowhere in particular in a very big universe. Most of us cling to the narratives anyway, since the alternative is to let go and fall free into a wider and stranger world, where we can’t count on being able to predict or control anything.
Sometimes, though, the pretense becomes very, very hard to maintain. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in one of those times. It’s a source of fascination and wry amusement to me that the event that plunged us into a realm of paradox, that tore open the familiar world of half--truths and comfortable evasions and sent a great many of us spinning off into the void, wasn’t any of the grandiose cataclysms or cosmic leaps of consciousness so luridly portrayed by the last three or four generations of would--be prophets. It wasn’t the arrival of the space brothers or the Second Coming of Christ or the end of the thirteenth baktun of the Mayan calendar. No, it was the election of an elderly reality--television star, wrestling promoter, and real estate mogul named Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.
Just when we crossed over the border into nonordinary reality is an interesting question, and it’s one I’m far from sure I can answer exactly. Well over a year before the 2016 election, certainly, I noticed that something very strange was happening out there in the twilight realms of the American imagination, something that the corporate media weren’t covering and pundits and politicians seemed to be going out of their way to ignore. By the new year I was certain that politics as usual were about to be chucked out the window, and less than a month later----on January 20, 2016, to be precise----I posted an essay to the blog I wrote in those days, The Archdruid Report, titled “Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment.” In it I talked about some of the reasons that the bipartisan political consensus in the United States was coming apart at the seams and predicted that Trump would win the election.
In the months that followed I expanded on that prediction, watched in bemusement as Trump’s campaign turned nimble and clever while Clinton’s stumbled from one self--inflicted disaster to another, and caught my first glimpses of deeper and stranger forces at work under the pretense of business as usual. I started hearing about “the chans,” Pepe the frog, a forgotten Europop song titled “Shadilay,” and an ancient Egyptian god named Kek. In my blog posts I tried to sketch out a first tentative outline of the landscape of politics and consciousness that was coming into view as Trump’s campaign shrugged off the sustained attacks of the entire US political and corporate establishment and pulled off a victory that most respectable thinkers at the time considered utterly impossible.
It was the aftermath, however, that made it clear just how far we’d strayed into the absolute elsewhere. In the weeks immediately after the election, I thought that the tantrums being thrown by the losing side were simply a slightly amplified version of the sulky--toddler behavior we saw from Republicans after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and Democrats after the election of George W. Bush in 2000. I honestly expected that the Democrats, once they’d gotten over the ritual period of wailing in anguish because they’d lost, would pick themselves up, learn from the manifold mistakes their candidate made during the campaign, and figure out why a significant number of voters who normally sided with them had taken their chances on Donald Trump.
That didn’t happen. Not only did the tantrums keep coming, they turned more shrill and surreal with each passing week. . . . Meanwhile Trump began to use the overreactions of his opponents as an instrument of political warfare, bombarding the internet with carefully timed Twitter salvoes to keep his critics distracted while he carried out the most dramatic reshaping of the American governmental landscape in living memory. It really did look at times as though Trump’s opponents were under some kind of magic spell.
In a certain sense, of course, that’s exactly what was going on.