Uncertainty reigns. It’s noon on November 4, the day after the election. The votes are still being counted. It is very possible that Joe Biden won the election, but today, right now, that feels like a loss. There was supposed to be a reckoning, a great sweeping transformation where the country repudiated the occupant, reclaimed some measure of democratic virtue, and chose justice over swaggering hate and self-absorption.
I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, a generally red place with vibrant pockets of blue. Last week, I noticed, a local fan had stuck Trump stickers on almost every stop sign in the neighborhood. When I went to pull one off, I noticed that someone else had already tried. Like that good neighbor, I, too, was soon defeated. Only the tiniest pieces came away, as if the stickers were principally designed not to be removed but rather to cling to whatever they were stuck to with infuriating, immortal glue. They are more like a stain than a sticker. No matter what happens next, parts of them will be there forever.
Trump continues to sow mistrust about the electoral system. I am thinking about two essays I just read with my students.
The first was Victor Klemperer’s “On a Single Working Day” from his 1947 book Lingua Tertii Imperii, or The Language of the Third Reich. Born into a Jewish family, Klemperer had converted to Christianity, was a WWI veteran, and was married to a woman who was not Jewish—all of which helped him survive the Nazis, barely, and in very reduced circumstances. He was stripped of his professorship and consigned to work instead at a Dresden envelope and paper-bag factory. The scene he describes in the essay unfolds there. By the time he wrote it, Allied bombing raids had become common over the city. The workers would crowd into air-raid shelters, and into strictly segregated sections: Jewish and “Aryan.”
Klemperer explained that many of his coworkers were not Nazis but that their minds had become “infected,” as he put it, with fascist thinking. It happened through language, through the use of words that people unthinkingly assimilated: words like artfremd (alien) and Rassenschande (racial defilement). Through words, Klemperer argued, the whole conceptual apparatus of the Third Reich was fashioned and replicated itself. In that sense, Nazi ideas were not “beliefs” at all—at least, not in the sense of things we imagine being adopted through some conscious process of contemplation and affirmation or decision-making. Embedded in pieces of language, the ideas that made the Third Reich were naturalized and normalized through daily use, and that restructured how people thought. And then those new structures became reality itself.
This was especially true, Klemperer suggests, of those coworkers who were not that good at what is often referred to as critical thinking (he says that one coworker, Albert, “was rather better at thinking” than another coworker, Frieda). For people like Frieda—though not just for Frieda—the steady repetition of concepts was a “mind-numbing drug,” a “poison,” that gradually seeped into the space of thought, replacing whatever had been there earlier. One day, in a gesture of kindness and humanity, Frieda brings Victor Klemperer an apple for his wife, who is ill. Then she asks him, “with a measure of inquisitiveness and surprise: ‘Albert says your wife is German. Is she really German?’” Frieda, though a non-Nazi, finds this information almost impossible to assimilate. She had so thoroughly “identified Germanness with the magical concept of the Aryan” that Klemperer’s marriage was literally unthinkable.
That, according to Klemperer, was how fascism was made and how it remade the world. It operated at a preconscious level, transforming the basic architecture that made thinking possible.
The second essay my class read together was Hannah Arendt’s extraordinary “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule,” published in 1950, following her first trip back to Germany since fleeing her homeland in 1933. Like Klemperer, the political philosopher was also intrigued by what Nazism had done to thinking, and her analysis also focused on words, but she was interested in what happened at the level of discourse and conversation—what happened, that is, when you tried to talk to people. What she found most striking about her former fellow citizens, she said, was their “flight from reality.” People in postwar Germany would argue over things no one argued about, about which there was no disagreement and no reason for debate, such as who started the Second World War. She described an “otherwise quite normally intelligent woman” who told her “that the Russians had begun the war with an attack on Danzig.”
Klemperer and Arendt’s diagnoses of fascism both focused on language but with at least one crucial difference. What Arendt described as a “nihilistic relativity about facts” was chosen. It did not happen to people through some kind of mental osmosis or without their knowledge, in the manner that Klemperer described. The fact that reality was no longer the “sum total of hard inescapable facts” was an option: “an incapacity or unwillingness to distinguish altogether between facts and opinion,” as Arendt put it.
My students and I were left with this question: do we choose reality and the structures available to think with, as Arendt said? Or do we adopt concepts through casual, unthinking use that subtly break and then restructure our mental frameworks? It is a question of agency and its opposite, of whether we actively seek out explanations that align with what we want to be true, or whether our minds can be unmade without our intent.
That question of agency and its opposite matters inordinately in the age of QAnon. The conspiracy theory, which has proliferated online and in public spaces, not only in the United States but also abroad, in Australia and Germany, for example, is in crisis, we are being told. Q has gone silent; the Q drops have dried up. Now that Joe Biden has given his victory speech and the media are actually referring to Trump’s electoral loss, Q people may face an eschatological turn, one that amounts to an existential crisis. Because his defeat would contravene Q scripture: Trump remaining in power is essential to vanquishing the deep state and the pedophile Satanist Democrats. But then again, Q has been wrong before and the ranks of QAnon have only expanded.
No one really knows QAnon’s dimensions, or how many people follow it, but those who do insist that elites in media, government, and entertainment dominate a so-called deep state. These elites are working to undermine the current president because of his mighty efforts to expose and disrupt their obscene designs.
Thinking about thinking, about how we know things, and belief, I have read a lot lately of what people have to say about QAnon. On the subreddit QAnonCasualties, you can read stories of transformations Victor Klemperer might recognize. People describe, in metaphors of the involuntary, how their fathers and boyfriends and cousins and spouses were transformed, often from Fox-viewing conservatives to Q folk. My parents, they say, “fell down the rabbit hole.” “My mom was sucked into QAnon.”
Even for the intimates of Q people, the phenomenon seems untranslatable. A sign of mass mental illness, some say. Others look at QAnon instrumentally and even psychoanalytically, asking what “purpose” it serves, what kind of projection it represents.
But it’s much more than a projection. Historically, in moments of fear and dislocation—as for example amidst a global pandemic—the prophetic voice draws adherents by offering profound insight: a vision of how things are, the way they have been, the way they will be, and what it all means. I just published A Demon-Haunted Land, about a crisis of knowledge at the end of World War II in Germany, precipitated by a dramatic erosion of trust following defeat and occupation and the revelations of the Holocaust. “Knowing things,” I wrote,
requires trusting other people as mutual witnesses to a shared reality, and trusting in the institutions that supply information that shapes everyday existence. Society itself could be reasonably described as nothing more or less than a system of commonly held beliefs about how the world works.
QAnon is compelling, at least in part, because it offers an encompassing alternative explanation of everything in a moment of profound societal mistrust. But, at least as important for its disciples: it also proffers a vision of a world purged of evil.
Who knows how many citizens of the United States take QAnon’s fictions seriously, or have come to inhabit a place where any shared understanding of the world has become harder and harder to imagine? All the yard signs about “believing science” will not pull them back. It seems to me that we have to confront as a society at least two core facts. First, scientific forms of explanation were not designed to and can never answer our most persistent and even species-defining questions: What is right and what is wrong? Why do we exist? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Second, for a lot of our fellow citizens, evil is as real and permanent and embodied a reality as granite. And a metaphysics of evil—via QAnon, among other prominent strands of American religiosity—offers explanations for questions of awesome significance. It clarifies. It unmasks. It reveals all. And like any apocalyptic prophecy, it divides the good (elect) from the evil (damned) in absolute terms.
Q empowers its adherents to engage in spiritual battle, to wage crowdsourced war on pure wickedness through their computer keyboards and social media accounts. The malefactors Q people have invented—those plotting to take Donald J. Trump down because he supposedly stands athwart their depraved machinations—are not, after all, garden-variety bad people. They are blood drinkers who eat babies and harvest their glands. They are cannibals. They are vampires. If you see the world that way, isn’t it your duty to wage war on such creatures? Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, it says in Exodus.
“Trump relents,” the newspapers told us on November 24. But things seem more absurd, more unlikely, and less real every day. It appears that fake candidates ran for office in Florida in three state senate races. The current president’s lawyer Sidney Powell (“recently disavowed,” according to the Washington Post, whatever that means) is flogging an affidavit from a former administrator of 8kun (one of the online forums for followers of QAnon) as “evidence” of a Venezuelan communist plot to steal the election from Trump. Four Seasons Total Landscaping is selling face masks and T-shirts to commemorate Rudy Giuliani’s now-infamous November 7 press conference. Tourists go there to pose for selfies. A reality that adheres to what Arendt called the “sum total of hard inescapable facts” just isn’t holding together.
QAnon of course builds its unhinged explanatory power on the creeping sense that the world has turned completely evil, and it proposes an algorithmically organized solution for it, of a sort. Q’s hardcore apocalyptic theology is an explanation of everything for a world of deep fakes, artificial intelligence, virtual influencers, click bait, auto-tune, troll farms, and bot wars. A world, in other words, that cannot be known through our senses in any ordinary way. A world that seems like a movie.
“Delusional ideas,” psychologist Richard P. Bentall argues in Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature, “rarely lack a nugget of truth,” but, he goes on to say, “the nugget of truth is usually distorted in some way.” And that truth, as Tim Maughan puts it, is this: “no one’s driving.” No one really understands, in any comprehensive sense, how the incredibly complex systems that run the world’s economy, manage its supply chains, and allow us to communicate work. If you wanted to pull back the curtain, to expose the system, where would you start? Increasingly, our world is run by technology companies and financial markets and automated systems that cannot reason or arbitrate but can compel our compliance. It’s not just a far-right talking point: our elections are vulnerable, and not just because of voter suppression. They are increasingly run by sophisticated, proprietary digital technology and companies owned by private equity, as Sue Halpern recently wrote, who answer to no one.
It’s a theme of Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation from 2016, as Maughan points out, and it was a theme of Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society thirty years before that. Try as we might, our democracies are not electing leaders for reform or change or renewal anymore. We are installing a succession of managers (of greater or lesser quality and character) who superintend the risk inherent in the exceptionally dangerous world we have made for ourselves. At this point, our problems are so densely interconnected and so overwhelming in scale, and our political and other systems so bereft of ideas—bereft, even, of comprehension—that hope for change becomes less and less tenable. Our leaders preside over a hypermediated phony reality that they can barely keep under control. But, if they are smart the way Trump is smart, the thinly veiled chaos provides them with chances for vast profit.
Is that why I could not help feeling a certain nostalgia—however illusory, however brief and uneasy—when I saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on stage that night, giving their acceptance speeches? Harris’s was rousing, passionate: she talked about sacrifice and unity, work and gratitude to those who came before. She talked about dreams and convictions and truth. Biden made a moral appeal, to “marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness.” He asked us to see each other again. He spoke to the American people of a collective vision, about how to set things right. Like the affectionate and even indulgent father that he is, he told us that we could do it, he knew we could. He said that our collective “refusal” to come together was “not due to some mysterious force beyond our control,” but a choice. That was a gesture, perhaps, to a country willfully, recklessly awash in conspiracy theories, apocalyptic religion, Fox News, OANN, and Q, but maybe also a stubborn insistence that we can take the wheel, take power back from the overwhelming forces shaping and distorting modern existence.
Both Biden and Harris spoke to a politics that the dystopic world we have created has superseded, if those politics—of something approaching real democracy, real equality, real community—really ever existed in more than isolated bursts in the first place. Both relied on a language rooted deeply in American collective memory, a language of religion and civic religion, one that still stirs many Americans to action and to faith. Biden said that we could choose to do better, be better. He spoke about our better angels and told us that we are good people.
Of course, Q, too, calls for a transformation: not a coming together, but one in which oppressors and monsters are identified, divided from the elect, and, God willing, eliminated.
I anticipate that seeing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris enter the White House on January 20, 2021 will feel, for just a moment, like a new day. There will be optimism and some of us, at least, will feel like we broke through something awful and now we can go somewhere else, somewhere better, be better.
And then it will be January 21, 2021.