When Moses went up Mount Sinai, the Israelites grew restless and constructed a golden calf to worship. Every Jew and everyone with any theological literacy knows what happened next. So it came to pass that, last weekend at the annual convention known as the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States, a giant golden statue of Donald Trump was wheeled around, drawing adulation and selfies. With an apparent absence of irony, the defeated president was transformed into a literal golden idol.
CPAC has been an annual shindig for Christian and other religious conservatives, libertarians, right-leaning economic thinkers and a big tent of the country’s centre-right. As evidenced by last weekend’s iteration, it is now, like so much of that country’s political establishment, in thrall to Donald J. Trump.
This is the latest in an avalanche of evidence that, despite losing the election, Trump maintains a stranglehold on the Republican party and much of the country. The literal idolatry he inspires deserves fresh consideration. It is the inevitable end-point (we hope) of a trend that was predictable.
It is easy – and not wrong – to view the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as domestic terrorists who threatened the very foundation of American democracy. But these people view themselves – or, at least, some do, based on interviews after the incident – as saviours of democracy. They (or, at least, many of them) genuinely believe that the election of Joe Biden was a result of a rigged process; that millions of votes were stolen or some other jiggery-pokery ensured that the true voice of the people was thwarted.
They believe this because they have been told, repeatedly and as recently as last Sunday at CPAC, by Trump, the man they believe won the election, that the process was rigged, that American democracy has already collapsed and that the election was stolen. Thus, we observe people attempting to steal a free and fair election carrying signs demanding, “Stop the steal.”
Certainly, some recognize that the election was fair but hop on a bandwagon arguing otherwise simply because they dislike the outcome. But there are many who are absolutely convinced that corruption and trickery unjustly deprived Trump of a second term. More alarmingly, a subset apparently believes in an entirely alternate reality, in which Trump is still president, operating the “legitimate” government from his Mar-a-Lago retreat or, even more fancifully, that a series of events is yet to unfold in which the election will be proven wrong and Trump will triumphantly return to the White House.
Listening to the comments of some Americans on cable TV or in online sources is chilling. It is hard to decide whether the scarier position is the one that winks at the truth, as many Republican members of Congress do, claiming disingenuously that they merely want to investigate to make sure the election process was fair, or the one that is rooted in thin air, asserting, despite all evidence and scores of court decisions, that Trump was cheated.
There is much talk of the political polarization that the United States and other countries are experiencing, a result in part of a refraction of the media universe. We are now all capable of consuming a diet of news and information that completely reinforces our prejudices. Combined with a charismatic (to many, anyway) leader who repeats lies endlessly while stoking a narrative of grievances, this refraction has led not to differences of opinion but to incongruities about the very facts of history and current events. To use a condescending and clichéd construction, the people who are convinced Trump won are themselves victims of their leaders’ lies.
This is not to let either side entirely off the hook in this time of division. Much has been made of perceived snobbery that dismisses or diminishes the intelligence or goodwill of Trump supporters. Terms like “wokeness,” which suggest one side has awakened to incontrovertible truth while the rest of the world is mired in somnambulant ignorance, do not leave much room for constructive dialogue. The certainties of the left are visible online and on cable news as well, if for now at least founded more sturdily on a foundation of reality.
There is much talk of healing the divided society that Biden has inherited. Even this elicits disagreement, however, with some demanding accountability for the egregious oversteps of the Trump era before moving on to making nice.
This challenge runs deeper than politics. The United States may be an urgent example but all societies must confront the divisions created by the diffusion of information and contested ideas of “truth” in the internet era. This is a challenge for educators, for elected officials, for thinkers and activists and, significantly and problematically in a free society, for media.
A society requires some shared understanding of reality. When we are literally arguing over the definition of truth, when terms like “alternative facts” are uttered without a smirk, we have a problem. To say nothing of a chunk of the population who reject science, including denial around whether a virus that has killed more than 500,000 Americans actually exists. This is a desperately urgent, possibly existential, challenge for democratic societies. The first step may, as in other cases of human behaviour, be acknowledging we have a problem.
Trump exploited, and continues to exploit, a situation in which it is possible to convince large swaths of people that up is down and black is white. But, while he makes excellent use of the ambiguity of our time, he is a product of it. Whether Trump remains an influential figure or not, we have inherited a world where others like him will emerge from a miasma of mistruth unless we find some common foundations of fact.