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Cult of MAGA: The Crisis, The System, and The Enemy

This is a pre-publication draft of a piece that appeared under a lightly different title in a recent Byline Times supplement on Trump, available here

In The Art of The Deal, Trump claimed that the decorative tiles in the children's room at his Mar-a-Lago resort were made by Walt Disney personally. When Trump's butler asked him if that was really true, Trump replied, “Who cares?”

Trump is a bullshitter. Harry Frankfurt’s little classic On Bullshit points out that the liar and the honest person have at least something positive in common: a focus on the truth. The honest person says what they believe is true; the liar what they believe isn’t true. But bullshitter, says Frankfurt, 

…is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

It's said we live in a ‘post-truth’ culture, and bullshit, in Frankfurt’s sense, is a part of that culture. Many accuse Trump of being a master of bullshit, casually firing off statements to self-aggrandise or manipulate uninterested in whether or not they’re true.

While Frankfurt’s characterisation of bullshit is intriguing, I think it’s too narrow. A lot of what rightly gets called bullshit is propagated by folk who do care about truth. For the most part, believers in astrology, demons, guardian angels, or spiritualist communication aim to aim to believe what’s true. To suggest that anti-vaxxer or Christian Science parents (who forego orthodox medical treatment in favour of prayer) don’t care about whether their belief is true seems absurd given they’re prepared to bet their child’s life on it.

So what about the Make America Great Again movement backing Trump? While Trump often seems uninterested in what’s true, I think his followers, for the most part, do care about truth. Yet I still consider the MAGA movement a kind of bullshit movement, alongside wacky conspiracy theories and religious cults. In order to understand why it’s a bullshit movement, we’ll need a more encompassing conception of bullshit than Frankfurt’s. 

In my book Believing Bullshit, How Not To Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, I outline eight key warning signs that we’re imprisoned in a bullshit belief system. There’s no single common denominator when it comes to bullshit: different belief systems tick different boxes. But before get into why MAGA is a bullshit movement, I want briefly to explore why our current political landscape provides such fertile soil for bullshit political movements to take root. I’ll focus on two key reasons, which I call The Crisis and The System. 

A crisis makes us more susceptible to bullshit. Medical crises, for example, make many of us vulnerable to quacks and charlatans offering miracle cures. Bereavement can have the same effect. Parents who have lost a child may be drawn to spiritualists who reassure them that not only is their child not gone, they can even be communicated with. 

MAGA also exploits a crisis. In both the US and UK, there is a growing sense of deepening economic crisis. Many feel it personally and acutely. The cost of rent and food is spiralling, wages are stagnating, job insecurity is increasing, and many neighbourhoods are in visible decline. Owning your own is becoming impossible for most. This, too, is a crisis that can make us easy prey for charlatans. The more desperate we feel, the more vulnerable we become.

Alongside The Crisis is what I might call The System. Many bullshit belief systems exploit individuals’ sense and fear that a secretive elite controls everything. Conspiracy theorists foster and feed off these feelings, encouraging us to believe the Illuminati or the Jews control everything, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Area 51 holds dead aliens, or the Moon landings were faked.

MAGA also invokes The System. Many ordinary citizens, both inside and outside MAGA, feel increasingly powerless and “left behind”. “They’re all the same”, is a common refrain. There is a suspicion that while those in control might pretend that we all have a choice and can exert influence through the ballot box, the truth is that real power has been stitched up. Behind the fa├žade of democracy, a corrupt and entirely self-interested political and economic oligarchy, is really in control. Some call it the ‘deep state’. 

The Crisis and The System combine to suggest that our economic woes are a result of a rather secretive and corrupt elite who act always in the own narrow interests at the expense of everyone else. This creates particularly fertile soil for a bullshit political movement to take root. If The Crisis is a product of The System, then solving The Crisis requires we take a sledgehammer to The System. And that is exactly what Trump and the MAGA movement promises to do. They promise to ‘drain the swamp’.

MAGA feeds on the widespread perception of The Crisis and The System. But is that what makes it a bullshit movement? Actually, no. There really is a severe economic crisis hurting increasing numbers of ordinary Americans. And it’s at least arguable that this crisis is in large part a product of a political system that really is increasingly corrupt, offering less and less real choice, and presided over by an economic and corporate elite. So perhaps the MAGA movement is right about something: the Crisis is real, and the cure really will require taking a sledgehammer to The System. In order significantly to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, we need to step outside of the fairly narrow parameters of the Overton window of ‘acceptable’ political opinion and do something comparatively radical. 

So if the MAGA movement might actually be correct about both The Crisis and The System, what makes it a bullshit movement? I think the answer lies in its identification of what I’ll call The Enemy: those who supposedly control The System and are responsible for The Crisis.

Who is The Enemy, according to MAGA?  It comprises the ‘woke mob’, cancel culture, immigrants, Hispanics, Black Lives Matter, the left, and those who wish to rob Americans of their freedom to own automatic weapons and refuse to bake a gay couple a wedding cake. The truth, of course, is that none of these groups are responsible for the economic crisis hurting ordinary Americans. Those chanting “Build the Wall!” and yelling slogans about BLM, Muslims, or the Woke are calling for things that will do little if anything to bring back jobs or reduce the cost of living. 

If there is a veiled elite responsible for their declining living standards and decimated high streets, it’s not comprised of these folk. 

Of course, MAGA does also focus on Washington, promising to ‘drain the swamp’. But ‘crooked Hillary’, the Democrats, and others with power and influence targeted by Trump are targeted, not because they’re part of self-serving financial and political elite, but just because they are an obstacle to Trump and MAGA gaining power. For notice that at the same time as Trump identifies “crooked Hillary” et al as The Enemy, he supports and enacts huge tax cuts that primarily benefit the very wealthiest and corporations. He’s a friend to any politician, no matter how flaky, who will support him. And he’s a friend to economic oligarchs, just so long as they don’t threaten him. The perception that Trump is champion of the common man and women against a self-serving financial and political elite, is, on closer examination, ridiculous.

It’s here that the bullshit nature of the MAGA movement becomes apparent. Trump is no friend to ordinary Americans. In fact, he appears to have little interest in their concerns, other than how they might be hijacked to further his own selfish aims. Trump and his supporters psychologically manipulate, constantly making highly emotive (often dubious and regularly downright false) claims about violent immigrants, rapist Mexicans, stolen elections, BLM ‘terrorists’, Democrat paedophile rings, Obama’s fake citizenship, and ‘shithole countries’ to whip up fears, hatreds, and anxieties. It is in the ways in which people have become convinced that Trump is a hero who will end their economic pain by smashing The System responsible for it that the bullshit character of the MAGA movement resides.



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