This was no ordinary election. By now, you know that. But I mean it in a slightly different way. Not just that Trump’s still trying to steal it, and the GOP’s in cahoots. No, I mean that this election was something like a census of American Idiots.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ve been hearing stories like this. A nurse talks, bewildered, desperate, about people in the Covid ICU. Who are gasping for breath. Plenty of whom go on to die. And as they’re oxygenated and ventilated and intubated, in rage, in fury, they lash out…going right on…denying Covid exists.
What the? How do…deny the existence of Covid…while you’re on your possible deathbed…in the Covid ICU?
And yet you know and I know. This is, unfortunately, tragically, grimly, the phenomenon that I call the American Idiot. The entire world knows by now. Sane Americans shake their heads at such people. But the rest of the world is genuinely staggered, jaw-dropped, banging their heads against the table. How do people even end up like this? So amazingly, well, idiotic? Why does America seem to breed this special kind of person, the American Idiot?
I don’t mean idiot in the way of an insult, by the way. To the Greeks, “idiot” was the ultimate term of scorn. Idiots were the most contemptible people in classical society. Why? The term really means, in the classical context, “people who are consumed only with self-interest.” And to the Greeks, the progenitors of democracy, nobody — nobody was more dangerous than an idiot.
Their reasoning went like this. Should enough of a society be consumed solely with self-interest, a society would soon enough cease to be a democracy. People only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common wealth or shared interest. They can’t exercise any of the following virtues: courage, compassion, truth, beauty, grace, generosity, kindness, humility, all of which are allocentric, meaning “other-focused,” not egocentric.
So what will happen to such a society? They reasoned that when a society hit a threshold of idiots, it would soon enough lapse into poverty, and then into tyranny. Idiots can’t build a society with any kind of public goods — for the Greeks, that meant things like trust and self-governance. Today it means all those plus healthcare and retirement. Because people wouldn’t be able to provide those things for themselves, as a society, they’d soon enough try to exploit each for them. Society would degenerate into a kind of snake eating its own tail — each person trying to exploit the next. Such a society would lapse into cruelty, hostility, anger, stupidity, ignorance, and folly — barbarism.
And soon enough, a demagogue would come along, who would prey on all those fears — conjuring up imaginary enemies, twisting rage into hatred — and democracy would flash out of existence.
It’s a good theory, when you think about it. What’s remarkable about it is how much more sophisticated and nuanced and intelligent it still is, all these thousands of years later, than what passes for modern economics and political science, which is all too often superficial nonsense. But does the theory hold up?
You only have to look at America, the Land of the Idiots. This election does something remarkable — it gives us a comically exact headcount of American Idiots. There are 73 million of them. That’s how many people voted for Trump.
Am I saying Trump voters are idiots? Of course I am, duh. Again, not as an insult, but as an observation. In the classical sense: people consumed with the narrowest definition of self-interest possible.
Think about the Covidiots for a moment. There they are, in the ICU, gasping for breath…raging at a poor nurse…screaming at her that Covid doesn’t exist. That’s an idiot. It’s someone whose self-interest is so extreme they can’t even admit the possibility that a lethal pandemic exists, because the whole world centres around them.
There are so, so many kinds of American Idiots. The ones who proudly carry guns to…Starbucks…and make their kids do “active shooter drills,” which, for the rest of the world, means that masked armed men burst into schools, pretend to shoot kids and teachers, and they have to pretend to die. The ones who voted against healthcare…again…in the middle of a literal pandemic. The working class heroes who’ve denied themselves retirement for fifty years now…while Wall St laughs. There are the ones who try to pray the gay away and think women should be relegated to child-rearing and domestic chores.
There are so, so many kinds of American Idiots that I’ve barely scratched the surface yet. The truth is that the above kind are the relatively benign ones. Then there are the Proud Boys, literal white supremacists…whom the President put on “stand by.” All those “militia-men,” meaning pudgy dudes with guns playing Rambo. You might think all that’s just a joke, but it’s not — this group is something very much like America’s ISIS. It recently planned to kidnap politicians and assassinate them on live television. They’re domestic terrorists, every bit as extreme as militant Islamic fundamentalists.
What’s remarkable about Trumpism is that it’s the Death Star of the American Idiots. Trumpism unites all the various kinds of American Idiots. In a kind of epic, colossal suicide pact.
What are the American Idiots really fighting for — whether they’re religious fanatics, Covidiots, gun nuts, or bigots? Free-dumb. In the rest of the rich world, freedom now has a modern meaning — it means something like “the set of rights that enable one to enjoy a decent life, from healthcare to retirement to income to childcare to dignity.” But in America, freedom means something so different it’s diametrically opposed: the right to do whatever you damn well please, no matter how harmful it is to anyone else, yourself, your city, town, country, or your loved ones.
Free-dumb is individualism gone thermonuclear, taken to its most absurd outer limits. It means that your right to carry a gun to Walmart is more important than kids getting educations. That you can teach your kids whatever kind of nonsense you want, instead of educating them to be proper members of a civilized society. It means that Justice Amy Coney Barrett can belong to a religious cult with no separation between private and public life — and that’s perfectly OK, nobody should question it. That you can go on “believing” Covid doesn’t exist, while you’re dying of it.
Free-dumb, this fanatical ideology of toxic individualism, is what unites the American Idiots. They’re all pursuing some flavour of it. And what Trump did was give all the various kinds of American Idiots the license to be as extreme in their pursuit of free-dumb as they ever wanted, and then some. Don’t want to wear a mask? Great! That’s your choice. Don’t want to believe in science? No problemo! Don’t think minorities are human beings? Excellent! Are women just there to bleach their hair and serve men? Well done!
Trump, being the ultimate American Idiot, gave every lesser kind of American Idiot a licence to light little fires of idiocy across the land.And now they’re burning out of control. America can’t get a grip on Covid, because the Covidiots keep right on spreading it…since they don’t believe it exists in the first place. Politics is burning down, since the vast majority of Republicans apparently believe the election was rigged. Society can’t make any progress, because the idiots block even the smallest iota of it, crying like big slobbering babies that their free-dumb is under attack. The smallest kind of cultural progress — gay rights, womens’ rights — are at constant risk of reversal, because the idiots can’t abide anyone else being a true equal, since the world has to spin around them, and their ignorance, stupidity, rage, and superstition.
How did all this come to be? Trump printed a licence for every American Idiot to go out and set fire to their own neighborhoods, sure — but why did they think that was a good thing to do? Because America’s a country so backwards it’s hard to explain just how the American Idiot ends up thinking the bizarre things they do. Certainly, the internet reinforces it. Visit an American bookshop, and most of the best-sellers are fanatical right-wing screeds. And American education is something you can opt out of.
So American idiocy is a kind of complex cultural problem right about now. The American Idiot is, we know, three things. One, less educated, as in, often, not very educated. Two, white. And three, downwardly mobile. Those give us standard explanations — the downwardly mobile lash out at even more powerless groups in society, in resentment and rage at their fall. That explains Trumpism’s virulent hate and bigotry.
But what explain Covid patients…on their deathbeds…denying Covid exists?
I think that in the end, all this goes right back to slavery. It set up a kind of Nietzschean-Darwinist dichotomy, which America has never overcome. The strong survive, and the weak perish — deservedly so. Either you’re strong or you’re weak. The weak are subhuman — they deserve their exploitation, abuse, and suffering, because they are liabilities and burdens the rest of us must carry.
If you believe that moral logic — even if you don’t really know you believe it, if it’s something you’ve just imbibed from your parents and elders and towns and cities, like breathing in the air — where do you end up? You end up with five super, super toxic qualities. One, you’re toxically indifferent: you’re unable to care about anyone else very much, because for you, suffering is a form of weakness. Two, you’re toxically fatalistic: you believe everyone deserves what they get. Three, you’re toxically individualistic: you believe that nobody deserves anyone else’s support. Four, you’re toxically reductive: you believe life is black and white. And five, you’re nihilistic: you believe that nobody has any intrinsic worth or value, not even yourself.
You become a kind of twisted, absurd moral caricature, in other words. You think kindness is denying people healthcare — because it teaches them a lesson. You think compassion is making kids pay lunch debt — because it teaches them “fiscal responsibility” (and no, that’s not even what fiscal means.) You think that to show caring, concern, empathy, thoughtfulness or curiosity is weakness. And you think, as you get a lethal disease, and you gasp for breath, that this can’t be happening to you, that it doesn’t exist, because you’re not one of the weak, the hated subhumans — that’s what being intelligent is.
This is the kind of person the world laughs at. Not in glee, even, anymore — but in horror. The world laughs because to most of the rest of it, people so twisted are genuinely almost impossible to believe in. Such people don’t seem to exist — at least in large social blocs — anywhere else in the world.
I’m not kidding. In Pakistan, for example, I can literally buy machine guns or even grenade launchers at the market. But nobody’s shooting up schools and carrying them to Starbucks. Nobody’s suggesting that they’re more important than education, healthcare, or jobs — no, not even the conservatives.
The only real analogue the world has to the American Idiot, really, is movements like the Taliban, or ISIS. Movements who are so fanatical that they develop what Americans call “alternate belief systems.” They believe 72 virgins await them in heaven. The American Idiot believes Covid doesn’t exist, and they can’t get it. That a gun, not healthcare, will protect them from frailty. What’s the difference, really? Not a whole lot. Both of these social groups have developed something like mass, collective delusions, which they cling to inextricably, which nobody can prise away from them, superstitions they believe have the power to save them, which just means make them supreme. It always comes back to supremacy, this problem of human stupidity.
So were the Greeks right? Take a hard look at America, the Land of the Idiots. This election was a census of them, which gave us a precise headcount. America has 72 million American Idiots. What do you about that many idiots? People who vote, ardently, cheer on, applaud, crave, their own self-destruction? Because — just as for ISIS or the Taliban — it’s the one thing that proves their own supremacy, the ultimate test of strength and manhood and all the rest of it? What do you about people so foolish they don’t “believe” in the virus that’s putting them in the ICU?
I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The bad news is that nobody knows. Extremists and fanatics like this destroyed the Islamic world in record time — no, it wasn’t always the backwards place it is now. The good news is they tend to self-destruct. Idiots are martyrs. ISIS and the Taliban are happy blowing themselves up. American idiots are happy denying themselves healthcare and retirement and getting Covid. But also spreading it. The question is, then, how many of us go down with the idiots, as they self-destruct?
The Greeks were right. There is no greater curse for a society than a surplus of idiots, and no greater danger to it than it crossing a threshold of enough idiots. They do lead a nation to ruin, by way of indifference, fatalism, nihilism, selfishness, stupidity, brutality, and violence. They are unable to exercise the basic virtues of goodness, truth, compassion, wisdom, kindness, and concern. This most ancient of political theories — how strange that it’s turned out to be the most accurate one of all. After all, you only have to take a look at America to see it, laughing and shaking its head, down the millennia.