The Shepherds' Crusade
Trumpism as Hysteria
I learned, in reading A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s history of “the calamitous 14th century,” about something called the Pastoreaux, or “Shepherd’s Crusade”—a movement in Normandy that arose out of legitimate fears and grievances (the trauma of the plague, famines brought on by climate change, deepening economic inequality, exploitation and oppression by the upper classes—any of this sounding familiar?) which were further incited by a prophecy spread by a couple of charlatans, “an apostate monk and an unfrocked priest,” that foretold a coming revolution that would overthrow the worldly ruling powers and establish a new, just and lasting order under God (not unlike the oracular pronouncements of QAnon—all the treacherous Democrats jailed or executed, Trump miraculously restored to office). It all culminated, maybe not unpredictably, in a massacre of Jews (some things never go out of style).
Tuchman mentions several other mass hysterias that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, including epidemics of compulsive dancing and self-flagellation. Their social and psychological causes are pretty evident in retrospect—this was the century of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War, plus the lack of any strong central authority allowed companies of former soldiers to rove the countryside raiding villages for provisions and ransom, murdering, raping, and looting. (A utopian model for libertarians.) But without any conceptual framework to explain them, the bizarre delusions and behaviors through which those traumas manifested themselves must have seemed as mysterious and sinister as demonic possession. Probably kind of the same way it feels now listening to your relatives, neighbors, or coworkers citing made-up facts from some alternate reality, or watching them fly flags that honor a sleazy real estate hustler who was a joke in the 80s.
I think that what’s currently being called “conservatism” in America—specifically, the MAGA movement, the cult of Trump—is best understood as a hysteria, not a political movement. I mean there’s an argument to be made that conservatism’s ideological rationale has always been halfassed window dressing; Lionel Trilling, in 1950, called its tenets “irritable gestures that seek to resemble ideas.” Republicans have cultivated a cheerful disdain for fact ever since Reagan. They tried to magnify tenuous scandals into impeachable crimes (Whitewater, Benghazi, Her Emails, Hunter’s laptop), and occasionally appropriated creepy conspiracy theories that burbled up from the base (Vince Foster’s “murder,” Birtherism, Democratic child-trafficking rings headquartered in pizza parlors). But this was all mostly still within the time-honored tradition of normal political lying.
With the freakish ascendancy of Trump, though, the party is increasingly—almost exclusively—concerned with essentially delusional issues, non-existent crises: the stolen election (and if I put “stolen” in quotes here I’ll have to put every other item in the list in quotes too, so please just infer them), the invasion by brown hordes from the South, the looming tyranny of public health precautions, rampant violence by Black Lives Matter, false-flag riots staged by Antifa, the burning of Portland, Critical Race Theory being taught in schools, homosexuals grooming children, trans predators lurking in girls’ bathrooms, Wokeness turning our Asgardians, elves, and mermaids black, Joe Biden’s closet pedophilia, the Great Replacement, imminent race war, and ultimate takeover by a Communist/Jewish/George Soros-sponsored New World Order. (Liberals have their own apocalyptic fears, like climate change and the attempted coup, a crucial difference being that theirs are demonstrably real.)
All cartoonish dream-fears that stand in for boring, complicated real-world anxieties their believers are too ignorant to understand, too uneducated to articulate, or too afraid to face: the collapse of America’s industrial base and ensuing epidemic of addiction, a healthcare system that’s turned into a protection racket and a housing market that’s an extortion scheme, a government increasingly owned and controlled by the rich and decreasingly accountable to its electorate. And they’re frightened by the mass exodus from Christianity and inexorable demographic dwindling of European-Americans. I actually can’t think of the last substantive issue for which conservatives offered any specific policy proposals. It’s all either reflexive obstructionism or childish fantasy: Lock Her Up, Drain the Swamp, Build That Wall, Stop the Steal. I’ve heard so many people marvel that they can’t talk to their parents (or siblings, or in-laws) anymore, can’t even argue with them, because they no longer inhabit the same reality. They might as well be flogging or dancing themselves to death in the village square.
You don’t tamp down a hysteria using the same tactics with which you’d defeat a political rival or outmaneuver an opposition party. There’s no reason to engage hysterics in argument, as though they were rational or persuadable; you might as well debate a dog barking at you from behind a chain-link fence. It’s worse than a waste of time to point out contradictions in conservative talking points or hypocrisy in their positions; to them, argument is a stalling or diversionary tactic, a laser pointer to keep us scrambling and pouncing at nothing while they install apparatchiks on school and election boards, continue dismantling democracy, and take away more of our rights. We’re not going to convince them of anything; they don’t want to compromise. Some of them may actually believe what they say, in which case they’re too far gone to disabuse of their delusions; others simply don’t give a shit what’s true or who’s right—they just want their side to win. It might be most accurate to say, of most of them, that what they believe is just a function, an expression, of what they want. To people whose psychology has been conditioned by fundamentalist Christianity, there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.
William S. Burroughs wrote an essay about hysteria during the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, an era when the dark ground of the American unconscious was fertile for moral panics: there were hysterias over child abuse in daycare facilities that got innocent people jailed, “recovered memories” of Satanic and alien molestation, and parental alarms that everything from rock lyrics to Dungeons & Dragons was exerting dæmonic influence on the impressionable young (my own intelligent, sympathetic pastor quizzed me about D&D). Burroughs recounted the case of an elementary school where, after one student fainted, dozens of others started keeling over for no obvious physiological reason. It was initially suspected of being a gas leak, but an investigating public health official was able to diagnose it as a mass hysteria sparked by a single popular girl, still recovering from a virus, who’d fainted in front of a lot of other students during chorus practice. (The original incident took place in Miami Beach in 1974.) The remedy is simple: to isolate the “leaders” or role models—the index case, or patient zero—and reestablish a normal routine as quickly as possible.
However, Burroughs writes, “when hysteria is deliberately and systematically cultivated and fomented by a governing party, it can be relied upon to get worse and worse, to spread and deepen.” Burroughs was referring to the cynics who invented the War on Drugs as a pretext to criminalize Blacks and radicals, militarize the police, curtail civil liberties, surveil the populace, and seize private property. The demagogues and propagandists now metastasizing throughout the Republican party either coöpt conspiracy theories already afloat in the conservative unconscious or invent new crises that express their base’s gut hatred of difference and fear of change—pretend apocalypses for their electorate to get apoplectic about, like little kids scaring themselves for fun. Social media provides a vector for rumor and propaganda to spread more virulently than ever, and an entire media empire now exists dedicated to disseminating disinformation that furthers the agenda of its decrepit billionaire owner.
When the Shepherd’s crusade started to spread, some nobles and merchants initially wavered in their loyalties, seeing potential advantages for themselves in the uprising. Currently the Republican leadership is embracing, or at least accommodating, the Trump cult, because they’re too scared not to. (“You gotta understand,” a friend who worked on Capitol Hill once explained to me about politicians, “these guys aren’t afraid they might lose their next election; they are existentially terrified they might lose their next election. Their whole identity is in their status, and if they lose that, they will cease to exist.”) Moderate Republicans—the old, respectable, merely-greedy-and-callous Republicans, who kept the bigotry discreetly ultrasonic—are being driven from office by a base that demands to hear their favorite bedtime stories over and over again, and ever-crazier dingbats and ignoramuses are winning local and state primaries. Even a violent insurrection that saw cosplaying yahoos exulting on the Senate floor has not daunted the intrepid suckups of the Republican leadership from pandering to the thugs who tried to kill them. But in the end, the middle classes in France sided with the throne, because the bourgeoise ultimately want stability, not chaos. After the movement began to threaten the Church’s priests, property, and seat of power, the Pope outlawed the aid and provisioning of the insurrectionists, and finally sanctioned violence against them.
“The Pastoreaux ended like every outbreak of the poor sooner or later in the Middle Ages,” Tuchman writes, “with corpses hanging from trees.” The days when you could deter an insurrection by publicly displaying your political opponents’ corpses are past, which on balance is probably for the best. But a serious threat to the rule of law and peaceful transfer of power needs to be decisively, and visibly, quashed. Dr. Joel L. Nitzkin, the official who investigated the Miami Beach case Burroughs referred to, said: “[Hysteria] must be promptly recognized and acted upon, or it will go on and on and get worse and worse.” The wannabe autocrats who’ve tried to undermine our elections and overthrow the government have to be prosecuted, lest more competent fascists to come calculate that our democracy is too effete and decadent to defend itself. Seeing Donald Trump in Federal prison for sedition (or treason, or espionage—whichever of the high crimes he commits daily they successfully indict him on first) might serve to deter the next generation of aspiring fascists waiting to take their own best swing at the republic’s crumbling façade. (Already Republican governors are showing off for their base by bullying scared trans kids and kidnapping immigrants to ship to liberal enclaves like teenagers TP’ing the neighbors’ lawn.) The best-intentioned arguments against pursuing justice for Trump and his accomplices abet autocracy.
But isolating patient zero is the easy part. Restoring normalcy now that the hysteria has been allowed to spread uncontrolled is going to be more difficult. Whether the Democrats—and the last remnants of the old, lawful-evil Republican party—still have enough self-respect to prosecute traitors to the republic remains to be seen; the bigger question, and the one more in doubt, is whether they have the political will, and enough independence from their donors, to address the deep grievances and disillusionments that led to this outbreak. What to do about all those true believers—our coworkers, neighbors, relatives—who eagerly gulped down whatever Fox excreted, who worshipped an obvious con man like some sadistic toddler-god? Forgiving them necessarily means regarding them with a kind of condescension—as too gullible and dumb to be treated as adults to be held responsible for their own decisions. Maybe we need to treat them like patients, the same way we’d treat kids we have to take to the doctor, or pets to the vet; because they’re frightened and don’t know what’s good for them and will reflexively fight it, we just have to gently force-feed them universal health care, a living wage, progressive taxation, debt forgiveness. They’ll never know what we’ve done for them, or appreciate it, but maybe, eventually, without ever grasping the causality, they’ll realize they feel better, and forget their crazy fantasies.
It's easy to feel defeatist about the ascendancy of fascism in this country. There’s a pre-apocalyptic feeling in the air, like the smell before a storm, or a bad noise your car is making. Republican politicians are warning (i.e. threatening) that people will “riot in the streets” if the Dear Leader is arrested. The convict-to-be promises “problems like we’ve never seen in this country” if he’s cuffed. Last I read, 40% of Americans think civil war is likely in the next decade. And hysterias are sometimes lethal: Jews are massacred, women burned. It’s certainly possible we’re in for a constitutional crisis or major civil unrest. The threat of Trumpist flunkies being installed in positions of power over elections is imminent and serious. No doubt if Trump is arrested (or flees the country with gold lamé pillowcases stuffed with supporters’ donations), his fanboys will go berserk on social media and pelt random public officials with death threats. A few deluded rubes will probably get themselves sent to prison for plotting half-assed assassinations, killed while shooting up Federal buildings, or blow themselves up building bombs in garages. And yet—
I don’t normally play the role of optimist, but implausible though it may sound, while it’s still hideously thriving, it’s possible that, once its figureheads are defeated, discredited, or incarcerated—and, more importantly, so long as its deeper causes are addressed—this current hysteria will just blow over. Dr. Nitzkin recalled of the afflicted elementary school, “It was amazing how quickly everything got back to normal.” Remember the “Truthers” who said 9/11 was “an inside job” and erected fabulously elaborate conspiracy theories about dummy planes and crisis actors? How about everyone who thought that Communists were infiltrating the government, sponsoring the civil rights movement, putting fluoride in the water? Whatever happened to those guys? Did they finally acknowledge that there was just no evidence, it didn’t really hold together now that they thought about it, maybe they were wrong after all? Of course not. Nobody took them seriously and eventually they got bored and moved on to ever crazier conspiracy theories—QAnon, microchips in vaccines, Trump won.
The same thing could eventually happen to Trumpism: all those fervid cultists will vow to mount heroic last stands when the Feds come for their guns or the libs cancel Christmas, but the Feds will never come, Christmas will, and instead of going out in an Alamo blaze of glory they’ll just get old ranting on Facebook. Most of them will just move on and pretend that they never fell for that crap, the way old segregationists do. There won’t be a new American revolution, or a second civil war. The South will never rise again. And after its last panicky spasms have passed, the Old Fat Frightened White Rural Christian Man vote will continue to diminish, increasingly ignored, irrelevant, forgotten. Until one day, decades from now, on some unmarked occasion, a couple of middle-aged siblings, having flown from their respective cities to deal with their late father’s estate, will take down the last tattered TRUMP flag, its letters faded to illegibility. “What’s this thing?” one of them will ask. The other will just shrug and shake her head. “Who cares,” she’ll say, moving on to the next worthless totem. “Just toss it.”
 Donald Trump actually invoked some of these issues during his candidacy, but did not exactly scramble to address them once elected. To be able to believe that Donald Trump actually cares about his electorate belies a gullibility borne of desperation that I can only call piteous.
This is the most fulsome treatment/analysis of our current devolution as a nation I have read…and I’ve read a lot. Personally, I hold no single individual responsible. Nevertheless, it will take all of us to recover from this hysterical and historical dilemma we find ourselves in. Is it possible? Frankly I have to say cautiously …“maybe”. But this piece gives me more hope than I thought I had. Pogo was correct of course, “We have met the enemy and he is us”!
Blame is a dangerous game to play when a potential existential crisis lies ahead. It can and will distract us from finding salvation for our collective sins. Let’s ALL remember that we ALL have played a part here.
The flow of this piece captivated me. As for the “and yet--“ alt-reality/utopian world-building optimism at the end, I want to believe. I truly do.