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American Black Mass

What do the celebrants of a Black Mass do when it ends? Do they take selfies of their macabre stigmata? Or, compose cryptic messages to Satan that are burned with sulfur incense? Or, emotionally exhausted, slump in front of the TV to watch a rerun of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

America is just concluding a Black Mass obscured as a Presidential election. It has been a protracted struggle between the dark humors of the national soul and the would-be exorcists to possess the inert mass that is the American public. The results of November 8 notwithstanding, the contest goes on. For all that will be decided is that Beelzebub is prevented from seating himself in the Oval Office – for the time being. Close to 60 million American voters will regret that he has been denied. Let’s be blunt. Americans are close to putting in the White House a borderline psychopath, a compulsive liar, a racist, a vulgar bully who abuses women and mocks cripples; a tax cheat, a grafter, a deadbeat, an exploiter of undocumented workers, and a crypto-fascist. Trump magnetized the attention of the public and media like no other celebrity – politician or entertainer. What clues do we have to discern how the country will handle the aftermath of the Black Mass for which he has served as High Priest?

One immediately thinks of catharsis. That, after all, is the emotional service provided by most religious rituals. They relieve angst, despair, sorrow or yearning by transforming them into something uplifting or simply transcendent. For “the Octopus” himself, the entire adventure doubtless has been one long catharsis – of rampant egotism, lust and vaunting ambition. It gratified all three in a manner beyond his wildest dreams. Here is the mercurial showman whose fame peaked as host of a “Reality” show now the star of the greatest production on the face of the earth – one that he himself scripted and directed. The ultimate irony is that he launched himself into the political theatre with the aim of grabbing enough attention (and votes) to strengthen his hand in negotiations with ABC over a new contract. Now he is assured to be in the national limelight whenever and as long as he wishes. And forevermore, Trump will play the highlight reel etched in his mind of this unbelievable and beautiful romp through wonderland.

How about the impassioned congregants and simple believers who were stirred by, and in turn stirred the prophet/saviour? Will they feel eternally gratified? Unlikely. They came not just for the spectacle. They dreamed of Armageddon. So close that they could almost taste it, with the High Priest smiting their foes on the march to the Summit, they can only feel let down. They cannot as much as raise their eyes without seeing the repellant anti-Christ enthroned in the seat of power. She who should be scourged and jailed. She whose followers should be subdued and cast into the fires of Hell – or, at least, oblivion.

These passions may not inflame the hearts and minds of all 60 million or so. Roughly half are just militant Republicans giving vent to their tribal atavisms. The others burn with varying intensity. They are stoked with varieties of kindling: Evangelical cravings for the true End Days; die-hard pseudo-patriots holding fiercely to their guns and manhood; flinty moralists tossing Planned Parenthood pamphlets into the bonfires of their Righteousness; the privileged who figure that Trump will give them an even better deal than the Democrats despite the latter’s being to the Right of Eisenhower or Nixon; and legions of folks who just hate the Clintons’ guts for one reason or another.

The future behavior of the last mentioned is easily predictable: they’ll continue to stew in their simmering anger, sit entranced before FOX NEWS and thrill every time some Republican makes a nasty crack about Her Ladyship in the White House. In other words, an extension of the anti-Obama campaigning without the pigment factor. The Republican leadership in Congress will do their best to accommodate their constituents by working en bloc to stymie every single White House initiative – whatever its merits, whether they agree with its substance of not. That has been their modus operandi for the past eight years. It worked magnificently: denying the Democrats the powers of office, pushing them further and further in a conservative direction, and gratifying the animal instincts of their supporters. It’s an approach that largely has immunized office-holders from Tea Party vigilantes without exposing themselves to massive defeats by the inept Democratic Party – except when it comes to Presidential elections. In truth, under these circumstances, the only substantial loss they suffer at the federal level is over Supreme Court appointments. Moreover, lest we forget, the Republican Party that is now co-terminus with the Tea Party is on a rampage in most of the state legislatures. And the party’s powerhouse underwriters have succeeded in compromising those few Democrats who still occupy Governorships: e.g. in New York and Connecticut.

So a Trump congregant in a place like Texas gets his daily bite of raw meat and an endless string of vicarious thrills – such as when the State Education Board considers adopting a state-wide high school Social Studies text that refers to black slaves as “migrant workers’ and calls Mexicans “lazy” people who didn’t deserve to keep their lands. An added adrenaline boost is provided by the Governor’s pitched battle to repulse any influx of Syrian refugees who could endanger the serene tranquility of the Lone Star state. That is some compensation for the postponement of Armageddon.

This is the Trumpian variant of a more general national trend. Many Americans have become world class complainers. They bitch and whine at whatever annoys them, thwarts them or frustrates them. One of the oddities of the contemporary American psyche is the contradiction between the still abundant faith in the country’s superiority – the pride in living in the greatest country the world ever has known, and the ready expression of grievance that so many things people experience aren’t right. The compulsive “I want” is now routinely followed by the instinctive “it’s not fair that I can’t.” This is the feeling that the Tea Party movement so effectively tapped to promote its own radical agenda. Diverting these free-floating discontents from the legitimate targets that have made their economic lives precarious and bleak, cynical leaders have directed it onto Washington and an array of scapegoats. In truth, this is more nihilistic primal scream than political program. Trump’s contribution is to validate the expression of this anger in 4-letter words while proving how far you can get with nothing but 4-letter thoughts. That attitude is now embedded in American political culture.

Right wing domination at the state level, and the liberation of blasphemous speech, cannot offset entirely the more fanatical elements of the Trump congregation’s sense of rejection at the Presidential polls.

For the True Believer needs more than the certain knowledge that he is privy to virtue and has achieved it in his individual self. True believers also crave recognition and validation by the larger community. Although they prize freedom and freedom of choice in the abstract, their deepest emotional requirement is to participate in a community of worship – of the same gods, of the same eternal verities, of the same symbols, of the same rites and rituals. A pagan or apostate or heretic in the Throne Room of the White House, surrounded by an entourage of unbelievers, is a constant insult, a blasphemy, a graphic denial of their most powerful wants and desires.

The Truth demands that all Americans be together in it. Genuine Americans share that ambition, ersatz Americans don’t. As the Grand Inquisitor pithily put it: “man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find quickly someone to whom he can hand over the gift of freedom….But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom. For the secret of man’s freedom is not only to live but to have something to live for” – be it their cherished weapons, their insignia of superior rank, their creed, their sustaining myths and legends.  That such a one is a buffoon marks the uniqueness of 21st century America. For Trump is a living contradiction of the values that these Christian Salafists supposedly hold dear: on abortion, on family values, on faith, on gay marriage. What he does offer is a tribune for their hatred. And it is fear and hate that now show themselves to be the emotions at the core of the Christian Right.

The miracle that is that the United States endures such self-mockery.

It is astounding how many remain atavistically aroused – and how few have come to their senses. That is evident not only in Trump poll totals or the thrill that has run through his crowds like an electric current. It also has captured the emotions of many well-educated, professional people who never have reconciled their youthful assimilation of primitive American mythology with a sober, mature understanding of reality. That is most troubling. To hear or to read men who have held very high positions in the military or Intelligence or business worlds express their excitement as Trump’s attacks on the Establishment, his scourging of the vile Clintons, his scorn for Washington shenanigans – and to contemplate imagined uprisings of virtuous citizens in “fly-over” American girding themselves to form militias in defense of their freedoms is a double revelation. It is witness to the durability of an emotion-laden narrative perpetuated by Hollywood and pulp political fiction, and it tells us that some of those expected to take on the task of calling the country to order are instead throwing spitballs around the classroom. Evidently, they imagine Jimmy Stewart as ”Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” decked out in Revolutionary War uniform, carrying an M-16, with a list of suspected Islamic terrorists tucked into his cartridge belt. Fantasies come at a cheaper psychic price when bought wholesale.

The height of their irresponsibility is their exultation at James Comey’s mischievous interference in the election. Their emotional satisfaction at bringing Hillary low takes precedence over their commitment to the integrity of the nation’s legal and political system.

The bigger question: will the self-styled “salt-of-the-earth” characters who constitute the mass of Trump militants continue to insist that the entire country defer to their bigotry, celebrate their ignorance, bow to their God, and bless their patriotic virtue? Most surely they will. They have been inspired and energized by the election. Their measure of future success, though, depends very much on how the rest of the populace responds. Trump himself, the Trump phenomenon, and the Tea Party that blazed his trail were creatures of American pop culture. They were the latest celebrity fad spotlighted by TV, social media, lavish magazine spreads. Even The New York Times, that self-appointed guardian of public rectitude, joined the orgy. There was a lot of money to be made from playing the game, from pandering to the bored and the boors with endless titillation.  Little different from treatment of the latest Kardashian escapade. Trump was thrilled and emboldened to launch himself into yet wilder orbits which, in turn, generated still greater celebrity attention. More revenue poured into the coffers of those who chronicled this spectacle –giving $7 billion of free air time for the Trump campaign in the process. It was the perfect closed feedback loop with the American public, per usual, the willing chumps.

Only since the conventions have the more sober and less grasping among all of the above awakened to the harsh truth that something very serious and very dangerous was abroad in the land. This was no longer just another spectacular. The faith that in an “exceptional” America nothing of fundamental importance could be jeopardized by our antic public life was shaken. How deep that self-revelation cuts into the American psyche ultimately will determine the meaning of our democratic Black Mass. If we cannot muster the fortitude, or lack the character, to do what we must….

The little bells are tinkling Kneel down

They are bringing the sacrament to a dying god

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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