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The Pataphysics of Pandemic

Pataphysics: the science of imaginary solutions

This illness doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism or that reality is a fungible quotient. Donald Trump and his narcissistic mental illness is an entirely expected effect from this model. That idea that reality isn’t a firm thing and problems aren’t to be solved, but molded and managed to what you want—sadly that lethal idea really spread and took hold.

– Kathleen Wallace, “The Highly Contagious Idea,” CounterPunch

Polls, social media, and the legacy press show us that even though a bloviating galloping ego of misinformation is not the best bet to win a fight against Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump is nevertheless gaining in popularity and support.

This pandemic has certainly created strange times, but this triumphing of the Bloviator in Charge is stranger yet. But only if you fail to see what his magnetism is, fail to see the conditions that have brought him to us, like the virus itself.

Is he a con man playing the role of a Strong Leader in Time of Pandemic, a man suffering from a “narcissistic mental illness,” or our Rebel Leader fighting the Deep State?

Although what’s real is first always as it appears to us, part of our maturing understanding of the world involves a questioning of appearances. Reality may be something very different, as almost all of Shakespeare’s play show us. The daily appearance of President Trump on Prime Time TV in this time of pandemic is a daily reminder that he is in charge, that he is fulfilling his duties as commander in chief, as the War President. I anticipate a chest of medals colorful uniform shortly.

If, however, this daily show is not questioned, say by factual evidence establishing the case that he is not only an ineffective leader in the time of crisis but a deterrent to fighting this pandemic, we are left on the stage of appearances and here our president is a star.

If you have the time and the habits of mind and heart to question beyond appearances, you are probably not where most wage earners are, whose lives are determined by the essentials of staying afloat in our war of all against all culture. If you are positioned to question, say, our president’s words and actions, your conclusions may not measure up or outweigh your interest in your stock numbers.

What we are left with is that segment of the population who have the time and the habits of mind and heart to question appearances and do not allow their own investments, if they have any, to override the conclusions they come to.

I would say this last segment is in a minority in the U.S. They probably vote for the party that says it represents people and not profits, although any questioning of both Clinton and Obama’s years in office sees a divided interest and representation. For example, the Democratic Party neither represents Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Elizabeth Warren, and they definitely do not represent Wall Street. They want to evict, not occupy.

We can’t assume then that the order of things, say, since Reagan, has not sucked, to various degrees for about 80% of the population, before Donald J. Trump’s arrival. We sucked before Trump and probably will after until we learn the lessons of the need for solidarity and not wasteful competitiveness leading to the vicious results in which we now all must live. Before the pandemic the country sucked compared to other industrialized countries in regard to life expectancy, health care, education, wealth divide, child poverty, anything with the signifier “public” attached, global warming mitigation, adequate safety net and almost all categories you can find in The Economist’s The Pocket World in Figures. Capital assets and military might are our claims to American “exceptionalism.”

Even those living gentrified lives in the Paris of the New Brooklyn and elsewhere will face conditions that Steinbeck presented so memorably in his 1942 novel, The Moon is Down. No one wins in any way among those who have lost, especially if the winning is built on the losing.

You can conclude that when any professed egalitarian democracy offers three individuals whose combined wealth is equal to that of the combined wealth of the bottom 50% of the population, this is a failed democracy. Almost all such institutions were weakened and corrupted by an insidious economics that has no humane politics but has bought one political party outright and has pushed the other into a submissive acquiescence. Bernie Sanders knocked that sorry state of affairs in 2016 and again now in 2020 but it’s difficult to see the stronghold of the DNC giving up its obeisance to Wall Street, begun with Bill Clinton, though a President Biden will have a difficult time following that path.

What most immediately sucks right now is our pandemic response compared to other countries.

Trump will not become FDR, nor will we see a National Recovery Act which will make us a social democracy. No screenplay can put Trump in FDR’s place not only because government has always been an irritant to Trump, a power opposing his own personal will to power, but because he sees himself and not the government or science as the Master of the Universe, the vanquisher of the virus. His ego cannot allow anyone else on center stage in this pandemic drama which is of course opposing him, rather like the intelligence community, the legacy press, and the State Department, every Obama appointee, and indeed the entire U.S. bureaucracy detailed in the U.S. Government Manual.

None of our institutions have thus far succeeded in blowing a hole in his vanity. Now he asserts himself as Master of Pandemic.

Our president can bloviate that he has a special common sensical understanding regarding pandemics that can be set alongside the medical understanding of Dr. Fauci. In fact, President Trump will be preferred by a surprising percentage of the American population. But not so surprising when you consider that we live in a culture fed on the illusions of personal autonomy and a resulting belief in the superiority of our own opinions. If the President of the United States is like us in this, then his preference for his own gut reactions above an order based on knowledge is not only understood but admired.

We were besotted with our own opinions long before Trump.

No amount of emphasis is enough in pointing out the horror at which American individualism, personal free to choose greets anti-libertarian, restrictive measures imposed by government and an “elite” class of Never Trumpians. It’s not surprising then that Trump’s “Do What You Will” draws many to him personally. He does what he wills and crushes those who stand in his way. “Watch me run over all attempts to rein in my galloping narcissism.” All questioning of his words and actions then translate into an entrenched order’s opposition to the liberating rebel. The imaginary foe he presents is the Deep State. The obstructions to his freedom are everyone’s.

If you concoct a scenario in which Big Government is the problem, Liberals advance Big Government, both restrict your personal freedom, and, finally, your personal freedom is magically tied to Donald J. Trump’s then what you have is a kind of psychodrama, a kind of mass psychopathology that reason won’t dispel. You have the pataphysical world of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

And so, while Liberals are staged as restrictive and schoolmarmish, mostly on levels Americans want politics to stay out of, Republican politics of profit places no restrictions on your personal freedom. Being disciplined when it comes to what you personally want to do goes against the American grain, as much as turning toward the Hive Mind of socialism. Trump pitched his camp on this pataphysical imaginary ground and not on grounds of Voodoo economics, or any Chicago School, neoliberal, Paul Ryan view, none of which mean anything to Trump. Why learn anything if you already know everything? For some it’s a fully apped cell phone erudition; for Trump it’s his gut.

Trump’s personal and presidential freedom was threatened by the House’s oversight of his actions and his eventual impeachment trial. The legacy press threatens his freedom to save you. Dr. Fauci is the latest threat. He’s there not to save us from the pandemic but to make Trump look like he’s a dumb obstruction to beating this virus. Dr. Fauci’s intent, in a pataphysics view, is to make Trump lose in 2020.

We are deep here into illusions emerging from a society already riven by fears, suspicions and hate, especially, once again, of all attempts to thwart Trump’s own will to power. Restricting his personal autonomy or attempting to expose a personal will to power as illusions rattle and anger an American mass psyche. It’s on this stage, pataphysical and not rational, with Trump at the helm, that we confront this pandemic.

In short, we’re already ailing when it comes to recognizing conditions “close at hand” which defy our own will to power. Right now, it’s Covid-19, but the mother of that, global warming, is also close at hand and knocking at our illusions.

Daily, FOX News is broadcasting Trump’s briefings, allowing him to represent himself as not the Bloviator in Charge of yet another Reality TV show but a steady, reliable Captain of the Ship of State as it is rocked by this pandemic. Besides so presenting himself as a stable genius with some mystical understanding of pandemics, viruses and microbiology, he passes on each day enough misinformation, groundless assertions and predictions — all easily exposed — to warrant ending this daily invasion of an intelligent mind.

Predictably, however, 90% of Republicans rely on Trump for reliable information about the pandemic, and for that separate class, Trumpians who are of his party and only vote Republican because that’s the ticket where they’ll find him on election day, Trump, by virtue of his genius, is “the supreme arbiter in any issue,” including pandemics. This attachment to a man of all bullshit is of course dangerous in a time of pandemic. We can’t be bloviating in a time of pandemic. But he is and we don’t see it because we’ve already been living, mostly via social media, in our own spewed bullshit, or, more courteously, our own opinionating.

Covid-19 is a prelude; the real battle will be fought by those young now, the battle to reach a sustainable relationship with the conditions of our planet, the finite conditions that are so very different than the illusions of an ever-growing Dow Jones. Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump is setting himself up to be center stage when the pandemic is no longer the threat it is now. He will confer upon himself the Croix de Guerre and promise to make the market bullish once again. Joe Biden won’t have such a medal and he’ll face a deeply divided path in the Democratic Party as to how to deal with our Market Rule, which, of course, is the grounding cause of so much that sucks since Reagan.

We may also see that Trump’s refusal to become FDR, a need that will increase as deaths mount, will leave him as the villain in the piece, the president who left us all competing in Darwinian fashion for masks and ventilators, toilet paper and bread flour and enough space at home to stay six feet apart. We saw a poor, black population stranded after Katrina; now we are seeing the death toll of the same class of poor, black and brown victims of Covid-19. Enough to redefine what “American exceptionalism” means. That didn’t happen in 2005 with Katrina. We went on being Dow Jones mad and oblivious.

Maybe the libertarian Ayn Rand virus in our own American mass psyche will leave the whole battle against this pandemic to a matter of personal choice, of survival of the fitness, condemning government once again as not a help but a danger greater than the pandemic itself.

Perhaps what Reagan declared to be the three most terrible words, “I can help” offered by government will be greeted with widespread gratitude.

The 2020 election will reveal what lessons we’ve learned or ignored.

 

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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