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Phantasmagorical Beliefs a Deadly Real-World Threat To America

Sometime last year, I was watching Spike Lee’s great recent movie BlacKKKlansman, which is based on a true story of a Black police officer who infiltrated a local branch of the White terrorist organization. The movie includes lengthy clips of racist radio rants by David Duke, re-recorded verbatim. My wife and I were watching the movie at home, and I was giggling helplessly at the absurd craziness of these rants, until she turned to me and asked what the hell I was laughing at. I stopped laughing because she was right: real people believe this evil stuff and act on it to hurt other real people. Real people like my wife’s great-grandfather, a Hungarian Jew who was shoved into a cattle car along with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, who were all taken to Auschwitz and murdered with Zyklon-B gas because the Nazis sincerely believed their absurd fantasies about Jews.

I think I was laughing because I’d grown up associating the KKK with the magnificent mockery Mel Brooks deploys against it in his 1974 movie “Blazing Saddles.” I continue to believe that mockery is a brilliant weapon, both offensive and defensive, to use against murderous racists, because their beliefs are absurd. It’s a weapon I’ve learned how to wield myself, but one must be realistic about its limits. Brooks himself was a U.S. combat soldier, fighting the Nazis in World War II in Europe, and while he tells a well-worn tale of making the Germans themselves laugh on the battlefield, he obviously didn’t think that was enough to defeat Hitler, or he wouldn’t have been out there on the battlefield.

It is quite rightly said that the transformation of the Republican Party into a fascist entity began long before the rise of the dictator, who only catalyzed and aggravated longstanding malign trends. This is an unspeakable tragedy for what was within living memory one of the world’s most venerable democratic political parties, born in “free soil” opposition to the spread of racial caste slavery in America. But it is an immeasurably greater tragedy for the United States, which may not survive at all, or at least not as a free republic, and for the hopes of non-Americans who have always looked to this country as a beacon of liberty.

Why has this happened? All major historical shifts have multiple complex roots, but the biggest single one in this case is the rapid spread of dangerous “race” and false-religion-based delusions. The late Hungarian-born American historian John Lukacs says somewhere that what happens in history is to some extent inseparable from what people think happens. This may seem like a truism, because we might define history as nothing more than the study of the beliefs of human beings and what happens when they put those beliefs into action. In periods like the present, however, we can see the terrifying force of this aphorism. For the details, I can do no better than to recommend Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. In brief, though, dangerous delusions are by no means limited to the MAGA “right.” One major example that has already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans is “antivaxx” beliefs. Until the dictator politicized the COVID-19 pandemic, such beliefs were associated more with the “left,” incarnated in such figures as Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Mayim Bialik. And we should not tell ourselves, even now, that all of the resistance to masks and vaccines comes from MAGAs.

Now, it is impossible for human beings to live in reality all the time. We are all fallible, and we are all convinced of things that just ain’t so, and some of these false beliefs are so deeply culturally embedded, we will never even become aware that they can be challenged. But that’s neither here nor there, because some false beliefs are harmless or even socially beneficial, while others do incalculable harm. The worship of power, brutality, and open racism that I loosely term “fascism” is in the latter category, but in the short term this ever-present mass temptation “works” for those who wield it. That is the real reason why the GOP has the aura of the “strong horse,” as Osama Bin Laden once notoriously phrased it, in many Americans’ eyes. And not just “white” Americans, either. The challenge of our time is to find a way of defusing this dreadful sense of inevitability before what happens in America becomes completely indistinguishable from what people think is going to happen.

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