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