Over the last few years, I have several times had occasion to cite Charles Mackay’s 19th-century classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The title by itself captures something essential about our situation. But the particulars of the stories Mackay tells form an engaging collage of social history quite apart from the general argument. The book offers amusing accounts of such febrile public insanity as Tulipomania 17th-century Holland, when a single tulip bulb of a rare species could be traded for the price of a mansion.
The bouts of commercial madness are as admonitory as they are hilarious—beware contemporary South Seas Bubbles! But there are some other lessons of a political, or of a political-psychological nature, that bear incisively upon our current experience circa 2017 in the United States.
In the preface to the 1852 edition of his book, Mackay notes that nations, like individuals, have their “seasons of excitement and and recklessness, when they care not what they do.”
We find whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly. . . .
We’re there, friends. The “one object,” the single “delusion” that has caught the attention of impressionable crowd of the media is Donald Trump. It is he they pursue with excitement, recklessness, and madness. And just this last week, in the frenzy of l’affair Comey, they have reached that critical state that Elias Canetti, in his magnum opus Crowds and Power, called “the discharge,” that moment when the individuals who make up a crowd shed their individuality and begin behaving as a single entity.
Canetti’s analysis of crowds is deeply idiosyncratic. But he grasped one key element of the phenomenon, summed up in the second noun of his title: The activity of the crowd is intimately bound up with the desire for and the exhibition of power.
The “one object,” the single “delusion” that has caught the attention of impressionable crowd of the media is Donald Trump. It is he they pursue with excitement, recklessness, and madness. And just this last week, in the frenzy of l’affair Comey, they have reached that critical state that Elias Canetti, in his magnum opus Crowds and Power, called “the discharge,” that moment when the individuals who make up a crowd shed their individuality and begin behaving as a single entity.
In its mounting hysteria, the anti-Trump frenzy exhibits both sides of the crowd phenomenon: the dissolution of individuality and the scrambling after power.
Anti-Trumpers sound more and more alike, as Max Boot, David Frum, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Peter Wehner, Jonah Goldberg, and others grow soft and fuzzy around the edges, like Wither in C.S., Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and seemingly merge into a single skirling voice. Trump is “unfit for office!” He is “infantile” and must step down! The 25th Amendment should be invoked to remove him from office!
Can anyone distinguish among these hoarse imprecations? And more to the point, does anyone outside the commentariat pay them any heed? When you look at a smudge of organic matter under a microscope you see a bustling world of activity. To the busy hydropods on the slide, their movements seem important, definitive even. But to the world outside, it is a meaningless jumble—infectious, possibly, and therefore potentially dangerous, but intrinsically besides the point.
It is the same with the hysterical anti-Trumpers.
Yesterday, I had the misfortune to be stuck in an airport for some hours while waiting for a delayed plane. The entertainment provided was a feed of CNN which for the entire time went from talking head to talking head to repeat, mantra-like, the the half-dozen talking points about Trump, Russia, James Comey, Impeachment, Sources say, Obstruction of Justice, Russia, Comey, Impeachment, Abuse of Power, Russia, Trump, Russia, Secrets, National Security, Russia, Comey, Impeachment.
And so on. I had not had such a large dose of the MSM in years. It was more nauseating than amusing, but, seen from the outside it did have a certain malignant comedy.
- There has been an intelligence investigation into Russian interference with the U.S. election since at least last July. It has turned up nothing—that is to say, nada, rien, zilch—to indicate collusion between Donald Trump and “the Russians.”
- James Comey worked for Donald Trump. Trump probably ought to have fired him the day he was inaugurated. In any event, he was completely within his rights to fire him at any time.
- The meme that Trump fired him to stop an investigation into Michael Flynn’s alleged “ties to Russia” is false. How do I know? James Comey told me.
- Donald Trump did not “leak” or otherwise reveal “highly classified” national security secrets to the Russian Ambassador when he met with him last week. How do I know? Trump’s National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster told me.
And on and on and on. The crowd that is the anti-Trump brigade speaks with one voice because it has become one mind.
Ross Douthat writes that we should invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office because, “like a child,” he “blurts out” national security secrets to impress foreign visitors.
But Trump did not tell the Russians any secrets. The whole story is ridiculous on its face. What Ross Douthat really meant was that he does not like Donald Trump, ergo he should not be President and if no legitimate grounds to impeach him can be found (they can’t) we should use Constitutional legerdemain to correct the election of 2016.
And here’s where the issue of power comes in. Ross Douthat, like the other faces of the anti-Trump deity, cannot absorb the fact that the people voted contrary to his wishes. It is he, Ross Douthat, and people like him, who should decide who gets to be President. Not the ill-informed, unwashed multitudes who voted for Donald Trump. Their efforts are nothing less an attempt to reverse or repeal the results of last year’s Presidential election. Donald Trump should acknowledge and publicize that fact.
The media, having descended into its crowd posture, cannot countenance any Trumpian success. He has to fail, because in their group-think world, Trump’s success entails their eclipse.
Although he is not moving with the dispatch or thoroughness that some of would like, Donald Trump represents an existential threat to the swamp dwellers in Washington and their enablers in the media. Hence their hysteria, and their unanimity. If he succeeds, Trump will render them not just irrelevant but powerless.
And although you would never glean this from the monolithic, hysterical anti-Trump eructation that is the mainstream media’s reporting on Trump, he is actually having notable successes on many fronts. Not every front, mind you, but on many fronts. There is the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and nomination of many federal judges; there is Trump’s energy policy, which has made the United States the world’s premier energy producer; there is his battle against onerous and counter-productive regulation, an ongoing project; there is his dismantling of Obamacare, another ongoing project; his tax-plan, which if enacted will be a gigantic spur to growth; there are his foreign-policy initiatives, which, with a bit of luck, will come to be seen as brilliant statesmanlike forays on the model of Nixon’s initiatives in Russia and China.
I could extend the list. But here’s the point: it wouldn’t matter what Trump accomplished. The media, having descended into its crowd posture, cannot countenance any Trumpian success. He has to fail, because in their group-think world, Trump’s success entails their eclipse.
They are not necessarily wrong about that, by the way. But their dishonesty, compacted with their hysteria and cynical bid for power, is a disfiguring testimony to the loss of political sanity.
Some people think that the anti-Trump cohort is winning because that is all they hear or read about. Every time they turn on CNN or open The New York Times it is the same story.
But the unanimity is illusory. It is a tiny fraternity shouting at you as it talks to itself. It really is a form of insanity, sad to witness, but dangerous if left unchecked.