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Early during the production of Alien 3 it became clear that 20th Century Fox had little or no faith in their young director David Fincher. Fincher, who went on to make classics like ‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’ was being actively left out of the decision-making process. It got to the point where the producers were denying him permission to shoot entire scenes crucial to the script. The director’s situation was untenable. He’d been hired by the studio to put his creative stamp on the piece but was being prevented from doing so at every opportunity. I recall reading about a meeting where, at the end of his tether, Fincher supposedly said to one of the Fox executives:
“I can’t deal with your logic because it doesn’t exist.”
It’s a cautionary tale. The nightmare of dealing with non-logic is something we all encounter at times in the workplace, in relationships etc. But the events of the past year, with Donald Trump’s campaign and election, may well be the first time that non-logic became actively utilised as a tactic by the wider political establishment.
Middle America, faced with the prospect of four more years of neoliberal policies that had ignored their ongoing economic plight, voted for a cartoon character who made promises that were and are patently impossible. The insane thing is that Trump’s policies are obviously much worse for the US than what had preceded them. The economic wipeout of the American lower to middle class happened because of the insinuation of corporate interests into government policy, not because the coalmines were shut down. And yet, Trump’s clown car administration is the very definition of neoliberalism, and will undoubtedly push US non-Metropolitan areas further into the economic abyss.
The buffers of sanity that should have halted Trump’s day-glo nonsense failed completely. The GOP were initially dismissive of and horrified by their party nominee, but when it became clear that Trump actually had a shot at winning, they debased themselves at speed. Building a wall, calling Mexicans ‘rapists,’ pussy-grabbing; it all tipped slowly into the realm of the debatable and then, defensible.
Science itself became a moot topic. As the planet faces a catastrophic rise in temperature, Trump declares that global warming is a conspiracy ‘created by and for the Chinese,’ then selects the head of Exxon-Mobil as his Secretary of State. In the face of overwhelming scientific data, such wilful ignorance of a species-threatening, man-made phenomenon is staggering. As a result, the GOP — the party of Lincoln — has been labelled ‘the most dangerous organization in world history’ by Noam Chomsky.
Evidence be damned — What the Trump era has ushered in is the conviction that you don’t ever need to be wrong. If you encounter scientific facts that prove your beliefs to be false, you can ignore those facts. You are 100% entitled to set incontrovertible data aside and keep on believing, and proselytising, your convictions.
If that sounds a lot like religion, it’s no coincidence. Right-wing conservative groups like the Tea Party have gained much traction in the GOP over the last 30 years, and they’ve brought their hardcore religious beliefs with them. The Republican Party has slowly but surely embraced insular, tribal thinking because it reflects the stance of its most vocal religious members. As a result the party has degenerated from the likes of Reagan to Bush Sr. to Dubya to Palin to Trump. The Tea Party’s shouty, my-way-or-the-highway attitudes have soaked into the core of US politics and the wild tropes of religious thinking are now appearing throughout civic discourse.
As I’ve mentioned, you no longer require any evidence to believe something. In fact, the lack of evidence is what gives you surety. In the run-up to the election, searching through most Twitter hashtags related to the GOP turned up results, ad nauseum, stating that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
— 𝐋𝐞𝐚𝐡 ⏰🇺🇸🎸🌴 (@LeahR77) December 23, 2016
Obama is no more Muslim than he is Jedi, yet that kind of statement doesn’t disqualify it from gaining purchase across social media. This active dismissal of facts has been borne out in the first days of the Trump presidency, with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer furiously (and falsely) claiming that the crowd attending the inauguration was the biggest in history. Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway then had a mind-boggling interview on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press’ where she invoked the idea of ‘alternative facts’ as an explanation for this outright falsehood.
Also, as with fanatical religious thinking, if somebody confronts you with the gentlest possibility that your beliefs may be unfounded, that person is wrong, wrong, wrong. And depending on where you lie on the spectrum of religious vigour, they need to be ignored, converted, beaten, jailed. At Trump’s rallies, protesters were beaten up, a practice that was outright encouraged by the then-candidate. And he casually dismisses media outlets that don’t toe the line.
Interviews with Trump supporters have been equally revealing, where wild claims like ‘California allows voter fraud’ can be made without a shred of evidence. Perhaps even more revealing is this spectacular interview in which a Trump supporter claims that his boasts about pussy-grabbing are acceptable because eventually “God can use this man” to do right. And it wasn’t said in a pulpit, it was said on CNN.
The religious-inflected belief that you’re always right also makes for really, really bad losers. In North Carolina, Republicans recently responded to the election of a new Democratic governor by stripping his office of power before his term began, with a political scientist suggesting that the state “can no longer be classified as a full democracy.” Trump even preempted his own Bad Losership by saying that the Electoral College system was ‘a disaster’ (and then said it’s ‘genius’ when he won). It’s become quite acceptable to throw all of your toys out of the pram if you don’t get what you want. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hillary but her concession speech was a model of grace and restraint in contrast.
I’m not suggesting that politics was some sort of utopia before this happened. But what’s shocking is the extent to which religious-right thinking has normalised behaviour that in the past would have outright destroyed a politician’s career. It brings out the worst in people and the worst in democracy. In the same way that fundamentalist religion so often demands an abdication of one’s morals to a higher power, there’s been a widespread abdication of democratic responsibility. It’s ok to lie, because you can get away with it. Even if you’re caught.
The insularity of the religious mindset means that it’s nigh-on impossible to change minds from without. Even armed with facts and figures, the heretical nonbeliever only affirms the position of the acolyte. So how do you stand up to something that becomes stronger and more self-assured the more you fight it?
The Left needs to be much more active. It needs to call bullshit when bullshit needs to be called and it needs to lead by example. But it must be aware that when engaging with the non-logic of religious reasoning, there is typically no way to win an argument. Getting into it usually results in a shouting match, succumbing to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy: “Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way. And the fools know it.”
When the bullish accusations start, don’t engage. Instead step aside, matador-like, let them rush past and poke holes as they go. To quote George Saunders’ essay ‘The Braindead Megaphone’: “Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance…. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality… is the antidote.”
As the insanity of a Trump administration begins, let’s all be more like David Fincher in 2017. Disengage from the logic vacuum because you won’t win; you can’t. Instead lead by example and be as meticulously critical, creative and constructive as possible.