The Enduring Faith in Secrets

People have a habit of responding to upsetting things, happening right out in the open, with a belief that there exists some secret information which, when revealed, will reaffirm their idea of a just universe. The belief is often fantasy.

This is on my mind, this week, as members of Congress stage the usual kabuki performance around a “January 6 Commission.” I think the fixation on digging up secrets behind the Capitol Insurrection is one very good example of this error. Probably there are secrets, but what real significance can they have beyond what happened right in the open for all to see?

The belief in secrets as a source of hope amid upsetting events is a pattern that has been coming into focus for me for a while. I wrote about it last summer without quite seeing a completely sharp picture. I began to recognize it years ago as the local battle over Lakewood Hospital dragged on, and multiple people became much more fixated on secret details than on the completely obvious. Looking back, I think there’s a common tendency toward this but that it’s mainly driven by a desire to restore faith in a just universe. It was unthinkable that public servants—local people, your own neighbors—were conspiring and lying and even breaking rules to liquidate a publicly owned charity hospital and getting away with it. Some secret somewhere had to exist which would unlock the doors of that nightmare and offer a way out.

That was not the case and I don’t think it’s the case with the larger nightmare of contemporary American politics.

I continue thinking about the big picture, if only out of exhaustion with the red alerts and siren emoji and screaming which never seems to stop. This week I tried to work out what has really happened in US politics in a large scale sense compared with 10 years ago and 20 years ago. This may become a post of its own, but one of the few developments I can really assert as substantial is the submergence of most everything else within an lol-nothing-matters stalemate. Going back 30+ years, more movement was possible. Reforms to the system, even to the Constitution, were possible. Presidential candidates could actually be said to win a national mandate, compared with just fighting over marginal turnout in a handful of closely balanced states. It was possible to win an argument and shift the culture in a lasting way as with e.g. the antismoking campaign.

Now, there’s less and less besides the stalemate, even as people continue performing all the old rituals. This is abhorrent, it’s a nightmare. Belief in some secret which will shock society out of the nightmare is understandable, particularly given how committed Republicans seem to concealment and deception all the time. But I see at least two problems with continued belief in a big reveal as our way out of the nightmare.

One, we have been through so many reveals which have had no political consequences. What about the right to know, though? What about The Truth? Oh, sure, I believe in these, but:

Two, getting to the “big reveal” which might in theory still exist is very hard, because we don’t have obvious systems to compel anyone to reveal anything. Republicans’ increasingly widespread willingness to lie and even go to prison, rather than “cough,” understandably encourages suspicion that they’re hiding something which really would harm them. Maybe. But I question that it can ever be found and proved in some way which would have significant political consequences, particularly as I recall John Hooper’s excellent book The Italians. When I read this last fall, his descriptions of how accountability always tends to get thwarted by a thicket of lying, obstruction and complexity were already uncomfortably familiar, even without the obvious Trump analogue of Berlusconi although the comparison is relevant. The idea that we can eventually prove things in some way that will count, that has to count, is hard to sustain when misinformation and conspiracy thinking (and conspiracy reality) are so extensive.

Ah, but the justice system… can not, it seems, even in theory address the real problem. Imagine that most of the worst things suspected about Trump are true, and proved in court, and he’s sentenced to prison for them. I have big doubts about this, but even if it happens, so what?

Trump did not create the toxic Republican troll-nation. Republicans created it, and by 2015 it was just waiting and had been waiting years for someone like Trump to come along and get enough traction for the primary voting base to believe in him. The cultishness is a result of the preexisting longing for someone like Trump, and that longing will exist even if Trump should vanish from Earth tomorrow. Dozens are ready to replace him and they probably aren’t all hapless imitators.

Even if documents could be uncovered which result in the criminal conviction of many top Republicans—which I think is fantasyland—it would not change the underlying situation.

The underlying situation, it seems to me, is the combination of a stiff and stuck overall culture with a large enclave which approaches politics like an existential battle on behalf of their desire for a race-based caste system. (As an aside, Republicans definitely also respond to realities which upset them by dreaming of some secret which restores their sense of comfort, and one example ties together a lot of this.) You aren’t going to win over this enclave with progressive economic policies or better messaging. You aren’t going to dissuade it by exposing corruption and crime among its leadership figures, especially not when the divisions between conduct which is completely legal and conduct which is criminal are frequently so arbitrary. Perhaps that’s simply the way that the law must always be, to some extent, but I don’t think that’s a system we can rely on to correct a problem like we face.

Republicans are something like a crime syndicate, at this point, but they are also something like an ethnic insurgency with corrupt leadership; even if there’s a government in place able to impose its authority and convict and jail those leaders for breaking the law, that isn’t going to defeat the insurgency.

We’re in a nightmare, and I don’t think a locked door is what keeps us here; I think there is no longer a door at this point and the only way out is to renovate the room. It may be relatively clean and orderly, or it may involve explosives, but until the room is renovated I think we’re going to remain in it, and no clever exposé by Poirot is going to make the villains in the room any less of a problem.

Postscript 1.

Postscript 2: Twitter Notable NYC Southpaw writes of “…the Trump-era enthusiasm for investigating marginal mysteries instead of confronting the incontrovertible truths.”

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