Trump, the Salem Witch Trials, and Alternative Universes (Guest Post by William Hausdorff)

{Note from Michael Dorf: On Verdict, I have a new column analyzing the difference between "law and order" as used by the likes of Donald Trump and the "rule of law." This guest post by William Hausdorff seems an appropriate companion piece.  In case you missed it, I highly recommend Hausdorff's July 4th guest post, where you can also find biographical info.}


Trump, the Salem Witch Trials, and Alternative Universes
by William Hausdorff

One doesn’t have to be an American exceptionalist who extols America’s unique place in the world to recognize that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution rank among the great achievements of the Enlightenment. The explicit assumption underlying their development was that people, acting rationally, had the ability and duty to control their own fate.

But these achievements stand in stark contrast to what had occurred only 80 years earlier, in one of the darkest chapters of American history, the Salem witch trials. There in Massachusetts, in what is often considered the triumph of irrational thought, women and men were hanged for witchcraft. People were perceived as powerless, with their behavior controlled by outside malevolent forces.

Yet the Trials can also be considered a rational response, within the context of a different view of reality. If you are convinced that bad things happen because people are literally possessed by the devil, and this view is endorsed by well-educated, elite authority figures (in the case of Salem, most notably the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather), burning or hanging them may be a very reasonable response.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and last week's Republican convention. As sketched out clearly during Trump’s irresistible rise to the Republican nomination, and vividly painted in apocalyptic colors at the convention, there is an alternative universe as sinister as that seen in Salem, Massachusetts. In that universe, Trump is the only one paying attention to the “real” problems—“uncontrolled” immigration, loss of jobs overseas, government's inability to stop ISIS-inspired terrorism. Within their alternative universe, “others”—Latinos, Muslims, Chinese and other foreign governments, traitorous public officials—are largely responsible.

The Trump-managed Republican convention presented a view of the world that is essentially pre-apocalyptic, in which the US and “our way of life” are literally on the brink of destruction, and in which “others” hold too much power over America. Americans are powerless. This is a world, as Trump loves to say, in which “something is going on and it’s really really bad.”

In this regard, Trump is standing on shoulders of giants, as the unrelentingly gloomy perspective is merely an extension of the Republican narrative, amplified by Fox News, of the past 20 years of a world filled with dark conspiracies. The Clinton “plot” to cover up the “murder” of Vince Foster. The carefully cultivated story by the Bush administration that the Iraqi regime worked closely with Al-Qaeda, although by all accounts the secular Saddam Hussein and the fundamentalist Bin Laden were mortal enemies, to orchestrate the 9-11 attacks. The virtual unanimity of the Republican Party to deny the existence of global warming, or to deny that humans are responsible, claiming it a “hoax” on the part of the world scientists and “liberals” who want to destroy US industry and King Coal. The long-lived claim fueled but not started by Trump that the first black president isn’t actually American, that he was born outside of the US, that he is a secret Muslim, that he and Hillary Clinton are in cahoots with ISIS, as well as with people who want to kill police.

A significant portion of the US population still believes these dark myths. With that one must combine the decades-old observation, via polling surveys, that when presented with the wording of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, a sizable bloc of the population actually would vote against it, blithely unaware that it is already part of the Constitution

The fundamental issue is that this alternate universe is real for (too) many people—and it is diametrically opposed to any fact-based narrative. From their perspective, the “mainstream media” universe—as if there were only one-- is the fraudulent one. And if you live in the alternate universe, some of Trump's “solutions” point in the right direction. In other words, a simple “correction” by the mainstream press or Clinton’s campaign of each of Trump’s factual errors, and the ridiculing of Trump’s “solutions,” or saying “Trump is crazy” is not enough.

How does one reach the inhabitants of the alternate universe? From news media reports and my own conversations with Trump supporters, my sense is that many, perhaps most also recognize that Trump’s solutions are unrealistic. They are just too silly. What Trump supporters applaud, however, is their “symbolism”— Trump is finally addressing issues the mainstream parties won’t.

The first step, then, not just for the Clinton campaign but for any of us talking with Trump supporters, is to admit that some of the problems Trump highlights, even if profoundly exaggerated and framed in misleadingly apocalyptic terms, are actually real, and to take them seriously. This is where Bernie Sanders’ campaign got it, and almost won the Democratic nomination. There IS something broken in the system. We should acknowledge that it would be nice if there were simple and quick solutions.

Only then can one walk through Trump’s blatantly preposterous program, highlighting that none of it could or should really happen. Spend time, in a “teachable moment,” to discuss what is the real magnitude of the immigration problem. And that the core of his “program” flies in the face of what the US has stood for. What is the Bill of Rights? What is religious freedom? Why is it so important that science not be politicized? How the scapegoating of ethnic groups not only is wrong and dangerous, but diverts attention from the real issues. Put the focus on what Trump and the Republicans have actually done to address--or rather, exacerbate--these problems in the past, and how they are not remotely serious now.

In short, draw a lesson from the Brexit debacle—acknowledge the existence of that alternative universe. Take the issues seriously, but put them in the context of the American experiment, and then propose serious real solutions, with a positive vision people can support. There is clearly a dearth of understanding regarding the very essence of the American experiment. People stopped believing in and hanging witches. We can’t let the witch trials start again.