The Myth of Catharsis

Published Jan. 27, 1017 in the Washington Monthly. ( Link to article)

Making things worse won’t make things better.

One frequently heard sentiment among those appalled by the presidency of Donald Trump is the notion that he will make things so bad that the American people will awake from their trance-like state, take some unspecified action, and put America back on track. Further to the Left, this notion is expressed in Marxist jargon: Trump will “heighten the contradictions” of late capitalism; this will lead to a “catharsis” that will, depending on the medical metaphor employed, “purge” the system of its rottenness or “rip the Band-Aid off” society’s wounds. Susan Sarandon represented a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this position, saying “Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know, explode.”

Where all this thinking comes from is obvious. Human psychology does not like dealing with unpleasant reality, so there is always the temptation to find comforting rationalizations that things will come out right in the end. We see this in folk sayings like “it’s always darkest before the dawn” or “things have to get worse before they get better.” I’ve long suspected, though, that folk wisdom is more properly considered superstition, particularly when applied to immensely complex social constructs like the modern governance of a country.

Because the United States is the world’s oldest continuous constitutional republic, many Americans have been lulled into a belief that it has sort of inherent stability rendering it immune from serious disruption. “Trump is just a blip in the long history of America,” I heard one radio moderator say recently. This might turn out to be true, but there is no inherently valid reason to believe it must be so. According to the catharsis crowd, if the underlying structure of American government is invulnerable, a periodic shakeup will clean the system of barnacles, arouse the citizenry from apathy, and allow renewal to take place.

This thinking derives from the power of analogies, a form of reasoning that acts as a seductive shortcut to understanding a problem or process, but which can lead us astray. The medical analogies that I have heard used about the Trump dispensation, such as “purge,” are hardly accurate even in their own terms, as pre-modern medicine’s use of purgatives and bloodletting were far more likely to harm the patient than cure him. Neither is Trump the homeopathic substance that the democratic system needs, given that homeopathy has widely been consigned to the arena of quack medicine.

Another superficially attractive-sounding slogan that trump supporters constantly invoked during the election campaign was that Trump would “shake up the system.” Constructively shaking up a system based on the Framers’ notion of an intricate constitutional web of checks and balances and division of powers would be a devilishly difficult task even if it were not undertaken by a volatile and attention-challenged president with autocratic instincts.

Democracies, and perhaps especially flawed ones like ours, are inherently fragile, and mindlessly destabilizing them will make things worse, not better. Shaking a crying infant is unlikely to improve matters. Stable democracy, as opposed to mobocracy, is a system of written law, but these laws are not self-enforcing. The qualities necessary for democracies to function, such as civility, precedence, and restraint, are only slowly established, are unwritten and unenforceable, and require self-control on the part of participants. The same principle applies in social interaction: there is no law prohibiting public rudeness, but if it were to become the norm rather than the exception, social life would be intolerable. Once the unwritten rules are gone, they’re gone, and they become much harder to reinstate than laws.

Trump has broken all the unwritten rules about how public officials are supposed to behave, including releasing his income tax forms and credible information about his health. We can assume these norms will be dead letter from now on. His over-the-top tastelessness and vulgarity appall many, but are part of his appeal to his followers. The excitement this causes is like the high that comes from drugs, an escape from the inhibitions of society and its expectations. Civility, a cousin of tolerance, is like sobriety: it is unexciting, it must be maintained when one does not feel like it, and it holds a civilized society together.

Another problem with letting things go to hell in order to wake up the people is that most Americans have little in the way of historical consciousness, that is, the ability to correctly place events in time, and to understand the chain of cause and effect of those events. Survey after survey shows how frequently people place the Civil War in the wrong century, or cannot give a coherent account of epochal events like World War II, or similar errors. It is like confronting a dyslexic with a page of text: they’re just jumbled letters.

Under those circumstances, a Reality TV-trained huckster can simply tell them a sonorous fairy tale with heroes (himself) and scapegoats (a changing menagerie of bogeymen according to the needs of the moment). Since they can’t accurately compare the past with the Trump-saturated present, what happens is that the abnormal becomes normalized. A careful reading of the histories of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or other tyrannies, demonstrates that people rapidly acculturate themselves to the new regime and assume its features are the norm. Sometimes the astonishing becomes everyday: after the death of Stalin, even inmates of the Gulag wept, so conditioned were they by propaganda to abandon their sense of self-respect.

The notion of Trump as some sort of summer thunderstorm that will clear the air of American democracy is not only a fallacy that results from lazy thinking, it deludes the person holding that view into thinking Trump is some deus ex machina intervening out of nowhere. The fact that 63,000,000 Americans voted for him may be evidence, not that he is the some sort of harsh medicine for the ills of American democracy, but a culmination of all the underlying symptoms of its sickness.