The power of “magic spells”

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I don’t believe in magic. But I have become convinced that some very real psychological state exists that can only be a “magic spell” without the magic. I have watched friends and relatives become so enraptured with Donald Trump that they have cast aside many of their most treasured religious and cultural norms in order to attest to the man’s infallibility.

In fact, the list of “norm violations” in this Presidency is so long and well known that I don’t even need to list them. Which is my point. Everybody knows, and yet, the very people who one would think would protest the most continue to speak and write themselves into incredible logical twists in order to justify their support.

The “escaped conservatives”

You don’t need to look to Democratic partisans to decide whether a “Trump magic spell” exists. Instead, you just need to listen to those Republicans formally inside the “cult” who have “escaped” to be able to evaluate their former selves from the “outside in.” They have not, for the most part, abandoned their Republican or conservative principles, rather they have come to the realization that the formerly “inexcusable” among their peers is now crazily cause for jubilant exaltation.

Nicole Wallace and Steve Schmidt, both former George W. Bush and John McCain aides, and both partly responsible for McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, have been candid in retrospect about how bad political decisions get made, and then get “doubled down” on trying to save face. [1] Retiring congressmen like Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake, or defeated congressmen like Florida’s David Jolly, appear to be free to “speak truth to power,” a freedom that, for some reason, they could not exercise while running for re-election.

One can assume a long-term political strategy in distancing themselves from the Trump presidency, but the simpler explanation is that a personal “red line” has been crossed for some conservatives that allows them to separate their political ideology from what they perceive as a “cult of personality.” The issue then becomes what to do with their “unbelief.”

The Machiavellians

Given that Republicans and conservative Independents “on the outside” can so clearly and articulately explain the current egregious deviations from political and social norms, we have to look for explanations for those who see the scam but won’t publicly act against it. The strongest probability is that the people “on the inside” know all of the evidence and constitutional risks we are facing, but choose to look the other way because they have their own “power centers” where they can use the Washington upheaval to their narrow political advantage.

This is a very cynical view, but I have no other explanation for the behavior of, say, my former Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa, or the icon of Mormon probity Senator Orson Hatch from Utah (I must note here that other Mormons like Senator Flake have been among the first to recognize the affront to their most basic traditional values). Power clearly “trumps” values for many elected officials.

The compartmentalists

Some congresspeople seem to have the impressive ability to compartmentalize their personal and public morality. Ohio’s Senator Rob Portman (whom I met long ago when he was my representative in the House from Cincinnati) took classic conservative stances on almost all “moral” issues until he hit the cognitive dissonance of having a son coming out as gay changed his mind. But only on the one issue of same-sex marriage. No other compassion-related stances on such things as poverty or women’s rights or racial discrimination were noticeably impacted by this change of stance. He only speaks out on the issue that impacted him personally.

So, it appears that a lot of compartmentalization is going on with many politicians in their continued failure to “speak their values” in relation to the President. Their blinders keep them focused on their campaign funders and their narrow social circle. The rest of the citizens does not exist in their field of vision.

The religious leaders

Respected conservative religion writer Michael Gerson wrote an excellent article in a recent issue of The Atlantic that addresses the 180-degree turn on many historical morality issues by Evangelical Christian leaders, and he expresses the threat he sees to their self-proclaimed moral authority. [2] Can anyone ever imagine that a condemnation from a conservative religious leader against a Democratic candidate with a history of serial marital infidelity or business corruption will ever again be taken seriously?

Gerson suggests that we may be seeing a permanent recasting of American societal norms, as conservative religious leaders have walked away en masse from issues of marital fidelity, personal humility and financial rectitude, while still loudly condemning LGBTQ people who seek to form permanent, mutual and equal marital bonds, or castigating women seeking stewardship over their own reproduction. I personally won’t miss the sanctimonious condemnation, but this stance will be a difficult one to maintain even in their own congregations when the Trump stuff gets uglier (and it will).

Gerson does not address what I term the “King David” defense, which seems to pervade the Facebook and Twitter feeds I have been following. In this re-interpretation of the Old Testament story of King David by conservative pastors, David was “ordained by God” to rule the Kingdom of Israel during its greatest years despite his well-documented immoral proclivities, such as dancing nearly naked in the streets, taking the married Bathsheba as a mistress and impregnating her, and sending her husband Uriah the Hittite to certainly die in battle. [3] The typical sermon goes something like, “God used the sinful King David for his glory, just as he is using the sinful Donald Trump to keep the U.S. as God’s country.”

These “creative interpretations” of scriptural tradition are characteristic of the many religious “grifters” plaguing American Christianity. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., as visible examples, have always been more business guys trying to maintain the cash flow from their fathers’ followers than they are theologians (and they have no real credentials as theologians, by the way), so we might cynically see a lot of the Evangelical defense for Trump being driven by the need to keep both the “spell bubbles” and the cash flowing.

Breaking the “spell”

This leaves a lot of the rank-and-file followers of the pro-Trump politicians and religious leaders, who truly seem to be in this impervious “magic spell.” It has been both fascinating and terrifying for me to watch the anti-Trump religious conservatives in my social media feeds gradually adopt the “Trump inerrancy” message over the space of two years.

Neuroscientist/philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote an excellent book called Breaking the Spell a decade ago. [4] Dennett likewise does not believe in magic, but he describes well the neuroscience behind the “spell” phenomenon as it often shows up in some, but not all, religious people, especially fundamentalists (whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim). He and his colleagues have also recorded a lot of follow-up as they have recorded how people see that experience in retrospect when someone “breaks the spell.”

The near-universal expression of someone who has escaped a political or religious “spell” is, “How could I have ever thought that way?” My hope is that someday this expression might be written into the common history of the Trump Presidency. My fear is that it won’t.


Notes:

  1. Capehart, Jonathan. “Steve Schmidt’s Brutally Honest Assessment of Sarah Palin.” The Washington Post, 12 Mar. 2012.
  2. Gerson, Michael. “The Last Temptation.” The Atlantic, 1 Mar. 2018.
  3. II Samuel 6:20, II Samuel 11.
  4. Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Penguin Books, 2007.

 

1 thought on “The power of “magic spells”

  1. Sherry Morain

    Thanks, Rick. This is a puzzlement I think about a lot but never with this depth. Please keep writing!

    Reply

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