Friday, May 05, 2017

I'm OK...You're the Antichrist*

So let's review. (It's been a while, after all.) Back in 2005, when the world was young and unspoiled and we all mostly agreed on the nature of reality, I wrote a book called SHAM in which I deconstructed the self-help/human-potential movement. Although reviews were generally quite kind, if I was criticized for anything it was for an overreach in my perception of the movement's wider impact on society-at-large. In the book I made some dire forecasts about the possible long-term effects of motivational themes that were then taking shape.

Today, as I look at Donald Trump's Washington and our fractured society, it's hard not to think I underestimated the potential damage.

The excesses I critiqued chiefly had to do with America's growing faith in the decisiveness of mental attitude—that is, the belief in belief itself as an inherently transformative force. During the 1990s that most queasy-making of buzzwords, empowerment, must've been uttered on Oprah's show alone a few thousand times a day. By the turn of the millennium the trope was being endlessly reinforced in classrooms, locker rooms, and corporate meeting rooms, as well as in films and TV series. The power of positive thinking is not new, of course, but the gurus of personal empowerment took it to a new level, insisting on a straight-line relationship between attitude and aptitude. Today there is arguably no more revered a cultural incantation than the simple mnemonic rhyme, “Believe it, achieve it.” Many of us unthinkingly accept mere avowals of success as failsafe IOUs for success itself.

Hence, Donald Trump. There can be no question that Trump was propelled to the Oval Office in part by the notion that confidence = competency, spunk = skill.

This is not overreach, folks. It is an accurate taking of the American pulse.


Even now, as the president abandons plank after plank of the platform that got him elected, his disciples continue to cling to their belief; most say they'd vote for him again. Because, you see, empowerment isn't really about what anyone does. It's about having the stones to keep guaranteeing that you will do in the end. Indeed, the empowered mindset seems to value the ability to weather recurring failure more than it values the wherewithal to actually succeed. So in Trump's case, for all the walk-backs and outright flops of his first 100 days, he continues to speak (and tweet) in that same muscular argot, without qualifications or apologies. He projects that same bulletproof persona. To millions of rapt disciples, that's all that matters.

But wait, you ask, can't his followers see with their own eyes that the emperor has no clothes?

No, they cannot. Their eyes do not perceive the world the way the rest of us do. That may be partially because in 2007 the empowerment malignancy metastasized into something far worse—with the advent of The Secret. The perverse genius of the blockbuster book/DVD parlay was its ability to mainstream the delusional outlooks that once were identified with schizophrenia and other forms of genuine psychological pathology. The beneficent universe was at your beck and call, just waiting for you to get in touch and communicate your wants with conviction. (And here again, for this to work you had to believe and believe and BELIEVE....self-doubters need not apply.) This was no fringe movement, by the way. Reinvention-minded Boomers in particular embraced The Secret in in droves. The book sold 20 million copies and the DVD millions more. The concept was romanced by Oprah, Larry King and other media heavyweights.
Shameless narcissism was not only destigmatized but encouraged. New Age mainstays like Deepak Chopra also weighed in with the contention that nothing existed apart from our consciousness of it. Between The Secret and the likes of Deepak, we arrived at the concept of “designer reality”:
Suddenly there was no longer a consensus universal truth. Your world was whatever you believed it to be
And once again this pseudo-thinking received ambient reinforcement that extended its reach well beyond direct consumers of self-help products. Morning TV hosts exhorted America's youth to “never give up your dreams!,” to reject the reality checks offered up by those who point out that we can't all be president or BeyoncĂ©.

Thus was also laid, inadvertently, the groundwork for “fake news.” 


(I repeat...an accurate taking of the American pulse.) 

Post-Secret, information that challenged one's worldview was by definition bogus, invalid. Millions of people afflicted with a fatal case of confirmation bias blithely cherry-picked facts (or pseudo-facts) that supported their preconceived notions, while ignoring anything that might cause them to call their beliefs into question. Among other things, I submit, this currency helps explain the seemingly bizarre manner in which Trump partisans will embrace claims (inaugural attendance, millions of undocumented voters) for which no one can find verification. They did not see the empty spaces on the mall the same way you or I did. They make allowances; they eat up the rationalizations advanced by Trump and Sean Spicer. They continue to rationalize away the man's foibles in order to justify their ongoing confidence in his confidence; to do otherwise would be to concede that their designer reality is flawed, that their own confidence—in him—was misplaced. And that's simply untenable.

At the same time we are at our core a tribal species, so we forge alliances with others who see the world as we do. In this brave new schema there is no obligation to respect those who differ with you because, after all, your view of reality is reality. Dissenters are simply wrong. And while Trump may be the most conspicuous example, the GOP hardly owns the franchise on such irrationality. Think of all of the contemporary issues where there's zero give on either side. Think of mass incarceration, where the Left sees only systemic racism and the Right sees only an alibi for thuggery. Think of the emotional polarity of sanctuary cities or funding for Planned Parenthood. Think of the mood on today's college campuses. It follows that when another tribe opposes you on issues with strong moral overtones, that tribe is not merely mistaken, but something closer to evil. In this secular battle for the American soul, compromise and conciliation become dirty words. We inhabit a binary society wherein those who belong to opposing tribes aren't mere political opponents; they're apostates in a holy war, as it were.

One only hopes we can turn things back around before the crucifixions begin. 
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* If you don't get the play on the iconic self-help title, you probably have no business reading this blog. Though I do love having you here...

3 comments:

Texas Arcane said...

Your Trump bashing is not to be taken seriously when you compare him with his opponents.

Face it, everybody else in Washington, Hollywood and the mass media make Donald Trump look like a much better candidate than he ever really was.

You're wrong about his winning formula. It was not confidence. It was conviction that sold his bill of goods.

I personally hate Donald Trump. The only person I hate more than him is every other asshole currently trying to pretend to be leadership material in our society which is almost everyone. What all these people have in common is that they are all incredibly stupid, Donald Trump included.

I still hold that you could've done worse. You could have elected anybody else.

I am banking on a future where it turns out that almost all modern people were completely full of crap, right up to their gills. I bet you that I will someday soon turn out to be one of the few people to have correctly appraised the situation. Trump will do as a babysitter before the apocalypse and he will not expedite it any more than anyone else that could have gotten elected. It's time that mankind used those shiny new tools of barbarism in a third World War and you can bet it is coming. I will not blame Donald when it arrives right on schedule.

Cosmic Connie said...

This is excellent, Steve. You and Salty Droid have, each in your own way, really nailed the reasons that our narcissistic selfish-help culture has led us to a Drumpf "presidency." And you've reminded us again why -- and how -- "The Secret" is the grift that just keeps on giving.

Steve Salerno said...

Texas...a bit nihilistic/suicidal, but OK. I hear ya.

Connie, few people see (or are willing to acknowledge) the wider effects of self-help, or maybe a better way to put it is, the effects of "second-hand self-help" (a la second-hand smoking). People assume that self-help products and ideas have an impact only on consumers who buy them. 'Fraid not. To use just one example, self-esteem based education, which I've covered at length in a variety of pieces for leading newspapers and mags, has changed society as a whole. So many of today's unfortunate psycho-social phenomena stem from that one antecedent. And it didn't even improve academic performance!