By David K. Shipler
Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and
put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.
--Granger, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
A presidential election campaign is a mirror factory with a deception. We think we are looking at the candidates, but we are looking at ourselves. Our foibles and dreams are reflected back at us. The mirrors are unforgiving. They hide no blemishes. All we have to do is concentrate and watch through clear eyes.
Yes, politicians are to blame. They give us what they think we want to see. And it turns out that many of us want to see fantasies: impossible promises, exaggerated caricatures, and utter illusions. We want to see demons. We yearn for enemies, both foreign and domestic, to purify complexity into enticing mirages of simplicity. Too many of us, with the help of certain politicians, conjure up monsters to blame and hate.
We are charitable and we are selfish, we are peaceful and violent, accepting and bigoted. Amid all our vast variety, a large proportion of us look in the mirrors for tough guys. We don’t want to see softness or empathy in ourselves. We want to seem caring without being weak. We want hard edges. We want to look in the mirrors and see in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is, you-know-where-you-can-put-it, make-my-day belligerence to confront the whirlwind of self-pity, moral guilt, and learned helplessness to which we imagine once-great America has succumbed.
That part of us doesn’t want to see any acquiescence reflected back. If the half or more of us who will vote for Trump see our reflections honestly in the mirrors, we will see ourselves as torturers who wish to kill the wives and children of supposed terrorists, as war criminals who want to plunder (“take the oil”), as pugnacious bullies spoiling for a war with Iran, as unreliable allies who want turn our backs on our friends, as advocates for the jailing or assassination of the Democratic candidate in what we hail as the world’s leading democracy.
When we look straight into our reflections, we do not see temperate, steady deliberation. We see boiling, zealous impatience. When a voter can declare that a candidate “says what I think,” a remark heard frequently from Trump supporters especially, it’s a sign that the mirrors have been polished.
Not many of us on either side of the political spectrum look for nuance, ambiguity, or contradiction—the stuff of actual reality. Those personal qualities that open us to reality are not what we are seeing. We prefer resolve, conviction, even absolutism. We are happily dazzled by bright lines, not hazy twilights of sophistication. We pretend to be on the lookout for multiple facets of difficult problems, but in fact feel more comfortable with flat solutions in two dimensions.
In the end, a lot of us like to be fooled. We see cynicism as cleverness. We see absurd conspiracy as critical thinking. To mask our sense of purposelessness, we see reflections of ourselves as true believers—believers in something: in slogans as empty as wisps of smoke, or in destruction alone. Believers in destruction—“a bull in a china shop,” as an Ohio woman said admiringly of Trump. We want to be able to look in the mirrors and see overlapping images of ourselves and our favored candidates, and so we reinterpret what they say to erase inconvenient contradictions.
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis entitled his dystopian novel written in 1935, at the depth of the Great Depression. “There’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America,” he writes as he begins his terrifying story of American voters using their democracy to elect a fascist dictatorship. The book should be read today. Too many lines ring out like omens.
The leader, Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, will seem familiar to anyone watching Trump. Windrip promises cash grants to every family, but of course with no way to pay for them. “He had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for Labor, but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World. . . . and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn, Buzz hinted, he might have to take it over and run it properly.”
Has Trump read this book?
In his speeches to tumultuous rallies, Windrip “misquoted his own figures” and “slid into a rhapsody of general ideas—a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions. . . . Something in the intensity with which Windrip looked at his audience, looked at all of them, his glance slowly taking them in from the highest-perched seat to the nearest, convinced them that he was talking to each individual, directly and solely; that he wanted to take each of them into his heart; that he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.”
Of the authoritarian candidate’s audience, Lewis writes: “Kind people, industrious people, generous to their aged, eager to find any desperate cure for the sickness of worry over losing the job. Most facile material for any rabble-rouser.”
Take a long look in the mirrors.