When our kids were little we would make Santa’s magic boot prints from the front door to the Christmas tree by sprinkling baking soda around a crude cardboard cutout of a boot print. This explained how the presents showed up for Christmas morning since we didn’t have the fireplace Santa used in every damn storybook. It was cute to see our daughters when they simply believed it was all true. But as they got older, the world of logic crept forward — how’d Santa get past the locked front door? And why didn’t the dog bark?
The real world works that way, sad as it is sometimes to see them grow up. Logic overcomes belief. Otherwise you’re 45 and still wondering why Santa didn’t eat the cookies you left out.
The bad news is the magic is back, at least in terms of politics, as belief takes over from logic. This isn’t the good kind which makes Christmas memories. It is the bad kind which turns rational people into blithering idiots who are ready to believe anything that supports their beliefs.
Here’s where wanting to believe something so much that it shuts down thinking leads. Accusations become evidence, for impeachment or harassment or Islamophobia or a society gone white nationalist wild, and the more accusations the stronger the evidence is seen to be. Simply filling a bus with people claiming without evidence someone did something should mean nothing but it now means more than ever.
See, just calling something a new name not does not change anything. So even as the hive mind agrees a flippant remark is “demanding foreign intervention” or labels an investigation “interference in our democracy” and with even less evidence claims Trump is a Russian agent, Tulsi a Russian plant, Facebook a Russian tool, and Jill Stein a Russian something or other, it does not make it true. Adding “-gate” to a noun does not create a crime. Believing a phone call is bribery, or a tweet is witness intimidation does not negate the need for the law degree that allows you to actually use those words accurately. This is about the law, not about writing marketing copy. And kids, I’m sorry, I know how much you wanted to believe in the elves, but it was really Mom and me buying the presents all those years.
It is sadly no surprise the one semi-favorable witness Democrats allowed to testify at the Impeachment Gladiatorial Thanksgiving Spectacle, Gordon Sondland, was soon accused of misconduct by not one, but three women, so it has to be true. The alleged incidents took place years ago, there were no witnesses or physical evidence, and none of the women found a reason to bring the accusations forward until Sondland emerged as a possible weak point in the Dems’ case against Trump. What they said is fully and forever unproveable, and can only be “believed” because anyone who supports Trump must be on the naughty list.
Watching those accusations front-paged by a believing media, and with memories of the ugly Kavanaugh confirmation, one can only view Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s deteriorating health with concern. We all can start to feel that pain in our stomach knowing whomever Trump nominates as the Ghost of Christmas Past’s replacement will be accused of terrible things. For a male nominee, it will be more sexual harassment incidents than Jack the Ripper. For a female nominee, something “racist” she wrote in junior high. Never mind the hidden horrors in their taxes, decisions from their days on the traffic court bench, and so on. It is as inevitable as Santa’s yearly visit.
Wanting to believe accounts for so much of what we call fake news, stuff based on “reports” or anonymous sources who could not possibly know what the president was thinking, or what he said in a closed door meeting, but are quoted anyway because we already know what we want to know is true.
Democratic parents, er, candidates, have felt the reason for the season, outdoing one another in hinting at what might be under the tree simply because we want it to be there however impractical and honey, yes, I still remember the year you believed there’d be a real pony in the back yard and you cried. Elizabeth Sanders believes rich people will give us Amazon gift cards to pay off student loans and provide healthcare. Mayo Pete will fill our stockings with his Douglass Plan, offering $50 billion (Cory Booker proposes double, $100 billion) for black colleges as just a Christmas Eve teaser. They believe they will find the money under the tree, or in the backyard with the pony. Yeah, we tried to buy our kids’ love with expensive presents, too, but at least we spent equally on each of them.
Belief works for the negative as well. There is a profound belief things are much worse than they really are. Democracy has one more chance, or perhaps the Republic is already done and we’re just waiting on funeral arrangements. First maybe a military coup, or a civil war. Or Trump will simply refuse to leave office (NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Vox, Politico, Newsweek, Atlantic, Slate, Salon, MSN all believe so.) Certainly women, POC, and LGBT are done for. When pressed for real specifics, there are none, as who but a true believer can count a “specific” that starts with “Well, Trump tweeted…”
Driving the sense The End is a profound ability to not only know little about history, but not even to remember stuff from a few weeks ago. Those End of Days wars with China, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, what happened to them? The Kurds do OK with that genocide? “Trump will trigger nuclear Armageddon” is a go-to article when WaPo has Op-Ed space to fill. No one seems to know much about the rise of Hitler in any detail, but everyone believes we are seeing it again (except there’s no mass party, no Brownshirt vanguard, no overarching ideology, no annexation of neighboring territory, no Nuremberg laws, no Dachau, and no exercise of state power like the 1930s). Scale doesn’t seem to matter; Trump cut back on immigration and so did Hitler, so boom, they are the same.
So it follows a tiny group of Nazi cosplayers in Charlottesville three years ago is still held up as proof of sweeping white nationalism, alongside Colin Kaepernick not being able to get a job. Alongside you get the NYT saying “Trump is president only because a constitutional provision invalidated the choice of the American people,” referring to the Electoral College used to choose presidents for over 230 years as a invalidating provision. The same article goes on to say “Democrats and pundits have been bullied into accepting the fiction that he has democratic, and not just constitutional, legitimacy.” Even the outcome of an election under the same system in place for centuries is today subject to the belief test.
Adding to this damp blanket of nihilism is the endless failure of insta-folk heroes. The mood seems so desperate to believe in a savior that a new one is created regularly. The now-discredited anti-Semites who organized the Pink Pussy Hat march, the media-abused Parkland Kids, Greta the Amazing Climate Change Girl, it’s almost to the point where you can’t believe in anyone anymore. Remember Beto? He went from the cover of Vanity Fair to, well, we don’t know what he’s doing, working at Wendy’s with Kamala, Stacey Abrams, and the other unemployed elves maybe.
None of it is real, that is the nature of belief. Getting your hashtag trending is the illusion of action. Twitter doesn’t elect anyone, or stop anything, or do anything, and it is disappointing when nothing changes in the real world after what seems like a lot of effort, so you believe it matters. You can make #SantaIsReal the most popular hashtag ever but it won’t make Santa real. The problem is the belief in politics today is not organic. It didn’t grow on its own. It is created and sold, much like each new generation of parents resells the Santa myth to its toddlers.
Bringing it all home Salon states “whatever enthusiasm I once felt for Christmas has dissipated entirely in the age of Donald Trump. He ruins everything he touches, and Christmas, for me, is no exception… Forget Tiny Tim declaring, ‘God bless us, every one!’ It’s clear that for that 40 percent of people in the Trump cult, it’s closer to ‘Damn anyone to hell who isn’t exactly like us!’ The point of Christmas is to declare white supremacist America as the only ‘real’ America.”
And kids, it wasn’t me who ate the cookies you left out for Santa. Putin came down the chimney and gave them to Trump. That’s where belief has brought us these few weeks before the holidays: you can’t even believe in Christmas anymore. Ho ho ho!
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.