Teaching an American Fantasy Literature class is helping me better understand denialism, which has come to define a major element of the Republican party. When the world takes a disturbing turn, one response is to fantasize that change isn’t happening.
In my class, we’re discovering that there are two kinds of fantasy. The lesser fantasies are shallow wish fulfillments while the greater fantasies involve uncompromising authors penetrating appearance to uncover deep truths. People indulge in the lesser fantasies when they want to avoid facing up to the truth.
Refusal to acknowledge that the earth is warming up, of course, is the most egregious example of denial. Recently we have learned that Florida’s Governor Scott signaled to state employees that they are not to speak of climate change, even though Florida will be impacted by rising sea levels as much as any state. House Republicans, meanwhile, want the Pentagon and the CIA to stop factoring climate change into their planning, even though it has major military ramifications.
To cite another recent example, the Congressional Republicans’ new budget contains what The New York Times’ Paul Krguman labels as two “trillion-dollar magic asterisks”:
[T]he just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.
And further on:
[A]bout those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.
Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.
And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.
Krugman traces it all back to Ronald Reagan’s supply side economics, which believed that tax cuts for wealthy Americans would pay for themselves. George H. W. Bush derided this as “voodoo economics” when campaigning against Reagan in 1980, then subscribed to it as a loyal vice president, and then was crucified by his own party when, as president, he had to acknowledge that government programs require tax revenue. Bush probably would have been elected to a second term if he hadn’t had to confront an early version of a Tea Party revolt.
I’ll get to the fantasy tradition out of which Ronald Reagan arose in a moment, but first I turn to a passage in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that provides a good account of denial. In one of the novel’s historical flashbacks, we see Southern American slave owners confronted by Haiti’s successful slave rebellion. Mama Zouzou, a slave who practices genuine voodoo, observes how they respond to their worst nightmare:
She listened when the white folk spoke of the revolt in St. Domingo (as they called it), and how it was doomed to fail—“Think of it! A cannibal land!”—and then she observed that they no longer spoke of it.
Soon, it seemed to her that they pretended that there never had been a place called St. Domingo, and as for Haiti, the word was never mentioned. It was as if the whole American nation had decided that they could, by an effort of belief, command a good-sized Caribbean island to no longer exist merely by willing it so.
Fantasy involves an effort of belief, and I have written about how L. Frank Baum, inspired by John Winthrop’s vision of a city on a hill and by Chicago 1893 “white city,” thought he could banish shadows. Disney grew out of this vision and so did Ronald Reagan, who tried to turn back the clock. Visions of Mapleton Drive (from Leave it to Beaver) danced in people’s heads when “the Gipper” spoke of morning in America.
This is why the GOP has almost a cultish reverence for Reagan. They’re not interested in his practical problem solving, which included negotiations with Democrats (over tax hikes) and with the Soviet Union (over armaments). They would probably impeach any Democrat president who, like Reagan, secretly sent missiles to Iran.
No, they are drawn to the fantasy that Reagan represents. I’ve written about how Stephen King’s It, written during Reagan’s presidency, challenged this vision of an idealized America. Throughout the novel, adults cannot see what is evident to the children. In fact, time and again we see them deliberately closing their eyes to the horrifying reality.
Perhaps the best explanation for GOP fantasizing is that it’s an understandable and even predictable response to modernity. Literature has been charting that reaction for a long while now—since the advent of Modernism in the early 20th century–and the pressures to retreat into fantasy become more intense as change speeds up. When same sex marriage is suddenly declared legal in Alabama, is there any wonder that people would go into hysterics?
Many commentators, and even GOP Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell, have stated that the GOP must demonstrate that it is capable of governing. Governing, however, calls for acknowledging reality as it is, not as we wish it could be. I am rooting fervently for “reformicons” and others who can return their party to a reality base. At the moment, however, I’m worried that to think they can prevail is itself a shallow wish fulfillment.
Added note: Even more than Gaiman, Stephen King provides passages of characters, usually adults, refusing to face up to reality. Here’s one passage from IT when Beverly is on the verge of being raped:
Âcross the street–Bev saw this quite clearly–Herbert Ross got out of the lawn-chair on his porch, approached the porch rail, and looked over. His face was as blank as Belch Huggins’. He folded his paper, turned, and went quietly into the house.
And here’s a passage from IT I cited previously in a post about how Oklahoma wants to whitewash American history:
The museum was sponsored by the Derry Ladies’ Society, which vetoed some of Hanlon’s proposed exhibits (such as the notorious tramp chair from the 1930s) and photographs (such as those of the Bradley Gang after the notorious shoot-out). But all agreed it was a great success, and no one really wanted to see those gory old things anyway. It was so much better to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the old song said.