In his The Great Derangement, the American journalist Matt Taibbi embeds first with evangelical Christians and then with a gaggle of 9/11 Truthers. It’s worth the book’s cover price for the scene in which, asked by a demon expelling-pastor to recount a childhood trauma, Taibbi goes blank and confesses, before a rapt congregation of fundamentalists, that his father was an alcoholic circus clown who beat him with his oversized shoes.
“He’d be sitting there in his costume, sucking down a beer and watching television,” I heard myself saying. “And then sometimes, even if I just walked in front of the TV, he’d pull off one of those big shoes and just, you know — whap!”
Taibbi argues that huge chunks of American society have become entirely alienated from mainstream political culture. The 9/11 Truth movement, claims that the US government staged the September 11 attacks itself. According to some surveys, thirty-six per cent of Americans accept, in some form or another, the Truther slogan: “9/11 was an inside job”. The evangelists have even greater numbers, with megachurch after megachurch explaining the attack on New York as God’s punishment for homosexual marriage.
Despite their differences, the Truthers (generally on the Left) and the Christianists (invariably on the Right) agree that American politics is rotten to the core. As Taibbi puts it:
After two consecutive bitterly negative presidential elections and many years of what was turning into a highly deflating military adventure in Iraq, the American public had reached new levels of disgust with the very concept of elections. People no longer voted for candidates they liked or were excited by; they voted against candidates they hated.
At protests and marches, the ruling emotions were disgust and rage … Politicians, with their automated speeches and canned blather about “hope” and “change” and “taking the country back” were now not only believed by ordinary people but actively despised.
In other words, the most important political division is no longer that between the parliamentary parties of the Left and the Right, but between the attitudes of the people and those of the political class.
The current financial crisis takes Taibbi’s argument to a whole new level, with an unbridgeable abyss separating the incandescent rage Wall Street provokes in the population at large, and the mannered technocratic reaction of the Serious Politicians and the Serious Commentators. The Guardian notes:
Congress’s public approval rating was down to 18% before the crisis hit. By some estimates, it is now 10% and falling. Washington has seen a ‘throw the bums out’ mood before, notably Newt Gingrich’s 1994 anti-government ‘Republican revolution’. But this is something else.
There is, however, a second part to Taibbi’s thesis. With the big ideas of the twentieth century mostly discredited, disillusionment with the political mainstream inevitably wends in the direction of “conspiratorial weirdness and Internet-fueled mysticism”.
After all, it’s more comforting to see Jesus and Satan (in the form of Muslims, homosexuals and pacifists) personally contending for your soul than to recognize that no-one — especially not your political leaders — actually gives a damn about you.
While there’s something distinctly appealing about the image of capitalism tottering so much as to require the mighty thews of Peter Faris for support, one doubts that the Left will be the beneficiary of the current crisis, at least not immediately. In the short term, expect more derangement. After that … we shall see.