There is no such thing as a country. Ride a rocket into the sky to look down on our blue marble and you’ll see no nations, no borders, no races. Nations are an invention of the human imagination, called into some very tenuous tangible form from a place inside our minds. Countries exist to the extent that citizens form a shared belief in their existence. To a very large extent, our mythologies define our reality.
Laws don’t hold people together. Punishment, harassment and fear do not hold people together. We can observe from the failures of weak states, those postcolonial mutants printed haphazardly onto a map, that governments do not equal nations. Without a mythology, a collection of symbols and stories, a shared narrative that stirs an emotional resonance, a government is mostly ignored.
Nations exist because we imagine them into being. A border is a shared dream, built out of myths, designed to hack our innate craving for an “us” by defining for us an artificial “them.” Republicans didn’t crave a border wall to keep people out. They demanded a border wall to hold us together.
At the same time a nation is as real as a gun in your face. People will kill and die for the myth of their country. People will build, share, collaborate and trust within the “us” created by a successful national mythology. We need these myths. Myths define our circles of trust wherever they extend beyond the range of people we know personally. We inherently distrust information from people who reject our core mythologies.
Nations, and the mythologies that make them possible, are important for our thriving. When they fail, and they do fail, the results are stark. Forget about armies and cops, basic life supports like hospitals, pensions, road repairs, electricity and garbage collection all fail when a state fails. Strip away the enlarged us provided by a national myth and we lose the capacity to peacefully collaborate. From city skylines to markets and wildlife preserves, everything we build rests on a foundation of cooperation, and that foundation is a mythology of “us.”
Without shared myths we cannot even agree on the shape of reality. This singular aspect of a shared mythology, it’s capacity to create realms of trust, has developed into a particularly worrying issue in the US as our unifying mythology of white supremacy fades. We distrust information, even from otherwise ironclad, verified sources, unless we trust those sources. We remain skeptical of even the most essential, lifesaving, provable advice unless it comes from sources that also participate in our mythological framework. In our subconscious minds, loyalty takes precedence over reality. Absent a shared mythology we cannot even a share an empirical reality.
Cognitive researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published a book last year describing this problem. They conclude from their years of experiments that human reason evolved not to discover truths but to help us maintain larger social groups. As summarized in a New Yorker piece on their work, “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” We use reason to win arguments and establish hierarchies, not to establish a finer understanding of reality.
The boundaries of reason in any society are the boundaries of its shared mythology. Americans, along with our political cousins across the British Empire, built our current collective identity on a mythology of white racial supremacy. On that myth of white supremacy, we built a white nationalism, a unifying national vision imbued with the supposedly enlightened and benevolent power of the white race.
Why has Donald Trump been so successful in winning the unshakeable trust of so many millions of Americans while relentlessly lying to them? This is a President who lies so reflexively he can’t get his story straight even when the truth would help him. He lies about things disproven by our eyes, his weight, his Inauguration crowd, whether he’ll reveal his tax returns and whether he’s published a health care plan to replace the ACA. Yet Tucker Carlson expressed an opinion we hear repeated over and over from Trump supporters in a 2019 Boston Herald op-ed, “The Left hates Trump for telling the truth.”
What is that truth? The only example Carlson bothers to cite is Trump’s racist comments about Mexican immigrants expressed in his first campaign speech. You can lie, cheat and steal and still win a reputation as a bold truth-teller by lying in ways that reinforce a cherished mythological value. Trump admitted he’s a fraud, telling his own supporters he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” and this didn’t bother them in the least. They didn’t care because he embraced their white supremacist mythology more openly and enthusiastically than any modern public figure. That made him one of them. Us. They adore him because he’s the only major political figure of modern times to embrace their white supremacist mythology so openly and unashamedly. Myth is the only public truth. Loyalty is the only public honesty.
We aren’t wired to work with empirical facts. We are wired to define our world in narratives, in mythology. Trump’s “honesty” is his allegiance to our dying white supremacist mythology. According to Carlson, Trump’s racist smear on Mexicans was in fact, “attacking the gatekeepers in our national media.” The real liars in this narrative are journalists who refuse run stories reinforcing our white supremacist myths. Anything which contradicts those myths is, by definition, a lie. Journalists are, therefore, the real liars.
Comb letters to editors across the country and you’ll see this logic play out repeatedly. Journalists and Democrats are the real liars. These homespun defenses of Trump are interesting for what they do and don’t include. They virtually never mention a factual claim from a Democratic that was disproven in some empirical or independently verifiable way. Empirical, measurable reality is meaningless. They care about “truth” in its purest mythological sense.
A personal favorite comes from a Richard Snyder in Huntington, West Virginia, published last fall in the Herald-Dispatch. Snyder opens with a complaint about people stealing his yard signs, then congratulates Trump’s allegiance to the truth, “Biden and his followers say Trump lies. I would like to know where he has told one.” He characterizes Biden and his followers as “liars and thieves.” What’s interesting is what he chooses as an example of these characteristics. He doesn’t waste time on some meaningless fact checking exercise, going instead to the touchstone of honesty, “I can’t understand how anyone in their right mind could vote for Biden. What he has said in his campaign is against the United States.”
Biden’s only lie is his disloyalty. Loyalty is the definition of honesty. Truth is defined by its relationship to our unifying myths. What has Joe Biden said exactly that is “against the United States?” Only white Jesus knows and Snyder doesn’t bother to explain, but whatever it was it discredited everything else the man would ever say.
Another op-ed from Rochester, Minnesota captures this definition of truth. It starts by congratulating another letter writer for calling out the “misinformation and downright lies of the left-leaning mainstream media.” Then it seeks to answer the only question relevant to understanding the dishonesty of journalists, “Why do Leftists hate America?” No one who questions our unifying mythology can be trusted, even if they’re trying to save you from catching a deadly disease. Questioning our mythology is a form of “hatred,” a betrayal.
Donald Trump is fluent in the mythology of white supremacy that defines his followers’ reality. He congratulates them for their refusal to indulge in the uncomfortable System 2 thinking necessary to engage in doubt or skepticism. Trump absolutely loves to excoriate Representative Ilhan Omar because she’s his perfect foil. Black, immigrant, female, Muslim, she embodies every danger posed by the decline of white supremacy. When he calls her out as a traitor, he is telling the only truth that resonates with them. Adding to the impact, Omar is an attractive woman by almost any standard. That attractiveness adds a degree of unconscious loathing from people (men or women) who feel small, weak or vulnerable. It’s not an accident that you hear more hatred aimed at Omar, Pelosi or Ocasio-Cortez than at other vocal and powerful liberal figures.
In a pitch-perfect 2019 tweet, Trump framed Omar as House Speaker Pelosi’s boss, accusing her of making “US HATE statements,” being “ungrateful” and most importantly, “out of control.” In just a few typed characters he defined the irrefutable System 1 truth that moves tens of millions of Americans. Black people aren’t Americans, aren’t “us.” Immigrants are dangerous foreigners who should only be tolerated to the extent they gratefully submit to white authority. If both groups aren’t carefully controlled, they will take away your power. And above all, nothing is more dangerous than a woman out of control, especially a woman you find attractive. Without even mentioning police you can hear the appeal to the cops as the thin blue line protecting us from an otherwise inevitable black rampage.
Right now, white supremacy remains the mythology above all others for a massive minority of Americans. They will easily shrug off any inputs which challenge that white supremacist mythology. We live in the age of fake news because we’ve lost our unifying mythology, that umbrella beneath which we can engage in factual, rational debate. People will not trust a set of alleged facts unless they share a mythological framework defining truth.
With the decline of white supremacy, Americans have lost access to an agreed reality. No new shared mythology has yet coalesced to take its place. This is a very dangerous state of affairs.
So, what is the myth of white supremacy? What is it made of? What fits, and doesn’t fit, under this tattered, failing umbrella of “us.”