Faust and Mephistopheles

… who are you, then?
I am part of that power
which eternally wills evil
and eternally works good.

-Mephistopheles to Faust in Part I of Faust, by Johannes Wolfgang Von Goethe

In one of his best essays, “The Toxoplasma of Rage,” Scott Alexander argues that political actors have a strong incentive to take the form that their opponents most despise. The limiting reagent of political action is not favorability but hate: your supporters’ hatred of your opponents and your opponents’ hatred of you. Only a truly enraging political movement can attract both full-throated support and full-throated denunciation, and rise above the static of 21st century life.

This year’s presidential election would seem a perfect example of this process: Trump is a living embodiment of the loud, rich, entitled, tasteless, narcissistic, offensive white male that Democratic-aligned groups have spent decades denouncing.  Trump’s alt-right supporters latch onto Nazi imagery precisely because it is what the mainstream has been warning of, in Trump’s candidacy and before.

Hillary, also, leans towards the self-presentation that is most diametrically opposed to Trump’s vision of himself as a politically incorrect, nationalist outsider. Hillary is the insider’s insider, calling for a “dream of hemispheric open borders” when speaking to a Brazilian bank, and most comfortable arguing in precisely the identity politics terms which Trump supporters despise:

Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?

So the Toxoplasma is alive and well in the American political ecosystem, moving between its two sets of hosts- Red America and Blue America, left ideology and right ideology, in a way that intensifies and feeds off of our increasing polarization.

What Scott’s SlateStarCodex essay misses, however, is that the primary and secondary hosts to the parasite of ideology are radically different in prominence and power. To continue the Toxoplasma analogy, one of them is the mouse and one of them is the cat that eats the mouse. Hillary has the full-throated support of pretty much every corner of the professional media and policy apparatus, as well as the majority of college graduate voters. The rhetoric of identity politics and social justice is not some private purview of left-of-center politics but the language in which large corporations now communicate. And when colleges assign summer reading to all their freshmen, it is, needless to say, much more likely to be Ta Nehisi Coates than Ann Coulter.

That is to say, we’re not witnessing a Manichean struggle between equally or roughly equally matched forces of Dark and Light, or a chess match between monism and dualism. Instead, we are closer to a pre-modern, Christian vision of the relative power of God and the Devil, gestured at in Goethe’s dialogue above between the magician Faust and the devil Mephistopheles he has summoned, as well as in Dante’s portrayal of Satan at the very bottom of Hell, trapped in ice, unmoving:

He wept with all six eyes, and the tears fell over his three chins mingled with bloody foam. The teeth of each mouth held a sinner, kept as by a flax rake: thus he held three of them [Brutus, Judas, and Cassius] in agony

Dante’s Satan is thus just another sinner, punished by God, whose endless frozen noshing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius is just another tool for universal justice. He is part of that power that eternally wills evil and eternally works good.

Satan in the Lake of Ice, Inferno Canto XXXIV, Gustave Dore’s Illustrations

When Bill Clinton called up Trump in early 2015 and encouraged him to run for President, he obviously did not believe he was doing the Republican Party any favors: like a high school kid throwing a firecracker into a mailbox, he might not have known that it was going to blow the whole thing up, but it wasn’t going to help it. Within a day of Trump’s campaign announcement, Hillary’s aides were readying attacks on the GOP as bigoted. Similarly, “raising the profile” of Trump, Cruz, and Carson was considered to be a priority by the Democrats well before Trump started his run.

I of course have my own wild-eyed theories about what are the larger forces, some old and some new, that make the dominant ideological consensus so much the same all over the world and so seemingly unassailable, when it is crazy by the standards of an earlier time as well as when it is eminently reasonable. But just admitting of the imbalance in power seems like the first step, lest even those who would, like Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost, “rather reign in Hell, than Serve in Heaven,” find they are serving even when in Hell.

4 thoughts on “Faust and Mephistopheles

  1. According to survey data from the GSS and ANES, etc., the electorate today is just as moderate in its policy views as it was 5o years ago, yet our party politics is increasingly polarized. There are many reasons for this, but one effect of it has been that politicians have learned via their highly paid research staff, that they can win via turnout alone. We see it in this election. Romney won all the independents by far, but Obama won via turnout, and because some 12 million or so conservatives stayed home and didn’t vote for Romney. It used to be that politicians had to appeal to the middle to get enough votes to win, but now if you can get the base out in droves, something Bush did in 2004 by having traditional marriage amendments on the ballot in swing states, you can win. I see Trump is playing to this dynamic, he knows he got more primary votes than any other Republican in recent memory, and if he gets the base out, he wins. Cruz was counting on on this as well, when he spoke about the “body of Christ” coming out to vote. By this, he was talking about Christian voters, not a zombie Jesus. The difficulty with the polls this year, is that it’s hard for them to measure the occasional voters, the same people who are voting for Trump, and not to mention all the people who are socially afraid to declare their support for his candidacy due to the social stigma. For 2012, all they did was at +5 to +11 for Democrat turnout to the polling sample and they were mostly right.


    1. I’m genuinely uncertain how much Get Out the Vote is going to matter in November. I really thought that Trump was going to consistently underperform his polling in the primary, since he appeared to have less of a state organization than his opponents, but it turned out not to be the case: outcomes matched the polling, by and large. Right now, I’m going to assume that all the various stigma factors versus get out the vote factors will balance out and it will look like whatever the polls say. But I’m not very good at predictions!


      1. Trump’s ground game sucks, true. Obama and the Dems have micro-targeting down; the GOP is still playing catch-up. I volunteered to knock on doors for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in my state in 2014 and it was kindergarten compared to the technocracy I read about the Obama campaign. The only candidate on the GOP side who had a good ground game in the primaries was Cruz, and he was overwhelmed by sheer numbers for Trump.

        Historically, black politicians before Obama scored higher in the polls than in actual voting due to the effect of a few % of (presumably) white people talking to pollsters who don’t want to appear racist by saying they didn’t support the black politician. In the privacy of the voting booth we can vote our true feelings. In England, they call it the “shy Tory,” the voter who doesn’t want the stigma of publicly coming out as conservative. Hell, I would never in a million years admit I am voting for him as the lesser of two evils at work when this comes up when people talk politics at work, because I don’t want to be ostracized. Now, don’t get me wrong, the pollsters are pretty good these days with their methodology, but they are wrong often enough that we can’t say that it’s a sure thing that because Hillary is winning, in many polls (while still in the margin of error), that it’s in the bag. Brexit is a perfect example, the polls said one thing, and the results said another. It’s been said that the reputation incentive means that the polls are more reflective of reality the closer to election day than used to do drive a narrative of an “inevitable victory” of one party or another.

        Either way, we are in for more of the partisan bickering you note, no matter who wins. Republicans got sick of nominating genteel losers, and when the Democrats moved to destroy him personally and politically as they inevitably do, Trump actually punched back.


  2. p.s. While Bill Clinton may be Machiavellian in urging Trump to run, it was the mainstream media essentially gave us Trump as a nominee. Millions worth of free publicity. He gave good copy, and moreover, they all felt he had the worst shot in the general. Wikileaks has shown us the close collusion between the Hillary campaign and ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and several major newspapers. Cruz was right, the same media folks who hung on his every word in the primary, turned on him in the general election.

    Liked by 1 person

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