… 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.
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.