In our historical moment, the mesmerists are worth considering, for they were frequently debunked but the debunkings rarely had much of an effect. Just as the repeated corrections of President Trump’s falsehoods have failed to discourage him or his supporters, so too the mesmerists escaped their exposés unharmed.
.. But mesmerists had a knack for turning such accusations of fraudulence into strength. Practitioners got some of their best material by embracing the debunkers’ theories as their own.
.. To the charge that they were deceiving their audiences, mesmerists responded that they were expert demonstrators and analysts of deception. Yes, Dods did trick his subjects — but only in order to illustrate how dangerous other tricksters could be.
.. When Dods offered to teach mesmerism to his audiences, he was offering to let them in on a powerful secret. Instead of being one of the dupes, you could be one of the mesmerists. All you had to do was sign up for his private class — for a hefty fee.
Imagine trying to take the wind out of Dods’s sails by calling him an impostor, as people did. Far from deflating Dods’s prestige, such accusations would only add to it. Control over the powers of deception was precisely what Dods was selling.
Or imagine trying to defeat mesmerism by calling it a ridiculous fad that a credulous public deserved. This argument, too, suited mesmerists just fine. The more fetid the swamp of public life, the more important it became to understand the mesmeric techniques of deception. How about signing up for that private class?
In the same way, exposing Mr. Trump’s lies seems to play right into his hands. We rarely consider the possibility that the president’s supporters want a scoundrel, as long as he’s their scoundrel. Great con men feed off accusations of dishonesty. They mesmerize us because we suspect them of deception, not in spite of that fact.
Like the mesmerists, what Mr. Trump is actually selling is anti-mesmerism. The mesmerists were offering a fantasy of turning the tables on con men by exposing their tricks. Mr. Trump, while constantly lying, denounces liars all around him. He tells us the game is rigged. The fake news media can’t out-fake him. This is how he gets away with making myriad demonstrably inaccurate claims, as he did at a rally with adoring supporters in Pennsylvania on Thursday, while in the same breath attacking the news media as “fake, fake disgusting news.”
Even if Mr. Trump’s audience retains a suspicion that he himself might be a swindler, that doesn’t necessarily work to his disadvantage. The attacks on his truthfulness have an alarming tendency to reinforce his message that he’s a master of the deceptive arts. In a treacherous world, you need a treacherous ally — treacherous, at least, to your mutual enemies. So become Mr. Trump’s apprentice! Sign up, as Dods urged, for the private class!
When no one is trustworthy, you might as well trust a con artist. There’s a strange logic to the idea. Innocent lambs may be admirable, but they’re not the defenders you want in a dog-eat-dog world. Better to have a sly fox at your side.
THE cold war was fought as much in the imagination as on the battlefield. Each side sought to project images of social and cultural superiority; stories of people corrupted by the decadent West or persecuted by the KGB were turned into weapons. This struggle was largely waged on screen, in shows and films that were subject to varying degrees of government involvement. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union followed, writers and directors put down their arms. Barely any films about the cold war were made in the years immediately following its end.
.. For example, Ivan Drago, the antagonist of “Rocky IV” (1985), was an emotionless brute: “If he dies,” he memorably says of a defeated American boxer, “he dies.” So was Podovsky, a Russian torturer, in the “Rambo” series. In “From Russia With Love” (1963), the assassin Rosa Klebb relished inflicting pain on both her compatriots and her enemies
.. the rare female communist was either a nymphomaniac or frigid and repressed.”
.. “They” were cold-blooded criminals, subversives and deviants; “we” were enlightened defenders of democracy and freedom. Even in grittier, more realistic works, the motivations of communist characters were rarely explored. They existed mostly as “foils against which the men of the West demonstrated their superior skills,”
.. These hard-faced psychopaths have now been ousted by richly textured Soviet citizens. “The Americans” is concerned as much with the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Russian agents (pictured), and the trials of raising their children in America, as with espionage.
.. The pair grapple with guilt and the meaning of freedom.
.. So human are these characters, in fact, that viewers are persuaded not only to empathise with them, but to hope they evade capture—even as they kill and blackmail Americans.
.. In these stories, the idea of Western superiority—either moral or professional—is questionable.
.. In the case of “The Americans”, it can be laughable: one of the series’ funniest moments comes when the head of counter-intelligence at the FBI discovers that his secretary has secretly married a KGB officer.
.. The villain of “The Shape of Water” is not Mosenkov but a repulsive American colonel.
.. The overseers of “The Americans”—Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer
.. They enlisted Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer, to ensure their Russian dialogue would feel idiomatic.
.. Now the production team has been “able to spend time in the Stasi archives, to spend time with people who were on the East German side,” Mr Cornwell says. “There is room in the six-hour format to explore both sides.”
.. faith in Western spooks has drastically decreased in the wake of the Iraq war and recent surveillance scandals.
.. despite Vladimir Putin’s election-meddling and revanchism, most English-speaking viewers no longer feel they face an existential threat from Russia.
.. The imperative to deflect criticism outward, so conspicuous in the 1980s, no longer applies.
.. Used to navigating moral minefields in shows such as “The Wire” and “The Sopranos”, viewers have outgrown simplistic tales of good and evil. Proof was offered by “Red Sparrow”, a film released earlier this year that starred Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian seductress targeting a CIA agent.
.. It was “designed to make Americans feel good about [themselves] by showing how much nicer [their] spies are than their Russian counterparts,” says Denise Youngblood, a historian of Russian and Soviet cinema. Judging by its box-office performance, the formulaic plot was a turn-off.
.. Because Russia has always been a land of villains,” Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, once wrote, “it is also a land of heroes and saints.” Hollywood is at last imaginative enough to make room for all of them.
This is the victory not only of a Trump personality cult, as it has been described, but also of an ideology, one closer to Putinism than Reaganism.
.. Back then, you may recall, some of the “crazies” — such as national security adviser Michael Flynn — had left the White House, and supposed pragmatists had taken charge: H.R. McMaster for national security, Gary Cohn for economics, Jared and Ivanka for — well, for general reasonableness.
.. There was talk of working with Democrats on infrastructure. Trump wanted to help the “dreamers,” those blameless young immigrants brought to this country as children. It seemed that existing international agreements — NATO, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord — might be preserved, with some face-saving adjustments. Trump was still the politician who had spoken tolerantly on LGBT issues.
.. The White House defines itself and prepares to motivate its voters by the “enemies” it constantly creates, refines and rediscovers, including African American athletes, the press (“Our Country’s biggest enemy,” in a recent Trump tweet), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“very dishonest & weak”), and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (directing a “Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats”). Also: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, former FBI director James B. Comey, his own attorney general, his deputy attorney general . . . The list will never end.
.. But Bannonism is not just a snarling attitude. It encompasses a contempt for democracy and a respect for authoritarianism. When Trump refused to sign a statement of solidarity with the world’s other six leading industrial democracies and then proceeded to slather praise on North Korea’s dictator (“a tough guy . . . a very smart guy”), this was not just a sign of personal pique or favoritism: The U.S. president raised questions in the minds of other leaders about whether the concept of the West itself can survive his presidency.
.. It encompasses an “America First,” for-me-to-win-you-have-to-lose philosophy
.. It encompasses a contempt for immigrants, for outsiders of any kind. Certainly it is possible to support lower levels of immigration without being a racist. But to countenance the deliberate policy of tearing away small children from their parents that we are seeing today on the U.S.- Mexico border is consistent only with a worldview that deems Mexicans and Salvadorans somehow less human, less worthy, than white Americans.
..it’s no coincidence that Trump, who boasted about being the first Republican to say LGBTQ in his convention acceptance speech in 2016, has, as The Post’s James Hohmann noted last week, tried to ban transgender people from the military, removed protections for transgender inmates, employees and students, failed to acknowledge Pride Month and disbanded the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. As in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this revival of bigotry dovetails with an effort to woo the conservative Christian establishment.
.. Finally, Bannonism encompasses contempt for the government itself.
.. his constant disparagement of the Justice Department and the FBI; his at times insultingly unsuitable appointments (such as his personal physician to head the mammoth Department of Veterans Affairs); and his generally cavalier attitude toward staffing. Even today, 17 months into his first term, fewer than half of the 667 key positions tracked by The Post in collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service are filled, and for almost 200 there are no nominees.
.. But another answer came from Trump himself, who said after Bannon’s firing: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. . . . Steve was a staffer.”
Even discounting for Trump’s normal petulance and self-aggrandizement, there may have been an element of truth in what he said. The anti-democratic, protectionist, anti-immigrant, pro-authoritarian administration that has now taken shape, in other words, is not only Bannonism. It is raw and unvarnished Trumpism, too.
In polarized times, those without a clear guiding ideology become the most vicious partisans.
Democracy dies when one side loses respect for electoral outcomes and comes to consider the other illegitimate. Recent U.S. presidents, at least since Bill Clinton, have faced a degree of implacable opposition from the further reaches of the opposing party. But of late the problem seems to have intensified—and disrespect for democratic outcomes has become particularly acute on the center-left.
.. But although centrists are by definition skeptical of ideology, that does not make them any less prone to partisanship.
.. In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale.
.. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition.
.. Many Democrats are unwilling to accept that Mrs. Clinton actually lost to Donald Trump. Those who find her standard center-left technocratic worldview congenial are disinclined to accept ideological explanations, so they look for scapegoats: Russia, James Comey, even the voters who supported Donald Trump.
.. Contrast the centrists with leftist standard-bearers like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They’re no fans of Mr. Trump, but they haven’t been at the forefront of calls for impeachment or intensifying the Russia investigation. Instead, they have focused their efforts on broadening the Democratic Party’s base with a more inclusive populism that takes seriously the systemic causes of inequality
.. Both have resisted the urge to write off Mr. Trump’s supporters, and Mr. Sanders in particular has made outreach to Republicans a major part of his postelection message. Mr. Sanders seems instinctively uncomfortable with identity politics,
.. People want something to believe in, but in the absence of a strong ideological sensibility among Democrats, partisanship and alarmism offer ready recourse. Having an enemy is a powerful motivator, and hating Mr. Trump is entertaining to boot.
.. Yesterday’s centrists have become some of today’s most intense partisans.