That any voter would support Donald Trump to become leader of the free world seems beyond comprehension to many, a phenomenon outside the realm of understanding. That voters in the U.K. would approve a referendum to leave the EU seems perplexing given the chaotic and costly aftermath, clearly predictable prior to the vote. These distinct events, separated by a fierce ocean and centuries of culture, would at first appear to be unrelated or at best connected only through the reports from a homogenized global media. But Trump and Brexit are in fact one and the same thing, one coin with two sides, an orange head one on side and tails wagging the dog on the other.
In 1873 James Clerk Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics when he proved that light and magnetism were not separate phenomena. Instead, Maxwell showed that what appeared to be two distinct things were actually two phases of one reality, electromagnetism. Einstein said of this discovery: “This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”
As with electromagnetism, Trump and Brexit are similarly two phases of the same state of matter, Brexitrump, the merging of what seems to be two into one. What we are experiencing is yet another, and more pernicious, “change in the conception of reality.” This time Einstein would be less enthusiastic.
A New Reality
Our earliest ancestors gazed at the night sky and in the random distribution of stars above saw the comforting order of constellations. Today we look up and discern shapes of animals in the wispy condensation of clouds. We breathlessly share on social media images of Jesus on burnt toast or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Elvis as a potato chip. Welcome to pareidolia, the human brain’s amazing ability to perceive patterns where there are none.
In the Beginning…
We humans cannot turn off our instinct to see familiar shapes in the world around us; pareidolia means that our brains demand that there be order even when none exists. And just as we abhor the absence of visual order, we too are unable to accept the unsettling idea of “I don’t know” when confronted with the disorder of the unfamiliar. So we make up comforting answers to all that perplexes us, just as we create reassuring images from clouds and toast. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world, that we see design and significance – even in the absence of both.
Filling the Void
To put all of this in blunt and crude terms: we make shit up, and then insist the crap we just made up is true because we believe it. So in the abyss of great uncertainty, our ancestors developed elaborate creation myths and gods of the sun rain and oceans to explain the mysteries and happenings of daily life. War gods helped in victory, or not. Fertility gods helped, or not.
Aching with this need to fill the void of the unknown, people across time and place all share a compelling quintet of yearning on which our early conceptions of reality were founded: fear of death; the desire to explain away nature’s mystery; hopes for controlling one’s destiny; a longing for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of power. These are the five pillars of religion. Note that nowhere in that equation of religion’s foundation is a demand for reason, fact, or evidence to support one’s belief. Instead, the religions we create demand that we simply believe through faith, as a means of self-justification. Pareidolia predisposes us toward such folly. A great leap it is not from seeing an image in a cloud to believing that the image is real. We gladly believe, we desperately want to believe, in the god we created, in the images and answers we made up. We do so in the absence of any objective supporting evidence because faith tautologically rejects the idea that such evidence is necessary.
Religion is like our appendix, a vestigial remnant from a primitive past. Perhaps in a few millennia the god of Abraham will invoke the same curious amusement as rain and sun gods do today. Or perhaps our god will simply be shelved along with Zeus and Jupiter. Some day. But until then, we suffer the consequences of a population that believes in the absence of evidence; and more curiously, rejects an objective reality that conflicts with beliefs easily proven false. And this leads us to the politics of today.
In our rush to still the pang of ignorance, we confound faith and fact. And so we get Brexitrump. Pareidolia rears its ugly head as we see things that are not there and are blinded to things that are. Because faith demands no proof, people cling stubbornly to a belief in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. We see patterns because we want to; we reject what we dislike because faith allows that. Faith trumps fact. Reality is optional. And that is what makes Brexit and Trump two phases of one thing – they each could only exist in the absence of a commonly understood and broadly accepted conception of an objective reality that is independent of our individual biases.
If we all agree the sky is blue, we have an opportunity based on that common understanding for discussing why it is blue, how it got that color, and what is the color’s significance. But if I insist the color is green, and you claim the color to be puce, both of us rejecting evidence to the contrary because we simply believe, then we have little common ground for any discussion at all. Brexitrump exists solely as a consequence of this type of willful ignorance and blind faith that together prevent reasonable dialogue based on a shared conception of reality.
Fiction, Faith and Fact
The “change in the conception of reality” is not benign. Ignorance kills. In Africa, eight healthcare workers combating the Ebola epidemic were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help murdered the only people who could provide assistance. People acted against their own best interests because of an altered conception of reality. Facts and evidence were rejected as irrelevant.
As do those African villagers, some people vote for Trump or to leave the EU intoxicated by a conception of reality that does not correspond to any objective truth. Without us being anchored together by a shared understanding of that objective truth, reality is an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us something unpleasant. As in Africa, this deadly ignorance is borne of unfounded fear and denials based in the irrational rejection of basic established fact.
When fiction becomes confused with fact, anything goes, freed from the constraints of reason. The conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer reviewed journals carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of scientific evidence. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same so that with every winter storm comes the pathetic and childish denial that the world could not be getting hotter. When presented with evidence, skeptics selectively demand more “proof” without understanding what that concept means in scientific inquiry. Yet, with considerable irony, when we are not discussing climate change, many hold beliefs securely for which there is no proof at all, the flipside consequence of misunderstanding the scientific method. The anti-vaccine movement demands no proof of the link to autism, which has been thoroughly discredited. They simply believe.
This elevation of faith to fact, and confusing belief with evidence, has real consequences, and not just in remote villages in Africa. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in conservative opposition to President Obama over the past seven years. By untethering ties to reality, by claiming faith is sufficient proof of any belief, the GOP can with a straight face blame Obama for everything bad, no matter how far removed from Obama in reality; and give him credit for nothing good, independent of how directly his actions led to that good. No leap of logic or time or reason is too great for them to link Obama with something undesirable; and no cause and effect no matter how obvious or self-evident is too strong for them to dismiss, reject or ignore. Facts do not matter.
The idea that the GOP has substituted faith for fact is easily enough proven. Take any area of improvement: lower unemployment, rising stock market, declining gas prices, an expanding economy, health care; and then ask any conservative friend if Obama can be credited for any of that. When the inevitable answer is no, ask the following question: is there any circumstance, any result, any area of improvement that can be attributed to Obama? Elevated gas prices were his fault, but prices lowered in spite of him. He was blamed for the declining stock market he inherited, but given no credit for a market that more than doubled during his tenure. His economic policies were blamed for high unemployment but those same polices have nothing to do with rates falling below six percent. What could Obama have done, what outcome could we have seen, for which a conservative would be willing to credit him? The untenable but predictable answer is none, at least in the faith-based world of the right wing.
Brexitrump and Faith-based Promises
This hateful rejection of reality is the direct precursor to the rise of a demagogue like Trump. This rejection of fact as a basis for discussion leads to Brexit. No? Let’s look at the claim that “we send the EU £350 a week; let’s fund our NHS instead,” a campaign slogan that gained great traction. Never mind the claim is not even correct; but what now after the election? Less than 24 hours after the vote, the loudest proponent of that idea and head of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, said that the promise was a “mistake.” Farage went on to say when asked if he could fulfill his promise to fund the NHS with money saved from leaving the EU, “No, I can’t, and never would have made that claim.” He repeatedly made that claim, and it was one of the campaigns most prominent ads. This surrealistic disconnect can only exist when our new conception of reality rejects truth as an annoyance.
Much of the “Leave” campaign was based on concerns about immigration. Those in favor of leaving the EU wanted to take control of immigration policy on the idea that by being in the EU Britain lost control of its borders. This influx of immigrants was said to result in loss of jobs, an increase in crime and a severe strain on social services. For many voters, leaving the EU was the means of solving these problems. Voters were given that very promise. But Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told BBC immediately after the vote that leaving the EU will not “automatically reduce immigration” which directly contradicts one of the central promises of the campaign. Explaining that there was going to be little or no change in immigration after the vote, Boris Johnson (a leader of the Leave movement) said that the UK was not “pulling up the drawbridge” and that “we cannot turn our backs on Europe.”
The two most important premises of the Leave vote were based on falsehoods. This is possible in a world in which facts no longer matter, in which the new conception of reality no longer requires facts or reason or proof or common sense, just faith that what we believe is true because we believe it. Maybe history will prove that leaving the EU was beneficial to the UK; but if so it will turn out to be so for none of the reasons promised.
We come to this deep divide of Brexitrump, this unbridgeable political chasm, because politicians no longer need to be constrained by a shared truth. Facts are dismissed as irrelevant to the greater ideal of faith. This slide away from an objective reality is the primary cause of extreme polarization and the rise of demagoguery because faith allows for the creation of an alternative universe in which an opponent is easily demonized by dismissing ameliorating facts. A big leap it is not from believing in god and the devil, to believing in anything at all, including that the president is a radical Christian, but also a Muslim, and a foreign citizen socialist who will take your guns away, or that Trump could be president or that Brexit makes sense. Facts don’t matter; we create a fictional order in the face of randomness and then call that real; and the chasm becomes ever wider. Faith and ignorance are not benign, and become downright dangerous when confused with rationality. Brexitrump is the consequence of this destructive confusion arising from the new fact-free conception of reality.
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