Noble: Collective delusion: Tell the people what they want to hear (column)
Outbursts characterized by contortions and screams afflicted Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Dr. William Griggs’ diagnosis was easily believed and quickly acted upon — the girls were bewitched.
Thus began a spasm of collective hysteria lasting approximately a year resulting in nearly 200 accusations, 19 executions and five deaths in custody. The Massachusetts General Court would later declare the trials unlawful, restore the good names of the accused and pay restitution to their heirs.
Were the Salem Witch Trials a byproduct of a poorly educated, fanatically religious and deeply superstitious community? Certainly those were ingredients in this toxic brew; however, score settling cannot be discounted as a trigger for this collective delusion. These enduring human behaviors ensure that mass delusions are not a relic of our distant past, but eternal.
Thanks to gullibility and greed, collective delusions are frequently economic. Published in 1841, Charles Mackay’s book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was an early examination of crowd psychology. Mackay’s book describes several economic bubbles, including Tulip Mania in the Dutch Republic in 1637 involving price speculation on tulip bulbs and The Mississippi Scheme that created extravagant but temporary wealth in France.
More recently, China experienced the Pu’er tea crash. “From 1999 to 2007, the price of Pu’er, a fermented tea, increased tenfold, to a high of $150 a pound … before tumbling far below its preboom levels,” Tea trader Fu Wei succinctly observed. “A lot of people behaved like idiots.”
Collective delusions often result in lost fortunes and sullied reputations, and as Salem demonstrated, they can also be deadly. The 20th century witnessed several of the most destructive collective delusions in human history. Psychologist Richard Konigsberg, Ph.D., acknowledges that for many Westerners, “we hesitate to draw the conclusion: that Hitler and the Nazis waged war … on the basis of a paranoid fantasy.” According to Konigsberg, this hesitation stems from our reluctance to admit “that human beings are driven by irrational, unconscious motives.”
The Cultural Revolution, initiated by Chairman Mao to reassert control over the Communist Party, lasted approximately 10 years. Schools were closed and unlucky youths sent to live with peasants while others formed paramilitary groups that harassed and attacked suspected intellectuals and the elderly. Some 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution.
Is America in the age of President Donald Trump suffering a collective delusion? In the book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” mental health professionals offer insight into the current president’s mental health with alarming descriptions such as “extreme present hedonism” and “pathological narcissism.”
However, Allen Frances, a prominent psychiatrist and author of “Twilight of American Sanity,” argues that Trump is not “clinically mad … but very bad.” According to Frances, “Calling Trump crazy allows us to avoid confronting the craziness in our own society.”
Is there validity in both viewpoints? When a sizable portion of our population continues to support and defend a president who insults war heroes such as the late John McCain, disparages Gold Star parents such as the Khans, mocks the disabled, dismisses allegations of sexual assault, has affairs with porn stars and playmates, lies, offends our allies, embraces our enemies, allows attacks on our democracy, slanders African countries and tacitly supports white supremacists — yes.
Most white Americans are descended from ancestors who undertook colossal change. Today, most prefer the status quo, a fact acknowledged by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-Louisiana), “There is a split culturally, spiritually and socially; it has to do with the pace of change more than anything else.” A black president, LGBT rights, MeToo and increasing diversity threaten that status quo, as evidenced by the belief by whites in America that they are discriminated against. This sentiment found fertile ground in a time of despair with the decline in manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, skyrocketing health care costs and the opioid epidemic.
Minorities are not exempt from those economic challenges. According to the Pew Research Center, blacks continue to trail whites by significant margins in college completion, salary and home ownership. Furthermore, blacks are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty.
Trump picked up on white anxiety, the fear of change, which is why, as Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic, “his supporters will not change their minds, because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Demagoguery 101: Tell the people what they want to hear. This is the collective delusion that holds our country in its thrall. If Charles Mackay is correct, America won’t come to its senses any time soon. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Claire Noble can be found online at clairenoble.org and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.