The 2016 presidential election might be remembered as the one about beliefs—about the things that people either believe or refuse to believe. Neil Steinberg wrote in his Wednesday Sun-Times column that he could sum up the race for president in one sentence: “Donald Trump is a man who will say anything, supported by people who will believe anything.”
A piece by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker on the Republican convention quotes the historian Edmund Morgan: “Government requires make-believe,” said Morgan. “Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Party conventions are fascinating because we see grownups sitting around a kind of tribal fire, thrilling and terrifying each other with make-believe. Lepore asked a Trump delegate what comes next if Trump loses. “Then we’ve got to build our compounds, get our guns ready, and prepare for the worst,” said the delegate, whom Lepore describes as a “warm and friendly woman.” And Lepore comments, “Half of the people believe that they know how the other half lives, and deem them enemies.”
Each half is all too ready to say about the other half, “The stuff that they believe is unbelievable!” This is what Steinberg was saying about Trump supporters. They don’t literally believe anything—there’s a lot of things they refuse to believe even though it’s obvious they’re true. It’s just that what they do believe is preposterous! As preposterous as the divine right of kings.
By the mid-17th century, when England put that belief behind it, “no one really believed that; they only pretended to believe it,” writes Lepore. My guess is that among a lot of people, the divine right had been make-believe a long, long time—but still a useful tool for making England run. Now I want to amend Steinberg’s observation a little. Trump is supported by people who will believe anything, but many know it’s make-believe.
People who choose to believe make-believe aren’t particular to Trump. Many are among the finest people on earth. On Sunday we find them in church—where they profess faith in things more unlikely than Trump’s most extravagant flights of fancy—and then they go back into the world to lead exemplary lives sustained by Sunday’s principles.
Naysayers think them credulous, and assail them with cool secular logic that somehow always misses its mark. (Personally, I don’t have much use for preaching atheists.) As I wrote eight years ago—interestingly, in another essay inspired by Steinberg—”It’s not irrational to presume the irrational when rationality alone won’t do. The square root of minus one is an imaginary number, but there’s a lot of math you can’t do without it.”
Decades ago, I came across a mathematical paradox in my primary source of wisdom, the Reader’s Digest. It had to do with a farmer who left behind 17 cows and a will that gave half his herd to his oldest son, a third of the herd to the middle son, and a ninth of the herd to the youngest. How to divvy up the cows without butchering any baffled them until the youngest boy had a bright idea. He borrowed a cow from the farmer down the road, making 18 cows in all, divvied up that herd according to his pop’s instructions, and then returned the left-over cow to his neighbor.
I’ve thought a lot about the metaphysics of this solution. What if the farmer down the road didn’t have a cow?! Wouldn’t have mattered, I realized. The boy could have come back with a pig and pretended it was a cow. He could have come back with an empty truck and told his brothers, There’s a cow outside, but don’t look! I want you to take my word for it. What matters is not that a cow existed, but that a cow was presumed. Religious faith is like the belief that there’s an 18th cow.
Presume God exists, act accordingly, and you’re not living a lie—you’re living a coherent, directed life. You’re living your faith, some would say.
It appears to me Trump is supported by people who are living their faith. Out of a hunger for a champion who understands them and will soothe their pains, they have made presumptions about Trump that reason cannot undue because reason had nothing to do with forming them. They presume, because Trump is their 18th cow. It’s not that they all actually think Trump’s the answer—much less know it—but presuming this to be true is such a comfort to them it would be irrational of them to stop.
What we say in return is that, given what we know of Trump, it’s irrational of them not to stop. This brings us to a total impasse. It’s hard enough to debate what’s rational, much less what isn’t. Let it be.