When our kids were little, we would make Santa’s magic boot prints from the front door to the Christmas tree by sprinkling baking soda around a crude cardboard cutout. This explained how the presents showed up on Christmas morning, since we didn’t have a fireplace. It was cute to watch our daughters react back when they believed it was all true. But as they got older, logic began to creep in—how did Santa get past the locked front door? And why didn’t the dog bark?
That’s how the real world works, sad as it can be to see them grow up. Logic overcomes belief. Otherwise you’d be 45 and still wondering why Santa didn’t eat the cookies you left out.
The bad news is that magic is back, at least in terms of politics. And it isn’t the good kind, the one that makes holiday marshmallow memories. It’s the bad kind, which turns rational people into blithering idiots ready to believe anything that supports their point of view. Accusations become evidence, for impeachment or harassment or Islamophobia or a society gone white nationalist wild, and the more accusations, the stronger the evidence seems to be. Simply filling a bus with people claiming without evidence that someone did something should mean nothing, but it now means more than ever.
So even as the hive mind agrees that a flippant remark is “demanding foreign intervention” or “a national security threat,” or that an investigation is “interference in our democracy,” or with even less evidence that Trump is a Russian agent, Tulsi a Russian plant, Facebook a Russian tool, Jill Stein a Russian something or other, it does not make it true. Adding “-gate” to a noun does not create a crime. Believing a phone call is bribery, or a tweet is witness intimidation, does not negate the need for the law degree that allows you to use those words accurately. This is about the law, not about writing marketing copy. And kids, I’m sorry, I know how much you wanted to believe in the elves, but it really was Mom and me buying the presents all those years.
It is sadly no surprise that the one semi-favorable witness Democrats allowed to testify at the Impeachment Gladiatorial Thanksgiving Spectacle, Gordon Sondland, was soon accused of misconduct by not one but three women (so it has to be true). The alleged incidents took place years ago, there were no witnesses or physical evidence, and none of the women found reason to bring the accusations forward until Sondland emerged as a possible weak point in the Dems’ case against Trump. What they said is fully and forever unprovable, and can only be “believed” because anyone who supports Trump must be on the naughty list.
Watching those accusations front-paged by a believing media, and with memories of the ugly Kavanaugh confirmation still fresh, one can only view Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s deteriorating health with concern. We all know that whomever Trump nominates as the Ghost of Christmas Past’s replacement will be accused of terrible things. For a male nominee, it will be more sexual harassment incidents than Jack the Ripper. For a female, something “racist” she wrote in junior high. And that doesn’t even include the hidden horrors in their taxes, decisions from their days on the traffic court bench, and so on. It is as inevitable as Santa’s yearly visit.
Wanting to believe accounts for much of what we call fake news. That is, a lot of it is stuff based on anonymous sources who could not possibly know what the president was thinking, or what he said in a closed door meeting, but are quoted anyway because we already know that what we want to know is true.
Democratic parents, er, candidates, have felt the reason for the season, outdoing one another in hinting at what might be under the tree simply because we want it to be there, however impractical it might be. And yes, honey, I still remember the year you believed there’d be a real pony in the backyard and you cried. Elizabeth Sanders believes rich people will give us Amazon gift cards to pay off student loans and provide health care. Mayor Pete will fill our stockings with his Douglass Plan, offering $50 billion (Cory Booker proposes double, $100 billion) to black colleges as a Christmas Eve teaser. They believe they will find the money under the tree, or in the backyard with the pony. Yeah, we tried to buy our kids’ love with expensive presents, too, but at least we spent equally on each of them.
Belief works for the negative as well. There is a profound belief that things are much worse than they really are. Democracy has just one more chance, or perhaps the Republic is already done for and we’re just waiting on the funeral arrangements. First, maybe a military coup, or a civil war. Or Trump will simply refuse to leave office (the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Vox, Politico, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and MSN all believe so). Certainly women, POC, and LGBT are done for. When pressed for specifics, there are none, as who but a true believer could count as a “specific” something that starts with “Well, Trump tweeted…”?
Driving the sense that The End is near is a profound ability to not only know very little about history, but not even remember stuff from a few weeks ago. Those End of Days wars with China, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea—what happened to them? Did the Kurds turn out okay with that genocide? “Trump will trigger nuclear Armageddon” is a go-to article when WaPo has op-ed space to fill. No one seems to know much about the rise of Hitler in any detail, but everyone believes we are seeing it again (except there’s no mass party, no Brownshirt vanguard, no overarching ideology, no annexation of neighboring territory, no Nuremberg laws, no Dachau, and no exercise of state power like in the 1930s). Scale doesn’t seem to matter; Trump cut back on immigration and so did Hitler, so boom, they are the same.
So a tiny group of Nazi cosplayers in Charlottesville three years ago is still held up as proof of sweeping white nationalism, along with Colin Kaepernick not being able to get a job. Alongside that you get the NYT saying “Trump is president only because a constitutional provision invalidated the choice of the American people,” referring to the Electoral College, which has been used to choose presidents for over 230 years. The same article goes on to say “Democrats and pundits have been bullied into accepting the fiction that he has democratic, and not just constitutional, legitimacy.” Even the outcome of an election under the same system in place for centuries is today subject to the belief test.
Adding to this damp blanket of nihilism is the endless failure of insta-folk heroes. The mood is so desperate for a savior that a new one is created regularly. The now-discredited antisemites who organized the Pink Pussy Hat march, the media-abused Parkland Kids, Greta the Amazing Climate Change Girl, it’s almost to the point where you can’t believe in anyone anymore. Remember Beto? He went from the cover of Vanity Fair to, well, we don’t know what he’s doing—working at Wendy’s with Kamala, Stacey Abrams, and the other unemployed elves, maybe.
None of it is real: that is the nature of belief. Getting your hashtag trending is only the illusion of action. Twitter doesn’t elect anyone, or stop anything, or do anything. Yet you believe it matters because it is disappointing when nothing changes in the real world after what seems like a lot of effort. You can make #SantaIsReal the most popular hashtag ever but it won’t make Santa real. The problem is that belief in politics today is not organic. It didn’t grow on its own. It is created and sold, much like each new generation of parents resells the Santa myth to its toddlers.
Bringing it all home, Salon declares that “whatever enthusiasm I once felt for Christmas has dissipated entirely in the age of Donald Trump. He ruins everything he touches, and Christmas, for me, is no exception. …Forget Tiny Tim declaring, ‘God bless us, every one!’ It’s clear that for that 40 percent of people in the Trump cult, it’s closer to ‘Damn anyone to hell who isn’t exactly like us!’ The point of Christmas is to declare white supremacist America as the only ‘real’ America.”
And kids, it wasn’t me who ate the cookies you left out for Santa. Putin came down the chimney and gave them to Trump. That’s where belief has brought us these past few weeks before the holidays: you can’t even believe in Christmas anymore. Ho ho ho!
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.