In one of Walker Percy’s brilliant novels, “The Second Coming,” protagonist Will Barrett keeps falling down for no apparent reason. He also suffers trances during which he contemplates existential questions.
Barrett comes to mind in the era of Donald Trump.
I’m not falling down on the golf course yet, as Barrett did, but I confess to a feeling of lightheadedness coupled with slight nausea. It makes perfect sense that Barrett finds salvation in a young woman recently released from an insane asylum.
When many of those around you seem to be suffering from some sort of group mania — believing what isn’t true and defending what isn’t defensible — then the officially “insane” offer some strange solace. At least there’s a rational explanation for their disorder.
Today, about a third of the nation’s population seems to be suffering from a reality discernment malfunction. Have they been ingesting mushrooms plucked from bull dung? Drinking water spiked with credulity-enhancing chemicals?
Thus, when President Trump speaks in his fourth-grade, monosyllabic, syntax-challenged verbiage, they hear lyrical lucidity. When he brags that he has accomplished more than any other president, save for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his starry-eyed minions nod their approval. Exactly no major legislation has been passed by Congress since Trump took office.
As Trump himself said, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they’d still love him.
This is the definition of reciprocal madness, which seems to have spread to the highest levels, as witnessed Monday in the strangest Cabinet meeting in American history. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said it was a “blessing” to serve the president. Each secretary matched his example in what became an epic, circular kiss-up, praising Trump’s leadership (do you suppose the last lemming thanked the first?) and expressing his or her gratitude.
“It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I am privileged to be here,” said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. “Deeply honored.”
“What an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership,” said HHS Secretary Tom Price. “I can’t thank you enough for the privileges you’ve given me and the leadership that you’ve shown.”
The only way to process such tortured effusion is to remember James B. Comey. You either profess loyalty or you go back to being a member of the privileged class so abhorred by the very folks Trump tempted at the ballot box.
Most reserved in his remarks was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who praised only the men and women of the Defense Department, not Trump. A scholar, thinker, combat veteran and leader, Mattis knows full well what evil lurks in absolute power. The blessing is that there’s at least one among the crowing crowd who puts country first and worships no mortal man.
But what to make of the rest of these Americans who seem unburdened by such concerns? Or this president, who still can do much harm? More than two dozen top psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental-health experts hope to provide some answers with a book due out this fall — “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”
They don’t diagnose Trump, which ethically they can’t do without examining the patient. They do, however, discuss his symptoms, which lead them to conclude that Trump is a “complex, if dangerously mad, man.” They also propose that his mental illness is affecting the nation’s mental health as well.
These experts will likely learn what many journalists have discovered: Only the already convinced will read the book, and the rest will remain convinced of their certitude. The trouble is that when one is daily immersed in clouds of distraction, it’s difficult to recall what “normal” looks like.
Before long, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movement of Americans dressed in all-white and smoking cigarettes, mutely watching their former friends and family go about life as though everything were the same. Barrett doubtless would find solace in such company, refugees from the Asylum of the United States.
Let’s just hope we’re not watching through concertina wire.
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