Easy Chair — From the February 2017 issue

A Grim Fairy Tale

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So, it happened. Mythmaking beat math. Drama put data in its place. A candidate who styled himself a renegade outsider has become the forty-fifth president. It’s almost as though a humble serving girl were changed by the wave of a wand into a princess, or a stranger in bright rags put a pipe to his lips and played so wonderfully that all the children of the village . . . If a hallmark of enduring fairy tales and folktales is an outsized, vivid character who overcomes impossible odds, this is one that should endure. And if a feature of such tales is diffuse, collective authorship — the way they seem to well up from the countryside rather than issue from a writer’s pen — this one qualifies on that count too.

Still, a folktale needs more than magic. It needs a moral — one that any child can grasp and that endless imperfect retellings can’t corrupt. Another tale from last fall certainly bore such a lesson. It’s the story of a girl of grit and gumption who faced many enemies, developed guile to match her great ambition, and prevailed against an age-old prejudice — or would have, if things had turned out differently. For long stretches of the Clinton campaign — particularly during the drowsy August of private banquets in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard — the moral was practically all the story had; the underlying action had mostly ceased.

For Trump, however, the action never ceased, though its meaning seemed uncertain. This air of uncertainty remains. Even assuming a lesson can be drawn from events so magnificently bizarre, who is best qualified to find it? The collective who conjured the story into existence or the prestige press that failed both to credit and comprehend it?

There is another form of folklore that may be relevant here: conspiracy theories. They were everywhere last year, organizing and shaping confusing realities so as to make them intelligible. In this function, they compete with the editorial pages, but from an unconventional position. Sincere conspiracy theorists, despite the slurs so often hurled against them, really do believe in facts and revere the truth; it’s their notion of how facts and truth relate to each other that differs from journalistic orthodoxy. Because they assume that the truth is often veiled, and that what veils it is, of course, the “facts” — the apparent facts, the agreed-on facts, i.e., the lies — truth-seeking, for conspiracy theorists, is more a matter of knowledge destruction than of knowledge gathering. Until the first is complete, the second can’t even begin. Quite often it never does.

Take the assassination of JFK. Many people continue to believe that a shady conspiracy lies behind it because the symmetry-loving human brain can’t fathom how an effect of such enormity — the violent murder of a young, dynamic president — could proceed from a cause as puny as one man’s nuttiness. It’s too arbitrary, this scenario. Hence grander, more serious plots. Castro did it. The Cosa Nostra. A militaristic cabal within the government. Before these schemes could even be looked into, though, the facts at hand had to be nullified. Oswald was a lousy marksman. There were fewer shell casings in the sniper’s nest than shots necessary to inflict the wounds. And so on, until it was a mystery ripe for renovating into a tragedy, with villains whose stature was closer to the dead hero’s and whose motives were of proportional depth and darkness.

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