I’m re-reading Zero to One, and one of its early points has surprising salience to politics right now. Collective madness is one of the book’s themes; Thiel notes that “Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000.” During that time, Thiel says he knew a “40-something rad student” who “was running six difference companies in 1999.” Yet:
Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 4o-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But in the late ’90s, people could believe that was a winning combination.
That chapter, “Party Like It’s 1999,” starts with a quote from Nietzche: “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Is it so rare in individuals? I see people doing insane-seeming things all the time. Going to grad school in the humanities is one (I did that, by the way, although I at least had a well-developed backup plan). Continuing to date transparently bad people is another. Imagining the world to be a fundamentally stable place is a third, though one that has less immediate interpersonal relevance.
Still, the problem of collective insanity is a real one with lots of historical precedence. Hugo Chavez was originally elected fairly in Venezuela. Putin was originally elected fairly in Russia. Erdoğan was originally elected Prime Minister of Turkey fairly. In all three cases, the people spoke… wrongly. Horribly wrongly, and in ways that were at least somewhat clear at the time. Much as I hate to violate Godwin’s Law, the National Socialists were originally elected, or at least gained legitimate parliamentary seats. Mythologically, vampires must be invited into the home. The greatest danger is not the thing that should transparently be resisted. The greatest danger is the thing blithely accepted to the inner circle.
The U.S. has historically eschewed demagogues. Charles Lindergh never became president. Neither did Huey Long. The closest we’ve gotten in recent memory is Richard Nixon. The U.S. has historically eschewed outright incompetents too. But madness in groups, parties, and nations can persist for surprisingly long periods of time. It can be weirdly persistent, especially because, as Thiel argues implicitly throughout Zero to One, it’s very hard to really think for yourself. I’m not sure I do it well. There is a kind of Dunning-Kruger Effect for thinking for yourself.
That’s the context for why thinking people are scared about Trump as president. He’s manifestly unfit and unqualified, and yet it’s not uncommon for people to elect demagogic incompetents. Andrew Sullivan thinks we’ve never been as good a breeding ground for tyranny as we are now. That’s overstating the case—the 1930s were far more dangerous—but the argument itself is a reasonable one, and that itself is scary. We may be collectively partying like it’s 1999, and not in a good way.
I don’t write this from a partisan perspective or out of partisan animus. This blog rarely deal with direct political issues (though it often touches meta-politics). I’m politically disaffected; neither major party represents me or has the right ideas to move the country forward. Yet the recurrence of collective madness in history scares me. It should scare you too. The next American presidential election should, one hopes, deal such a terrific blow to the forces of madness that have taken over one party in particular that it is forced to re-constitute itself in the next four years.