January 7, 2021

Is reality dictated by who wields power? If so, perhaps the unreal feeling of yesterday’s Capitol invasion by Trumpist protesters tells us something about the loss of clarity about who dominates that once globally hegemonic culture.

In 2002, there was no such uncertainty — at least according to one unnamed Bush aide, who explained how American imperial power was so unstoppable its government could remake reality at will:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

To put it simply: America got to decide what was real, because America was the only hegemon. Believe that or not, two decades on, our confidence in the plastic nature of reality has certainly been accelerated. With an unprecedented chunk of the population confined to their homes, and digital screens now the main window on to the world for many, politics and reality increasingly feel connected by only the thinnest of threads.

Something of this distorting effect — this weirding of public life — infuses the strange recent story of Hilaria Baldwin, the celeb-influencer wife of actor Alec Baldwin. Born Hillary Lynn Hayward-Thomas to all-American parents in Boston, she was revealed recently to have spent the last decade pretending to be Spanish.

Why did no one say anything? It’s a safe bet that Hilaria’s parents knew she wasn’t really Spanish. It’s also reasonable to assume that Alec has met his in-laws, at which point no doubt he would have learned that they were no more Spanish than Hilaria. Presumably most of her friends knew, too, and a fair number of her enemies. So why did everyone just nod and smile for a decade, while Hilaria pretended she’d forgotten the English word for ‘cucumber’ on cookery programmes?

There are two plausible explanations for this. The first is that the oath of omertà was upheld, even by those who didn’t wish her well, because her circle believed she had the power to inflict negative social consequences on anyone who broke it. The second, and to me more interesting, possibility is that no one wanted to be the one to dunk on the power of dreams.

For belief in this power – whether promoted by Walt Disney or under the scientific-sounding “Law of Attraction” – is held by Americans of all social classes, all the way from White House aides to the working class. Or at least it was in 2002, the year that Bush aide was interviewed, as I discovered when I took a solo post-university trip across the United States by Greyhound bus.

The Greyhound bus routes that lattice the USA are probably as close as that car-centric nation gets to affordable long-distance public transport. Most passengers are simply trying to get cheaply from A to B, but curious or foolhardy tourists can buy an open pass and go road-tripping. It’s best attempted when you’re young enough to go without sleep, showers and personal space. It’s also, by English standards, surreally friendly. Everyone talks to you on a Greyhound bus, whether you like it or not. Jammed into cramped seats, rattling through empty wilderness and humid one-horse towns, I had many such conversations. They left me with the impression that even the most impoverished Americans believed they could create their own reality, through sheer force of conviction.

Is it true, though? Or is it just another American Dream? Well, while the optimism underscoring this belief is very American, the Hilaria view of reality — perhaps we could call it “Hilarity”? — is not wholly baseless. What you expect to find in the world will, to a degree, colour what you actually find. If you’ve ever hunted madly for your keys while repeatedly looking straight past them because they were somewhere slightly out of the ordinary, you’ll know what I mean.

But there are also limits to Hilarity. I can’t believe my keys back into my handbag if my toddler has in fact buried them in the sandpit. Indeed, the fact that those around Hilaria grew tired of honouring her version of reality, and that someone eventually broke ranks, surely speaks to a wider disenchantment with the power of “positive thinking” that’s taken hold in the years since my Greyhound road trip.

For example, we know now that the confidence expressed in America’s reality-creating power by that Bush aide was misplaced. America’s ability to forge a new liberal, democratic paradise in the bomb craters of Iraq and Afghanistan was not, in fact, limitless. Nor was the absolute power of the Western financial system, later that decade, able to create money out of nowhere simply through financial engineering, without any substantive foundation in making anything.

And so, were I to board a Greyhound bus today, I’m not sure I would find big dreams nearly as evident in what American writer and photographer Chris Arnade calls “back-row America”. Or at least, I suspect I’d find such dreams as battered by subsequent disappointments — just as the spooky, humid and beautiful city of New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina, three years after I visited. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why today, for many, faith in the power of dreams has curdled into its bleak mirror-image: belief in the pervasive presence of shadowy forces and malign conspiracy.

The power of this curdled variant of Hilarity made its presence known yesterday via hundreds of protesters in Washington. In Hilarity terms — or in terms of reality-as-symbol — the power of seeing the inner sanctum of that “shining city on the hill” stormed by QAnon characters has shaken America to the core.

Meanwhile, a stubborn rump of those nearer the top of the pile are still hanging on to the old, more stable reality. It is, after all, relatively easy to believe that the world is whatever you want it to be when you have a self-righteous internet filter bubble, as well as the political and financial resources to bankroll your convictions and shield yourself from evidence to the contrary. But if reality in the 21st century has proven most sharply disappointing to those at the bottom, the cracks in Hilarity are now visible upstream too. Just look at the elites’ repeated shock at “un-progressive” electoral results that were in fact anything but shocking. And with QAnon invading the Capitol, both liberals and conservatives alike are now waking up to the profound displacement of stable narrative that defines 21st-century American politics.

Still, if the eruption of Trumpism implied a threat to the grand progressive narrative, Trump’s deposition has been treated by many as a repudiation of that threat – despite not being the anticipated landslide at all. It has also been hailed as a return to American internationalism. After the election, Joe Biden promptly announced that America is “back, ready to lead the world”. That’s all very well, but it raises an important question: to what extent does that story still fit?

The initial signs are ambivalent. According to the prevailing narrative behind Hilarity’s world-as-we-wish-it, the democratic West should be forming a united front in support of freedom and liberal values. But just as Hilaria’s haters were only going to keep schtumm as long as they were afraid of her, those very ideals once promulgated by Pax Americana seem to be on the wane. As far back as 1987, Paul Kennedy argued that the USA could not sustain global hegemony indefinitely while its relative economic power continued to shrink. In this light, with China predicted to overtake the US economically by 2028, should we really be surprised to see the EU thumb their noses at the incoming Biden presidency, by declining a transatlantic alliance to contain China in favour of securing a market for German manufacturing with Beijing?

Yet at the core of Hilarity is the idea that belief can only be transformative if you really believe. Setbacks cannot derail the true believer. The existence of a competitor hegemon with increasingly tangible ideological and geopolitical clout is merely a minor setback, and unlikely to dent the faith of those still committed to America’s vision of global utopia. Witness the reaction of that high priest of progress, Stephen Pinker, to 2020’s war, death, famine, pestilence, snake-infested seafoam, and new Ed Sheeran releases: these events are blips, he insisted, and things are still getting better.

It’s not yet clear, then, whether the implosion of Hilaria’s personal myth-making is an omen indicating a general loss of American faith in the power of dreams, or just an intensified battle over doctrine. The American longing for power to define reality may become even more of a free-for-all. Certainly the emergence of “the QAnon shaman’’as the face of the Capitol invasion suggests how widespread and occult the American weirding of politics is. My bet is that this weirding is only just beginning. And I suspect the increasingly fractious elite debate about such events will continue to interact in unpredictable ways with those realities that stay irreducibly real whatever we want to believe.

For it’s all very well noting that the world has shifted for those who, in part thanks to the pandemic, now experience reality mainly through increasingly skewed and angry social media lenses. But for those whose occupations don’t allow for working from home, or who are facing the brutal pinch of the Covid recession, real versions of reality will not be displaced. Meanwhile, as world powers compete to shape the globe post-pandemic, this contest for hegemony may well take more material forms.

But amid this turbulence, the future belongs not just to the loudest voices. It belongs to whoever is best able to navigate the noise. That is, it belongs to whoever can build both power and a vision of a good society on seeing the world as it really is.