Normalizing Mass Hysteria

I’m fascinated by mass hysterias. To me, their histories are both mysterious and incredibly revelatory about how human beings can lose themselves, dangerously so, in groupthink, a sort of psychotic contagion.

There were relatively limited and brief hysterias, like the dancing plague of 1518, when hundreds of people in the European city of Strasbourg (then part of the Holy Roman Empire, but now part of France) joined in a seemingly inexplicable “dancing epidemic” that lasted for weeks, as people fell dead of strokes and heart attacks.

And who can forget the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s? After multiple people were accused of practicing witchcraft, 19 were hanged, several died in jail and another was crushed to death.

There have also been curious hysterias with fewer fatalities, like the Tanzania laughing epidemic of 1962, when hundreds of school children experienced bouts of hysterical laughter. As Christian F. Hempelmann, now an associate professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce, told The Chicago Tribune in 2003, this epidemic “had nothing to do with humor” as people also experienced pain, fainting, respiratory problems and sometimes rashes — symptoms he attributed to anxiety.

The episode lasted for about a year, affecting as many as several thousand people, but no one died.

As strange, frightening and even deadly as some of these episodes were, they weren’t particularly widespread, and they didn’t threaten national security or international stability.

But I would argue that we are now living in an age of political mass hysteria, one that, while led by Donald Trump’s election lies, encompasses the fanatical campaigns casting trans people as groomers, history teachers as indoctrinators and Covid precautions as politically toxic.

For Trump, the ability to induce mass hysteria has become a superpower, and the Republican Party gave him succor, while the platform of the presidency — with the assistance of an obeisant right-wing media — helped blanket the Republican base in falsity.

Trump has always been a liar and a hustler, but his impact before his presidency was marginal, sequestered to the edges of popular culture, his name synonymous with conspicuous consumption.

The bully pulpit helped him transform his guile into gospel.

Before entering politics, he could sell ostentatious apartments, promote a sham “university” and pump up a fraudulent foundation. His life was a shell game.

But now, as the Jan. 6 committee is making ever clearer, his impulse to deceive and manipulate has taken on democracy-threatening dimensions.

Millions of people fell under the spell of Trump’s lies and remain convinced of them to this day. His lies have been used to incite an insurrection in which people were injured and some died, to push through a wave of voter suppression bills in counties across the country, and to help his Republican acolytes win elections.

This all raises, to me, a profound and frightening series of questions: Can a lie, in periods like this one, simply be stronger than the truth? I have faith that history will properly diagnose this moment, and that many who now occupy high places will be brought low by it. But, in the present, without the perspective that time and distance can provide, is fantasy more seductive than reality?

Is it, on a base level, more exhilarating to destroy something than to hold it together?

Some who have defended and downplayed the rioting on Jan. 6 have argued that people got whipped into frenzy and swept up in a mob. Individual decision-making and therefore individual responsibility receded as the instinct of the pack ascended.

I don’t doubt that some people did surrender themselves to the fever that swept that mob. Others were more deliberate and methodical. They conspired before the riot to engage in actions that day.

But what most interests me is how one man amassed enough power to push both the conspirators and the willfully, wantonly deceived into a violent frenzy.

It’s not only that Trump desired to deceive; his followers desired to be deceived. The havoc Trump unleashed landed on fertile ground, receptive and wanting.

For many Republicans, the truth — that the country was becoming more brown and less white, that the electorate was moving away from them, that they were losing control over American culture — was no longer tenable. Untruth, therefore, grew more alluring.

For conservatives, lies that offered comfort became more digestible than truths that demanded adaptation.

For now, the spell that Trump cast is holding. There are some signs in some places that his power has loosened, but by no means enough to say that the country has escaped his thrall.

I am convinced that the more these Republicans are condemned for their Trump fixation, the tighter they will cling to it, just as soldiers close ranks when they come under attack. Many of them are titillated by the vexation of liberals: Anything that leaves liberals straining for explanation and flummoxed is wanted and worth it.

For them, Trump provided another way to recast racism as patriotism. For them, he gave derangement direction. For them, he made mass hysteria chic.

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