America, a Shared Madness

American English is clumsy, lacking in grace and subtlety. It’s very good at expressing stupid ideas, trivial things, but not so much at conveying complex thoughts or emotions. Derp is the most American of words. Derp can be a guttural belch designed to express confusion, or derp can be an accusatory finger pointed at a very dumb person. It doesn’t so much describe as it does assault, less a coherent thought than it is a noise one instinctively retches from their lizard brain.

German is complex. Words and phrases are somehow both unwieldy and concise. To outsiders, a word might appear an endless string of letters that takes more space than entire sentences in their native tongue, yet the sum is capable of describing a thing others might have trouble articulating in dozens of sentences or even whole books. Vergangenheitsbewältigung refers to a collective trauma that may haunt a nation, specifically in the context of post-World War II German history when the country tried to understand and address its descent into fascism. It describes the mood of such a period as much as it does the process of working through the past.

French is the most beautiful of all languages. Words and phrases aren’t as cumbersome as in German, but also not stunted or aggressive as in American English. Much like German, it can condense complex thoughts or ideas down into one word or a short string to identify concepts we might struggle to recognize over a lifetime. French can take something as difficult to put into words as a collective paranoia and make it feel romantic.

Such is the case with folie à deux.

In English, the phrase translates to “madness for two” and describes when a person who suffers from a delusional belief passes it onto others. In its simplest terms, it means a shared psychosis, though this description is reductive because it doesn’t account for transmission, it only articulates a state of collective hysteria. There is no word or phrase in American English like folie à deux, especially on a national level. Mass delusion, for example, explains how a group can experience a collective hysteria but it isn’t concerned with a source. It lacks precision. Worse, it’s often restricted to smaller groups across brief moments in time. It has meant everything from the Salem Witch Trials to a series of “evil clown” sightings in small towns throughout the United States in 2016. It doesn’t capture our prolonged madness, the generational fear that travels between parent and child, teacher and student, hostage taker and victim.

America breeds a special kind of crazy. You see it among rich and poor alike. It starts at the highest levels and trickles down so all can share of it, the only kind of redistribution that happens here. This isn’t something new, a recent development that emerged out of a national panic, it’s a condition that has been with us since this country’s founding, though the last four years has thrown it into sharp relief.

I first noticed it in 2015 when Donald Trump announced he was running for President. There were brief moments of rupture in media coverage that revealed an intense loathing for the man irrespective of political party. George Will called Trump a counterfeit Republican and the National Review devoted an entire issue of its magazine, titled “Against Trump”, to attacking him. MSNBC rebranded as the Anti-Trump Network byobsessively covering his every word and its biggest star, Rachel Maddow, began comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler on her show and in interviews.

The disease spread to the rest of America in the form of public spectacle. In February 2017, witches began hexing Trump in public rituals, casting what they called a binding spell so that “his malignant works may fail utterly”; this continued for months and a group formalized online under the moniker #MagicResistance. But this being America, no action can occur without a corresponding or more absurd reaction. Christians responded to the hexes with coordinated prayer campaigns, and online forum 4chan created its own occult belief system, The Cult of Kek, to, first, mock the rituals and, then, spin off its own minor religion based around “meme magic.”

Trump, his campaign, his Presidency — none are unique. When I say I see something in Trump, I’m not referring to the man but instead how Americans respond to him and figures like him. Conservatives have called it Trump Derangement Syndrome, a generalized paranoia in response to the man’s very existence, but it’s not distinct to Trump alone. It was first created by political commentator Charles Krauthammer to describe a Howard Dean quote about George W. Bush. Center-left news outlets revived and transformed it into Obama Derangement Syndrome. Seemingly every new President drives the country crazier, every election becomes an exercise in greater self-harm.

But this past year may be the pinnacle of American derangement. (For now.) There’s a global pandemic affecting every nation but America is falling apart in ways both unique and unusual. The government provided only one check of $1,200 to its citizens despite near-universal state mandates that businesses shutdown or operate at minimum capacity. Armed protestors stormed state capitols to demand those states reopen.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired widespread protests and counter-protests. One of the most stunning images of 2020 came a little over a week after her passing when, in response to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, Trump supporters began holding prayer sessions in front of the Court; a staff photographer at the New York Times caught one such example, where supporters were cast in stark contrast to a woman laying on the ground, in tears over Ginsburg’s death.

The following day evangelicals flocked to the Washington Monument as part of a prayer rally in support of Israel. But instead of holding a traditional prayer session, members treated the structure as if it were the Western Wall, connecting one of Judaism’s holiest sites to the founding of America.

Protests have been ongoing since May when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. This one event may be the defining American moment of the 21st-century. A police station burned, cities lied about their use of chemical weapons on civilian protestors, Americans established their own free states. At a certain point though, it became unclear who was protesting what or why. In June, after protestors nationally tore down Confederate monuments, conservative residents of South Philadelphia began holding protests in defense of a statue of Christopher Columbus… but no one had threatened to attack or deface it. That same month caravans of Trump supporters began rolling through cities and suburbs around the country. The South Philadelphia protest saw police stand by and watch as protestors fought in the streets, while the caravans culminated in an October 31st protest in which a Texas caravan harassed and attacked a Biden campaign bus and another group shut down the Mario Cuomo bridge in New Jersey.

There’s no phrase like folie à deux in our language, nothing like Vergangenheitsbewältigung. We have no concise way of capturing this feeling, this moment, the process of a country losing its mind. There is no turn of phrase or collection of grunts that portrays both the disease and its host—nothing describing transmission or receipt. The best we can do is approximate. We call it simply: America.

Because America isn’t only a place. It’s not just a system of lines and boundaries, somewhere where you can travel to and from. It’s a pathology, a psychological condition, an illness which afflicts 328 million people. America is a light at the end of the tunnel, fast approaching, until you realize it’s the headlights of a truck bearing down on you. It will run you over, leave you for dead, but you keep getting back up and walking towards it again. America is a fleeting memory you move further away from everyday. It gnaws at you, and you resent it because you lose a little bit more each time you try to remember what it once was, but still you keep trying. America is that thing that drives us all crazy—a collective psychosis, a mass delusion, a shared madness.

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