Election Day 2020: René Girard, Part 2
A couple years ago when I started this newsletter, the inaugural post was an introduction to René Girard. I’ve been meaning to rewrite it for quite some time. Today – Election Day, 2020 – seemed like a pretty good time to do that.
In my opinion, Girard’s worldview on mimetic desire, differentiation, and scapegoating is still the best way to understand Trump and the MAGA movement. So I went back and substantially rewrote the original Girard essay. I think this one’s a lot tighter and better, and clarifies some of the misconceptions people had over the last one. Even if you read the last one, I hope this one is valuable to you too.
Wanting is about Being
Last July, I became a parent. Our daughter is now one going on one and a half years old, and it’s been fascinating to watch her become a little person and develop an identity and sense of self.
Kids are learning machines. The whole world is new to them, and they have to go make sense of it. And kids learn very quickly that the most important thing to pay attention to and learn about is other people. It’s really sweet, but also a little nerve-wracking, when kids start explicitly imitating you. It starts early, when they’re not even a year old. Kids want what what you have, and want to do what you’re doing.
This hard-wired desire to imitate is deeper than any given object, or any given behaviour they’re trying to copy. We’re relentlessly amused when our kid takes pretend sips of our coffee mug in the morning and then fake smacks her lips and goes “aaaaaah”, or when we laugh about something that happened in our adult lives, she fake-laughs along with us. (It’s really clear she’s fake-laughing in order to fit in; she’s not a very good liar yet. It’s adorable.) It’s funny, but also quite serious: it’s not about the coffee, or about the joke. She wants to be like us.
We have some insight into why this is, neurologically. There’s a mechanism in our brains called mirror neurons that fire when you do or get something that successfully imitates someone else. The more you care about that other person, the harder these circuits will engage. Those neural pathways carve out habits that shape who we become as people; even when our role models aren’t directly around, the behavioural predispositions we’ve acquired from them persist.
When we grow up, not much changes. Desire isn’t about having, or doing. It’s about being. It’s never really the objects or experiences we’re pursuing; it’s about the role models off of whom we’ve learned that behaviour, and acquired that desire. Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” of our desire. We want whatever they have, and to do whatever they do. It’s never really about the object.
One way we continually give this away is through our language and word choices. There’s a reason why Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront doesn’t lament “I coulda contended!”; the line is “I coulda been a contender”. VC thought leaders in Silicon Valley don’t want to think contrarily; the want to be contrarian.
Advertisers understand this principle: you’re not trying to convince somebody that they want Bud Light or a Ford F150; you’re telling them they ought to desire membership to an aspirational peer set, and the way to become a part of that group is to drink Bud Light and drive an F150. Growing up, I remember thinking it was funny that Abercrombie advertised their clothes with models that weren’t actually wearing any of them. It makes sense; the clothes obviously aren’t the point.
If you’re trying hard to be cool, you’re not cool
One of the biggest transitions for a kid is when they start going to school and hanging out with other kids, and their peers become role models. Kids learn quickly whether they’re in or out – and they can rewrite their personality and their desires in order to conform to their new aspirational peer set. Like in Mean Girls, when Lindsay Lohan falls under the influence of “the plastics” (the cool girls) and Regina George becomes her role model, her brain goes into overtime rewriting her personality, and what she likes and wants.
Adults aren’t any different; they just hide it better. Marcel Proust’s masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is all about this phenomenon: how our memory of objects and experiences is powerfully and retroactively shaped by the opinions of people who we aspire to imitate. In the book, Proust’s character is on a literal and metaphorical search to rediscover his initial impressions of experiences as he actually perceived them, before those memories became coloured by the mediating influence of others.
The driving force behind all of this imitation isn’t just the joy and pleasure of successful imitation, it’s also the guilt and shame you experience when you fail your role models, by liking the wrong things or behaving the wrong way. You feel like a loser, or like a bad kid. The problem is, sometimes joining the cool kids involves sacrifices of their own; like doing things explicitly forbidden by your parents, your original role models. You can’t satisfy everyone.
One of the classic teenage emotions is that feeling of being trapped by all of these different kinds of pressure. That’s why it can feel so good to just throw yourself headfirst into some peer-driven impulse, or alternately to forget the cool kids and do your own thing for a day. For a moment feel this weight get lifted from your shoulders, as you throw off the weight of all your other role models. But that relief is temporary; in all likelihood, you’ll feel differently the next day.
Guilt accumulates. As it grows, it can turn into anger, and we direct that anger into a variety of different places. We direct it outwards, towards whatever obstacles we see as being in our way. We direct it inwards towards ourselves, for failing to live up to our (often impossibly contradicting!) Role Model aspirations. Eventually, our anger finds its way towards our Role Models themselves.
That anger comes from an impossible contradiction: the harder we strive to be like them, the more it reinforces that we aren’t. The harder you try, or are seen trying, the more obvious it is that you’re a pretender; an aspirer. Our effort is self-defeating; imitation definitionally is failure. We get caught into a cycle: we resent them for how hard we’re trying and how our effort is self-defeating, which then reinforces the original desire: “you’ll never be like them.” We have a name for this vicious cycle: envy. (Charlie Munger once wisely quipped: “Envy is the stupidest of all the deadly sins, cause it’s the only one you can’t have any fun at.”)
We don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we’re the same
So far all of this should seem like common sense. So we’re ready to apply the first key Girardian insight: not all role models are alike. Specifically, role models who are your peers affect you very differently than role models who aren’t.
Girard establishes an important definition: Internal versus External role models, which he calls “mediators”. Internal mediators are your peers. You see them every day, you want to be like them, and you continually compare yourself to them. External mediators, in contrast, are far away from you and are not your peers. Think of role models who are strongly differentiated from you: a popular hero, a king or a president; it could be a role model in your community who you admire from far away; it could be your priest, or even God. What matters is that you are definitively not peers with them. You cannot compare yourself to them because they are fundamentally different from you.
With internal mediators, imitation definitionally is failure. If you’re trying real hard to imitate your cool peers, then you are definitionally not cool. (If your other peers see you trying, even more so.) The harder you try, the more you fail. But with external mediators, that’s not true. They don’t present that same unescapable contradiction, because they fundamentally aren’t your peers. So there’s no resentment; there’s no envy. It’s a much healthier relationship.
External mediators inspire you from far away, whereas internal mediators torment you from up close. They pull you in two directions simultaneously: “Be like me, because that is what you want; but also don’t be like me, because the harder you try, the more you expose and embarrass yourself.” This kind of conflict is called a Double Bind: when a role model both compels and punishes you for just trying your best.
Kids and young teenagers struggle with this double bind out in the open; by the time you reach adulthood, you’ve learned a few strategies. When our role models are distant, we continually praise them and invite comparisons whenever possible. But when our model is close – if they’re our peer, or coworker, neighbour, or even family member – we do the opposite. We try to hide the fact that they’re the model for our admiration and jealousy, while we go about copying them nonetheless.
As our mimicry intensifies, we progressively go to greater lengths in order to disguise our feelings, and what initially was a feeling of admiration will mutate into envy. We begin to do all sorts of things that seem out of character – attack our model for various reasons; talk behind their back, and try to sabotage them socially. (I had a boss once who compulsively took positions, both personally and professionally, that were the exact opposite of one of his peers that was seen in the community as more successful than he was.)
One of the classic mistakes I see people make when they think they understand Girard is they run with the phase, “We don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we’re the same” and interpret that to mean we want the same objects. Again, it is not about the objects of desire. They are transient; they don’t matter. It is about the other person, and the frustrating contradiction of the Double Bind. When you‘re far apart, there is no double bind. We’re just inspired from far away. But the more similar you are, the more you’re setting yourselves up for rivalry.
The fight was so fierce because the stakes were so small
Envy and mimetic frustration are tragic when they go in one direction, but they can morph into dark comedy if your role model peers actually feel the same way about you – which, more often than not, is actually the case. Admiration is often mutual. Or, at least, it starts out that way.
Simplistic human conflict, like fighting over a mutually desired prize, behaves the way you see in kids’ books or movies: the more important the prize you’re fighting for, the harder you’re going to fight. But a lot of human conflict is the opposite: the smaller the stakes, and the more trivial the differences you’re fighting over, the more bitter and personal the fight gets.
When you’re fighting over something big, the object of the fighting sufficiently justifies the conflict. So you can spend your time thinking and obsessing over it; and when the conflict resolves, it can actually resolve. But when you’re fighting over something small, it’s not really about the object. It’s about your mimetic relationship with your opponent, and the double bind of tension you fall into: the compulsion going after this mimetic achievement, but also the embarrassment of what it reveals about you.
The smaller the stakes involved, the more embarrassing it is for you. Tiny stakes make it really obvious that you’re fighting for your ego, not for the actual stakes. So instead, we construct a narrative and assign a ton of importance to the object we’re fighting over, in order to legitimize the conflict and mask how petty it all is. The smaller the object, the more spiteful your narrative will have to be.
This can turn into a vicious cycle, if both parties feel a similar kind of insecurity, and both feel compelled to stuff more and more significance into this tiny stupid conflict about nothing. The farther you are down the journey of assigning fake importance to a tiny made up conflict, the harder it is to let go.
These kinds of conflicts are really hard to resolve, because they aren’t over anything. We call them “Shakespearian” conflicts, because he had such a thorough understanding of how they work; Shakespearian conflicts escalate to absurd heights and in strange directions because they’re truly pointless. Girard’s book Theatre of Envy is a great entry point – he takes you through all of these Shakespeare plays you already know, and narrate what’s going on in mimetic terms.
As Henry Kissinger once put it, describing his time in academia: “The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.” The initial stakes being fought over – some trivial object, like desirable desk space in an office or a lawn care dispute among neighbours – are like the tiny grain of sand at the centre of a pearl. Which particular grain of sand seeds the pearl isn’t important. If the conditions for pearl formation are there, sand will be found.
Ultimately, these kinds of conflicts threaten to spiral out of control. Since they’re not over anything, there’s no possible resolution or compromise that can be made. These fights are strictly symmetric in character; Girard calls them mimetic violence. Historically, mimetic violence between two individuals would often boil over and conclude the only way possible: in a duel to the death. Duels are the inevitable conclusion when neither party will back down, and no compromise is possible because there is no object being fought over that could legitimately coax either party into a truce. An even more dangerous form of mimetic violence is blood feuds: “You killed someone in my family? I’ll kill someone in your family” becomes such a catastrophically dangerous form of tit for tat violence that it could mortally threaten the survival of entire communities.
Here’s where Girard takes a turn into some of the material for which he’s most known. He asks us to consider what it’s like to live in a premodern society, without the same kind of justice system we have today. In Girard’s view, mimetic violence was the most dangerous threat to your community if you were living earlier in history: it stems directly from human nature, it naturally magnifies in character (as the sides of each conflict get steadily larger and angrier), and it’s difficult to stop once it gets going. Unlike inter-tribal conflicts, where we fight over actual stakes and can deter conflict by arming ourselves, intra-tribal conflicts have no such recourse: there’s no way to pre-emptively defend against them, because the enemy is you.
Once mimetic conflict has been seeded and starts to escalate, what are our options to stop it if there is no external, formal justice system? If de-escalation isn’t an option, you have another option: find a scapegoat. Scapegoating is when the community on both sides of the mimetic conflict collectively decides to find an outlet for all the violence. If they can come up with a surrogate victim who can be blamed as “responsible” for the conflict, then they have a rare opportunity to escape the violence. They can end the fighting in one decisive stoke by stating, before everyone, that “the true source of this fighting has been found, and we will kill him.” The community comes together by murdering the scapegoat victim, and symbolically resolve the conflict.
Who is the victim, and why does the conflict end? First of all, tragically, the victim should ideally be someone neutral to the conflict; therefore someone who is innocent of any real culpability. They have to be neutral, because if the victim were assignable to one side or the other in anybody’s mind, then the violence would simply be interpreted as another salvo in the back-and-forth conflict, which would demand a response just like all the others.
Second, by assigning responsibility for the conflict to the victim and then killing them, we do two important things. First, we channel all of the violence in the conflict into one person, who is now killed and cannot return violence. Second, we’ve now created credible grounds for violence to cease: “We found the cause of the conflict! And we have stamped it out.” Everyone can now get what they want, which is a peaceful exit while saving face. Except the poor victim, of course, but they can’t respond because they’re dead.
We still do this today, just with character assassination instead. When all else fails, we turn to blame as a conflict resolution mechanism. Finding somebody to blame for all of our problems, and then channeling all of that frustration and resentment into that person, feels really good. When you unload all of this pent up guilt and frustration and violence, it feels like a tremendous release – like a weight getting lifted from your shoulders.
The problem is, unloading on a scapegoat does not actually resolve any of the underlying mimetic competition. The release is temporary. Without any further levels of sophistication, the initial resentment and conflict will work its way back up again.
God Save the King
Another important way we defend against mimetic violence is hierarchy. Mimetic violence is fundamentally a product of peer relationships; so if people aren’t peers, and role model relationships pass through an understood hierarchy rather than across a flat playing field, then you should see less mimetic conflict. You’re a lot more jealous of your neighbour than you are of the king.
We can think of hierarchies as trading one kind of justice for another kind of justice: hierarchies may not fit well with our modern ideals of fairness or equality, but they are generally successful at establishing differentiation that suppresses mimetic violence. They work especially well if they are “natural”, rather than meritorious. With royalty, for example, the source of the King’s power and differentiation cannot be earned in a typical sense – if it were, then the King would be your peer, albeit a more successful one than you. Kings are not CEOs. The power structure of the hierarchy needs to come from something else – either from the divine, from dynasty, or otherwise from the faraway.
Kings reinforce their power is through taboos. The King is only the King if everyone believes they’re the King. So one way they reinforce that is by deliberately breaking very specific, sacred rules that no one else is allowed to break, unless you’re the king, in which case you can do it. And then every time you do, it just reinforces, over and over again; they’re the King, not you.
Silicon Valley startups have learned this lesson. CEOs, who are promoted into their titles and earn their power by working their way up to it, are in many ways less effective than founders, who rule their companies as if by divine right. Founders are differentiated from their employees to an absolute degree: the title of ‘founder’ can never be earned or seized the way CEO can, and can be wielded as an invitation to break almost any kind of rule – so long as you maintain the blessing of the priesthood (the VCs) who bestow you that divine power.
Religion is the ultimate source of hierarchy. There is no role model more powerful, more virtuous, or more far away than God. God is not your peer. Nor are the priests, nor is the king (whose power is granted through the clergy). All of these non-peer relationships establish distance and differentiation. Here we reach the real meat of Girard’s body of work, which concerns the roles and purposes of religion. To Girard, early human religion evolved as a necessary, inevitable and successful defence against jealousy and mimetic rivalry within communities. His book Violence and the Sacred is all about this evolution.
One particularly gruesome but widely prevalent way that early religious institutions suppressed mimetic violence was through human sacrifice. Human sacrifice as a religious rite came in many different forms across prehistoric religions, but they all seem to have a basic structure in common. The rites begin by acknowledging undifferentiation and “sameness” within the community as the source of problems. Then, it channels those problems ritualistically into a sacrificial victim, who is scapegoated as the cause and answer for their problems, but then paradoxically praised and hailed – almost like a temporary God – as the sacrificial path to reconciliation. Upon killing the victim, the community celebrates the return of “differentiation”.
These practices might seem barbaric, but we go through the exact same motions today in communities like Silicon Valley. When once-promising startups succumb to competition, on the day they formerly shut down we perform an elaborate series of rites that formally “sacrifice” the company and ritualistically fend off “undifferentiated competition” as a common enemy. The founder, formerly God-King, because God-King-Sacrifice; we praise them with a nearly-religious level of devotion, while symbolically burying their company. We ritualistically strip the startup of every differentiating feature (leaving behind only “This company, who raised 80 million dollars), as if we were ritualistically killing competition itself. To conclude, the community solemnly pronounces, to complete the ritual: Silicon Valley is a place where we celebrate failure.
Things hidden since the foundation of the world
The problem with ritual sacrifice and with scapegoating in general, again, is that it doesn’t actually resolve the conflict. It may bring peace, but only temporarily. The source of the conflict is still there; it’s just been placated for a little while. But it’ll come back.
The Christian Bible covers this subject pretty extensively. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden – for doing what, exactly? For eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which is the one thing they’re not supposed to touch. Knowledge of what, though? It’s often written as “knowledge of good and evil”, although Evil is left to further interpretation. But the answer is revealed in the very first thing that Adam and Eve do upon eating the fruit: they realize that they are naked, feel embarrassed, and cover themselves.
Knowledge of “Good and Evil” is really knowledge of Self and Other. The moment that they discover their nakedness is the moment they discover an opinion they care about other than God’s, and they realize they have peers to impress. The Original Sin established at the beginning of the Old Testament is the seed of our subsequent bad behaviour: pride, shame, envy, and the other components of mimetic conflict. What happens next? Upon being expelled from Eden, the first thing that happens is the rivalry between the sons Cain and Abel, where Cain initially admires his brother, but eventually becomes resentful of him and is ultimately driven to murder.
Remember, Girard would remind you, that at the time these texts were written and transcribed mimetic conflict was most likely a top-of-mind concern. In the time of the Old Testament we were still in a world where early beliefs, with their practices around scapegoating and human sacrifice, were pretty common. By the time of the New Testament, the Romans had codified together a sophisticated justice system, and a more “modern” world was being built where primitive fears around mimetic violence were mostly buried and covered up by society. But that doesn’t mean those same instincts and urges weren’t there.
As the Bible puts it in so many ways, the Devil acts through making us conscious of the Other, and making us feel the frustration, guilt and anger of peer pressure. A modern civilization like Rome, at the time of the writing of the New Testament, had evolved a sophisticated justice system and social structure that masked these original impulses and violent trends. But they’re still there; just buried – and because they’re out of sight, we understand them less well than we used to.
Girard’s interpretation of the New Testament is laid out in his most challenging book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. The title references a passage where Jesus tells us, “I am here to reveal things hidden since the foundation of the world”; in other words, something we used to understand but have now forgotten. We’re told, in Girard’s narrative: at the beginning of human history, we understood that the nature of evil lies in knowledge of the Other. The Devil acts on us through our peers; the only way to overcome evil is through God (the one, true external mediator), and through Jesus sacrificing himself as one, last scapegoat to finally, permanently, put an end to Original Sin.
The great human temptation is to think we can conquer evil ourselves, without God’s help. But we cannot. If we try, we only end up redirecting that evil and violence through blame and scapegoating – which cannot destroy evil, only hide it temporarily. As society gets more and more sophisticated, we get better at denying the presence of evil, and pretending it isn’t there, while it continually grows stronger.
In Revelations, the final chapter of the New Testament, we get a warning: “In the future, an Antichrist will come who brings a promise: we can all be role models for one another, and we can all live in harmony together.” The Antichrist promises us that the answer for how to be and what to want can be found in one another. Revelations is a warning to reject this: the more we turn to each other for answers rather than to God, the more we are inviting evil, and setting ourselves up for a future where everyone is each other’s peer, everyone becomes a model, and everyone becomes a scapegoat.
Let America Discriminate Again
Four years ago, Trump was elected as possibly the first truly Girardian president.
He is an incredible study in contradictions; but probably none of them have perplexed people as much as his administration’s single-minded pursuit of a remarkably Catholic agenda. There is an obsession in his administration about differentiation. It is the most compelling common thread between anti-political correctness, nationalist anti-immigration policy, the restoration of archaic gender roles, an interventionist approach to free enterprise, the strange obsession with naming things and with neoclassical aesthetics, a total abdication of responsibility from some consequences, and total enforcement of others. It is reactionary, to be sure. But to what exactly?
The common thread of the Trump appeal is that it is a complete and total counter-reaction to undifferentiation. Trumpism rejects the last couple decades of policy and rhetoric that have advanced, more or less, the agenda that “everybody is equal and the government is going to actively make sure that everyone is treated the same.” Trumpism is a rejection of the ideal that we are and ought to be undifferentiated.
This is a very Girardian mindset. It is also a rather Catholic mindset, in an odd but important way: everything about the movement enshrines this idea that differentiation is important, not for any specific reason; just absolutely. Trump is absolutely differentiated from everyone else, both in his metaphorical un-cancellability and in the literal wall he’s built around the White House. He is the perfect satirical caricature of an External Mediator. He flaunts every sacred taboo; his toilet is made of gold. Meanwhile in his policy, “Equal protection” is absolutely rejected. The notion that “everyone is each other’s peer”, again, absolutely rejected. (Notably, the two people that will shape his presidency most for years after he’s gone are Bill Barr, his attorney general, and Amy Coney Barrett; both are Catholic.)
Make America Great Again, interpreted rather straightforwardly, really meant “Let America Discriminate Again.” It means, “Bring differentiation back to America. Bring America back to a time and place where we didn’t have this top-down enforcement of ‘everyone is the same’”. I think if you asked a lot of people if what they genuinely meant by MAGA is “Make America more explicitly discriminatory again”, they’d say some version of: “Undifferentiation is dangerous.”
That message is really compelling, if for no other reason than it offers a release from the crushing set of peer expectations we experience in Progressive America. We live in a world full of problems, complexity, and intertwined guilt. It is truly hard for anyone to actually live up to the peer ideals we aspire to today. We’re supposed to feel guilty about global warming, and aspire to meet a peer standard of carbon-neutrality. We’re supposed to feel guilty about social justice, and aspire to meet a peer standard of active allyship.
All of these causes and expectations are for real, important problems in the world. But people are weak, we get exhausted, our good intentions are compulsively twisted into Blue Check Mark performances, and that exhaustion makes us turn on each other for the smallest things. It’s no wonder that the Trump opposition seems so fractured, and so tired all the time. The stakes inside the movement are so small – all things considered – but that’s why the infighting is so fierce.
The MAGA crowd, in contrast, is pretty much united. The heart of Trump’s appeal is that he offers a release. When you hear something like “Trump is our salvation” spoken un-ironically, it speaks to that release. The Trump 2020 slogan might as well be, “Give up, let it go. Be free.” To quite a few of us, that’s just desperately what we want.
He’s an outlet for all of our stored up anger and frustration, at ourselves and at everyone around us, wrapped up as an invitation to have fun, almost like a practical joke. Trump offers a rhetorical, even satirical, playground where you can shout nonsense slogans like “Obama is the Antichrist!”, but then back it up with an administration who might actually believe that the last president, who fought very specifically for that idea that we could inspire each other as peers to overcome evil as a community, might, you know, be saying something oddly close to what Revelations talked about.
If you don’t understand what Trumpism is, like what it really is, it’s going to stick around.
Anyway, we’ll see what happens tonight. Fingers crossed, everybody.