The Cognitive Dissonance of America: Writing Through the Terror of Trumpland
Brian Castleberry Wants More Manifestoes and Fewer Myths
In middle school, years before my little brothers started elementary, I boarded the bus each morning, two miles down a dirt-and-gravel road we called Cemetery Road because of the sign at its beginning on highway 62, five miles from the small town of Meeker, Oklahoma. Because Cemetery Road ran along the eastern edge of the school district (kids who lived across the road generally went to Prague for school), me and my distant neighbors were the first to get on and the last, in the late dusty afternoons, to get off the bus. I read voraciously then. Likely more than I do now. And what I read during that time was almost exclusively related to the paranormal. I thought for sure that in some secret and daring way, I was digging for the truth that parents and teachers were keeping from me.
It must have started in the sixth grade, when my country-boy mindset was interrupted by a friend’s older brother and his ragged copy of Carrie by Stephen King. This older brother was a late-80s type: long stringy hair, pale ropy arms, Def Leppard and Warrant posters, with the poise of a snide and intimidating meth-head. I went through a King phase which led me first to my lifelong battle with insomnia, and second to all the books in the school library about UFOs, ESP, telekinesis, ghosts, and those creatures like Bigfoot and Nessie who exist in our imaginations so that we can maintain mystery with the natural world. For a couple of years there, I seemingly needed to be scared; puberty required competition.
Poltergeists terrorizing families, and the power to bend spoons with your mind, and the abduction of farmers onto mysterious glowing crafts: all were as real as the flat winter wheat fields outside town. I read this stuff and talked about it incessantly until suddenly I didn’t. The more material terrors of sex and how to be cool—two things I may know less about 30 years later—took over my inner life. Later, I would snooze through X-Files and only in my early adulthood, in which I’d transformed into a drugged-out club kid who bored his friends with constant talk about The Cure and William S. Burroughs, would I toy again with a magical belief in beings from space or the afterlife communicating with us. But even then, I didn’t really buy it. I’d grown out of that phase, or rather that phase was buried deep, an archaeological fragment of my identity.
In the late 90s, drifting from the drug scene to a more socially-approved, years-long drinking binge, I recall sitting at a burger joint in Norman, Oklahoma, eating alone the one meal a day I ate back then—in other words, late in the afternoon. I picked up the Gazette, a free arts and culture paper, and began reading its cover story on Timothy McVeigh. I’d heard the explosion of the Murrah Building from 30 miles away in high school and his arrest took place in the little town of Perry where I was born, but I’d never learned anything about what McVeigh stood for. To my eternal bafflement, McVeigh’s ideology differed only by degrees from the general anti-government racism that poisons so much of my otherwise magical home state. It was no wonder nobody talked about what the guy stood for, I kept thinking. His status as enemy number one and his politics were uncomfortable for a lot of people to look at side by side. The relationship between the two didn’t fit their preconceived notions.
As I began taking myself seriously as a writer, I developed an interest in cognitive dissonance—our ability to believe in two contradictory ideas at once and the struggle this creates, namely, the tension as we try to form perceptions to fit what we want to believe about the world and ourselves, even when we rationally know we’re wrong. I only learned the term during the build-up for the Iraq War in 2003, and because I’m a fiction writer and not a psychology major, I haven’t gone into any further research. But it’s become a kind of guiding concept in my work and in how I think about our country. I knew in grad school a couple of years later that I wanted to write something about it. Unexpectedly, this led me back to those old obsessions with paranormal events, specifically to early flying saucer cults of the 1950s (famous examples of cognitive dissonance at work), to draft a thesis about one of these cults, and, eventually—a whole decade later—to return to some of these early ideas for what would become my first novel.
But it’s only been more recently—this year, in fact—that I’ve come to understand that America is cognitive dissonance. At least that “America” which is shouted at us as if the word were a bludgeon.
The Trump years were like a big-budget theatrical production of cognitive dissonance, mainly because many of us were only in the audience, watching the process work on nearly half the country, powerless to stop it. At each stage of his nomination, election, and presidency, we were asked to believe increasingly impossible things in order not to see what was right before our eyes. I say “we,” but again, not really all of us—one of the most significant changes in these past years is that a major political party stopped talking to Americans in general, and instead only talked to their Americans, wrapping those self-selected folks in patriotism for going along with the demanding wackiness of the storyline. From the beginning, in order not to face consequences for their lack of preparation, their criminal and near-criminal behavior, their open flirtation (if not outright use) of a foreign power’s meddling in the election, a conspiracy had to be born. The “deep state” gave way to “Obama spying” and eventually to straight-up “Dems are blood-sucking child molesters.”At each stage of Trump’s nomination, election, and presidency, we were asked to believe increasingly impossible things in order not to see what was right before our eyes.
While all this was happening, it was easy to see it as just crazy; some funhouse-mirror version of politics as usual. Some of the tropes were familiar, after all. And we’d grown used to a rabid conspiracy culture growing exponentially on certain parts of the internet. But what makes it so new and frightening is that it worked, and that it worked specifically to give cover to a politician so clearly not up to the job—creating an alternate Trump who was not only up to it, but hands-down the best ever, evidence be damned.
In the last weeks, two billionaires went off to space for a few minutes, came down again, and said they were doing it for us. The media deluged us with coverage, largely echoing the party line: these nice guys were doing a cool thing for us all. Of course, nobody believes this. We all know that the nicest reading on why super-rich guys are going to space is so they can (they admit it!) popularize for-profit space travel through their private companies. It’s laughable, and plenty of folks on social media pushed back on their narrative with laughter. But still we are asked to believe that something else is going on here, something inspiring and egalitarian. And because our country’s mythology is centered on rich white men, it takes actual effort to resist the seduction of the good-guys-in-space narrative (a cousin to the “we could all be millionaires if we work hard enough” narrative).
And if you put in the effort to see past such mythmaking? An entire political movement will label you, derogatorily, as “woke,” and this labeling helps their followers keep believing something they, too, know isn’t true. One reading of the world has to be maintained at whatever cost. In a way, it’s not at all new. But recently, cognitive dissonance has been weaponized, creating a cult of nihilism that is almost impossible to fathom.
These issues have only further formalized my understanding of what part fiction (the literary genre—not the sort of political fictions I’ve been talking about) can play in this struggle over reality and power. I’ve grown more aware of how people are predominantly shaped by narratives and often by misconceptions, and that we almost always act out of a sense that we’re doing the right thing, no matter how vile. Analyzing the fault lines between what a character thinks they’re doing and the real effect they’re having on others has become central to my process. I’ve come to see history as the missing piece in our culture: we’ve been marketed into a bubble of the present, with only little flashes of nostalgia standing in for history. I feel like fiction has a responsibility, wherever it can, to connect past and present—and to help readers see where progress or its lack have been papered over by political narratives. I’m keen on using multiple characters to get at a problem I’m thinking through, and I like to go “all in” on their particular and very inner lives to open up elements that can complicate or even undermine a simplistic understanding of them and their culture.
Most importantly, I’ve come to trust readers and to see that they have a part to play in telling the story I, as an author, ostensibly wrote. I try to leave space for things to breathe, for parts of a work to communicate with other parts; I try to leave questions unanswered. I may be way off. Who knows. But in a time when patently false histories and simplistic paranoid narratives are weaponized to oppress, divide, and maintain white supremacy, I want to have something like a manifesto that I can return to now and again.
Fiction has the power to help us dismantle the garbage ideas that maintain our society’s cognitive dissonance. Good fiction (of whatever genre) shows us something about being human, how we connect to one another, how we fit in history, and how we wrestle with the forces around us. It has the ability to strengthen reality, to reaffirm what we actually see in front of us, to foster empathy. It doesn’t answer questions so much as it leaves one asking more questions. Rather than shutting down thinking, it demands that we participate in both thinking and creating. When I consider debut books I’ve admired from this last disastrous year, by writers like Megha Majumdar, Asako Serizawa, Kelli Jo Ford, Michael Zapata, and Dantiel W. Moniz (or forthcoming collections from Farah Ali and Ye Chun), I’m heartened by how writers of vastly different aesthetic approaches can be working on the same wide-ranging project. These are writers interested in the dynamics of power, trauma, and grace. They see how history weaves through our present. And they dig past our surface-level thinking to seek what fiction is made to discover: truth.
The paperback of Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry is available now from Custom House Books.