The human mind is a strange beast. When we watch a scary movie, we know that both our hero and his nemesis are fictitious, and yet we gasp in fear when he is finally slaughtered by some spooky specter. Critics usually explain this by the idea of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Since we are complicit with the purposes of the filmmaker—since we enjoy feeling that cold shiver running down our spine—we push the knowledge that there really isn’t any reason to be scared back into the distant recesses of our brain. With every incentive to pretend, even to ourselves, that the action on the screen is real, we act as though it were.
There is an obvious political analogue to this. When Barack Obama promised that his victory would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” most of us knew that he was unlikely to halt climate change. And when Donald Trump promised that he would reopen the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” until a “new national pride [would] stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions,” even his most ardent supporters knew that he was unlikely to improve America’s fortunes as drastically as he claimed. And yet, they (we) wanted so badly to believe that they (we!) did.
Central though the suspension of disbelief may be to understanding the dynamics of politics, especially in an age in which charismatic strongmen are going from strength to surprising strength, I have recently come to think that the inverse phenomenon is at least equally important—and far less commonly noticed. For every case in which we pretend to believe something even though, deep down, we know that it isn’t true, there is another one in which we pretend not to believe something even though, deep down, we know that it is. Call it the “collective suspension of belief.”
The collective suspension of belief is especially widespread in those odd moments in which we know that all of the fundamentals are pointing in one direction, and yet the anticipated outcome does not materialize for a long stretch of time. This commonly happens in financial markets, for example: Month after month, the valuation of some company vastly outpaces what analysts should expect on the basis of the underlying data. But since the markets seem to ignore the underlying data month after month, analysts eventually come to believe that the security will continue to defy logic. The company’s stock keeps rising—until, at long last, it crashes back to the levels that would have made sense all along.
The collective suspension of belief is also a common phenomenon in the case of a certain type of scandal: A celebrity like Bill Cosby is beset with credible accusation after credible accusation of sexual assault. But since everybody seems to keep treating him with the same respect or even veneration he commanded before the allegations surfaced, it starts to seem as though most members of the society condone his behavior. He keeps going about his life without paying any price for his deeds—until something as mundane as a quip by a stand-up comedian suddenly causes everyone from magazine writers to federal prosecutors to act as they should have done in the first place.
It is only natural, then, that the collective suspension of belief also explains a lot of political developments that would otherwise be puzzling. Take the iron hold that fiscal conservatives long held over the Republican Party. Year after year, it became more evident that the bulk of the party’s voters were not especially invested in keeping the budget in check, and were downright hostile to the idea of cutting popular entitlement programs like Medicare. But since fiscally conservative politicians won primary races year after year, and voters did not seem to flee the party in the general election, conservative dogmas about fiscal policy continued to rule supreme among the party’s elites. Their grip kept tightening—until Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee for the presidency of the United States by attacking free trade and promising to give all Americans health insurance.
But while Trump once helped us to stop suspending belief in the idea that the old conservative elite could go on ruling the Republican Party forever, he himself now owes his political viability to that same phenomenon. Take an important and shocking piece of recent news that has been almost entirely drowned out by the serious allegations against Brett Kavanaugh and the frivolous revelations about the president’s penis. On Tuesday, Donald Trump took the unprecedented step of ordering the declassification of text messages sent by James Comey, the former FBI director, and Andrew McCabe, his former deputy, as well as other key personnel involved in the investigation against the president. And this is only the latest in a series of big moves that are blatantly designed to undermine the independence of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and of course the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Over the past months alone, Trump has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for allowing Republican congressmen to be indicted for corruption; called for additional personnel in the FBI to be fired; and removed Peter Strzok from his office under highly unusual circumstances.
Because none of these actions have exacted a heavy political price, it is tempting to conclude that things will go on just as they have. But this would be to fall foul of one of the main mistakes made by people who are caught up in the collective suspension of belief: the assumption that each additional event or piece of information will have the same effect as the last one (which is to say close to zero).
As we have seen from countless examples, that is not necessarily the case. When it looks like something has to give, and yet it doesn’t, it’s possible that we have to revise our beliefs about how the world works; it’s also possible that we just have to wait a little longer until sanity is restored. In the case of Trump’s attacks on Mueller’s investigation, it seems obvious to me that we will, sooner or later, reach that stage. Given everything we know about Trump and his associates, it is very unlikely that Mueller will fail to find something deeply incriminating about him. And given what we know about Trump’s unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation (as well as his willingness to sabotage it in ways both open and covert), it is very unlikely that he will allow Mueller to get that far.
This is why the advent of a true constitutional crisis does not seem less likely to me now than it did a few months ago. In the end, the thing we’ve known all along still holds clear as day: A highly professional investigation into the president is underway. At every step, it has uncovered serious misdeeds; it seems almost inevitable that more are yet to be revealed. And the president is very unlikely to accept the findings of the investigation or to resign from his office if its findings are sufficiently severe. Even though this impasse has lasted an astoundingly long time, it will eventually need to be resolved.
The past two years have been a strange combination of novelty and continuity. Virtually every day brings a new scandal of momentous proportion. But as in an old episode of South Park, the basic starting point for our political life seems to revert to square one at the beginning of each day. This makes it easy to assume that nothing that happens ever has a real impact—that, as it were, Kenny can die in one episode yet be miraculously restored to good health before the next begins. But cartoonish though the past two years may appear, this is still real life. One day, we will wake up to the realization that Kenny has well and truly died. The only question that now remains is whom we will carry to his grave on that day: Donald Trump and his famed ability to withstand scandal—or Robert Mueller and the independence of our political institutions.
Read more from Slate:
• The Kavanaugh Accusation Has Men More Afraid Than Ever
• Why Caitlin Flanagan’s Powerful Essay on Teen Sexual Assault Appeals to #MeToo Skeptics
• An Interview With the Psychiatrist Who Says White House Officials Called Her With Concerns About Trump
• The Latest Korea Summit Sets the Terms for Trump’s Surrender to Kim
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus