The science-fiction author Philip K. Dick once wrote that “sometimes the only rational response to reality is to go insane”. Some experiences and threats are just too traumatic to deal with. Hence we use a range of psychological mechanisms to protect our sense of who we are and what we are doing from breaking down. One of the main ones is denial: we simply pretend that that which troubles us doesn’t exist. However, denying what we are scared to face has consequences which may be worse than the thing itself. Repressed fears can return as outbursts of rage against undeserving targets, fetishised stand-ins for whatever it is that we are avoiding.
I believe that the core appeal of the new far-right of Trump, Le Pen, Farage and so on is that it denies on our behalf things that we can’t face, and identifies simple targets against whom our repressed fears can be expressed in the form of rage. The list of things that supporters of such individuals systematically deny includes racism, rape, historical events, news sources, slavery, the holocaust, science, and accepted facts in relation to all of the above.
How can I state the above with such certainty? In the spirit of honesty and not denying one’s own past, I confess that for several years I was in the very bad habit of arguing with supporters of Ukip on Twitter. In a bid to use the medium as something other than an echo chamber, I sought out people with opinions different from mine and tried to engage them in debate. One thing I learned is that such a platform is not designed for and can’t really be adapted to support meaningful political discussion. The other conclusion I was forced to accept is that denial is the central platform of parties like Ukip. It was like doing a Master’s degree in Puerility and Obtuseness Studies. Not only did I see their supporters regularly deny all the things I listed above: I was also regularly part of interactions in which the other party would deny what they had just said, refuse to acknowledge a logical fallacy in their argument, ask for evidence of my points and then refuse to engage with the evidence I provided, and turn to personal abuse when all else had failed. Part of the problem with discussing politics on the Internet in general and Twitter in particular is that the other party can just disappear: they’re not responsible for defending the statements they’ve made or the claims of the organisation they’re supporting. This exacerbated the problems I experienced in trying to reason with people whose worldview denies reason itself.
All that I’ve described is united in one specific issue, one that I think enables and then excuses all types of denial. That, of course, is the climate. If you can deny Climate Change, you can deny anything. It helps enormously (and is absolutely no coincidence) that the leaders of new far-right parties are funded directly by the Climate Denial Industry. But the ideology of denial runs deeper than mere economic self-interest. We are all to some extent if not climate deniers at least climate ignorers. As I’ve argued before, we are all complicit in the conspiracy to cover up the facts about the climate. However, as abstract facts become manifest in our daily lives, as changes to our habitat become more apparent and less deniable, the pathology of the serious climate trolls is deepening and spreading to infect all other areas of human knowledge and seriously threatening everything that we take for granted, all the rights and forms of social progress that underpin our freedom and stable way of life.
The links between, on the one hand, those in the political realm who ridicule and censor our attempts to protect our living systems and, on the other, the economic interests that jeopardise our species’ survival are also becoming more explicit and less deniable. Anyone curious about Trump’s connections to Russia and what interests lie behind them does not need to go trawling through Wikileaks documents or hope that some hitherto unseen videotape comes to light. The fact that Putin has regularly been seen in the company of the man who Trump appointed his Secretary of State is troubling in itself. That his company (ExxonMobbil) has rightly been called the greatest criminal corporation in history tells us most of what we need to know about what is going on in international politics right now. Trump’s direct financial involvement in the pipelines he himself has authorised fills in the rest of the dots.
The reason that climate change is the Achilles heel of the new far-right is that it is only possible to go on denying these things if you are part of a psychotic cult, one which is led by a psychopath and whose principle purpose, whose golden edict, is denial. If you are not part of such a cult, the available facts speak for themselves, or at least they would if they were more widely acknowledged. The reason that the things I’ve described are not more widely discussed is because they have revolutionary implications for how we live. That’s why companies like ExxonMobbil, Volkswagen, Koch Industries etc have devoted so much money and energy to making sure that ordinary people are confused by basic facts about the climate, believing that there is doubt and ambiguity where there is none. But our own experience of the world has now reached a point where it is only by direct censorship and repression that the truth and its implications can be contained.
If we truly want to address the cause of the rise of monsters like Trump and Le Pen, we all have to become climate campaigners. They are strong because we are silent about what most scares us. If we, collectively, can break that silence then we can expose them at their weakest point. That means we need to learn and share as widely as possible the true story of the climate crisis, one which starts with very basic science and develops into the deadliest and most dastardly conspiracy in human history. It also means that we have to be open with each other about something that truly terrifies us. Although activism is in itself a form of therapy in that it transforms our perspective on our own situation from a passive to a dynamic one, it isn’t enough in relation to this issue. We also need climate therapy groups, in which people can be honest about their fears. To paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, we need to keep sane, but care. And we also need to make sure that whenever anyone is worrying or ranting about the dangers that Trump, Le Pen and their ilk represent, climate change is absolutely central to the concerns being expressed.
The ideology of the emerging Trump/Putin/etc cult is based on psychotic and puerile denial of the causes and consequences of changes in our climate. The most effective way to stem its rise is to break our silence about that terrifying subject and accept our adult responsibility not to let the most evil forces on the planet destroy the lives of all of our children – including, as of three days ago, my own.