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What’s Cookin

With the sheer amount of insanity that has transpired in the last week or so of the presidential campaigns (never mind the accumulated insanity to this point), you easily could have missed a special sliver of crazy that emerged down the home stretch. It’s difficult for anything or anyone to appear particularly bonkers in an election season that has legitimized the voices of anime-loving Nazis. That feat was managed late last week when the topic of Spirit Cooking lit social media aflame.

The budget version (and fair warning, even this condensed explanation could lower your IQ several points) proceeds thusly: the fire-and-brimstone segment of the electorate pored over the recent Wikileaks emails and found one in which Hillary Clinton operative John Podesta talked about attending a show by performance artist Marina Abramovic called Spirit Cooking. Said show purports to involve various bodily fluids, pig’s blood, self-cutting, etc., in a tortured bohemian tableau familiar to anyone who’s ever been dragged to a freshman art show. Through the fevered interpretation of the Alex Jones crowd, however, Abramovic’s work was not a high-school-goth level metaphor but an act of actual witchcraft.

This interpretation achieved two goals: making performance art sound interesting for the first time in human history, and convincing a frightening number of Americans alive and of voting age in the year 2016 that Podesta, other Democratic operatives, and Hillary Clinton herself engage in Satanic rituals. Thereafter, many would-be Woodward & Bernstein’s combed through more Clinton team communiqués, looking for phrases containing odd language, on the assumption that these portions  must be code for even more sinister acts. For instance, the word “pizza” was determined to stand for some sort of child sex trafficking, which is for sure the kind of interpretation that would occur to all not-crazy people.

At this point, the online armies of Reddit, 4chan, and Infowars flooded social media with demonic “evidence” and vowed to ferret out the horrifying truth. Their ability to do so was demonstrated amply by the efforts of one aspiring gumshoe, who visited a DC-area pizza place often mentioned in the emails and was thwarted by a locked door that “spooked” him. Phillip Marlowe these guys ain’t.

Many of the propagators of this nonsense are, no doubt, the same alt-right shit-posters we saw crawl out of the woodwork during Gamergate, the lovely people with fursonas-in-SS-gear avatars and encyclopedic registers of rape threats to unleash on any woman who dared speak in their general online vicinity. I would assume these people don’t have any real agenda, really, except to provoke “safe space” liberals (“OH DID I TRIGGER YOU?!”), and probably don’t sincerely believe that Hillary Clinton is invoking the power of demons to win the White House.

Then again, many of these alt-right dickheads aren’t sincere Nazis either, at least not to the extreme of labeling themselves as such. That lack of sincerity didn’t prevent their Nazi role-playing from allowing actual Nazis and white nationalists to feel there is a home for them in the Republican Party (a notion that party’s candidate has encouraged). Likewise, no matter the true motives of those who disseminate Spirit Cooking memes, the idea wouldn’t have caught on if not for the fact that there are significant numbers of people eager to believe that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, actually do worship demons.

Such hysteria is almost nostalgic, as it brings to mind the terrified days of the 1980s, when freaked-out parents saw the influence of Beelzebub in everything from heavy metal to Dungeons & Dragons. And just like the ridiculous overreactions to Judas Priest and 12-sided die 30 years ago, the Spirit Cooking panic sublimates a deeper anxiety in the ludicrous wrapping of Demon Fear.

The rightward swing that America took in the 1980s had many causes. The cause that I’ll focus on here—and one that probably deserves more attention in studies of this era—is the fact during this decade, the children of baby boomers first started reaching adolescence. An enormous segment of the American population was, all at the same time, gripped by the anxieties experienced by parents of kids entering their teenage years. This had an enormous affect on the psyche of the nation as a whole. Mostly, it caused them to go batshit crazy with unreasonable, all-consuming worry.

Combine widespread parental anxiety with baby boomers’ guilt over the myriad of ways they disrespected their own parents’ wishes in their youth (a guilt that would soon manifest itself in the canonizing of The Greatest Generation), and you understand the conservative swing America took during that decade. Among the phenomena this engendered, one of the biggest was causing literal come-to-Jesus moments for millions of baby boomers, driving them to become evangelical Christians.

This return to faith didn’t really provide any succor to its adherents, however. If anything, it made people even more nervous and pointed out a myriad of new methods that modern life would use to corrupt and claim their kids. Hence, the 1980s’ obsession with backwards masking, the drive to sticker “dirty” albums, the preoccupation with missing children and teen runaways (who were explicitly contrasted as more troubled than their hitchhiking parents), and the wild imaginings that day-care centers were founts of ritualistic Satanism—not to mention the rise of televangelists who both stoked and soothed all these fears.

Teenagers will rebel no matter what, of course, and all the DARE initiatives in the world can’t stop that. This, I believe, is why so many people during the 1980s were willing to believe that demons were ensnaring their children’s souls. If parents were doing everything they could to guard them from the evils of the world and their kids still got into loud music and drugs and whatnot, then the only explanation for bad behavior was Satan sending them messages in the Mr. Ed theme song (an actual Reagan Era panic that for real happened, guys).

Fast forward to 2016 and again, this retro Demon Fear is really a manifestation of other anxieties. This time, instead of the terror of raising a teenager, it is the terror of a changing nation. As with adolescent rebellion in the 1980s, the changes that are taking place in America in the 2010s are not seen as natural occurrences, but rather as a conspiracy to impose unnatural changes on our country. In such minds, this conspiracy may take the form of imaginary voting fraud or the media collaborating with the Clinton campaign. Or it may take the form of Clinton seeking the help of Baphomet and his hoary, goat-legged minions.

The “unnatural” change that Donald Trump speaks of the most is the browning of America, the introduction to our country of non-white ethnic groups who, he says, don’t share our values (an accusation lobbed at literally every nationality that has ever immigrated here). This is why Trump’s two largest constituencies are white baby boomers and white evangelicals. Both groups, in overlapping ways, are terrified by America’s shifting demographics.

Thirty-plus years of hearing about Family Values from the evangelical crowd would lead you to believe that Trump would be disqualified from their support, but Trump’s unvarnished appeal to anti-immigration resentment makes clear the dirty secret of most American evangelicals that goes back at least until the 19th century—namely, that their religious facade is wrapped around a core of white nationalism. When the teachings of their religion conflict with the aims of that white nationalism, the latter will always win out.

It’s amazing how children of the 1960s and those who purport follow the example of Jesus Christ could vote for a man like Trump. Even with all the reasons enumerated above, I’m almost at a loss to explain it. Maybe the devil made them do it.