In this theory, certain kinds of partisan fantasy might actually be stabilizing forces, letting people satisfy their ideological urges by participating in a story in which their side is always on the verge of some great victory, in which Trump is about to be exposed as a Manchurian candidate or removed by the 25th Amendment (I participated in that one), or alternatively in which Trump is about to order mass arrests of all the pedophile elites or get the Supreme Court to put him back in office for another four years. Or, for the apocalyptically inclined, a fantasy in which your political enemies are poised to do something unbelievably terrible — like all the right-wing militia violence that liberals expected on Election Day — that would vindicate all your fears and makes you happy in your hatred.
Crucially, as in certain famous cults, the failure of these prophecies doesn’t undo the story. It just requires more elaboration and adaptation, more creative fantasizing — and meanwhile the gears of normal politics grind on, choked with sand but still turning steadily enough.
I am certain this analysis fits the career of Trump himself, who has conjured wild fantasies among his friends and enemies alike, but who clearly doesn’t have the capacity to bring the real world into alignment with his own reality-television imagination, to suborn the custodians of institutional legitimacy — whether the military or the Supreme Court or his own attorney general and the governor of Georgia. And while Trump may get one more great performance in 2024, I’m not sure that any plausible successor will be able to achieve his mind-meld with the right’s dreampolitik — in which case this postelection fight might be a unique convergence between reality and fantasy, rather than a foretaste of the two collapsing disastrously into each other.
On the other hand, we saw over the summer how amid the unique combination of pandemic, lockdown and Trump’s provoking presidency, the fantasy politics of the left could slip free of the dreamworlds of academia and online activism, contributing to violence and purges in the real world — from the streets of the Twin Cities to the board of the Poetry Foundation. Police abolition and apologias for rioting belonged to the realm of ideological fantasy politics until they didn’t, and if certain left-wing impulses have gone back to being fantastic in the months since, the memory of May and June remains.
The Texas lawsuit didn’t torch any city blocks, but all those congressional signatures on the amicus brief did make it feel like something more than just another meme. The crucial question it raises is whether people can be fed on fantasies forever — or whether once enough politicians have endorsed dreampolitik, the pressure to make the dream into reality will inexorably build.
The last month of 2020 won’t resolve that question. But we can look forward, in the next decade if not sooner, to discovering whether my confidence in the separation of political fantasy and political reality was the greatest fantasy of all.