Salvo 12.27.2023 7 minutes

The Grift of the Magi

White House Media Briefing Held By Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre And NSC Coordinator John Kirby

Is it magic or illusion?

What is the difference between a magician and an illusionist? The definitions in trade literature say that an illusionist works with larger set pieces, whereas a magician performs smaller intrigues with cards or dice or handkerchiefs.

There is also a philosophical distinction. Audiences know that a magic show consists of “tricks,” but the magician implicitly claims to have an arcane power to transcend the apparent limitations of reality. His performance is meant to show that those limitations were artificial: it suggests he possesses a supernatural ability that his audience does not. In executing the trick, the magician challenges the audience to expose him.

The illusionist, too, induces a misperception by the audience, but he implicitly acknowledges it as such. His “illusion” creates the appearance that the natural limitations of reality have been transcended. He tacitly concedes that things are not as they appear. The mystery posed by the illusionist is how he makes things seem different than they actually are. The mystery of the magician is how he can modify reality in ways that should not be possible.

Any close observers of the Biden Administration know there is a yawning chasm between appearance and reality in 2023. How can the White House and its proxies continue to claim that prices are down despite all evidence to the contrary? How can they keep insisting that crime is down, even as pharmacies and department stores begin putting even the cheapest items under lock and key to resist waves of brazen shoplifters? How can they maintain their exuberance that Ukraine is on the cusp of victory in their war with Russia, even as there has been no discernable change in the momentum of either side in many months? How can they use lawfare to keep the leading candidate for the presidential nomination off the ballot, all while crowing about defending “Our Democracy”?

It’s clear that the White House is attempting numerous psychological manipulations simultaneously. If you’re reading this, you probably see through their tricks. But that hasn’t deterred our authorities from waving their magic wands. Why not? Typically, when the audience exposes a trick as mere sleight of hand, the performer stops trying to convince them of the lie.

The administration’s persistence presents an interesting question: how do they see themselves? When they try to convince us that reality is something other than what it is, are they acting as magicians or illusionists? More simply: Does the administration expect us to believe that they have actually changed something about the world through a deliberate act of power? Or are their claims disingenuous—a means to induce a popular misperception so that the public sees reality inaccurately?

The Establishment Magi

The modern word magician shares a common etymology with the word magus. In the most basic sense, a magus or “mage” is just a “powerful man” or “wise man.” But a magus is usually someone who possesses an arcane, cosmic knowledge that allows for a deeper, mystical insight on reality—something akin to a wizard or sorcerer. The “magi” from the Christmas stories told in the Gospels seem to have been men of this sort: they didn’t simply see the Christmas star, they knew when it arose, what it meant, and what they would find when they reached the place where it rested.

The people who populate our elite institutions see themselves as wise men with a heightened ability to perceive reality who benevolently offer these revelations to lesser men. Under their unerring guidance, they see government as a classical aristocracy: a regime in which the “best” people rule. And their rule is righteous, since the masses’ lack of vision disqualifies them from governance. We are in their debt.

If establishment elites see themselves as magicians, then we know that our government believes in their own competence and aptitude. From their perspective, their great power is to help the public see reality in a truer, fuller way than before—one that common people were incapable of until the magician’s revelation of the truth. The “magical” feat performed here isn’t any genuine modification of reality. Rather, it is the ability to remove the scales from the eyes of a benighted public, allowing them to see reality clearly for the first time. 

We can see evidence of their higher insight across our political discourse. Are you one of the sheep who think that securing the border is the best way to address illegal immigration? Good thing for our magi, who understand that the only way to solve the problem is addressing the “root causes,” which have nothing to do with a porous border. Starting to doubt that the climate apocalypse will ever arrive, given that it keeps being delayed by a decade here and a decade there? The magi know exactly when it will be here, and they know that delaying it further requires that you give up your gas appliances. The science is settled. You’re just too dense to understand it. And that goes for every other issue confronting us. If the magicians have the power of revelation, our job is just to sit back, enjoy the show, and reap the benefits of their wisdom. But whatever type of government results from that premise, it’s something much different than the sacred democracy they claim to defend.

Elite Illusionism

Maybe establishment elites are better understood as illusionists? That is, maybe they aim to strategically induce misperceptions of reality. Whereas the magician exposes the public to a truer, deeper reality that had eluded their perception, illusions make us see things that aren’t really there (or ensure we do not see the things that are). They do this by exploiting the weaknesses and glitches in the audience’s sensory powers. As illusionists, our elites see no important distinction between the appearance and the reality. Seeing, as they say, is believing. Whether or not our beliefs correspond to reality, they determine our behavior. The trick for the illusionist, then, is to manipulate the audience’s sense of what is true by changing what they see. In turn, this determines how they act in the world.

How does illusionism work in a political context? Consider inflation. From a raw political perspective, it really doesn’t matter whether inflation is up or down. What matters is whether people believe that it is up or down. The illusionist’s job is to determine which of those beliefs is most conducive to their political objectives, and then ensure that the public adopts the right one. In practice, this means that voters must think that prices are coming down when a Democrat is in office and going up when Republicans are in power.

When citizens’ perceptions are correctly adjusted, their beliefs and actions will follow. Whereas magicians cast the public in the role of confused children in need of guidance, illusionists simply see people as pawns in a sham democracy. They know that public opinion is powerful. But rather than seek to govern in ways that respond to the will of the majority, they propagandize to shape public opinion to their liking. Then they can rule as they see fit. For these reasons, our political reality is defined by the grandest illusion of all: an elite oligarchy which positions itself as the great defender of our imperiled democracy.

Mastering the Dark Arts

Of course, the people who occupy our nation’s seats of power are neither magicians nor illusionists. But they will make use of the techniques of both, as necessary. If it serves their interests, they use the rhetoric of “expertise” to insist that they have a deeper insight into reality that obligates them to ignore the popular will. On other occasions, when their power and wisdom proves insufficient to solve our problems, they will play the role of the illusionist—diverting our attention away from their failures, denying them entirely, or (when they’re feeling bold) presenting their ineptitude as achievement.

How do they achieve these feats? It’s done with mirrors—they change the appearance of reality or conjure doubts about your ability to perceive it. The media is this mirror. They present a reflection of reality. But that reflection isn’t meant to duplicate reality: it serves as a substitute for it. This is why when a white American commits a violent crime, media always make sure to mention his race, but when the perpetrator is nonwhite, race becomes irrelevant to the matter. This is why an impeachment inquiry regarding Trump receives comprehensive coverage as a grave tableau of history-in-action, and one regarding Biden is covered as an affront to Our Sacred Democracy (at best) or mocked and ignored.

So, what can be done? We are presented with two options. Like our opponents, we must use these dark arts. We must work to break their mirrors even while holding up our own. In our hypermediated age, we find ourselves in a war of perceptions, first and foremost. This doesn’t mean the truth doesn’t matter. The truth matters enormously, but our enemies pretend to hold it in disregard. They don’t hate truth as such—they hate it because it limits their designs. Reaffirming the central role of truth and reality in our public discourse depends on exposing their manipulation of it.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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