There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. – Linus van Pelt
The Trump era changes everything, including how I view Halloween cartoon specials. I’ve been watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—in which a capricious orange specter haunts the narrative—for four decades. I’ve used it to teach about religious belief in college classrooms for more than 15 years. I love the story. I’ve all but memorized it.
In an era of heightened political suspicion, argument, and even violence, Charles M. Schulz’s allegory has became about truth, falsehood, and stubborn belief in fake stories. It asks not just about faith and doubt, but also about how we can manage to live with people we think are dangerously wrong about important matters. For political liberals like me, it’s about the challenge of loving the blockheads all around us.
In previous years, I sympathized with Linus’s earnest, countercultural faith in the Great Pumpkin, a benevolent, all-knowing gourd he hopes to meet on Halloween night. While the rest of the Peanuts gang enjoy the worldly goods of trick-or-treating, Linus sits a lonely vigil in the most sincere pumpkin patch he can find. Everyone mocks him, even Snoopy.
Linus’s no-nonsense big sister Lucy always seemed like an aggressive, closed-minded skeptic. Calling her brother an embarrassment to the family, she issues a threat: “You’d better cut it out right now, or I’ll pound you!”
Linus believes according to the logic of Pascal’s Wager: put your faith in the thing that offers the biggest payoff, even if it’s less likely to be true. I can appreciate why someone would make that bet. The Great Pumpkin promises not just candy, but toys, maybe money. Linus’s adoring companion Sally seemed to me like the person whose faith is less sincere, but who nevertheless represents many believers as they actually are: tentative, conflicted, self-interested.
After a year in which I followed the obsessive investigations into the mind of the Trump voter, my sympathy turned sour. I now see self-defeating credulity in Linus and Sally. They seem like the white working-class and evangelical voters duped into thinking Trump was anything more than a resentful plutocrat. Linus’s belief is unwavering only because it’s blind to reality. “If you are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” he writes in a letter to the Great Pumpkin. He lives in a thick bubble of fantasy.
Linus values sincerity, because he believes the Great Pumpkin values it. He’s gratified as he looks around the pumpkin patch on Halloween night and says, “there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Of course, sincerity and truth are quite different things, and Linus favors the wrong one. Trump lies constantly, but to his die-hard supporters, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t mince words; his bluntness absolves him of hypocrisy.
Linus is even something of a chauvinist. When Sally expresses doubt about the Great Pumpkin story, he’s taken aback. “I thought little girls always believed everything that was told to them,” he says. “I thought little girls were innocent and trusting.” As absurd as it is to say this about a beloved cartoon character, I heard Trump’s lying lechery faintly echo in those words. I heard the self-justification Trump made following the revelation that he had bragged about sexual assault in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording.
Sally’s fault is not so much in what she believes as who she believes: Linus. She falls for his charms, and waits up with him in the pumpkin patch despite her better judgment. Sally’s lack of principle doesn’t stop her from getting on a moral high horse, though. She’s quickly aggrieved, threatening to sue when the Great Pumpkin doesn’t show up. In an earlier scene, she asks Lucy if trick-or-treating is legal. “I wouldn’t want to be accused of taking part in a rumble,” she says, oozing sanctimony.
Sally is the Fox News viewer who sees footage of a burning trash can in Berkeley and concludes that all left-wing protesters are violent thugs. She exhibits all the willful obtuseness the right uses to muddy matters of fact and justice. She’s the worst.
To my surprise, Lucy is the character I most want to be like right now. She’s a model for liberals in the age of Trump. It’s true that her critique of Linus’s delusion sometimes crosses the line into bullying. But she acts with love toward him throughout the show. No one else does.
In the very first scene, Lucy and Linus go out together to pick a pumpkin from the patch to bring home. Later, while trick-or-treating, she asks for extra candy she can give him. She checks his bedroom at 4 a.m., sees he’s not there, and goes out to look for him. He’s still in the pumpkin patch, shivering under his thin security blanket. She brings him home and puts him to bed.
At a moment where politics are vicious and everything is politicized, it has to be possible to call out lies and fantasies and still love the person who believes them. It takes the courage of Lucy to accomplish both of these feats.
I don’t want to stretch the parable too far. The conflicts we’re having now are about much more than differences of opinion. They’re also about human dignity, civil rights, and sometimes life or death. Political disagreements in America tend to put already-vulnerable populations at even greater risk. I know I wouldn’t be able to find harmony with someone who wanted me kicked out of my own country. Appeals to civility and shared allegiance often overlook injustice, as they did last month when NFL owners tried to turn players’ protests over police killings of black men and women into a question of “unity.”
To be clear: I am not calling for a kumbaya moment with white supremacists who want to intimidate, disenfranchise, and attack people of color. Their beliefs, and the violence they commit, deserve condemnation. You can’t hug someone who’s trying to beat you or mow you down. Religious leaders in Charlottesville were grateful that antifa pushed back against the white supremacists’ aggression in August. Antifa’s willingness to be accused of taking part in a rumble may have saved lives.
Most people on the political right are not carrying torches or Nazi flags in the streets, though. Most liberals have family and friends who believe falsehoods and aren’t violent, who don’t actively wish harm to their fellow-citizens. Their beliefs and voting patterns are infuriating. People who should have known better put us in this predicament. I want to blame, and mock, and yell at them.
But compassion has to be able to coexist with righteous anger at lies and injustice. For democracy to be a means for attaining the common good, there has to be concern for others’ well-being. We have to be able to love people even when we criticize them. Even when they’re being blockheads.