How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.

They Really Are Different From Us, Part 2

What should a humble blogger do when there is only one subject that seems worth writing about, but it feels like there’s nothing new to say?

I could call attention to the latest offenses, but don’t we already know enough to realize how important it is to vote against Republicans at every opportunity? And that giving Democrats some control over Congress next year is crucial?

Does it do any good to remind ourselves that a meager 70,000 votes in three states gave that terrible person an Electoral College victory, and that to win he needed an illegal Russian social media campaign, the illegal Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign and the improper (and probably illegal) efforts of Cambridge Analytica to poison the internet, as well as the FBI’s seriously improper intervention in the election? Will it help to know more about the millions of dollars that appear to have been illegally donated to the National Rifle Association by a Russian oligarch so that the NRA could spend more than they ever had before in support of a presidential candidate?

Do we really need to be reminded, in the words of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, that our president “hates criticism; must continually pummel his opponents; never bothers to learn about subjects on which he expounds; thinks everyone in government owes their personal loyalty to him; means what he says for only a fleeting instant; confounds allies with policy zigzags; bullies and blusters; lies continually; and, despite his bravado, cannot take on those to whom he apparently owes his presidency (e.g., the National Rifle Association, the Kremlin)”?

Will it make a difference if we learn more about the Trump family’s corruption, his cabinet’s misbehavior, the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico or how many more civilians we’re killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria? At this point, it shouldn’t make any difference at all to the support we give Democratic candidates.

So this humble blogger doesn’t see the point in writing about our political situation, even though our political situation feels like the only thing worth writing about. I mean, if you’re falling from the roof of a very tall building, is there any point in calling for help? If there isn’t, is there another topic that deserves your attention?

For now, therefore, I’ll leave you with a followup to last month’s “They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us”. It’s been shown in various studies that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. This is from an article in the Washington Post last year:

… Over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals.

This helps explain why conservatives who live in small towns in almost empty places are more worried about terrorist attacks and immigration than liberals who live in big cities that have actually experienced terrorist attacks and are filled with immigrants.

The author of the article, a Yale psychologist, goes on:

And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

These psychologists at Yale had groups of Republicans and Democrats answer survey questions about political topics like immigration:

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

The article mentions other demonstrations of this phenomenon. And I assume that any changes made to the conservatives’ thinking were temporary. But understanding the fundamental fearfulness of our right-wing friends helps explain how strangely they behave. It also helps explain why right-wing media is awash in stories meant to terrify. To conservatives, the world outside their control and filled with strangers is a scary place, full of danger and disruption, so politicians who tell them how bad everything is but promise to protect them (“Only I can protect you”) win their support. I don’t know if it’s possible to make these people less fearful, except temporarily. Eventually some will get used to new realities and older people tend to die off. Meanwhile, we all have to vote every chance we get.

That He’s Against Democracy Is Considered a Plus

Another big question about this president — besides “why didn’t they realize he’s a con man?” — is “why don’t Republican politicians stand up to him?” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine offers an answer:

Republican elites who opposed Trump during the primary, as most of them did, had different reasons for their opposition. But a central rationale for conservative opposition was the belief that Trump would deviate from conservative policy. The keystone editorial in National Review’s celebrated “Against Trump” special issue revolved around the candidate’s lack of ideological consistency:

“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones … Trump’s political opinions have wobbled all over the lot. The real-estate mogul and reality-TV star has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy…. Since declaring his candidacy he has taken a more conservative line, yet there are great gaping holes in it … Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism.”

The key phrase here is the last one, “menace to American conservatism.” It is distinct from, say, a menace to the republic. Non-conservatives may have read into conservative anti-Trumpism a set of shared, small-d democratic concerns. But the major fear that stalked the right was the specter of higher marginal tax rates and bipartisan health-care legislation. To the extent that conservatives raised concerns about Trump’s ignorance and authoritarianism, it was harnessed to his lack of ideological commitment. Conservatives could imagine Trump as an American Perón, catering to the masses with a populist agenda while sidelining the conservative elite.

What did not especially trouble them was the prospect of Trump as an American Pinochet. (Augusto Pinochet was the Chilean general who overthrew a democratically elected socialist government and implemented free-market policies, with the advice and enthusiastic support of American conservatives.) And while Trump has proven every bit as ignorant and instinctively authoritarian as his worst enemies feared, he has vanquished nearly all right-wing doubts about his ideological bona fides (or, at least, his malleability to the same end).

The idea that Trump’s anti-democratic qualities per se would alienate him from his party is a fantasy that rests upon a deep misunderstanding of conservatism. The Republican Party is attracted to anti-democratic means, so long as they’re used for the correct ends. Look at North Carolina, where Republicans designed a vote-restriction measure that, a judge found, would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and then greeted the election of a Democratic governor by stripping him of his powers before he could assume office. Or look at Pennsylvania, where the party is so determined to lock in a voting map that allows them to rule as a minority that, when the State Supreme Court ruled its anti-democratic scheme unconstitutional, the party first defied the court’s authority, and is now working to impeach the justices. None of these maneuvers has provoked any significant intra-party dissent.

Against this chilling backdrop, the president’s frequently stated intent to make federal law enforcement a weapon to protect his party and investigate his opponents hardly even registers. Indeed, Trump’s routine authoritarian bluster nestles comfortably into a party where panic about unfriendly demographic changes has curdled into deep suspicion of the principle of majority rule. Trump as an individual is surely a grotesque outlier. But the overall direction of his presidency is an outgrowth of the party’s long-standing direction. Conservatives once feared Trump as a blunt instrument. Now they recognize and appreciate that the blunt instrument is a weapon of their cause.

He campaigned as if he was a “small-d” democrat, but he governs like a Republican, only more so.

Summing Him Up

Last night, I was musing about the current crisis and asked myself again why they didn’t see that he’s a con man, so his promises about “the forgotten men and women of our country” were pure baloney. The answer that occurred to me was that he said what they wanted to hear about race and immigration. That was enough for them to give him the benefit of the doubt on economics.

This morning, Neera Tanden summed him up very well:

The economic populism was always the con. The racism was always real.

Mapping the 2016 Election

As the president and his co-conspirators plumb even deeper depths of evil and stupidity, it’s worth reminding ourselves how a serious candidate for Worst Person in the World got his new job. A good way to start is to take a look at this new map from the xkcd site. Each little blue person represents roughly 250,000 people who voted for Clinton. Each little red person represents the same number who voted for the evil, stupid guy. (There are also a few little gray people who represent third-party voters.)

xkcd

As you can see, the blue voters are clustered on the coasts and around Chicago. The red voters are spread more evenly around the country. There are 263 blue people vs. 252 red people. That roughly corresponds to the fact that Clinton got 66 million votes while her opponent got 63 million.

Since the United States tries to follow its 228-year old Constitution, however, each state actually held its own separate presidential election. Unfortunately, the Terrible Person won more states (30 to 20 for Clinton), including many of the relatively empty states in the western part of the country. Since almost all of those separate elections were and continue to be “winner-take-all”, whoever won a given state received all of that state’s “electoral” votes, no matter how large or small their margin of victory was. 

Thus, Clinton got 55 electoral votes for winning California by a very large margin and the Worst Candidate got 46 electoral votes for winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by very small margins. (Which shows that if you want to become president, it’s better to win lots of states, even by very small margins, instead of winning fewer states, even by very large margins.)

So, after all the electoral votes from all the states were added up, the Very Stable Genius won a big victory in the “Electoral College” (304 electoral votes to 227) and an important new job, despite getting three million fewer votes nationwide.

If nothing else, next time you see a map like the one below, showing who won America’s 3,000 counties, keep in mind that it’s a poor way to represent an election, assuming the election is based on people voting, not cows or tumbleweeds.

990px-2016_Presidential_Election_by_County.svg

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

That Was the Year That Was

The title of Michelle Goldberg’s overview of the past year in The New York Times is “The Anniversary of the Apocalypse”. I thought “apocalypse” was too much, but Merriam-Webster says it means “a great disaster”. That’s fair. In what follows, I’ve removed all descriptions of particular offenses:

In the terror-struck and vertiginous days after [the] election a year ago, as I tried to make sense of America’s new reality, I called people who lived, or had lived, under authoritarianism to ask what to expect. I wasn’t looking for concrete predictions — one of the disorienting things about that moment was that no one, no matter how learned, had any idea what was happening — but for insights into how the texture of life changes when an autocratic demagogue is in charge.

A secular Turkish journalist told me, her voice sad and weary, that while people might at first pour into the streets to oppose [him], eventually the protests would probably die out as a sense of stunned emergency gave way to the slog of sustained opposition. The Russian dissident writer Masha Gessen warned that there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal. “You drift, and you get warped,” she told me.

They were both right. The country has changed in the past year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable….

… this nightmare year has upended assumptions about the durability of the rules, formal and informal, governing our politics. There’s a metaphysical whiplash in how quickly alarm turns into acceptance and then into forgetfulness….

Hannah Arendt once wrote of the role vulgarity played in undermining liberalism in pre-totalitarian societies: “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability”…. In this administration, crassness has become a weapon, annihilating social codes that once restrained political behavior, signaling that old standards no longer apply.

Lately, the pace of shocks has picked up, even if our capacity to process them has not….In another administration this [take your pick] would have been a major scandal. In this one it barely registers.

How can America ever return from this level of systematic derangement and corruption? I wish there was someone I could ask, but we know more about how countries slide into autocracy than how they might climb out of it. It’s been a year, and sometimes I’m still poleaxed by grief at the destruction of our civic inheritance.

In moments of optimism I think that this is just a hideous interregnum….

Hey, all we have to do is win more elections, like we did tonight in Virginia and New Jersey. Or we could get the opposition to develop a sense of shame. One of those should be manageable.