Fragmentary thoughts on politics

People analyze Trump supporters as though they’re hanging on his every word and willing to defend his every lie, but that describes only a small hardcore faction that spends too much time on line. In reality, most of them are just not paying close attention and don’t need to do much more than deploy the standard “liberal media bias” narrative — wherein anything that sounds too “extreme” must be made up because it can’t possibly be that bad — to keep the cognitive dissonance levels down. It’s not about consciously buying lies, it’s about maintaining plausible deniability through ignorance — and that may be a tougher problem. It’s not even about convincing them of the truth, it’s about convincing them that they could potentially have access to the truth and, even worse, be held responsible for finding it.

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The talk of “treason” leaves me cold. Trump is showing less concrete deference and servility toward Russia than every president in my lifetime has shown toward Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. This is rhetoric that will backfire on the left, just like making the cruelty of child separation be about the sanctity of “family.” And there is also the fact that people are bizarrely using this as an opportunity for redbaiting, as though Putin is a continuation of the USSR — when in reality, he is the kind of right-wing strongman that Marxist theory predicts as the outcome of a failed left project. Not to mention the lionization of the American national security apparatus. I am all for removing Trump by any possible means, but my God, my God. There is no future down this path.

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The irony of the present moment is that the right is more internationalist than the left, where the debate is centered on economic nationalism and reclaiming the power of the nation-state. Again, there is no future down this path.

Paying attention is the hardest thing

I don’t think we need to get better at listening to each others’ opinions and viewpoints. We need to get better at not presuming to have opinions and viewpoints on every single thing in the world — and to get better at not assuming that the things people say amount to opinions and viewpoints. We don’t even need to get better at suspending judgment, because that presupposes that the goal of a conversation is a judgment.

We just need to get better at paying attention to things and finding ways to talk about what we see when we pay attention to things.

How might this work in a political context? I haven’t talked to a Trump supporter about the separation of children at the border, but I can vividly imagine how it would go — they would keep throwing excuses and distractions at the wall until either something stuck or they wore me out (most likely the latter). All of that would be to avoid confronting the simple fact of what is happening: agents of the government are stealing away the children of immigrants, making no effort to keep track of them or guarantee their safe return, and sticking them in ad hoc camps. That is what is happening.

“But it’s Obama’s fault, because he made the policy.” Fine, but this is what your guy is doing now. “He’s just following the law.” He has a majority in both houses of Congress — he could change the law if he wanted to. “It’s all part of a negotiating strategy to get a better immigration policy.” Yes, but it’s ruining lives, probably irrevocably, in the meantime. “It’s their own fault for breaking the law.” This was never a consequence of breaking that law before. Does it seem proportionate?

I’m not sure I want to change their opinion or persuade them to vote for a Democrat or whatever, so much as to force them to actually face the fact of what is happening. That would at least give me some information — if they can see the horror, then there may be some hope for them; if they can stare down what is happening and say it’s worth it, then they are lost. We can’t tell a person is lost simply from the fact that they are spouting the talking points, because it is a very human (though very selfish) thing to want to look away from something terrible like this and especially to try to avoid any complicity or blame. This is what I mean by not assuming that the stupid things they say amount to “opinions” that we must counter or take seriously — they aren’t EVEN opinions yet, they are ways to avoid confronting the situation and forming an actual opinion.

Learning to talk to each other like human beings

In the last week of the senior capstone class, I suggested that one of the most important things we do at Shimer is develop the habit of actually talking to each other like human beings. Not spouting off opinions, not yelling at each other to beat everyone into submission, not positioning and posturing and signaling, above all not trying to “win” at something or avoid admitting we were ever wrong, but actually talking — about something of substance, which we have all done some work toward understanding. We’re not perfect. It doesn’t always come together. Personal conflict and fatigue and flagging interest all work against us. But every day, in every class, we try to learn how to talk to each other like human beings, and after four years of doing that every day, in every class, everyone gets at least a little better at it.

Every morning when I read the news and the inane commentary on it and the clever but ultimately unsatisfying riffs and jokes on it all, I become more convinced that we all need to learn to talk to each other like human beings. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most revolutionary thing or the most important thing — but it’s a necessary thing, if we don’t want to trust our fate to the loudest and most brutal person on “our side.” Maybe that will work, but it probably won’t, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any way to figure out what went wrong and what we can change.

TV Recap: The Trump Show, Season 2

Season 2 of the Trump Show has been really tedious. The show hit its stride last summer, when there was a lot of plot momentum — in fact, it almost became “appointment television,” as people tuned in around close-of-business every day to learn of the exciting new developments. But as so often happens in American television, what should have been a UK-style limited series has been indefinitely extended. The characters are so thin, and the setup so improbable, that we get nothing but the repetition of the same scenarios. The attempt to inject some lurid interest with the porn star theme feels desperate, and bringing back the Giuliani character is some kind of weird fan service for a fan who doesn’t really exist. The one genuine comic relief, Sean Spicer, has been replaced by perpetual wet blanket Sarah Huckabee Sanders — a major casting mistake, though an understandable one after the blow-up with the Scarramucci character.

What the President Wants

Trump has done terrible things that have damaged important institutions and, more importantly, individual human lives and the environmental preconditions of our civilization. Our public discourse, however, is dominated by outrage at what Trump wants. Most recently, he joked that he would like to imitate Chairman Xi and become president for life. This is supposed to be outrageous, chilling, etc. In reality, I can picture any recent president making the same joke. Trump has not proposed actually abolishing term limits, nor has he even made any serious moves toward rehabilitating his reputation so as to actually win reelection in 2020. Similarly, we are asked to feel outraged, chilled, etc., by Trump’s stated desires to censor unfavorable press coverage — even though he has done literally nothing to restrain press freedoms. His very desire condemns him, all the more, it seems, when it is an impotent desire.

It is interesting to contrast this situation with Obama and Bush. In both cases, their presumed desires were supposed to make us give them the benefit of the doubt. Bush just wanted to keep the country safe, and if he made some mistakes, it was in pursuit of that worthy desire. Similarly, for his liberal defenders, Obama ostensibly wanted all the right things, but sadly came up against the persistent obstacle of political reality. The same might be said for Bill Clinton, who got credit for liberal desires even while running a deeply conservative administration. From the other side, those same liberal desires led to demonization: never mind the moderate, even conservative results of their actual politices, Clinton and Obama want to impose gay Islamic socialism on hard-working Americans!

I have no interest in positing an equivalency between right-wing demonization of Clinton and Obama and center-left demonization of Trump — clearly we are dealing with two very different phenomena, most notably in the outright lies and conspiracy theories that attached to both Clinton and Obama. What I am interested in is the political function of the president’s desire. In Bush’s case, his ostensibly sincere desire to keep America safe served to paper over and normalize an administration that really was extreme and dangerous. With Clinton and Obama, their sincere liberal desires helped to make up for the betrayal of their liberal followers’ hopes. Meanwhile, demonization of Clinton and Obama’s liberal desires served to mask their substantive continuity with their Republican predecessors — and we might say that the demonization of Trump serves to mask his substantive continuity, not only with previous Republican administrations but with Obama (on the matter of aggressive deportations, for example).

Is it that the president’s desire always steps in to save us from uncomfortable questions? The liberal apologist for Clinton and Obama puts forward their desire as a screen to prevent them from seeing that they’re being taken for a ride, and the right-wing demonizers project exaggerated hatred of Clinton and Obama to keep from admitting that, at the end of the day, they have nothing to complain about, that they’ve already won. And the sincere desires of George W. Bush shield the entire political establishment from recognizing that they have been complicit in terrible crimes, crimes that are continuing unabated even now.

From this perspective, the reasonable centrist has to demonize Trump, to excoriate his evil desires as though they were already realities, because if Trump wasn’t a horrible abberation, they might have to admit that they have never really had their desired dancing partner for bipartisan solutions. Or on a deeper level, the Democratic Party hack has to demonize Trump’s desires to cover over the fact that they have no desires of their own, that they neither want power nor know what to do with it. Every fantasized power grab by Trump, every outrage is, as our sage social media scolds warn us continually, a distraction — from the fact that there effectively is no opposition, no alternative vision, nothing but a desire for a return to the normality that was always slowly killing us and would have continued to do so throughout the Hillary Clinton impeachment trial.

The Trump endgame

Thank god the US media finally has the attention span required to pursue a Trump scandal for more than 24 hours. I’ve seen people on twitter lamenting the fact that the president sleeping with and then paying off a porn star got less coverage than an aide beating his wife. Yes, cover-ups are bad, but I, for one, feel pretty strongly that domestic abuse is far, far worse than consensual sex. Our national media sucks, but they’re right to pursue a domestic abuse scandal, and it finally seems like there’s some real traction to this scandal.

Of course, it could just all blow over like all the other scandals. Let’s assume, for a moment though, that this really is bad for the Mango Mussolini. In my mind, the end game to his administration is totally unclear. I think it’s pretty obvious that the GOP is moving closer and closer to Trump as all these scandals pile up rather than further away. The chance of even getting impeachment through the House until after the midterms is basically zero. Now, supposing the Dems win big in 2018, they only need a majority in the House to bring articles of impeachment. The odds of them reaching 60 senators in 2018, even in a landslide election, are pretty slim. That means the Dems could get impeachment through the House but would still likely fail to get enough GOP votes (let’s say 5-8 will be needed) in the Senate. Does that leave us with a lame duck Trump who just runs a zombie White House, unable to pass any legislation or confirm any positions for 2 years until he gets voted out in 2020?

My bold contention–assuming that this really is the best possible outcome– is maybe a zombie Trump admin would be better than a guilty Senate vote anyways. Democrats in Congress would finally have to impose checks on the executive branch, something they completely failed to do through the Bush/Obama years. Whoever the next president is would have less unchecked power. Am I way off here?

A teachable moment on “fake news”

This new tell-all book about the Trump administration (excerpted in New York Magazine) is a teachable moment for “fake news.” The author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for exaggeration and even falsification, including conversations that are recounted in such vivid detail that they basically have to be invented on some level. Some significant portion of this book is likely to be bullshit, and even just from reading it, I think any critical thinker is going to suspect that some of it is just too good to be true.

Nonetheless, people who hate Trump are passing around the juiciest stories already, and the full book is likely to be a goldmine for months to come. The reason is that they hate Trump, and these stories are satisfying because they present Trump in an extremely humiliating light. The implication is that they believe the stories are true, though if pressed they would probably say that they don’t care if the particular details are true because the overall message is. And that’s fine. I hate Trump, too. I read and found satisfaction in the excerpt. I might well pass along select tidbits in casual conversation.

I’m not here to judge anyone, just to suggest that the other side is reading their exaggerated “fake news” stories in much the same way. I’m sure we can all imagine our conservative uncle spouting some improbable story about Hillary, then backing down if pressed but nonetheless maintaining that the overall message that Hillary is corrupt or untrustworthy is true. They don’t care if it’s true — they just find the stories somehow enjoyable because they provide further fodder to hate people they already hate.

I’m something of a broken record on this topic. Why do I think it’s important? First, I think we need to realize that political antagonism takes this form more or less universally. You decide who your enemy is first, and then you seek narratives that help support that decision. Regarding your enemy as an honorable worthy opponent is the exception rather than the rule. Such declarations are likely to be tactical moves meant to convince rivals of one’s own reasonableness, as shown by the fact that the “reasonable Republicans,” for example, are either dead, out of power, or marginal within their party.

The phenomenon of demonization is much more serious on the right than the left, of course. The conspiracy theories about Hillary are much more unhinged than anything we see about Trump. But I keep wanting to point it out on the left because the liberal’s default view is that I have rationality and discernment, whereas the primitive other takes everything literally. It goes back to the faith vs. reason distinction — those who embrace faith commit themselves, in the liberal view, to slavishly obeying authority in a machine-like way. Hence they swallow whatever “fake news” Facebook feeds them, while we are able to maintain ironic distance. In reality, though, basically every educated person is capable of taking up ironic distance toward authoritative claims, and no one — no one! — follows any type of authority, even scriptural authority, in a mechanically literal way.

Am I advocating for some kind of sympathetic recognition that our enemies are human, too, sharing our own foibles, etc., etc.? Far from it: the fact that our enemies are human is what makes them enemies. What I’m interested in is winning, and we can never win if we have such an impoverished view of the people we are struggling against. The view that our enemies will just believe whatever is put in front of them, for instance, leads down blind alleys such as the attempt to restore “truth” to reporting — as though the media wasn’t always a site of political struggle. They are not slavish followers of authority, nor are we purely logical beings. We won’t win by convincing them that Hillary wasn’t really running a child molestation ring out of a pizza parlor.

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves.

And honestly, if a demonizing narrative about Trump helps drive the voter turnout needed to make that happen, I’m all for it. Let a thousand tell-all books bloom! We just need to be honest about the fact that we’re involved in a genuine political struggle, not a made-up conflict between reason and irrationality.