Political cults (Donald Trump wins IV)

A person of outright and obviously immoral character has been elected president. This has been done legitimately, according to the rules and without tampering. Furthermore, this person is simply not fit to conduct an effective presidency. He does not have the experience, temperament or wisdom.

These defects of Mr. Trump were obvious, nobody can claim to be surprised by them, unlike was the case with, say Nixon. But Donald Trump is not a normal politician: rather he is the leader of something which resembles a political cult. And as is always the case when we are dealing with cults, it is necessary to build ‘off ramps’ so that his supporters can make an exit. At what time should we do this? Immediately.

When people are entranced by a person or thing which is actually quite bad they often are immune to reality for a time, but eventually the shine wears off. They then go through a period of internal and external defensiveness. Eventually, they will deescalate their emotional investment until they leave the fold.

If you will excuse a facile, even cheeky example this pattern has recently been observed with products made by a certain fruit company.

But back to seriousness. It is imperative to accelerate the de-escalation of emotional investment because primaries are coming up: all the House and 1/3rd of the Senate in two years. If people bristle in anger and blame and use destructive negative rhetoric (such as the obsession with trying to get the newspapers to use the word ‘lie’ and smearing all people who voted for Trump as bigots, etc) then the de-escalation will not take place.

Applying deviance-labels to people who have erred does nothing to improve or even meaningfully explain their behavior. It’s important to remember that nobody ever considers themselves to be in a cult. Experts who study cults say that one of the main reasons why people remain in cults, even after extreme behavior such as violence occurs, is that the cost of exiting is rejection and not just by coreligionists.

Cult members fear being scorned, called stupid or deemed mentally ill by the ‘outside world.’ However, how do I justify my terming of Trumpism as cult-like?

  • Cults target alienated people who have suffered some sense of loss or dislocation. * The cult then provides simple, albeit false, answers to complex (or imaginary) problems.
  • Cults subtly discourage critical thought.
  • Cults are hugely oriented towards a single person, only he knows the secrets of the world.
  • Cults seek to distort the victims’ understanding of reality with alternative facts.
  • Cults are isolating, they keep their victims’ in filter-bubbles.
  • Cults avoid individualistic expression. They speak of ‘we.’ This is because…
  • Cults are very often marked by a distinct “us” and “them” mentality. Cults tend to have an enemy.
  • Cults devalue the intellect of others without rational basis. Foes are ‘failing piles of garbage.’ A cult usually does not attempt to disprove evidence but to reject it out of hand.
  • Cults are obsessed with symbolism and pageantry.
  • Cults exhibit outwardly-directed negative emotions such as fear, hate and anger.

It should be apparent how these features apply to Trumpism.

As for the broader question of how our political system became amenable to cultish behavior, let us realize that our world has changed very rapidly.

If we look back to the world at the end of the 19th century, we see massive political, cultural and economic change due to the transition from a largely agrarian and rural to largely industrialized and urban lifestyle. This came to be known as the fin de siècle and it was marked by uncertainty, fear, malaise and pessimism as well as a rejection of rationalism and Enlightenment thinking. This perfectly set the stage for fascism. It’s also eerily familiar, no? Perhaps future historians will speak of “début de siècle.”

Now, Donald Trump is not a fascist. I know that this phrase has been bandied about and I am guilty of having carelessly used it myself. Defining “fascist” is notoriously slippery, but to my mind the core distinction between fascism and authoritarianism is the emotional investiture in the state as the embodiment of national glory and the agent of her millennial destiny. So far, this is not present. The bad news is that these elements are pretty easy to get to from where Mr. Trump is standing. The even worse news is that this is not important. It’s not actionable.

The real problem is not just that Mr. Trump is evil, but that he is IRRATIONALLY evil. It is not possible to accurately predict how he will behave.

As you may know, a huge scandal has erupted in South Korea. It has been revealed that the President, Park Geun Hye was under the thrall of a shaman-like figure who has apparently influenced government policy and has allegedly used her closeness to the President to shake down companies for “donations.” There are also other, wilder allegations.

I read an article which asserted that what truly galled Koreans was not the corruption, it is endemic and something to which they are to a degree inured but the irrationality of the corruption. Koreans realized that they could no longer dismiss allegations and rumors as “too absurd” because nothing now is too absurd. Likely, many of the hurricane of innuendos to consume the Blue House are exaggerated or false, but the comforting basis of “no rational person would…” has been swept away. There is no suggestion that Mr. Trump has fallen in with anything quite like this. (Though, upon even brief examination the religious ideology of Betsy De Vos is… terrifying.) But there is no questioning that we cannot ever dismiss anything Donald Trump threatens to do, tweets about or is rumored to be going to do with a sentence which begins “no rational person would…”

Chaos Reigns.

Consider just one small part this. Can we say “no rational person would ignore an order of the Supreme Court.” Can this sentence apply to Mr. Trump? If not, and if eventually we come to this point what happens? A Constitutional Crisis is more at this point a question of ‘what will trigger it and when and how bad?’ and not ‘will it take place?’

The Republic is at risk. This is why it is so important that we off-ramp Trumpists because we will need their help in two years. It is likely that many congressional Republicans are going along with Trumpism because they saw which way their district went and are afraid of losing their seats. Until that changes, Mr. Trump bears no credible threat of impeachment, defunding* or blocking. He knows this.

We do not need a blue-wave to put a firewall on Trump, we just need off-ramping. We just need to shift the political calculus so that Republicans find it politically advantageous to stand up to Trump.

– – – –

* Congress’ supremacy in taxation, borrowing and spending is the key. Not only can Congress refuse to authorize borrowing or taxing to fund projects, it can frustrate the president from rearranging the existing budget by passing a law prohibiting the expenditure of “appropriated funds” on anything it doesn’t want the Executive branch to do.

Donald Trump wins III

Let’s be careful not to fall into hermeneutic interpretation of simple facts. Or, to put it another way…. let’s not B.S. ourselves. Donald Trump is a bigot. Moreover, and perhaps worse, Mike Pence is a mega-Mega-MEGA bigot.

Given Trump’s vagary, Pence may be the ‘power behind the throne’ like Cheney. Some people have wishfully said, ‘Maybe Trump will get bored and quit?’ That might not be an improvement. In the new congressional majority too there are many people who are, let us say, not so nice.

MANY people looked at Trump and saw a chance to take back their country… to the fifties. That is why so many people, including myself, are deeply frightened at Trump’s win. We have suddenly realized that this particular problem was much bigger than we thought (or, returning to the fist post in this series that it is as big as we disavowed knowing but to some degree knew nonetheless.)

When people chant “Jew-S-A” at Trump rallies and when the KKK and other white-supremacist organizations can hardly contain their glee at his ascension, in these cases no further analysis is necessary or possible.

Again, let’s not B.S. ourselves or try to say things like “they don’t know what they’re saying” or “they’re just burning off steam.” That’s crap. Take them at their revanchist word.

However in other cases there is a reason to be nuanced. I think that there are three basic types of Trump voter. In addition to those ‘a priori’ bigots there are the desperate and the ‘adjunctive’ racists.

Many people said “My and my friends’ standard of living has cratered. Our children’s will surely be lower still or they might drown in a sea of heroin and fentanyl. Our town/city will never recover. I am desperate and I’ve had it with trickle-down economics, political correctness and arrogant elites. How do these things help anyone, let alone our children?”

Also for these people do not miss the importance of Clinton’s closeness to Wall Street.

Another important fact is that in the key “flip” states many of them are actually lifelong Democrats. They voted for Trump, not with malice but out of reckless desperation. “This,”—I am sure many thought—”is our one and only chance.”

In voting for Trump on this basis (or by refraining from voting or by voting third-party which is basically the same thing) did these people act with lack of empathy for and perhaps disregard for minorities? Yes. Is this the U.S.A at its finest? No.

However, in two years there is a midterm and it is of paramount importance that we zero in on the parts of that logic we can work with and ignore the parts we can’t, for now anyway. We must be able to credibly say “We can help you and your children.” We must make the case (and then we must actually do it, ‘natch.) They did not believe that Clinton could help them or would. And I think that they were right. They are wrong that Trump can help them but that must be a part of our case.

Here is a quotation from a November 10 Reuters piece by Peter Eisler. The dateline is Bethlehem, PA.

[Jim] McAndrew, 69, a retired steel worker, voted Democrat in every presidential election for half a century. This year he stayed home… [He] was intrigued by Trump, but decided eventually that “all he does is insult everybody … women, black people, white people, rich, poor. He’s an idiot.” He considered Clinton, but was concerned by the scandal over her handling of classified material on a private email server as secretary of state. “I hated both of them, so I just said, ‘the hell with it,’” McAndrew said. His wife, also a life- long Democrat, went to the polls without him—and voted Republican. “First time ever,” he said.

The title of the article? “How Hillary Clinton’s white voters melted away.” Notice how this man specifically identified disparagement of black people and women as a reason to not vote for Trump. His response to this situation was not perfect, but there is reason for hope. To denounce these people and shout “bigot!” is counterproductive.

The third group voted for Trump because of adjunctive racism. The difference between this and a priori racism is that this racism emanates from something identifiable. It’s basically superstition, an incorrect explanation for something which is real. “Mexicans took my job.” “Blacks come into my town and deal drugs.” You know the drill.

They lashed out in anger because they perceived themselves as victims (and they may have a point about that) but blamed the wrong victimizers. This can be dealt with in basically the same way. If we point to the real facts and make credible promises to ameliorate the social ills, the racism will be abandoned as it will no longer seem attractive.

Deprive racism of an argument and it won’t give even false explanations for anything. We need well-founded, unhostile counter-arguments that focus on the factual inaccuracy of the logical linkage and which leave the valence of the racial disparagement for later.

I use the term “adjunctive racism” not “adjunctive bigotry” because 99% of this is wrapped up in nativism. However to the extent that it applies to other categories of bias then mutatis mutandis the same solution may also apply.

(But obviously, some of Trump’s supporters are dangerous. Violence has entered into our public discourse in a way that is quite scary. Emotions have exploded out of control. So be smart about who you talk to and how.)

Donald Trump wins II

In the thirty years since the fall of Communism, we have lived in an intellectual famine. Basically, the left and right stopped developing, frozen like insects in amber. Our politics became consumed with Manichean zero-sum fables.

‘There is no Alternative,’ Margret Thatcher said, “T.I.N.A.” We came to agree with her. The right-wing historian Francis Fukuyama termed it “The End of History.”

Have you noticed how even a supposedly socialist candidate did not call for the abolition of property of markets and of normal buying and selling? That’s not socialism. It’s not even fabianism.

But the politics of fear which defined that era did not go away, rather than fear the Reds, we came to fear each other. This fear sank in and stained our minds.

I have a troubled and uneasy relationship with the American left which to me seems to have lost its teeth and mind and to have settled for a sort of economic-neoliberalism with fuzzy-edges and a penumbra of weak, arrogant thinking. Liberalism is like a cheap suit, it fits me—but poorly. It always sucks being more catholic than the pope.

The Internet and the modern media landscape have made it so easy, so natural to find only those who we agree with and to see only the information which confirms our biases.

The Left is very good at diagnosing this problem in others (Fox ‘news’, Brietbart) but cannot diagnose it in itself.

In 1972, Paulene Kael delivered a speech to the Modern Language Association in which she famously said “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” Far too many of us live in Kael’s “rather special world.”

This is a part of what went wrong.

This election reveals that the Left has utterly failed to convince people of certain things that we thought were at least the grudging consensus.

Presented with the “establishment-Left” candidate nonpariel, 58+ million people rejected capitalism-lite and more than 90 million thought the whole matter so insipid that they did not bother to vote at all (or they cast pointless ballots for 3rd party candidates.)

Yes, your math is correct: only about 25% of people voted for the man who will become President of 100% of Americans.

“There is no Alternative!” we said. Many agreed and decided to make no choice. But some said “Aha!, You are wrong! The Alternative is Trump!” And we could not answer them because they were technically right.

It seems history did not end, though we may wish it had.

Donald Trump wins I

Donald Rumsfeld (a broken clock is right twice a day, hear this out) famously spoke of the “Known Unknown,” the gap in knowledge which we are aware of and of the particular danger of the “Unknown Unknown,” that which we do not begin to realize that we do not know.

Slovenian postmodernist semi-philosopher (a broken clock is right twice a day, hear this out) Slajov Zizek spoke of the “Unknown Known”, being that which we know but but do not acknowledge knowing. The obscene, dark, Lynchian side of daily life. The hidden practices which are always on the periphery.

The news has been greeted with much popping of monocles and clutching of pearls. I have read many insincere choir-preaching, huffy Gawkery rants. I have read many sincere and humble professions of total shock.

I have heard and read so much that begins “I can’t believe…” But is that really so? Or is it, rather, that we knew but did not know we knew? “I COULD not believe…” or “I DID not believe…” One word, so much difference.

Might it not be the case that we knew far more than we knew?

Hillary Clinton and guns

Someone recently said that they are considering voting for Donald Trump because they fear that Hillary Clinton will take away their guns*.

I respectfully disagree, here is why that is wrong.

To begin with. I am fine with personal gun ownership. I know that this is liberal heresy but I never claimed to be large-L Liberal. Beside, let us look, clear-eyed, at the candidates; if we accept the common definition that conservatives wish to retain the way things are now, or return to earlier ways and liberals wish to try new ways in no meaningful sense is Trump conservative or Clinton liberal. Trump is a radically disrupting, innovative, even deviant force. Clinton is the ultimate status-quo candidate. “Liberalism” and “conservativism” are now dead.

Hillary Clinton will not take guns away because that is legally impossible.

Not even the most contorted reading can get around the fact that the constitution flatly prohibits a total ban on private gun ownership. Aside from the obvious 2nd amendment dimension, in practice a gun ban would involve the 5th amendment (illegal taking) the 14th amendment (ditto) and, vitiated though it is, the 10th amendment (limits on Federal power vs. State power.)

Hillary Clinton will not take guns away because that is politically impossible.

Forty-three percent of Americans own at least one gun according to a Gallup poll. The same poll showed 72% oppose a handgun ban. 56% said an increase in concealed-carry would make the country safer. 58% had a favorable opinion of the NRA. Remember: those people vote.

However, polls (and not just this one) do show considerable support for expanding background checks. That, however, does not constitute taking guns away.

Even barring the overwhelming legal obstacles, gun confiscation is politically suicidal. In addition: while predicting the future in normal years is a guessing-game and in this political year doubly so, I do not think that the GOP will lose the house. Their majority will surely be diluted but they will not likely lose the house because they have the largest majority in modern history.

Probably, Democrats have a chance of retaking the Senate. (Just as districting (the ‘Electoral College’) currently works FOR Democrats in the presidential election, districting currently works AGAINST them in the House. Democrats are largely and heavily concentrated in blue-leaning urban districts. Many of those districts are leaning so-far to the blue side that they’ve fallen and can’t get up. That means remarkable levels of ‘wasted’ votes. Moreover, the GOP controlled the last gerrymandering–excuse me, ‘re-districting’, and naturally distorted the system heavily to their favor**. Therefore: even though in 2014, Democrats won 47% of the vote, excluding minor parties, they won a mere 43% of seats.)

A significant additional reason why the Dems did so poorly in 2014 was that their core voter didn’t turn up. Now, in an election year, with a fabulously unpopular if not downright toxic candidate at the head of the ticket…. don’t hold your breath, especially if it looks like (and it does) that Trump is hurtling toward inevitable defeat.

So, in order to seriously dent gun rights. Clinton would have to win legislation that cannot pass, that would see root-and-branch resistance among a large percentage of the electorate and that would be shot down by the Supreme court. It is more politically probable that the Eritrea will apply to become the 51st state than that significant gun policy changes will occur.

There are three “live-rails” of American politics: Medicare, Social Security and Gun Rights. Even politicians of singular conviction and moral strength cannot touch these.

Speaking of that…. Hillary Clinton is singularly vacuous and lacking in principals, thus it is foolish to imagine that she will actually blow a huge amount of her already meager political capital on something that cannot occur.

Clinton has flippity-flopped on so many issues that it buggers belief. No politician is more nakedly blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. Only the presence of you-know-who prevents me from describing her as the “dada-candidate.”

Trump is the Dada candidate. It’s silly to assume that a candidate who has no rational or coherent policy agenda, may be insane and does not even bother to try to hide his constant policy gyrations would actually support any thing whatsoever. He is a splintered reed. That goes for gun rights as for anything. At this point, if Donald Trump said he was for three square meals a day I would disbelieve him.

*This was before Trump hinted that his followers should assassinate Clinton. However, in political writing you can pick no more than two of currency, sophistication and style.

** In fairness, oh yes Democrats 100% do that too. They just weren’t in a position to do so at the time.

Trump is a natural product of frustration with the two-party system

So as everyone in power and wealth and media (or some combination thereof) seems to agree that the prominence of Donald Trump is a sign of severe political turpitude the question naturally arises: “What will we masters of the universe do to prevent this from happening again?”

My guess is nothing but then again I’m a cynical gadfly.

One one level, Trump’s rise so-far has been fueled by specific mechanisms in the primary system which reward outlandishness and punish innovative thinking to say nothing of sobriety and discretion.

One example is the prevalence of closed primaries. Because I, for example, am not a registered Republican and I live in New York which has closed primaries, I cannot vote against Trump in the primary. That means that sane voices who happen to have registered no party (like me) or even, let’s face it Democrats cannot act as a lid on kookiness. [Technically, this problem also applies to Democrats, however in practice, it expresses less frequently in that party.]

Even below that we must acknowledge that gerrymandering, the first-past-the-post election system, the Electoral College and even the election of senators instead of their appointment have deeply entrenched the two-party system and moreover have enabled addle-pated, stale thinking and have encouraged non-representative representation.

The perception that politicians are bought-and-sold through campaign finance is damaging. Though I think the left over-rates the importance of Citizens United as a cause, it is certainly a symptom. This frustration with ‘the system’ is real and valid and it is something that Trump is tapping into.

I still believe that the much loathed ‘party establishment’ will pull out all the stops to sink Trump if he looks likely to actually take the nomination but I could be wrong on this.

Trump wagging the dog

In many ways, Donald Trump reminds me of an age-old practice for raising property taxes in jurisdictions where a referendum is required to do this.

Suppose that you want to raise taxes by 5% but know that your electorate will never approve it. First propose something truly outrageous, like a hike of 15%. After the furor dies down—preferably with a staged ‘defeat’ at the ballot box—propose your 5% rise.

The electorate will be fooled into comparing the 5% rise to the 15% rise, instead of the present taxation rate. It will seem palatable. Even the anti-tax diehards, the ones who picked and yelled and threatened to secede or move to Canada will be taken in. “See! We got them to back down!” They’ll gloat. “We won!”

Tail wagging the dog, no offense to dogs.

When Trump implodes

Most conservative and all liberal commentators have for an age now been saying things like “After Trump’s support dissipates” and “When Trump’s candidacy implodes” and so on and so forth.

Well, the debate is over and this moment of which you speak, it has not occurred. Sure: tomorrow the distinguished commentators will all write the usual pieces only the party faithful care about in their respective publications that only the party faithful read saying that “the debate just drives home the fact that Donald Trump has no substance.”

Then why did the entire debate revolve around the candidates attacking him? The entire debate was completely superficial. It doesn’t matter. We are talking about one political party that has lost its f—king mind one political party that’s half-way to omnishambles and an electorate that NO good options.

To be clear: I am not saying Trump’s candidacy will continue its preeminence. Maybe one of the other candidates will pull his head out of his ass and get somewhere but the idea that it’s guaranteed to flop is clearly wrong.