Tuesday, November 29, 2016
The past presidential campaign (2016) was noteworthy because of its political extremism. Donald Trump was a candidate like no other – an outsized, high-rolling celebrity who lived in glitz and glamour; who was as at home with lawsuits and intimidation as he was with starlets and beauty queens; who built a real estate empire of hotels and resorts which were monuments to wealth and excess; and who reveled in the use of power and its perks. Power was indeed an aphrodisiac, and Trump’s women were all blonde, svelte, sexy, and gorgeous.
He spoke his mind on the campaign trail, energized his faithful with incendiary rhetoric and bombast. He was free and easy with the truth, understood that braggadocio was no drawback; that machismo was as alive and well as ever; that Americans were fed up with social responsibility, caring, and empathy and wanted celebrity, aggressive ambition, yachts, private planes, and penthouses.
Both the traditional Left and Right were aghast. How could this buffoon, this clown, this arriviste think he had any right to Washington? Not only was he a populist radical whose ideas threatened the very foundations of both conservatism and American liberalism, but his lifestyle – so outrageously bourgeois and middle-brow, and so disgracefully disrespectful of tradition, foundational politics, and political righteousness – was abhorrent. Not only did Donald Trump represent an outrageous assault on the political status quo, he was an insult to Eastern propriety, education, and class.
Never before was America so ripe for a Trump-style populist revolution. After decades of liberal sanctimony and righteous hectoring, Americans had had enough. Not only did the progressive Left keep banging on about race, gender, and ethnicity annoy; but its insolence and arrogant dismissal of faith, patriotism, and family angered.
Before Trump these voters could only let off steam privately. Yet they watched police be disrespected while the media championed the formless, aimless, and destructive violence of street protests. Court decisions never seemed to go their way, and they had to accept, tolerate, and embrace legally mandated abortion, gay marriage, and the entitlement of the undeserving. Colleges were a patchwork of safe spaces. Free speech was muzzled and intellectual debate clotured before it began.
Washington elites formed one big cabal, a collusion of Wall Street investors, revolving door lobbyists, venal, self-serving politicians, and media lackeys. Neither Congress, nor the White House, nor the Fourth Estate looked after their interests.
Barry Goldwater was the first stone-thrower of the conservative era. An unabashed military hawk and social individualist, he challenged liberal America like no other politician ever had. “ I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
Yet Goldwater was a gentleman, a respectful, career politician and five-term Senator who understood the machinery of government and worked within political coalitions both in and outside of Congress to promote his conservative reforms. He was far ahead of his time and was crushed in a landslide defeat by LPJ in 1964. Only fifteen years later did conservatism finally have its day with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Goldwater, for all his reform-mindedness and political insights was no revolutionary. His ideas, although radical, still fell well within the ambit of traditional Washington. Smaller government, more private enterprise, less social entitlements, lower taxes, and a more muscular military were acceptable premises if not universally so. Reagan himself was also a decent, respectful, generous, and principled man; a two-term governor, and one of the most popular Presidents in American history. Yet he was also no revolutionary, falling well within the social, economic, and political circle of power.
Donald Trump on the other hand is a true revolutionary. He has dismissed the traditional workings of Washington, scorned the liberal elites of the East Coast establishment, laughed at the inbred sociality of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Georgetown. He had no respect for the lions of journalism – the New York Times and Washington Post – and found them incestuous shills of Washington power-brokers. He threw the Republican canon out the window, and turned instead to mercantilism, anti-business immigration policies, and an absolute intolerance for insider collusion and political
Trump is indeed outrageous. Not only does he not come from political roots, he has no patience whatsoever for governance or government. He has amassed his billions by wriggling around federal regulations, avoiding taxation, skirting SEC rules, and dismissing politicians as venal do-nothings. He knew that because of his wealth, his worldwide investments, and his economic influence he was far more powerful than any Senator or Congressman.
Perhaps most importantly he is not so much a man of the people, but the man the people would like to be. His image is what sells, and we love Hollywood, Las Vegas glitz, big cars, island homes, and private jets. We are a country of fantasy, image, and allure. We resent insiders, backroom tricksters, and two-faced liars. and Donald Trump, the quintessential American, is as attractive, self-confident, independent, and absolute as we could ever hope to be.
Trump people don’t imagine a Renaissance Weekend with Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett, and intellectuals from American and Europe. They wouldn’t know what to do at Aspen, Gstaad, or on Park Avenue even if they had the money. The idea of Camelot, Pablo Casals, Robert Frost, and Martha Graham mean nothing; but Melania Trump, gorgeous Ivanka, Trump Tower, and Florida mansion resorts do.
Liberals are watching with dismay as Trump appoints his Cabinet – all tried-and-true, proven loyalists and ideologically pure; men and women as committed to radical populism as he and as dismissive of ‘the way things are done around here’ as the man himself. Of course there will be compromise. There is enough dissent in the Republican House and Senate for any Trump initiative to have rough sledding; but his appointments send a clear and unmistakable message to the powers that be – “Be prepared for a fight”. Not just a tussle, but a down-and-out, bare-knuckled brawl.
Every corner of official Washington is befuddled as Trump breaks, changes, and ignores the rules. He shoots his mouth off on Twitter; his children are his advisors; he refuses to give up his vast holdings; he could care less about living in the White House with old furniture, paintings of John Adams, and Jackson’s silver. He will do bloody well what he pleases.
Let’s face it. The middle ground is soft, squishy, and messy. Who would ever track there unless it was absolutely, entirely necessary. We, the common people, are forced into sobriety, reasonableness, congeniality, and compromise because we have to. We are too low on the totem pole to anything but. Ours is a slow, difficult, and long path to reasonable rewards. For the time being we – unlike Donald Trump – must keep our own counsel, watch our backs, and do the right thing
Without these constraints, we would be like The Donald, squiring the world’s most beautiful women, staying only in the best and most luxurious hotels and resorts, eating wherever and whenever, saying whatever we please, spending as if there were no tomorrow, reveling in wealth, glamour, sparkle, and fame.
The Left is in denial, not so much because they lost the election but because of the ascendency of someone who so completely and absolutely rejects their policies, programs, opinions, and style of life. They have come to believe their own campaign invective. If Donald Trump is not a racist, misogynist, and homophobic xenophobe, then they have to believe he is to justify their humiliating defeat and rejection of their social, personal, intellectual, and political values.
The rest of us are quite happy that although we can never be Donald Trump at least he can be our surrogate. We will not be able to get enough of him, gorgeous Ivanka, Melania, Trump Tower, Mar-el-Lago, and the People celebrities who will be his guests.
Yes, we hope that he doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger or do something stupid, but those who voted for him knew that it was a risk. Yet, ask any of them and they will tell you. It is worth it and then some.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is tale of a journey up the Congo River to an isolated European outpost, one of many ivory depots in the West African jungle. Marlowe, the narrator and captain of a cargo steamer bound for the ‘Inner Station’ has been fascinated by the apocryphal stories of Kurtz, the manager of the station. Kurtz had been described as a genius, a madman, a god, a tyrant and the most prolific purveyor of ivory in all of West Africa. Why had he, without any particular education or profession, come to this remote, primitive and savage place? What was he really like?
Marlowe begins to find out after he meets the white manager who works Kurtz’s estate.
I returned deliberately to the first [heads] I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber…
I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.
Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.... I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.‘The wilderness had found him out early’, said Marlowe, reflecting on the impenetrable jungle closing in the river for miles.
The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.
All this was great, expectant, mute… I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at [me] were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there.“The horror, the horror’, whispered by Kurtz just before his death, was his final acceptance of his untamed, primitive soul and the inescapable barbarity of it. The wilderness was not just an environment, but something alive, a complete, integral organism both prehistoric and terrifying in which men who, equally primeval and uncivilized, were reminders of humanity’s savage beginnings.
Kurtz never tamed the men or the jungle but ruled over both through fear, intimidation, and an expression of absolute and indomitable will. As death approached he understood that he had neither civilized, nor exploited, nor governed; but by means of the same primitive savagery, he expressed the same amorality of a universally violent, aggressive, and insatiable human nature as he found in the natives.
The discovery was not one of moral redemption but tragedy. Not only had his life of brutal rule, greed, and arrogation of supreme and divine authority meant nothing in face of its similarity to so many others; but although he had “come out with moral ideas of some sort”, at his end he could only conclude that a life of such universal barbaric similarity had to be both horrific and meaningless.
The manager of Kurtz’s Inner Station is completely enthralled by Kurtz. “You don’t talk to the man”, he says. “You listen.”
Kurtz was eloquent, brilliant, and convincing; and while Marlowe never learned what exactly Kurtz talked about, he became more intrigued. The man was not only a demi-god, an amoral warrior, and an uncompromising tyrant; but a philosopher, painter, poet, and orator.
Marlowe could not reconcile such civilized sophistication with such human indifference. Yet he admired Kurtz for having met the equally amoral, indifferent, and implacable jungle on its own terms.
For Marlowe the struggle was nothing less than one between a Nietzschean Superman and the innately and supremely powerful forces of Nature embodied by the jungle. Kurtz only at the end of his life realizef that there was no winning or losing, no dominance or submission, no civilization or savagery; only one universal, inescapable world of darkness.
“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.
They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.
And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.
Yet to others Kurtz was not the man he himself knew. If he was a pagan, tribal, primitive god to the natives of the forest, he was very Christian to the Europeans around him. Not only had he come with a mission of civilization and morality, but spoke divinely – his was the Word, and by speaking it, he spoke higher wisdom and value into being:
The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.In the end Marlowe, even for the briefest moment, understands all. He understands Kurtz and the indomitable and essential primitiveness of the jungle, the struggle between the two; and perhaps most importantly the common unpleasantly violent and primitive nature of all men.
“I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I didn’t believe them at first—the thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was—how shall I define it?—the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly.
This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm.One hopes for a final epiphany or revelation about meaning and purpose before one dies; but most are disappointed and at best realizing the futility of the search. Some like Ivan Ilyich, the main character in the Tolstoy short story of that name, are indifferent to the question itself; but get a rude awakening as death approaches. Ivan has ordered his life such that there would be no uncomfortable angles, unexplained absences, or querulous moments. He would have to think of nothing more serious than his comfort, the admiration of his colleagues, and the patient attendance of his wife and children. As he lies dying, realizing the futility of his emotional borders, he becomes afraid of death; but in his final moments realizing there is nothing to fear.
In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Few of us have Kurtz’s courage – the resolve to look beyond personal accouterments and accidents of place and birth to the frighteningly incomprehensible but knowable. Kurtz never understood the wilderness or the men who lived within it; nor did he fully understand how he expressed his own primitive nature; but at least he saw, recognized, and accepted it. Conrad never explains exactly why Kurtz’s final vision is so horrific; but his metaphors are clear. Despite civilizing attempts to ‘restrain’ human primal, evil natures, we cannot. Few of us are like Nietzsche’s Supermen who revel in them; and although Kurtz was a Superman for most of his life, he cannot keep the jungle and the heart of darkness away.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Much has been made recently of identity politics – the movement to classify individuals by race, gender, and ethnicity in order to more precisely mobilize them to political action. One voice counts for little, but a chorus is resounding. If this enforced categorization ignores traditional valuation of worth – beauty, intelligence, insight, creativity, intellect, or athletic ability – so be it. The suppression of individuality is a necessary and only temporary price to be paid for the confluence of a social minority into the mainstream.
Many gays, women, and Hispanics have refused to be so categorized. Race, gender, and ethnicity are only currently popular, highly political, degrading, and very temporal classifications of human nature. They point to the vision of Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton who, while promoting the very secular nature of the new Republic, understood that the integrity of the individual was paramount. Individuals, guided by God and pursuing a spiritual salvation, would tend to be moral and ethical citizens. A respect for the Judeo-Christian principles which govern both personal behavior and collective community action should always precede any more superficial and passing self-image.
Jefferson when penning ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ was not writing about selfish acquisition and satisfaction, but the expression of individual enterprise within the bounds of community. No individual action, he believed, should be undertaken without regard for those who will be affected by it.
Such a moral culture of mutual respect should be the foundation of even complex societies where competing interests are common. Government and the marketplace would mediate disputes and promote equality when necessary, but without an absolute belief in righteousness and moral behavior, the new Republic would fall into disarray.
Jefferson would be surprised at how far 21st century America has fallen from those ideals. He would be delighted to see a nation of enterprise, energy, and optimism; but would be dismayed at its factionalism and separatism. His notion of individuality – enterprise within a mutually respectful community – has been distorted beyond recognition. The country if mapped according to new post-modern socio-economic groupings would look very different than he intended, displaying swaths of women, blacks, gays, Hispanics, rural whites, and coastal elites. The One Percent and the Ninety-Nine Percent; the fundamentalist and the humanist; the progressive and the conservative.
In Jefferson’s vision, the country would always be divided, but complementarily. Cities could not do without rural agriculture; industry could not thrive without labor. The country would be fluid, accessible, and always dynamically changing. His geo-political map would focus more on flows of labor and capital, dynamic interrelationships, and the ebb and flow of productivity based on competing but necessarily cooperative interests.
Of course this was an ideal vision; and Jefferson and his colleagues had no idea how rapidly the country would grow and how such rapid increases in population would eventually disrupt the supposedly harmonious workings of representative government and the free market. From our perspective, Jefferson should have known that human nature is not essentially cooperative but competitive; and that demands for resources, power, wealth, and influence would become more and more insistent the larger and more complex the country became.
As such demands grow, the tendency to form interest groups is logical and predictable. Farmers have always joined cooperatives. Factory workers have joined unions. Individual voices in a highly competitive society need augmentation.
Yet why is it that individual valuation has become so subsumed within issue valuation? Why is it that we first think of ourselves as black, women, or gay?
Regardless of the apparent validity of the cause – greater integration of minorities into the economic and social mainstream; removal of the glass ceiling; increased tolerance for alternate sexuality – the wholesale transformation of the country into battling factions seems destructive to both individual integrity and to social harmony.
Traditional Hinduism provides a model for social harmony and spiritual growth. The only goal in life is spiritual evolution; and while it may take many lifetimes and reincarnations before it is realized, it should never be ignored. Hindu society from its beginning was organized according to the philosophical principles and social norms of the Upanishads and the Vedas. The caste system was not a punitive organization designed by the ruling classes to keep the lower orders in line, but a sophisticated vernacular expression of Hinduism.
If the only goal of life is spiritual evolution, and if the world is only maya or illusion, then conflict, strife, and competition would be counter-productive if not meaningless. Better to live on the lowest rung of the social order and have the same opportunities for spiritual enlightenment as those on the top than to disregard spiritual becoming altogether.
Of course just like Jefferson’s idealistic Enlightenment model, traditional Hindu visionary principles would always be ignored or corrupted. Competition in India has been as aggressive and brutal as any. Yet in both America and India, the tragedy is that the underlying, universally valid and valuable principles, have been set aside. Indians and Americans have both given in to high-stakes social, economic, and political competition with nary a thought to the purpose of life or its nature.
The social map of India would be no different from that of America. Swaths of Hindu and Muslim psycho-social territories, populations of castes, megacity urbanites and rural traditionalists. A country of over one billion people cannot be expected to let God guide and the spirit rule.
The need to belong is a logical outcome of our aggressive, demanding, and territorial human nature. As soon as children become aware of others, they are in competition with them. Adolescence is a jungle of social competition – as nasty, bitter, hurtful, and brutal than any. The lessons learned from childhood and the teenage years carry on to adulthood. Joining the right groups to validate individual identity, for protection against social invaders, and for the rewards of common thought is the result.
Yet the uber-identity of today takes both human nature and demographically-influenced competition to the extreme. Who are you? means to what groups do you belong? what causes do you support? what is your political, religious, or social persuasion? what color are you? do you like girls or boys?
Not too long ago a kindergarten teacher asked her class to describe themselves in three ways. One boy said, “I’m tall. I’m smart; and I’m fast”. He was indeed all three, was a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, was considered for the American Olympic team, and grew to well over six feet.
Would that such honest, accurate, and perfectly individual assessments were common as adults. If there is any final accounting, it will be made on the basis of one’s meanness, generosity, good faith, curiosity, and spiritual eagerness. Not on belonging.
Not only does group-belonging and group identity inhibit the best of human character and soul, but it inevitably results in anger, hostility, resentment, and conflict. Belonging to groups tends to harden opinion, distrust and/or deny the convictions of others, and promote intolerance and hatred.
From a final accounting perspective, none of this should matter. Regardless of what looms next, one thing is for sure. The aggressive, self-serving, and punishingly competitive world is over.
Nietzsche said that the only validation of humanity is the expression of individual will – a very different take on the same philosophy that inspires Hinduism. Life, death, and personal resurrection, Hindus say, are matters between an individual and God. Destiny is in the hands of the individual and never to be trusted to outsiders. A Superman can at least say that he has lived.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
There have been a number of Facebook posts ‘quoting’ Pope Francis. He has said that it is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person; that one should not take Hell literally; that the Biblical account of Adam and Eve is a fable, and that we need more saints who drink Coca-Cola. He has endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. All of these quotes are fake but they have gone viral. How could such obviously untrue statements been so quickly and easily believed?
Even lapsed Catholics know the Church well enough to know that the Pope could never have so summarily dismissed doctrinal issues that have been the bedrock of Catholicism for centuries; nor, despite his expressed sentiments about the poor, the sanctity of all life, and the nature of the individual soul, could he ever have endorsed a political candidate because of their stances on abortion, the environment, or individual liberties.
There are posts about unholy and impossible political alliances, ‘new’ data linking disease to unthinkable causes; improbable cures for intractable disease; and the wildest, most implausible statements by world leaders; doomsday scenarios about rogue asteroids headed for Earth and viruses worse than Ebola mutating in Africa.
There are posts which, despite decades of scientific evidence continue to link autism with vaccines, the debilitating cause of fluoridation on brain function, and the addling effect of small motors (hair dryers, electric toothbrushes) on cognition.
Conspiracy theorists have added additional layers to these theories. According to one, the effects of fluoridation on brain function were discovered by the Nazis who where thwarted in their attempts to sabotage Allied reservoirs; but whose findings were used successfully by the Soviets to lessen Americans’ resolve.
Other popular conspiracy theories have proposed that the United States moon landings were all staged in Hollywood; that both 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were engineered by Bush and Roosevelt for political reasons; that AIDS is a man-made disease; that a UFO landed in Roswell, NM; and that humanoid reptilians are taking control of the world.
There has been considerable research done on conspiracy theories, and the findings, although focused on major hoaxes, suggest the psycho-social and cultural reasons why untruths are so common and favored on social media.
In an article on the origin of conspiracy theories in The Psychologist (July 2010) Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles have detailed the sociological and psychological determinants of conspiracy theories. Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors. How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.However, simply being powerless – most people are unable to influence events or decisions on anything but an individual or family basis – is not enough:
To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory helps explain those ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty. Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.The authors add one more important element – that people react on the basis of ‘dispositional’ factors – i.e. internal factors that have nothing to do with objective reality:
Conspiracy theorists are more likely to blame Hofstadter’s ‘preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network’ even when adequate situational explanations are available. This may be especially true when people are outraged or distressed and seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence.In very simple terms, many people are already disposed, for various reasons, to mistrust ‘the facts’ and have already internalized a belief that something is or is not true. Those people who believe that 9/11 was an insidious plot by Bush, the CIA, or the Israelis are unlikely to change their belief on the basis of ‘situational factors’ – historical antecedents and the forensic evidence.
The authors suggest that one conspiracy often feeds others:
A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories.
This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others.For those Facebook users who simply temporarily suspend logic and rationality – i.e., reasonable people most of the time and choose to believe impossibly fictitious stories only on occasion – the reasons are far simpler. Information which confirms, consolidates, or reaffirms political or social notions – regardless of the obvious outlandishness of its claims – is believed without question and incorporated into a pre-established point of view.
Lapsed Catholics who have always harbored guilt for having left the Church, are encouraged by Pope Francis’ statements on inclusivity and the value of all religions. Progressives who believe that the nation’s ills are caused by the depredations of Wall Street and the One Percent are likely to quickly accept allegations of misdoing by corporate executives because of their a priori conclusion that capitalism is corrupt. Environmentalists are likely to take with little or no skepticism intimations of climate change Armageddon – the sudden disappearance of bees, the disrupted patterns of sea otters and the Namibian desert spider. Believers in alternative medicine will be quick to accept stories which suggest that disease is not only not cured by modern medicine but exacerbated or even caused by it.
Even the most rational and naturally skeptical readers tend to use information to strengthen or reinforce existing conclusions. Some study data on the socio-economic and racial distribution of crime; but do so selectively. There is an obvious causal relationship between the dysfunctionality of inner cities and murder rates, so it is necessary only to confirm the extent of it – not to examine or even look for the intervening variables in the equation.
Climate change skeptics who consider themselves rational and scientifically-inclined, tend to base their research on a philosophical rejection of ‘settled science’. They might be persuaded that global warming is indeed happening, but not with such absolute certainty as that expressed by environmental advocates. They tend, therefore, to read more articles by climate change deniers than those who preach orthodoxy. Their intent – logical, dispassionate analysis – may be laudable, but their true disbelief is transparent.
In other words, we all fall for some kind of ‘untruth’. None of us are purely logical, rational beings and cannot escape the insistent bias of personal vindication. Eye-witness accounts are now being discounted because of recent studies which have shown that they are unreliable. We see what we want to see.
Self-image is an important factor in believing untruths. Once we have subscribed to a cause – environmentalism, anti-capitalism, alternative medicine, nationalism, or race-gender-ethnicity equality – we tend to use any and all information to support it. In other words, the ends justify the means.
Religious fundamentalism is another reason why the firewall between truth and fiction has become so diaphanous. For those who take the Bible as the absolute, unedited Word of God with no allegory, no metaphor, nor allusion, the abandonment of reason in non-religious spheres becomes easy.
Finally everything in American culture has been tending towards this disassembly of reason and rationality for decades. Pundits, experts, critics, and professional observers are supernumerary in an age of big data. There is no longer any received wisdom but collective wisdom. The judgment of tens of millions of ‘bettors’ always produces more relevant conclusions than any one or group of intellectuals. Both considered and frivolous bets are all placed in the pot, mixed and turned, sorted and analyzed. Hearts and minds are mixed, and such uncategorized results always trump expert opinion.
Virtual reality and the coming interface between mind/brain and computer will moot any discussions of the ‘real’, the ‘actual’, and the ‘proven’. A world controlled by individual thought, feeling, emotion, and perception; one mediated electronically and in which all mind/brains can be linked to all available current and historical information, will be a revolutionary world.
America will be at the vanguard of this cybernetic revolution because we are fundamentally disposed to image, unreality, and fantasy. We have no European historical or cultural baggage to weigh us down. Our culture is one of procedure and process (democracy and liberal economics) rather than the more substantive heritage of literary, intellectual, and artistic traditions. We have no medieval cathedrals, and even if we did, they would be transferable. In a country of individual enterprise, expansionism, and boundless optimism, there is nothing to hold us back in our pursuit of the untethered.
The recent statements by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook expressing his concern over fake sites and posts on his product while well-meaning are hopeless at best and dangerous at worst. Not only will they not curb Americans’ appetites for fiction, made-up news. and tall tales; they will be one more step towards invasive actions to curb free speech.
The best approach is to accept our ready dismissal of fact when it serves the purpose. We are congenital suspenders of disbelief. We all believe some kind of fabrication or at the very least concoct our own version of the truth based on selective choice and memory. And fabrication is infectious. Once we go down the road of “I read it somewhere”, there is no stopping us.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
There have been rumors that Donald Trump will not move into the White House but will do business from his penthouse in Trump Tower in New York City.
When pundits wrote of political revolution – the rise of populism, the dismantling of the Eastern Establishment, and the radical reordering of Washington power – they overlooked, as they did throughout the campaign, image, meme, and signifiers. They missed the popular appeal of a man who embodies Hollywood glitz, Las Vegas high-rolling, and the brawling, bare-knuckle street-fighting of New York. Coddled for decades in old-style privilege – Georgetown homes, summers on Nantucket or the Vineyard, and winters in Aspen or Gstaad – these journalists, editors, and publishers turned up their noses at real nouveau riche tinsel and excess and banished the thought that a family like the Trumps could possibly move in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As much as they harped on Trump’s racism, sexism, and homophobia, they really were criticizing the rednecks, crackers, and trailer trash that were his constituents. Not only were these lower middle class, white families ignoramuses and retrograde racists, but they actually admired Trump for his grandiose towers, outsized television personality, arm candy women, private jets, and third and fourth homes. More than that, they wanted to be Donald Trump; and would have been uncomfortable around Chippendale, Wyeth, bone china, Montesquieu, touch football, sailing, and Yale. The homes of the Bushes, the Kennedys, and the Roosevelts - Kennebunkport, Hyannisport, and Hyde Park – have always been off the cultural map of America’s middle, but never farther than now.
Journalists of a certain age, now editors of mainstream news media, have never gotten over Camelot and the days of Pablo Casals, Robert Frost, and the grace , sophistication, and refinement of the Kennedy White House. They tolerated country-bumpkin LBJ because of his commitment to civil rights, but turned on the President, ridiculed his Texas cowpoke roots and syrupy accent once he refused to get out of Vietnam.
The same was true of Bill Clinton whom Washington journalists knew was trailer trash at heart, an Arkansas hillbilly who couldn’t keep his hands off backwoods tarts; but kept a respectful distance because his own social commitment. They were not surprised when Gennifer Flowers surfaced and rumors of many other smarmy liaisons followed. They were certainly not surprised when it came out that the President was having his way with Monica Lewinsky.
It was all so déclassé – half-sex in the oval office with an intern – and far from the heroic exploits of JFK who had bedded Marilyn Monroe and a hundred other starlets and European beauties before his tragic and untimely death. The press corps, for all their snootiness about LBJ and his cattle-country beginnings, admired the sexual appetites of this Western Lothario. The Secret Service, who were complicit in the President’s tomcatting, rarely held their tongues; and few in Washington were out of the loop on his escapades. They had a begrudging admiration for the machismo of the man and wished that they too could escape from their wives, climb down the fire escape and up an open window to bed a passionate lover.
Richard Nixon was neither here nor there – an asexual, rigid and pissy man with no pedigree, no animal instincts, and no charm or personality whatsoever. He was admired for his overtures to China and Russia, but then all admiration stopped with his continued bombing of North Vietnam and Watergate.
The point is that there has been no First Family like the Trumps. Ronald Reagan might have been a man of Hollywood, but he had also been President of the Screen Actors Guild and a two-term governor of California. He was a decent, modest, and respectful man of principle who may have trusted his advisors far too much, but could never be accused of chicanery or moral failing. He was an attractive man, and although he came from the Coast and from a milieu far removed from that of the Old World Northeast, he was acceptable.
Donald Trump was also a man of Hollywood but cut from a different cloth. While Reagan took acting seriously and as a profession even though he never made it above B-movie status; and represented actors for years as the head of their union, Trump acquired only the trappings. He was not an actor but a star; he had never played a part on the set, but played the role of celebrity perfectly. He was as much a part of the People and E! magazines stock-in-trade as Beyoncé and the Kardashians.
He had all the trappings of Hollywood celebrity – lavish homes, big cars, gorgeous women, controversy, and unmistakable allure – and reveled in it. His professional society – the producers of reality television and real estate moguls – were just like him. Perhaps they lacked the star power or visibility, but their society and culture was just as middlebrow, showy, and macho as his.
So Donald Trump comes to a staid, frumpy, hidebound, traditional Washington unapologetically uninterested in it. For a high-flyer like Trump, why should the bureaucratic, partisan, gridlocked capital have any allure whatsoever?
No doubt the Oval Office itself has appeal. Trump has certainly already imagined himself in endless celebrity photographs taken with world leaders who come to pay their respects, dancing with Melania and the gorgeous wives of Presidents and Kings, and presiding over sumptuous state banquets.
But being in Washington full time? Where does the Constitution say that The Leader of the Free World has to stay cooped up in a house that is the very image of Old World, WASP, Eastern Establishment?
Yes, there is a five-star chef in the kitchen, but what fun is it to eat foie gras with truffle oil and raspberry reduction having to look at paintings of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton? And even if President Trump were to want to go on some outside excursions, where would the excitement be a some overstuffed, overpriced, restaurant that passes Secret Service muster?
Given his recent cabinet appointments (11.20.16), it is clear that he will not stray far from his campaign promises; and he is as good as his word when it comes to laying down hardline, radical rules of policy and governance.
While this is appealing to his supporters, it is not what they really want. The last thing in the world they want to see is Donald Trump tied, tethered, harnessed, and bound to the very Washington he railed against. Image is everything, Trump always knew, and it was his image and outrageous, independent personality that won him the election. Of course his stances on immigration, political correctness and free trade helped; but no one – except Washington pundits – ever doubted the importance of his social allure.
Living in a New York Penthouse and continuing his familiar lifestyle of ‘21’ and the Manhattan glitterati while still ruling the nation is what Trump’s faithful want to see. What could be more essential that their man living in high style while the putrid swamp is drained?
There has been no confirmation that the Oval Office will be moved to Trump Tower anytime soon; and maybe, as antiquated and quaint as the White House may be, he will warm up to the trappings of history and stay put. Or he may split his time between New York and Washington; or spend time with his wife and friends in New York on weekends. It is surely a better bet that Melania will stay put in Trump Tower. As hard as it might be for some observers to imagine Donald Trump in the White House, it is even more difficult to imagine her as First Lady.
Yet as far-reaching as any of Donald Trump’s policies on foreign trade, China, and immigration might be, nothing would shake up and wake up Washington more than a move of the White House to the penthouse in Trump Tower.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Never has there ever been a President-elect like Donald Trump, never a campaign like his, and never the opportunity to be part of the greatest political circus ever imagined.
Yes there are important issues to be decided – immigration, the Supreme Court, Putin, religious rights, ISIS, and the dollar – but for pure spectacle, show, glitz, and glamour, what could be better than a Trump presidency?
The pre-White House is in Trump Tower, the gorgeous First Family is ready to move into 1700. The purges, infighting, contentious appointments and geopolitical drama is already beginning, made even more E! worthy because the Left is apoplectic in its grief, far more upset than it ever was when Trump was only a candidate. Petitions are circulating on the web to protest his advisors, to stop the hate, misogyny, homophobia, and militaristic xenophobia that candidate Trump promised. Robert Reich, Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz, old men who have staked their reputation on defending liberalism and find themselves not only facing a new political enemy but Hollywood, Las Vegas, arm candy, showmanship, outrageously public egos, and a side show of political side show freaks with nary an intellectual among them.
Young women are distraught at the Hillary defeat. Just when a woman was poised to be President of the United States, and just when Barack Obama’s legacy of inclusiveness, kindness, and good nature was set to be continued, in marches an evil clown, a malevolent Joker, and a thoroughly evil man.
Progressives who have staked reputation, profession, and personal identity on environmental protection, civil rights, the glass ceiling, income inequality, and LGBT acceptance find themselves flummoxed, hurt, and befuddled. Not only were their social and economic policies dealt a hammer-blow, but the very righteousness of their causes challenged. Not only was the political order now in chaos, but the moral order as well.
Not only has the first African American President been asked to leave the White House, but a a family so lily-white, white-privileged, billionaire-wealthy, and stunningly attractive taken over. The transition at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue would have been far easier to take if the Trumps had not been so movie-star, runway model, GQ attractive.
Liberal lament notwithstanding, Donald Trump is indeed our President; and not only does he represent 60 million disaffected, angry, frustrated, and resentful Americans, but he is the very epitome of America - image, style, carny barker hucksterism, Wild West showdowns, and nouveau-riche excess – as far from the Eastern Establishment, old-guard Republican and liberal Democratic character as Mae West, burlesque, and W.C.Fields.
Gone are the days of Camelot where Pablo Casals played at the White House, Robert Frost read his poetry at JFK’s inauguration, Jackie was the epitome of European grace, charm, and elegance. Gone are the morally righteous days of Jimmy Carter who abhorred excess, preached parsimony and restraint; and gone are the days of George H.W. Bush, a patrician in the Roman style – generous, respectful, dutiful, and principled.
In its place are gold bracelets, a rough-and-tumble macho braggadocio, a Jay Gatsby lifestyle, and a concentration of American power – not the political power that Robert Reich and his colleagues are used to but financial, retail, real estate, entertainment power all concentrated in one man.
The greatest political divide in the past decades was that between Barry Goldwater and LBJ; but that was just political. Goldwater, the first real Republican conservative who championed private enterprise, a muscular military, and social reform was for all his strengths, perspicacity, and political insights, a politician.
LBJ was the consummate politician who won his way to power through the manipulation of the system. He understood political power better than anyone in America, and he used it and his position as Speaker of the House and intimidating President to get what he wanted.
There was political debate between Johnson and Goldwater, but – although the campaign was as nasty as they come – it was only political. The two men were both Westerners who followed much the same predictable trajectory and had much in common. More importantly they were familiar to Americans whose political leaders were cast in the same mold.
Along comes Donald Trump out of nowhere, an unpredictable, excitable man with no interest in or patience for politics. A businessman, financier, high-stakes high roller reveling in new wealth and its own particular and very American power.
Which is why the Trump years will be melodrama, circus, and the most outrageous reality TV ever concocted by New York producers. A national soap opera already on the air with heroes and villains, tears, unhappiness, triumph, chicanery, trickery, and continuing personal crises.
When will the Trump children start fighting over access to Father? Will Melania continue to live her life of luxury and privilege in New York, dismissing Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill, and press club events as boring, déclassé and unenviable? Why should she be any different from the Hollande and Sarkozy wives and loves who came and went from the Elysees as they pleased?
The first purges of Trump insiders has already started, with son-in-law Jared Kushner leading the Inquisition. He quickly got rid of Christie, the enemy of his family, the judge of his father, and a persona non grata the moment he started kissing up to Trump the Elder. More purges will continue. Will Trump be another Erdogan who had the will and conviction to jail thousands of suspected traitors? Or a Putin wannabe, purging from the inside, expunging all traces of dissent? Will the White House be a Soviet-style Kremlin where party faithful were airbrushed and exiled?
How will Trump behave at press conferences, the first such events ever to be watched by ordinary Americans? Gone will be the judicious parsing of language, the careful and thoughtful evasion of pointed questions, the respectful demeanor. We will tune in because we want to see Trump fire people, yell at insolent reporters, storm in and out. If anyone thinks that just because Donald Trump is President he will change his ways is just whistlin’ Dixie.
What would a Trump foreign visit be without Biarritz, Rimini, and the grand brasseries of Paris? He and Melania will be sure to be in Milan for the Spring Collection. Their coterie will be fashion designers, Euro-financiers with yachts, and the best Berlin.
Of course Trump will govern, but somewhere between Reagan and Eisenhower in terms of hands-off management. Reagan had to do nothing more than repeat his Ten Commandments, and the world changed. Eisenhower knew that he was governing from the world’s pinnacle of power, so played golf instead of interfering with business. Trump will provide the zingers and his family and staff will do the rest.
The Trump circus will be something to behold. Yes, there is a risk – a big one in fact if his Administration implodes or he makes ill-advised decisions; but he is not a stupid man. On the contrary he is as smart and savvy as they come. There will indeed be a socio-political revolution the likes of which we have never seen.
The fun part, however, is what we have been waiting for. Soap opera, melodrama, Hollywood burlesque, Las Vegas tinsel and lights, and good old-fashioned big top fun and games.
I can’t wait.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s supposed extremism and how he and his socio-political agenda are misogynist, homophobic, and racist.
There is nothing in Trump’s long historical record that justifies these criticisms. There have been no court cases against him for discriminatory hiring or firing, nor any for sexual assault or misconduct. He has maintained a principled legal and moral posture towards women, blacks, Latinos, and gays. His hotel executives have always included women, his reality television shows featured as many women as men and both were treated equally, and his daughters have been given authority and responsibility in his businesses.
Why then such hostility? Trump is a showman, a burlesque performer, and a vaudevillian as well as a real estate mogul. He has understood that overstatement, bluff, and braggadocio are the stock-in-trade of Hollywood movie moguls as well as New York City investors. Perhaps more than anything he has understood the art of image, meme, and personality. Trump has made his living as an outsized, demanding, and intimidating character; and has never been shy about demonstrating the rewards of wealth and power. Arm candy, glitz, yachts, private planes, and third and fourth homes have been his stock in trade – rewards and embellishments of his image. Americans have always been in love with Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the celebrities of People Magazine.
Hollywood’s showpieces – the great romantic movies and adventures of past and present – are the result of brutal infighting, sexual favor, and indomitable egos. New York City was not built by the temperate and respectful, but by aggressive, impatient, intolerant, and unstoppable figures. Rockefeller, J.P.Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and their colleagues created empires of rail, steel, energy, and finance because of their strength, absolute confidence, and determination; and no man of such power and influence ever retreated to the parlor with a good book in the evening.
In other words, one can expect no different from Donald Trump. He, like his industrialist forefathers, is a man of ambition, talent, intelligence, and appetite. It is to his credit that given the sanctimony and moral opprobrium of the times he has never been convicted of insider trading, stock manipulation, Enron-style financial chicanery, or sexual misconduct.
Yet the brutal, ad hominem presumptive attacks have taken their toll. They were used to try to defeat him; but now that he has won, his opponents live in fear that the lie they perpetuated will come to fruition – that he in white nationalist fervor will intern African Americans, deport all Muslims and Latinos, lead pogroms on gay clubs, unleash the police with Duterte-style authority, and turn the country into an autocratic state.
None of this, of course, will happen although Trump will indeed confront the very issues of race, gender, and ethnicity so championed by the liberal Left.
Yet it is wrong to think that his policies and actions will be hateful and abusive. He is out only to redress the imbalance that has resulted from liberal policies and agendas. He is not racist when he calls out Black Lives Matter for inflaming racial hatred of both blacks and whites and for doing more to set back the cause of civil rights and economic and social parity than any other political movement. He is not racist when he calls for an end to racial entitlement, the re-establishment of normative moral codes of behavior, and a culture of responsibility.
He is no animus against Latinos per se, and understands that the maids, gardeners, kitchen staff, and garage attendants that make his hotels run efficiently are Hispanic He knows like the residents of Dallas, Houston, and Washington, DC that without willing and responsible workers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the economies of those cities would suffer. His calls for The Wall, for summary round-ups of illegal aliens, and punitive responses to illegality have nothing to do with racial prejudice, but with reality. He, and the many apologists for immigration reform, insist that illegal labor is driving down wages, distorting market prices for food and services, adding pressure to the environment, increasing public costs, and challenging the American ideal of one culture, one language.
He has no visible animosity towards gays and recently (11.14.16) and publically stated his endorsement for gay rights – ‘settled’ by the Supreme Court. As above, he has done nothing to delay, retard, or inhibit the rise of talented women within his television production or real estate businesses.
Yet there is no doubt that Donald Trump has said ‘enough’ to the issues of race, gender, and ethnicity because they have taken over the national discourse and in his opinion have distorted the more reasonable and objective dialogue that must take place to improve economic mobility and access to wealth. Constant, persistent, and hostile criticism of anyone who opposes the liberal agenda as racist, sexist, and homophobic not only does no good but does measurable harm.
There is no doubt that Trump, his advisors, and most Americans realize that something is wrong in the black community; and he like the rest of us want improvement. Yet we all look at the billions of dollars wasted on programs of entitlement, public welfare, self-esteem and inclusivity, and failing public education in inner city neighborhoods and feel it is time to change course.
When Trump calls for an end to entitlement; demands a performance-based welfare and education policy, stricter policing, and less tolerance for using history (e.g. slavery) as a justification for anti-social behavior, he is not racist but realistic.
When Trump calls for immigration reform – the issuance of a national identity card and the right to inspect it; harsh penalties for employers who hire illegal workers; immediate deportation of any illegal immigrant with a criminal record, and yes, the wall-fence – he is not ethnically insensitive, but realistic.
When he supports the right of private business owners to refuse services that offend their moral and religious principles he is not homophobic, but only intends to redress what many see as an imbalance between personal religious beliefs and secular demands.
When he supports the right of private business owners to refuse services that offend their moral and religious principles he is not homophobic, but only intends to redress what many see as an imbalance between personal religious beliefs and secular demands.
It is no surprise that the American people have elected a President who will roll back the liberal agenda. The most zealous will hope for a complete dismantling of the progressive apparatus and an establishment of a purist conservative society; but the more realistic understand that the Trump phenomenon is simply part of a natural search for equilibrium and order. In other words, a radical populist government is unlikely given the many opposing and contradictory positions within the Republican party, not to say the electorate.
What will happen is that a Trump Administration will face down street protestors, restore respect for the police, challenge the cant and debilitating safe spaces of universities, and rescind the now discredited social programs of the progressive Left.
The new Administration will not deny global warming, but will insist on a more rational cost-benefit and risk analysis before investing. In other words, just as Trump will not resort to equally inflammatory rhetoric and accusation, he will demand that every investment in global warming response be justified in terms of evident and potential risk to both environment and jobs.
His own inflamed campaign rhetoric – taken as gospel by his opponents – was meant to highlight issues and political commitment, not to lay out considered policy. The Left took him at his word – racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic and climate denier – when his supporters heard only principle. Enough is enough, they said. Time to turn attention to unnoticed needs, to push back against intellectual entitlement, to return to the practical realism of ‘the ends justify the means’.
What is happening in America is not so catastrophic or cataclysmic as Trump’s opponents would have us believe. Conservatives and disaffected, angry, frustrated Americans who support them are simply acting according to Newton’s Third Law – a countervailing force pushing to reestablish political equilibrium.
Put another way, it is the beginning of a new cycle in the perpetual circular movement of history, always in motion because of the energy expended by opposing forces. Or famously circular business cycles.
Of course Hillary Clinton’s supporters are upset; but their disc0nsolateness is due to an unrealistic assumption that she would win because her cause was righteous as well as right. The election was not just a political defeat but a highly personal and moral one. It is hard to recover from that.
Those more sanguine Hillary supporters will understand The Political Wheel, be patient, work to accelerate its turning towards a better place, and organize to facilitate the trajectory. Those more emotionally damaged will protest in the streets and continue the campaign rhetoric of race, gender, and ethnicity until the effects of popular Trumpism quiet if not cloture the debate.
To Trump supporters his election is no less than a revolution – ‘cleaning the swamp’ and the Augean stables of Washington – but to the more temperate, it is politics and physics the way they are supposed to behave.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
A British journalist on Weekend, the BBC World Service’s hour-long program of news and commentary noted that none of his American colleagues had ever met or spoken to a Trump supporter.
For an American observer this is not surprising. Journalists were initially convinced that Donald Trump was no more than a circus act. As his campaign drew more and more supporters, instead of objectively investigating the phenomenon to find out what was behind such a popular movement, they sought to justify their earlier conclusions. They had said that Trump was a clown, a buffoon, and a hilarious joke; and they were committed to perpetuating that image.
As Trump drew even more crowds, journalists, once again in defense of their initial presumptions but now concerned that the Trump campaign was gaining strength and force began to criticize him not only for his vaudeville act but for his character. Influenced by progressive demands to look at him exclusively through the lens of race, gender, and ethnicity, they quickly obeyed and began to cover his assumed sexism, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia.
They left journalistic principles aside, followed the piper, and played his tune. They ignored historical context – when, where, and with whom Trump made his comments. They dismissed socio-cultural context – the milieu of high-stakes real estate, Hollywood, and New York television in which he operated. A review of both would have at lent nuance and perspective to the candidates views, statements, and public persona.
Most important of all, they took what he said verbatim. They did not, as did his supporters, deconstruct his texts and identify memes and signifiers to interpret meaning from language. Journalists were convinced that Trump’s words did not only express his political convictions but his true feelings. Listening to his words journalist were convinced they could track policy, moral and ethical character, and political conviction.
Most of the sixty million voters who opted for Trump did no such thing. There was none of the presumptive conflation taking place in journalism. They took hyperbole for what it was – the same inflamed campaign rhetoric that has always characterized American primaries and general elections. The knew that he had no intention of keeping all Muslims out of the country; or of rounding up all illegal aliens and deporting them; or of conducting pogroms on gay clubs and transvestite cabarets; or of returning America to the predations of laissez-faire capitalism. The listened, cheered, and loved his histrionics and showmanship; but kept only a few essential take-aways.
The progressive juggernaut of race, gender, and ethnicity had infringed on religious rights, had encouraged civil disorder, and had eroded academic objectivity. Government regulation and punitive taxation had stifled small enterprise, they very locus of economic development closest to those who were struggling. The arrogation of legislative and judicial authority had infringed on individual rights. The culture of entitlement was deferring if not inhibiting the re-socialization of the inner cities and impeding progress towards true integration. Trade laws and globalization did more to enrich wealth investors and multinational corporations who cared little were jobs were being created and more about shareholder profits.
Few Trump supporters believed the progressive narrative that Trump was a woman-hating, gay-baiting, racist pig. How could he be with so many admiring women in his life and businesses? With clearly inclusive policies at his hotels? Of course he talked dirty. Of course he used his power, wealth, and allure to attract women. Didn’t Henry Kissinger say that power was the greatest aphrodisiac? How else would this little ugly man have such sexual prowess?
For most Trump supporters none of this mattered. For those voters who felt alienated by the political process and the economic system and were angry, resentful, and frustrated by it, Trump was the only answer. Nothing else had worked, and it was worth taking a chance on an unpredictable man with a volatile personality. Neither they nor their candidate were the hateful, ignorant, backward, and violent people described by by both Democratic and Republican Establishments and the media which supported them. They were ordinary Americans working hard to get by and seeing nothing come of it.
So harshly indifferent were the media to the condition of largely white, working class Americans in middle-America, that convinced of their righteous cause and seeing their sentiments echoed throughout the world of journalism, they began to pile on. Both in the selection of news items and on the editorial pages, Donald Trump was portrayed not so much as a politically unfit candidate but an unfit person. Everything he did, filtered through the universal lens of political correctness, was evil, backward, and dangerous. Journalists couldn’t let up, and a feeding frenzy followed.
Then came the election, Donald Trump won overwhelmingly with the support of over 60 million Americans. How could we have been so wrong, journalists naively asked? No matter where the media looked for culprits, the investigation always came back around to them. They were guilty of arrogance, presumption, and ignorance. They did not simply pick the wrong candidate but chose to destroy one by any means possible. Fine and dandy for the radical fringe who hang out in odd corners of the Internet; even understandable for the partisan mainstream like Fox News and MSNBC, but for those news organizations which have prided themselves on objective journalism, there was no escape.
The New York Times has for years been considered America’s paper of record. “All the news that’s fit to print” did not only been thorough reporting but fair and accurate reporting. Americans had come to respect the Times for both comprehensive investigative reporting and fairness. Yet in this election the Times pulled up anchor. Trump was a vile enough person and political candidate for them to pull out all stops. The ends justified the means.
Now, realizing what it had done, the Times issued an apology from its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Of course he didn’t come right out and say that the Times had been guilty of emotional journalism, but he implied it in no uncertain terms. In a public letter he said:
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office?
As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.
“Rededicate ourselves to…report American and the world honestly’ can only mean that they failed to do that during the “erratic and unpredictable election”. Sulzberger admits that the paper underestimated Trump’s support; and by implication contributed to “the forces and strains…[that] drove this divisive election…”
This journalistic irresponsibility was shared by many in the bi-coastal liberal establishment, for they all refused to accept the fact that any American, let alone millions, could back a flawed and dangerous candidate like Donald Trump. Had they looked objectively at the reasons why Trump supporters were turning out in great numbers rather than make a priori judgments about their political ignorance and thuggery, they might have been more fair and reasonable.
It is not stupid to want jobs created here and not in China, to be concerned about the impact of immigration on economics and culture; to be worried about the intervention of Washington in what should be private, personal decisions. Being ill-informed about the dimensions of an issue or its alternative solutions is a legitimate target for criticism; but to attack emotional, visceral reactions is another altogether.
Highly-educated, well-off, secure bi-coastals believe that ‘objectivity’ should be the only measure of analysis in electoral campaigns. There only facts and untruths with nothing in between. There is no room for visceral reaction, personal sentiment, and convictions which result from faith and belief.
While protests against Trump continue, at least the Establishment is reflecting on what they got wrong and more importantly, how – as Sulzberger suggested in his letter – that they might have contributed to the viciousness and divisiveness of the country itself.
At least the Times was honest; but the media have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s see if they can cover the Trump presidency with more objectivity and equanimity. Doubtful but possible.