Category Archives: Random Blogging

We Should See Clearly Now…

In the wake of the 2016 election, I was criticized by some very nice people for claiming that Trump’s win was all about racism. Those nice people–and they are nice people, I’m not being sarcastic here–were shocked that I would tar all Trump voters with such an accusation. But as my youngest son pointed out, Trump’s own racism was so obvious that the best thing you could say about his voters was that they didn’t find his bigotry disqualifying.

Conclusions of academic researchers following that election have been unambiguous. “Racial resentment” predicted support for Trump.

After the insurrection at the Capital, Americans simply cannot pretend that the profound divisions in this country are about anything but White Christian supremacy. We are finally seeing  recognition of that fact from previously circumspect sources.

Here’s what the staid numbers-crunchers at 538.com. wrote:

Much will be said about the fact that these actions threaten the core of our democracy and undermine the rule of law. Commentators and political observers will rightly note that these actions are the result of disinformationand heightened political polarization in the United States. And there will be no shortage of debate and discussion about the role Trump played in giving rise to this kind of extreme behavior. As we have these discussions, however, we must take care to appreciate that this is not just about folks being angry about the outcome of one election. Nor should we believe for one second that this is a simple manifestation of the president’s lies about the integrity of his defeat. This is, like so much of American politics, about race, racism and white Americans’ stubborn commitment to white dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence. (emphasis mine)

How about Darren Walker,  President of the Ford Foundation?

I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.

This explains the white backlash that has plagued American politics from its beginnings and throughout these last four years. It also casts a light on what we witnessed yesterday: A failed coup—an insurrection at the United States Capitol.

In his statement, Walker made a point that has been made repeatedly in the aftermath of that assault: If these had been protestors for racial justice–no matter how peaceful– rather than a violent and angry mob exhibiting “white pride” and grievance, the use of force by law enforcement would have been very different. 

Walker is correct: democracy–the equal voice of all citizens expressed through the ballot box–threatens White supremacy. That’s why, as demographic change accelerates, the GOP– aka the new Confederacy– has frantically worked to suppress minority votes, why it has opposed vote-by-mail and other efforts to facilitate participation in democratic decision-making.

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been glued to reporting and commentary that has tried to make sense of what we saw. One of the most insightful was an article from Psychology Today that explained epistemic knowing.

After noting that “claims that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was illegitimate are widespread in Trump’s party,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the author   focused on why people who should know better nevertheless choose to believe those claims.

He noted that he’d recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. As he reminds us, the book is about a black man being tried for rape in a Southern town. It becomes obvious during the trial that the accused didn’t do it–in fact, the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. Yet the jury convicts him.

 The jury convicts Robinson of rape because at the heart of the case is whose word is believed: that of a white woman or that of a black man. In Lee’s Maycomb, it is important to the population that the word of the white woman be upheld as a more respected source of knowledge, even when this goes against the facts. What was at stake was not just this one particular case, but a larger principle: whose claims need to be respected….

When interpretations differ, people need to understand who to trust. They may choose to only nominate certain people, or certain kinds of people, to be worthy of giving interpretations worth trusting.

This is an illustration of “epistemic entitlement”–the choice of who is entitled to occupy the role of “Knower.” Who gets to say what’s true and false, what’s real and fake? 

Far too many Americans choose to believe White people over facts, evidence, and their “lying eyes.” 

Contemplating The Mob

It’s difficult–no, impossible–to describe my reaction to what happened at the nation’s capitol on Wednesday. I gave myself an extra day to process it, but I’m still unable to adequately convey my reaction.

Earlier in the day, my husband listened to the disconnected, angry “speech” delivered by soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump, so I couldn’t help hearing most of it–despite the fact that the sound of his voice makes me physically ill. If I had to characterize what I heard, I would use words like “incoherent” “self-pitying” and “delusional.” 

Trump’s interminable rant finally ended just before 1 p.m.,with his offer to lead a march to the Capitol, where Congress was assembled for the entirely ceremonial acceptance of Electoral College votes. He didn’t lead the march, of course–he went back to the White House–but a large number of those in his audience proceeded to march to the Capitol, where they toppled the barricades that had been erected, broke windows and breached the Capitol building.

Speaking of those barricades, there were fewer than usual, raising some ugly questions made even more concerning by the scarcity and restraint–and in some cases, what looked like participation– of Capitol police. Numerous people have noted that the slim police presence was in stark contrast to security during Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year, when more than 5,000 officers were deployed. There were only 115 on duty at any one time on Wednesday–even though police had ample warning; right-wingers had been engaged in online planning for weeks.

For the next four hours, as my husband and I switched between C-SPAN, NBC and CBS, we saw an attempted coup–and not a bloodless one. One person was taken to a hospital in critical condition and later died. Three others apparently died as well.

From what the television cameras showed, the mob was composed of Trump’s typical supporters– Proud Boys, QAnon conspirators, “good old boys” waving Confederate and Trump flags and toting guns, Neo-Nazis in MAGA hats. One shirtless thug displayed a Ku Klux Klan tattoo on his abdomen, another wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. We watched, astonished, as they took selfies and ransacked Congressional offices.

The Governors of Virginia and Maryland belatedly activated their National Guard units–reportedly, Trump had earlier refused a request to do so– and the Mayor of DC imposed a 6:00 pm curfew. 

An hour or more into the mayhem, in response to pleas from several Senators, Trump issued a statement that the mob should “go home”–but only after repeating his election falsehoods, telling them that he “loved them” and assuring them that he considered them “very special.” 

This riot (on behalf of the “law and order” party) can be directly attributed to Trump and the cynical and deeply dishonorable members of the House and Senate–including Indiana Senator Mike Braun– who had announced their intent to “object” to the receipt of Electoral College votes. Their unprecedented betrayal of their oaths of office finally drew bipartisan condemnation.

I was no fan of former President George W. Bush, but I applaud his statement that he had been “appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election.” Even Mitch McConnell–aka Mr. Evil–excoriated those who participated in what can only be considered a frontal attack on American democracy. And for the first time in four years, Mike Pence (reluctantly) declined to enable and defend one of Donald Trump’s multiple assaults on the Constitution.

As for Hawley, Cruz (and Braun), conservative columnist George Will said it best:

The Trump-Hawley-Cruz insurrection against constitutional government will be an indelible stain on the nation. They, however, will not be so permanent. In 14 days, one of them will be removed from office by the constitutional processes he neither fathoms nor favors. It will take longer to scrub the other two from public life. Until that hygienic outcome is accomplished, from this day forward, everything they say or do or advocate should be disregarded as patent attempts to distract attention from the lurid fact of what they have become. Each will wear a scarlet “S” as a seditionist.

It’s too soon to predict what the ultimate fallout from this appalling insurrection will be. For now, I’ll just share a message posted to Facebook by my friend Kevin Osborn–a message with which I entirely agree:

As the sun sets on this momentous day, I am thankful for Stacey Abrams and others in Georgia for their phenomenal work in getting out the vote. I refuse to let the actions of a relatively small group of treasonous domestic terrorists and their addled, unfit leader ruin the historic event that took place last night and that so many have fought and died for over many years. We will move forward from this treachery and those that cannot will be left behind in history’s trash bin.

Amen to that.

 

 

 

 

A Matter Of Morals

This is a very difficult time for those of us who are old enough to remember a much different politics.

When I was in City Hall, most elected Republicans and Democrats (granted, not all) could disagree over certain policies while agreeing about others. State Senators and Representatives could argue on the floor of a Statehouse chamber and go to lunch together afterward. Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen (yes, they were all men) would carry the City’s water in Washington.

And politicians of both parties honored election results and participated in the peaceful transition of power.

Why has that changed? Why do members of Trump’s hard-core MAGA base seethe with resentment and hatred of “the libs”? Why do so many of us respond to their hostility with incomprehension– as if they were representatives of a different species?

Well-meaning observers–pundits, political operatives, writers–counsel Americans to listen to one another, urge us to try to understand and respect each other, to make genuine efforts to bridge our differences.

Why do those pleas fall on deaf ears?

I think most thoughtful Americans struggle to understand the abyss that exists between the  MAGA true believers (and the integrity-free officials who pander to them), and the rest of us–the “rest of us” encompassing everyone from genuinely conservative “Never Trump” Republicans to the Bernie and AOC wing of the Democratic Party.

Like many of you, I have struggled to understand why Americans’ political differences have magnified and hardened. Clearly, our information environment has contributed greatly to the construction of incommensurate realities. That said, however, I think there is a deeper reason, and we find it at the intersection of politics and morality.

Political contests are about power, of course–about who gets to make decisions about our communal lives and behaviors. And power is obviously a great aphrodisiac. But purely political battles center on policy disputes–everything from where the county commissioners are going to put that new road to whether the country will enter into a particular trade agreement.

When politics works, the battles are overwhelmingly “how” arguments: how will we provide service X? What sort of law will solve problem Y? Who should benefit from program Z? Those battles certainly implicate morality, but not in the way or to the extent that our current disputes do. Increasing numbers of Americans believe they are engaged in a battle between good and evil–and to the extent the issues dividing us really are fundamentally moral ones, there is little or no common ground to be found.

I was struck by this observation in an article titled “The MAGA Hat Isn’t Campaign Swag. It’s a Symbol of Hate.”

Unless you’ve been marooned on the International Space Station, you know that Trumpism is racism, blatant or latent (here’s a summary of the voluminous evidence). That makes the cap no different than a Confederate flag. It’s racial animosity woven in cloth, unwearable without draping yourself in its political meaning. It would be like donning a swastika and expecting to be taken for a Quaker.

We Americans are still fighting the Civil War. As an article in the Guardian noted yesterday, the GOP has morphed into the Confederacy.

There has been a steady exodus from the GOP as its MAGA core has assumed effective control of the party.  And to be fair, there are still plenty of people who continue to vote Republican who do not fall into that category, although their willingness to ignore the obvious makes them complicit at best.

Those of you reading this post may disagree with the assertion that Americans are fighting over morality, not politics as we typically understand that term. But accurate or not, millions of thoughtful Americans  believe they are engaged in a battle for the soul of this nation, and are horrified by what they see as the willingness of some 40% of their fellow-citizens to spit on the aspirations of our founding documents and subvert the rule of law in order to retain a privileged status that they enjoy solely by reason of their skin color, gender and/or religion.

This isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even politics as that term is usually understood.

Americans are having a profound and fundamental argument about reality, the nature of justice, the obligations of citizenship, and the kind of country we will leave our children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard chasm to bridge.

 

A Faustian Bargain

There are currently three categories of Republican elected officials: the incredibly stupid (QAnon believers, pandemic and climate change deniers, the “representatives” who make you wonder who in the world voted for them); the not-stupid-but-willing-to-pander; and a very few willing to publicly oppose both. (And when I say “very few,” I mean one or two at most.)

Of course, there are also the “Never Trumpers” who are mostly former lawmakers or former campaign strategists, but for purposes of this analysis, I’m only categorizing those currently holding public office.

Senator Josh Hawley falls into the second category. He is someone willing to pursue goals by taking positions that he knows to be ridiculous and unlikely to succeed in order to ingratiate himself with the rabid, uneducated GOP base.

Of course, he isn’t the only one. The execrable Ted Cruz and ten other Senate Republicans–including Indiana’s dim, embarrassing Senator Mike Braun– also plan to protest the non-existent “voter fraud” that led to Trump’s loss. Like Hawley, Cruz clearly knows better. The two of them are already competing for the 2024 GOP nomination, which will largely be delivered by the party’s ignorant Trumpian base.

It’s the very definition of a Faustian bargain– an action or agreement in which a person sells his soul, abandoning his spiritual values, moral principles and presumed afterlife in heaven, in order to reap a benefit in the here and now.  Another way to put it is to make a deal with the devil.

Peter Wehner called Hawley out in a New Year’s Eve article in The Atlantic. Wehner suggests that Hawley’s planned objection to the Electoral College vote is evidence of what he calls “the enduring power of Trumpian unreality.”

Hawley knows this effort will fail, just as every other effort to undo the results of the lawful presidential election will fail. (A brief reminder for those with faulty short-term memories: Joe Biden defeated Trump by more than 7 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes.) Every single attempt to prove that the election was marked by fraud or that President-elect Biden’s win is illegitimate—an effort that now includes about 60 lawsuits—has flopped. In fact, what we’ve discovered since the November 3 election is that it was “the most secure in American history,” as election experts in Trump’s own administration have declared. But this immutable, eminently provable fact doesn’t deter Trump and many of his allies from trying to overturn the election; perversely, it seems to embolden them.

One such Trump ally is Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected senator from Alabama, who has suggested that he might challenge the Electoral College count. And there are others. But what makes Hawley’s declaration ominously noteworthy is that unlike Tuberville—a former college football coach who owes his political career in a deep-red state to Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary against Jeff Sessions—Hawley is a man who clearly knows better. According to his Senate biography, he is “recognized as one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers.” A former state attorney general, Hawley has litigated before the Supreme Court. He graduated from Stanford University in 2002 and Yale Law School in 2006. He has clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts; he taught at one of London’s elite private schools, St. Paul’s; and he served as an appellate litigator at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Wehner accurately calls Hawley’s planned action unpatriotic “civic vandalism.”

He quotes an acquaintance of Senator Hawley for confirmation of his assertion that Hawley is perfectly aware that the election wasn’t “rigged” or otherwise illegitimate, and that the legal arguments he his parroting are ridiculous. Nevertheless, he has calculated that he will benefit politically from the lie, from the pretense. He has made his deal with the devil and has dispensed with any shred of integrity he may once have had.

As Wehner says,  this is obviously a very bad sign about the direction of the GOP in the coming years.

What is happening in the GOP is that figures such as Hawley, along with many of his Senate and House colleagues, and important Republican players, including the former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, are all trying to position themselves as the heirs of Trump. None of them possesses the same sociopathic qualities as Trump, and their efforts will be less impulsive and presumably less clownish, more calculated and probably less conspiracy-minded. It may be that not all of them support Hawley’s stunt; perhaps some are even embarrassed by it. But these figures are seismographers; they are determined to act in ways that win the approval of the Republican Party’s base. And this goes to the heart of the danger.

Quite right. The current Republican base is racist, ignorant and terrified of modernity. (It is also uncomfortably large.) A willingness to pander to that base isn’t simply a Faustian bargain–it’s an overwhelming threat to America’s future.

 

Repudiating Reality

Speaking of misinformation…

Can America be “built back better” in the (much-anticipated) wake of the Trump Administration? Or did the disasters of the last four years simply make the fact of the country’s decline over a much longer period impossible to ignore?

I don’t claim to know the answer to that question. (I’m actually not sure I want to know the answer.) But we are absolutely awash in blogs, books and essays on the subject. One of those explorations was in the Guardian, a couple of weeks after the election, in a book review titled “Can American Democracy Survive Donald Trump?” It began by setting out the core problem we face:

I WON THE ELECTION!” Donald Trump tweeted in the early hours of 16 November 2020, 10 days after he lost the election. At the same time, Atlantic magazine announced an interview with Barack Obama, in which he warns that the US is “entering into an epistemological crisis” – a crisis of knowing. “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false,” Obama explains, “by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” I saw the two assertions juxtaposed on Twitter as I was finishing writing this essay, and together they demonstrate its proposition: that American democracy is facing not merely a crisis in trust, but in knowledge itself, largely because language has become increasingly untethered from reality, as we find ourselves in a swirling maelstrom of lies, disinformation, paranoia and conspiracy theories.

The author points out that lying, paranoia and conspiracy have long been seen as the defining features of totalitarian societies, and that the prevalence of those behaviors in contemporary America is increasingly being cited as evidence that we are becoming such a society.

As Federico Finchelstein maintained in his recent A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “As facts are presented as ‘fake news’ and ideas originating among those who deny the facts become government policy, we must remember that current talk about ‘post-truth’ has a political and intellectual lineage: the history of fascist lying.” Both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, two of history’s most acute observers of totalitarianism, situated lying squarely at the heart of the totalitarian project.

With less than three weeks until President Biden is sworn in,  America’s current president is still refusing to concede, still  insisting that the results of an election that was found by international observers and state election officials alike as “transparently fair” was somehow rigged. Worse still, much of what passes for Republican leadership these days is passively or actively encouraging that belief.

An acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents is absolutely necessary for democracy to function. Increasingly, the GOP is refusing to admit to the legitimacy of either the Democratic Party or electoral outcomes unfavorable to the party.

As the New York Times reported last year: “At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness’.” Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically: they are opposing them existentially.

At the end of the day, American citizens are faced with a different–and far more significant– existential decision: what is true and what is not?

If Trump is symptomatic of America’s diseases of power, then his compulsive dishonesty might be the most revealing pathology of all. The US is a chronically untruthful country, deceit written into its very framework. The constitution contains explicit protections of slavery but never uses the word “slavery”, a deeply mendacious deception that eventually became a collective self-deception. The declaration “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was written by a man who enslaved men he did not consider his equal, and became the foundation of a country that incessantly declared its belief in truth and justice while enslaving and oppressing much of its population.

Like many Americans, I have spent four years struggling against a pathological liar in the White House, only to realise, belatedly, that American culture fetishises the truth for a reason. “We hold these truths”, “truth, justice, and the American way”, the fable of the boy George Washington insisting he cannot tell a lie, “Honest Abe” Lincoln: this is a society protesting too much. American history is riddled with lies: that we talk about truth so much is just a tell.

In order to tell truth from falsehood, however, citizens need at the very least a baseline of accurate information about their government and the philosophy that animates it–something approximately 70 million of us evidently lack.

Unless we can somehow rescue fact from fiction, American democracy is unlikely to survive.