Tag Archives: alternate realities

The GOP Retreat From Empiricism

I am hardly the only person to observe that Trump’s election was a predictable consequence of the fact that, over a number of years, the GOP has morphed into something bearing very little resemblance to a rational, center-right political party.

Political pundits differ on when the changes began. Certainly, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” laid the groundwork for the GOP’s growing appeal to racial grievance. Stuart Stevens’ recent book It Was All A Lie detailed five decades of “hypocrisy and self-delusion” dating all the way back to the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s.

A recent article from Pressthink, a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, reminded readers of the 2004 Ron Suskind article about the George W. Bush White House–the article that gave us the now-ubiquitous quote about the “reality-based community.” Suskind was writing about concerns voiced by so-called  “establishment” Republicans who were increasingly encountering what Suskind called  “a confusing development” within the Bush White House. Suddenly, asking for corroborating evidence, expressing doubts, or raising facts that didn’t fit an official narrative were considered disqualifying or disloyal acts for allies of the President.

Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…

* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.

* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.

* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.

* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.

* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.

* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.

That last quote, by Mark McKinnon, goes a long way toward explaining the root emotions of today’s Trump supporters, whose overriding need is apparently to “own the libs”–no matter what the cost to the country or their own prospects.

Suskind’s article was about the growing tensions within the Republican coalition. When he talked to Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans, they conveyed alarm over what he termed “the retreat from empiricism.”

It wasn’t only Republicans who were retreating from empiricism and reality–liberals had their anti-vaxxers  and people hysterically opposed to genetically modified foods–but they lacked the influence on their party that climate change deniers and birthers had in the GOP, and that asymmetry posed a “false equivalence” problem for journalists trying to be (excuse the phrase) fair and balanced.

Worse, fact-checking Trump had little effect, because he wasn’t trying to make reference to reality in what he said. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

On November 3d, creating an alternate reality worked for 70 million Americans.

Houston, we have a problem.

 

Cherry-Picking And The Rule Of Law

If we assume that humanity will survive into the future–and that there will indeed be future historians attempting to understand the decisions and assorted insanities of the particular era in which we find ourselves–they may well dub ours the “Age of Cherry-picking.”

Think about it: we increasingly choose to rely on information that confirms our preferred beliefs. We routinely dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with our prejudices, ignore realities that are inconvenient, and resist information that challenges our world-views.

I can just see those future historians trying to figure out why more of us didn’t call out the hypocrisies.

Think, for example, of that go-to bible verse cited most recently by Jeff Sessions–the one that supposedly instructs believers to follow even laws they dislike. That verse, which Sessions used to support the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, has  also been cited to support slavery and “the Southern way of life.”

Religious groups opposed to the policy found and cited their own biblical selections.

“The Bible teaches that God ‘loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).”

Since Trump’s election, a casual review of Facebook posts hurling biblical quotes back and forth would suggest that Republican and Democratic Christians own very different versions of the Bible. (Not that the Bible should even enter into a discussion of civil law in a nation that separates Church and State…)

On the issue of immigration, until he was forced by public outrage to moderate the policy, Trump had insisted that his administration had no choice but to separate children from their parents, because it was “a law” and his administration enforces all the laws. 

Speaking of cherry-picking….

As Howard Gleckman recently wrote for Forbes,

Question: What does the Trump Administration’s policy decision to separate immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border have in common with its policy decision to refuse to enforce IRS curbs on church involvement in political campaigns?

Answer: Nothing.

As Gleckman noted, the administration’s insistence that the law required the separation of children from parents was somewhere between dubious and inaccurate.

But the Administration’s absolute claim that it must enforce laws, even if it disagrees with them, turns out to be somewhat…situational.

Twice in the last three weeks, in formal remarks, Vice President Mike Pence said the Administration would ignore another statute: The Johnson Amendment that bars 501(C)(3) non-profits, including houses of worship, from participating in political campaigns for, or against, a candidate.

Pence could have not been more explicit. Speaking to the Family Research Council on May 25, he said the Johnson Amendment “will no longer be enforced under this administration.” He repeated the vow in a speech to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last week.

So let’s summarize the delusional state of “leadership” in our country, where the administration picks and chooses its realities:

  • The administration enforces all the laws except those Mike Pence’s Bible doesn’t agree with. (What First Amendment?)
  • The “scientists” relied upon by administration climate-change deniers are sure that the warnings of the other 97% of scientists are bogus.
  •  Larry Kudlow, the President’s current “economic advisor” plucked from Fox News, says the Republican tax bill is responsible for the (non-existent) decline of the deficit. (The deficit and the debt are actually exploding–but not, evidently, in Kudlow’s alternate reality.)
  • Spitting on our longtime allies and cozying up to our enemies is putting America First.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, and so it goes…..