Monday, October 24, 2016

Democracy for Grown-Ups

The third presidential debate

Donald Trump has been roundly condemned for apparently disrespecting the very notion of democracy, because of an exchange with Hillary Clinton and moderator Chris Wallace in last Wednesday night’s debate.  Wallace brought up an accusation repeated by Trump on Twitter and at public rallies that the election has been “rigged” to ensure Hillary’s victory; Wallace asked Trump if he will “absolutely accept the result of this election?”  And Trump evaded:

I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.

Which seems to mean that come Election Day he’ll be looking for evidence of voter fraud, and deliver a judgment on the election results based upon his perception of how honest the voting process has been.  He also accused the news media of being in on the fix, calling them “so dishonest and so corrupt”, and he claimed authoritative evidence of widespread voter registration irregularities.  And he even tried to de-legitimize Hillary’s candidacy itself: “She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run.”  Behold Trump’s indictment of the vote and the electoral process more broadly.

It’s not terribly convincing.  Sure, lately the media have become quite transparent in their conviction that Trump is a demented egomaniac who would do the country great damage.  To be fair, that’s only because he is, and he would.  Most members of the press, being at least as bright as typical 5-year-olds, are perceptive enough to see it, if not clever enough to pretend not to.  And it’s hard to understand why it’s dishonest or corrupt for the media to provide a platform to the small army of women who are accusing Trump of just the sort of sexual predation that he himself has so brazenly bragged about.  And it’s not clear if Hillary broke the law (presumably he’s referring to her email scandal), though she’s legally in the clear.  And it’s even less clear what process Trump believes should have prevented her from running, considering that she is the nominee of one of our two major parties and the democratic processes that promoted her to nominee endow her with all the legitimacy she needs.

But here’s the real point: there is no evidence of significant voter fraud.  For one thing, it would be extraordinarily hard to pull off, considering how many election precincts there are, and how locally organized and controlled they are.  To really affect the outcome such conspirators would have to fake thousands of votes in thousands of precincts across the country, all without accidentally revealing their nefarious plot.  For another thing, it just ain’t happening.

But Wallace wouldn’t let Trump off the hook:

But, sir, there is a tradition in this country – in fact, one of the prides of this country – is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump deferred:

What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense. OK?

And Clinton, clearly the superior debater, pounced:

Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying.

A minute later she delivered the knock-out blow:

So that is not the way our democracy works. We've been around for 240 years. We've had free and fair elections. We've accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.

And major news outlets have expressed the same horror: Donald Trump will not abide by the election results because he doesn’t in principle accept majority rule.

But that’s not what he meant.  Wallace asked him if he thought the election was rigged, he explained (unconvincingly) why he thought it was, and then Wallace, though clearly intending to get to the heart of the matter, changed the subject by asking a different question: Do you support the principle of democratic transfer of power?  That is, he first asked Trump if he believed the present election process is honest, and then a minute later asked him if he was willing to submit to elections in general.  But Trump, who – how shall we say this? – misses a lot of subtleties, was still answering the first question.  Neither he nor Wallace seems to have noticed the question had changed, so Trump just repeated his answer to the first question, making it seem he was answering “No” to the second one, that he was explicitly rejecting the principle of popular sovereignty.  Trump seems to have a knack for sounding more offensive than he means to, and that’s quite impressive when you consider that he usually means something quite offensive!  But if we’re going to condemn him, let’s condemn him for what he actually meant.

If, as seems to be the case, he was questioning the procedural fairness of this election, and not the authority of elections in general, then he actually was defending democratic rule, not attacking it.  From this point of view Hillary and her surrogates in the press are trying to steal the election and he’s fighting to protect it.  As Trump advisor Newt Gingrich claims:

We are in the worst cycle of corruption in American history, and in many ways, we resemble Venezuela and Argentina more than we resemble traditional America.

Hillary is undermining democracy, turning America into Argentina (is Gingrich making an Evita reference?) and Trump is bravely standing up to her.

It’s ridiculous, of course, since there is no reason to think the voting process is being interfered with.  Wallace was actually stumbling toward a third question: Isn’t questioning the system without any real evidence as destructive as questioning the principle of popular sovereignty itself?  The answer, of course, is “Yes!”  The two have the same effect: the erosion of public trust in our political system.  Elections are the accepted mechanisms for peacefully resolving social conflict, and it’s frightening to imagine what would happen if that acceptance lapsed.  Put another way: making a charge of electoral fraud is so dangerous, so potentially destructive of social cohesion, that one should only do so very carefully, with extreme caution, and only with convincing evidence.  To do so recklessly, flippantly, thoughtlessly, does almost as much damage to democracy as actually stealing elections.

And Trump, to wildly understate the matter, is not known for speaking with responsibility or circumspection.  Indeed, he constantly casts mistrust upon our public institutions and the people who run them.  In his view, the leaders of our society are all crooks or fools.  Business sends your jobs overseas.  The government deliberately refuses to secure the borders, and steals your tax money to make life soft for the illegal immigrants of questionable ethnicity who then so easily enter.  Finance enriches itself while gambling with our economic well-being, and collects bailouts while you have to keep paying your underwater mortgage.  Academia indoctrinates your children with snobbish intolerance disguised as moral sophistication.  And so on.  The only ones left that are still genuinely noble and good are the American people themselves, especially the white working class.  But America is a sham.

Meanwhile Hillary represents just the opposite view, that the system is working well, or at least good enough.  The basic trajectory of post-Cold-War life – increasing globalization, identity politics at home, professional-class meritocracy, free markets – is positive and promising, and the more of it the better.  She parrots all the same old clich├ęs about how we’re stronger together, and diversity is our strength, and we must open ourselves to the world, blah, blah, blah.  She doesn’t mean it and no one believes it, but it’s part of the charade that our politics have degraded into, a charade that Hillary’s donors so desperately want us all to keep playing.

What Trump and his supporters get right is that they want to end the charade.  They see clearly the central truth of our current situation: American elites don’t really care about America, only their stunted, self-serving ideologies.  What we are really living through, what Trump really represents, is a crisis of faith.  That’s why Trump’s supporters are so ready to believe in stolen elections and why they’re not alarmed at Trump’s appalling flouting of democratic outcomes and norms.  They support Trump because they’ve lost faith in the system. 

What the Trumpians miss is their own culpability.  Large sections of the grassroots gladly went along with all the foolish mistakes of the last decades, mistakes our elites sold us like so much snake oil: financial deregulation, free trade, the Iraq War.  And now that all of those are seen for the disasters they really are, those same grassroots righteously rise up in rebellion against their foolish masters.  The main ingredient in Trump’s snake oil is irresponsibility.

And if the whole system is corrupt, and none of us regular people is at fault, then anything that cleanses that corruption is justified. Cynicism plus irresponsibility equals rage.  This is the real danger, and the real fear lurking behind Wallace’s questions and the media’s horror: that mistrust of the system leads to civil disorder, to violence.  This is the dark beast skulking in the heart of our current political chaos, the beast that Trump so carelessly summons.

The strange thing about this Trump-disses-democracy controversy is that by questioning the voting process Trump is picking on one aspect of the system that actually works the way it should.  That is, the mechanics of our voting system are quite clean.  Our democracy is being stolen, not by treacherous conspirators shuffling around buses of illegal immigrants to multiple polling stations, but by a campaign finance system that allows donors to weed out real challengers, and by two ossified and brain-dead parties with a stranglehold on the process, and by a media more addicted to horse-race and spectacle than to political substance, and by propagandists encouraging anger and fear rather than generosity and sobriety, and by social justice warriors undermining freedom of expression by sniffing out the tiniest whiffs of dissent, and by elites who feel more allegiance to their hypertrophied cosmopolitan vanity than to their fellow countrymen.  And now by a public too cynical and too irresponsible to want more than to throw bricks through the windows.

But Hillary’s windows don’t need to be broken.  They need to be rattled by crowds of citizens loudly demanding an economy that works for Americans workers, and an elite culture that doesn’t disdain popular sensibilities, and a political system that responds to people’s real needs.  But those crowds need to accept their obligation to constructively engage with our problems, rather than just vent their frustrations.  The Trumpian diagnosis is largely correct, though quite overstated, and contaminated by white nationalism, and led by a deranged and dangerous clown.  Hillary is at least an adult, and as such proposes some marginally beneficial policies, but the status quo she represents is not sustainable.  Don’t buy the Trumpian line that America is dying, and don’t let Hillary lull you with happy talk while proposing to tinker around the edges.  In effect, they’re both cynical; they’re both saying that fundamental constructive change isn’t possible.  But that’s a copout, and a recipe for national decline.  Don’t give in to it.  It’s not easy striking a balance that’s realistic without being cynical, and idealistic without being utopian.  But that’s what maturity demands of us. And that’s how we positively address our very real problems.  And that’s how we fight for democracy.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Devouring

I am ego, hear me roar!

Donald Trump is actually quite a simple person.  All he cares about is his ego.  He knows he’s just so amazingly awesome!  And he has the garish wealth and the hot babes to prove it.  Is there another way to measure a person’s value?  To him the world is only raw material waiting to be consumed, just a collection of objects to be possessed and people to be dominated.  And anyone who declines is an enemy to be crushed, a small person who can only be motivated by petty spite and envy, a loser.  This simplicity is sometimes lost in the blizzard of his abusive and blustering speech, but it’s always his essential motivation, his bottom line.  Everyone must worship him as he worships himself.

And that leads to his defining feature as a public figure: his utter disregard for anything else.  The demands of his ravenous monster-ego are so overwhelming that he literally can’t stop to consider any other principle, including civility, or reason, or truth.  And this gives him a kind of grotesque transparency.  He seems to have no ability to censor himself, to control his impulses, to consider the consequences of his actions.  All that matters is that his ego be sated, which, of course, it never can be.  But his comprehensive irresponsibility also gives him an advantage in any confrontation with critics, since words utterly unconstrained by meaning or consequence are tough weapons to fight against.  It’s hard to argue with someone who doesn’t care about anything but winning.

Let’s consider some of the things he doesn’t he care about.  He quite obviously feels no responsibility to civility.  He crudely denigrates Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people, etc.  He brags about how beautiful women are toys created for his pleasure, and how less attractive ones rightly earn his scorn.  Their feelings, their hardships, their dignity – those matter nothing.  Trump has even encouraged violence among his followers.  He doesn’t understand that civility matters because society cannot function if we don’t respect each other, even when we vigorously disagree.  That’s ridiculously obvious, yes.  Well, to you it is.

He feels no responsibility to the Republican Party.  When that tape appeared in which he makes dehumanizing comments about women and brags about sexually assaulting them, party leaders urged him to do everything he could to control the damage.  They begged him – in his own interests and those of down-ballot candidates – to fully apologize, to drop the issue, and to not dredge up similar actions by Bill Clinton.  Instead he doubled down, holding a press conference with Bill’s accusers from the 90’s and before, even giving them seats in the audience at the second debate.  In response, many of those party leaders, notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, have publicly distanced themselves, out of varying degrees of self-interest and moral revulsion.  But Trump’s responses throughout were never in doubt: he went on the crude offensive, first against Bill Clinton, then against those unhappy party bosses, attacking them as weak, pathetic, disloyal non-leaders.  This is an egotism so overwhelming that it can’t even get out of its own way!  A shrewder nominee would have conceded some small amount of stature by being conciliatory with his fellow party members.  But Trump can’t do that, even though it would help him win the presidency.  His narcissism is so short-sighted that it even subverts itself!

And that’s a recurring theme. There was, for instance, absolutely no electoral advantage in deliberately and repeatedly denigrating the Hispanic judge in his fraud trial, or an overweight Hispanic beauty queen from the 1990’s, or the father of a slain Muslim American soldier.  Indeed, in each of these three feuds he came off as bullying a sympathetic figure, and in each case he persisted in his attacks, thereby keeping the story alive in the public mind long after it would otherwise have died.  In each case he was incapable of doing the smart thing: ignoring the criticism and moving on.  And that almost certainly lost him votes with minorities, and probably with moderate whites as well.  But that just wasn’t as important as protecting his vanity.  His ego simply would not let him back down or let it go.

And there’s another recurring theme, his inability to apologize, to consider that he’s done anything wrong.  That is, he feels no responsibility to morality.   Right and wrong are for suckers, they are only distractions from winning.  Consider his leading part in the birther conspiracy.  For years he spread vicious rumors based on flimsy non-evidence that Barack Obama was not born in America, and was therefore unqualified to be president.  He continued to do so long after Obama released his long-form birth certificate proving he was born in Hawaii.  And when in this election year the pressure to recant grew too great, he made a mealy-mouthed non-apology in which he falsely blamed the 2008 Hillary campaign for starting the rumors and took credit for finally laying them to rest.  He took no responsibility for the damage he had done to race relations and to our political discourse more broadly.  He just blithely acted as if none of that had ever happened.

And this may be the worst of all: he feels no responsibility to the truth.  To Trump words need not correspond to reality; they’re only tools for achieving whatever his goal is at that moment (and it’s ultimately always the one goal).  Consider his remarks last August in which he called Obama and Hillary “founders” of ISIS.  When interviewing Trump, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who understood it made no sense to take Trump’s bizarre locution at face value, tried to prompt him to be a little more circumspect in his word choice:

Hewitt: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Trump: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

He doesn’t care.  And why should he care about trivialities like meaning? He casually contradicts what he said last month, or yesterday, or five minutes ago, or even earlier in the same sentence.  He contains multitudes!  He emits his unacquainted-with-reality verbiage and smirks at the camera defiantly, as if sneering at the truth, “You can’t make me care.”

We could go on like this all day and all night and all day and all night tomorrow.  Consider: By telling Hillary he will put her in jail if he’s elected, and by inviting an unfriendly foreign despot to interfere in the election, he shows he doesn’t care about democracy. By repeatedly promoting false crime statistics that wildly overstate black-on-white violence he shows he doesn’t care about racial harmony.  By celebrating waterboarding for its punitive value, and advocating the summary killing of the innocent wives and children of terrorists, he shows he doesn’t care about humanitarianism or justice.  By pre-emptively warning that he can only lose if the Democrats cheat, he shows he doesn’t care about public trust.  By refusing to prepare for the debates, and by stubbornly maintaining ignorance on even the most basic subjects, he shows he doesn’t care about expertise or competence.  Everything he says and does shows he feels no respect or responsibility for anything.

Except maybe the forgotten white working class, and their understanding of America. Trump at times seems to genuinely care about these people and the way conservative economic dogma and liberal cultural disdain have wounded them.  He sees them the way they see themselves, as hard-working people fighting a system that’s working against them, and in his dismissal of all the normal considerations of politics he is their defiance, and their denial.  His supporters are mostly good people wronged by their own elites, and in those moments when he champions them he rises a little above his own squalid vanity.  He comforts them with the same fairy tale he tells himself, that his amazing awesomeness will conquer all.  He extends to them his own irresponsibility, licensing their bitter refusal to face up to the realities of modern America, and to their part in our continuing racial discord.  His ego devours them, too!  And when push comes to shove and his concern for them conflicts with the demands of that implacable ego, he casually hurts their cause by undermining his own electoral chances.  Ultimately he doesn’t really care about them, at least not enough to deserve their support.

And in the end he doesn’t even really care about being president.  Does anyone actually believe he’d like to hold all that responsibility?  He would love the power and adulation, of course.  But he would be incapable of evaluating heavy decisions, or making concessions to unfriendly realities, or controlling his impulses when his buttons are pushed.  That is, he can’t really be the President, and he knows it.  He seems to have decided to run for president partly to avenge Obama’s insults against him over his birther-ism, maybe even on a dare.  If his ego trumps even his own self-interest, is there any reason to think it won’t trump American interests as well?  This is not someone who should be let within a hundred miles of the presidency.

Obviously, anyone whose policy preferences run conservative would find it hard or impossible to vote for Hillary, even in the grim face of Trump’s blithering unfitness.  On policy, Hillary is a fairly standard professional-class liberal, with all the knee-jerk cosmopolitanism, acquiescence to inequality, and condescension toward working whites that that implies.  She’s more slippery than the average politician, but that makes her less so than a constant dissembler like Trump, just as being more corrupt than the typical politician makes her less corrupt than a dirty Manhattan real-estate developer.  And she is capable of controlling herself, of considering the consequences of her actions, of understanding her own motivations, of learning and growing, of weighing multiple considerations, of compromise, of conciliation, and of responsibility.  She is an adult; he is a screaming baby.  The choice for an honest conservative must be hard, and that conservative can only choose Trump over Hillary if he believes her policies will be so harmful to the country that they out-weigh Trump’s monumental and destructive foolishness, immaturity and irresponsibility.  And that’s a hard argument to make.

It’s not clear how Trump became the genuinely toxic character he is.  It seems likely he was born with narcissist tendencies and 70 years of yes-man sycophancy and moneyed unaccountability have drilled that narcissism deep down into the bedrock of his psyche.  But he is, in a strange way, to be pitied, like a compulsive psychopath, or a Kardashian.  He’s the bellhop of the world’s most superficial and tyrannical ego.  He’s a lost little boy at the mercy of a reality-devouring monster, and whatever was once human or touching about him is long, long gone.  There is no hope for the little Donald, his ruthless ego enslaves him and ruins him.  But it’s quite easy to keep it from ruining us.  Don’t vote for it.