I’ve been struggling with the question of whether to allow Donald Trump to take up any more mental space in my head (and yours, if you’ve read at least this far). After all, Joe Biden is the president-elect!
This is a fact and has been for some time now, one that was acknowledged even this morning in a tweet by the current (for 65 days and counting…) president, who sounded every bit the first-grade schoolboy muttering barely out of hearing to his bigger, more muscular opponent who just vanquished him in a game of tetherball: “Yeah, but you CHEATED!”
If that were so, what does it say about him, the most powerful man in the world, whose government apparently couldn’t even oversee a free election on his behalf in a country with a 240-year record of standing as a worldwide beacon of freedom?
Whether to ponder Trump yet again is a dilemma he has visited upon everyone concerned about the hard and sustained veering toward autocracy that has characterized his presidency.
Between 70-82% of the approximately 44% of the voting population that identifies as outright or ‘leaning’ Republican believes we did not hold a free and fair election on November 3? We read that and we move on to the next item, when, in truth, we should consider our hair on fire and these findings to be a dire emergency…
He has been testing those autocratic waters yet again in his losing battle the past 12 days to upend the will of the people and overturn an election in what he has relentlessly claimed is the greatest country in the world.
Now, he seems to be grudgingly admitting, in a decidedly low-energy wail, that the Democrats outfoxed him and somehow managed to hide, discard and change millions of ballots in a blatant, illegal and successful operation that took place directly under the gaze of the oath-taking civil servants overseeing elections and the hundreds of attorneys and thousands of “poll watchers” he recruited from around the country to assure him a free and easy glide to a second term.
SO VERY UNFAIR!
O.K. enough piling on here about this child-man and his emotional disorders. What I want to explore is something more important, which is what his term in office has revealed about our country, about its future, and in a larger sense, about human nature itself.
A critical fact we must bear in mind: Trump’s virulent claims about fraud that began pre-election 2016 and have continued right through post-election 2020 have not been a mere snit from a disgruntled hack in a corner of South Dakota who lost by three votes in a town council race.
This has instead been the president of the United States loudly and incessantly claiming, over multiple election cycles, that voting in what the world has always looked to as its shining star of democracy and peaceful transitions of power is, in its very nature, rife with fraud, untrustworthy, able to steal an election with impunity from its sitting president and all the levers of power he controls.
In other words, not fundamentally different than a tenuous banana republic or wobbly new democracy still looking to root out its history of corrupt authoritarian rule.
And now we must add in these terrifying facts that ride in with those claims, as collated by the 538 polling firm on November 12:
“According to a poll from YouGov and The Economist conducted Nov. 8-10 among registered voters, 82 percent of Republicans said they did not believe that Joe Biden had legitimately won the presidential election, even though he has. This followed a Nov. 7 YouGov poll among registered voters that found 79 percent of Republicans believed voter fraud had occurred and affected the outcome of the election. Similarly, in a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Nov. 6-9 among registered voters, 70 percent of Republicans said they didn’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair—double the 35 percent of Republicans who answered that way in a poll conducted before the election.”
We read that and we move on to the next item, when, in truth, we should consider our hair on fire and these findings to be a dire emergency undermining the very existence and basic functioning of our country.
Somewhere between 70-82 percent of the approximately 44 percent of the voting population that identifies as outright or “leaning” Republican believes we did not hold a free and fair election on November 3?
And this number apparently doubled once the losing candidate claimed it as so, without a shred of evidence to back it up?
How long can a nation of competing interests survive when the vast bulk of voters in a major political party can be persuaded that the most fundamental characteristic of a democracy—free and fair elections— are not to be trusted?
In George Orwell’s futuristic 1949 novel, “1984,” the mockingly ironic “Ministry of Truth” is the sole provider of news and information to a tightly controlled, always-monitored population of near zombies who go about bleak lives with their ears full of claims from authorities that life is beautiful and getting better all the time.
The Ministry’s incessantly repeated three-pronged slogan is:
“WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
In other words, everything is backwards. Why? Because the Ministry and its leadership, personified by the moniker “Big Brother,” say so. Over and over and over, through the mouths of all its puppets. And if they say it enough times…
An even closer-to-home example of that head-and-reality-spinning motto is the chocolate ration doled out to citizens to relieve the tedium of otherwise drab food choices in a totally regimented economy, where the spoils are reserved for the distant ruling class.
With the chocolate ration reduced from 30 to 20 grams one day, the Ministry announces the very next day that it has been increased to 20 grams, leading to celebrations thanking Big Brother for his largesse. Never mind the complete, countrywide repression of the fact of the previous day’s decrease. Writes Orwell:
“Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it…The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically, passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week the ration had been thirty grams.”
It’s almost as if Big Brother were holding maskless rallies with devotees jammed in at close quarters around the country at which he celebrates the imminent demise of a pandemic when it is, in truth, raging out of control. That couldn’t happen in a society with a free flow of information, could it?
Among the many things that have continued to perplex me about the 72.9 million people who voted for Trump as of this writing is how they could abide his incessant, exhaustively-chronicled lying. And I’m not referring here to the garden variety prevarications and sudden changes of subject most all politicians engage in on occasion.
No, this is about outright fabrications tantamount to claiming a reduction in the chocolate ration is actually an increase. Sure, his taxes will be released as soon as the audit is complete. And the new health care plan will be out in just a week or two. Same for infrastructure. And all the new auto plants he helped bring to Michigan during his term in office. (Actual answer: zero. Claimed: “Lots.”)
Or that he won an election that he lost.
Why don’t these and thousands of other lies matter? If someone demonstrably lies all the time, don’t we all, in our everyday lives, come to not trust a word he or she says?
And if that person holds the most powerful position in the world, why doesn’t that untrustworthiness terrify or at least deeply trouble every thinking person’s mind? How could it possibly be of minor or no concern?
One must either completely ignore overwhelming evidence of the lying presenting itself daily, right in front of one’s eyes and ears, or deny the notion that basic trustworthiness is an important and desirable quality in a nation’s leaders. And if either of those is true, the very moorings of society simply cannot stand, Big Brother has won, and Orwell’s stark warnings about the power of propaganda and lying have come to full fruition, 36 years after the fictionalized version suggested it could.
On yesterday’s podcast from The Bulwark, an organization of highly conservative Republicans who are currently feeling partyless in the Age of Trump, host Mona Charen asked Eric Edelman of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment think tank what his response would have been if a country he was serving in his career as a state department official and ambassador…
“…had just gone through an election in which the existing president was refusing to acknowledge he had lost and was firing top officials in the security apparatus….and that major parts of his party were also refusing to acknowledge the winner. What would you think about that country?”
“I would probably be preparing a telegram back to Washington saying we need to be prepared to invoke U.S. law that cuts off assistance to countries that have extra-constitutional changes of government.”
That’s a chilling phrase he used there—”extra-constitutional changes of government”—couched in diplomatese and essentially adding up to: “coup.” Such a country is indisputably unstable, lacking the essential foundation of agreed-upon norms on electoral behavior and citizen engagement.
But what else could be deduced from an atmosphere in which truth is fungible, facts are chimerical, and the reality before one’s eyes and ears is subject to wholly opposite understanding? In which the president himself had in consecutive elections refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he were to lose?
Here’s another national leader of the past reflecting on the brutal effectiveness of repeating egregious lies:
“In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
“It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
Those reflections from a Big Liar’s playbook are courtesy of Adolf Hitler, writing in “Mein Kampf” in 1925. Perhaps it offers us some insights on how Trump’s legions of followers manage to dismiss his incessant lying.
Sure, he has his share of racist skinheads and would-be Nazis in his corner, but many more of his voters are otherwise decent, community-minded people who perhaps can’t fathom or identify with the audacity and shamelessness of someone who lies about everything, all the time. So they take it all with tiny grains of salt that they manage, over time, in the pursuit of other purposes like stout opposition to liberal politics, to corrode to nothing, a trifle, a mere joke, hahaha.
Unfortunately, nearly 79 million Biden voters aren’t laughing, nor is the wider world beyond, including Russia, Iran, and China, all of whom our leaders have criticized over decades for their oligarchical ways and which are now, not without evidence, calling us hypocrites and knaves, a hapless, chaotic and failing power, mired in mutual distrust.
Is this our fate? The final chapter hasn’t been written yet, but some of it will be over the next four years. What has to happen, how can we get started in that period to restore a common regard for reality and a common respect for differences?
How about this as a baseline: that we can argue policy till we’re blue but we hold ourselves and our leaders to a simple telling of the truth, as best we all know it. That we demand our leaders don’t consciously distort reality because they think no one’s paying attention anyway, or if they are, they won’t care.
Nothing else matters if we can’t do that, does it?
Most all songs about lying are about…you know—boys & girls & stuff. Not this one…
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While Trump calling the 2020 election a sham is downright disgraceful, the idea of rationing chocolate would really piss me off. Having taken a gander at the overall physical condition of his MAGA cult following, I figure they’d feel the same way. Hey, there’s common ground! Drew, this whole Trump circus is wearing on me. I’ve gotta run now. I hear my plate of chocolate chip-oatmeal-coconut cookies calling. “Nothing else matters if we can’t enjoy that, does it?”
Yo Robert, last week I told my self I would definitely not be writing about the election until I took up at least one or two other topics far afield—maybe a reader’s chocolate chip recipe contest or something similar. And then the week wore on and I felt those little hairs go up on the back of my neck and arms as I checked in with The State of Things, and felt tiny chills crawling down my spine—you just saw the indication of what happened next…
To engage or not—or to just go eat cookies—that is the eternal question, yes? Maybe we can have a dialogue about that and turn it into a post sometime. DEFINITELY before I write about the election again, though!
This post gets right to heart of our challenge Drew, we are in a national “epistemological crisis” and in dire need of an “epistemological renaissance” ! (love an excuse to use this cool word that means how do we come to know what we know). A democracy can’t begin to solve complex problems like COVID 19, institutional racism, income inequality, climate change/global warming, and the like unless we begin with some clear agreement on the facts at hand. In the Trumpian universe of lies being cast as “alternative facts” and presidential lawyers contending that “truth isn’t truth,” Orwell’s world is no longer a work of fiction, it is mainstream Republican fare. This brings to mind the oft quoted quip of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” and the less well known follow-up comment, “it’s not ignorance that hurts so much as knowing all those things that ain’t so.” Sadly the GOP (and sometimes the extreme left of the Dems as well) has become captivated by the power of conspiracy theories and other confabulations so easily amplified by social media rendering such craziness as business as usual. While individual issues, policies, programs, initiatives and such obviously matter greatly, but it is the underlying issue of epistemology that we must figure out how to address head on… maybe the virus will be our teacher here since it doesn’t care about red and blue states etc. it simply follows the rules of biology!
“Epistemology” has a most pleasing sound, just flows right off the lips, Kevin, so that in itself is plentiful reason to use it. If it’s able to do double duty making the speaker sound intelligent, all the better!
All these crazed phenomena of incessant lying being just business as usual in running the country just shows how emotionally-based so much human decision-making is. Trump backers simply don’t care and will not be persuaded to abandon him just because he never tells them or anyone the truth, about anything. They like him for other, emotionally rooted reasons (hard to fathom that, too, but it is what it is…), so they manage to ignore or excuse the outright dishonesty of his character. I very much doubt a Democratic candidate could get away with that—he or she would never make it out of the primaries. So it’s doubly incredible that so many (but crucially, not all) Republicans, from the loudly self-proclaiming “party of traditional values,” would give it a pass.
Pondering the concerns you lift to us, I began reading Anne Applebaum’s book, Twilight of Democracy ‘and was stopped cold by this quote early in her work: “The ancient philosophers always had their doubts about democracy. Plato feared the ‘false and braggart words’ of the demagogue, and suspected democracy might be nothing more than a staging point on the way to tyranny.” Later, Applebaum cites works done by those interested in the phenomenon of those susceptible to authoritarianism. References are made to the “disposition” of those drawn to authoritarian rule. A distinguishing feature is a dispositions that arcs toward the need for certitude, order, and simplicity. Our form of government and cultural norms represent anything but exactitude, black/white, etc. The millions in our country frustrated and overwhelmed by nuance and complexity have risen. And they apparently prefer plain lies over hard earned truths. Outstanding post, my friend. And Kevin, many thanks for bringing Epistemology to the fore!
I’m very glad you brought this up, Jay, because I have, for a very long time now, pondered whether democracy is ultimately even workable over the long haul, especially in the age of ever more sophisticated, high tech propaganda tools. Has the human brain and consciousness kept up adequately, concerned and distracted as we are with the complexities of modern life and the demands of family, work, and community?
The problem is what to replace it with—bringing to mind Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “…It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government—except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
In my own view, a truly benevolent despot who had the people’s best interests always at heart would save us all an awful lot of bother, but the challenge in that is the corruptibility of power. Benevolent despots have a devil of a time staying benevolent, or maybe they do, but they die someday, and here comes their much more corruptible kids…
A true conundrum, about which I can’t say Plato was altogether wrong, and which I’d like to explore much more deeply in a post down the road. Thanks for the tip on that book—sounds like it might make a good starting point!
“Frustrated and overwhelmed”….I think that explains a lot about Trump’s mainstream backers. And don’t we all feel that way about Covid, at one time or another? so maybe we can understand them a bit better.
Joan, “frustrated and overwhelmed” certainly seems to reflect the basis for a huge amount of support for Trump, though the notion that he cares or is even competent enough to ever do anything about that frustration is, as we know, delusional. He just feeds people’s legitimate grievances with having been neglected and excluded from the global economy, while his actions do nothing to assist them. Great piece in a recent NYRB by Ian Frazier, writing about his home state of Ohio, and its ravaged small town economies. Plenty of blame to go around, to be sure—a lost part of the world… https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/11/19/election-rural-america-could-stand-remembering/
Great comments Jay, and responses Drew – the “benevolent despot” idea is fascinating, I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work in Rwanda summer before last – and it is a text book example of the pros and cons of such a leader manifest in former rebel leader, now President, Paul Kagame – just google him if interested to get a flavor of the range of opinions. However, the “hard data” in terms of health care, women in government, COVID impact (much better than the US!), education & economic improvements, etc is at the minimum incredibly impressive. Of course there is a darker side too, far more autocratic than democratic purists would be comfortable with no doubt. My personal take, Rwanda is an example of an African country that is creating a phenomenal reinvention of itself after the horror of the 1994 genocide, arguably the worst in recorded history. No clear answers here, Rwanda is a very unique place to be sure and the context is very different than any nation I can think of… yet the role of this “benevolent despot” who exemplifies core humane values that empower the typical citizen are hard to dispute. The pride and positive vibes I experienced just about everywhere I went were absolutely astounding. Our guide on a subsequent safari in neighboring Uganda put it succinctly when he said, “thanks to Kagame Rwanda actually works!” (this can’t be said about all that many countries in Africa!)
It is an open question of how sustainable/replicable this is, what happens after Kagame goes? Some I’ve talked to say the African tribal tradition supports the notion of a “Big Man” in charge, however history suggests it usually turns out badly; crazed destructive despots like Uganda’s Idi Amin are the norm and Kagame the clear exception.
Damn it is complicated!!
Damn right it’s complicated, Kevin. Mulling over this blog again last night, the word loyalty came to mind with regard to the discussion of “Truth Decay” as President O refers to Trump phenomenon. Republicans did everything possible, as Mitch openly declared, to make Obama’s time in office difficult. As a majority party they have enabled and supported The Don. Clearly, their agenda and reason for being is power. They have no interest in a two-party system, wanting simply to control the levers of power. In this “illiberal” model, truth matters much less than fierce and unyielding loyalty. In order to get the chocolate (that is, to benefit) all members must take an oath of loyalty and never dare to question truth, integrity or, ever, the good of the order. Don’s acolytes are blinded by the lust for power and must, therefore, forsake truth for loyalty even when the abject lies and misinformation is clear to all others.
What strikes me reading your comment, Jay, is that while we have been fretting over the possible shredding of constitutional norms as Trump brazenly works to overturn the election (the effort actually started five years ago), the real challenge to those norms likely predates Trump altogether, revealing a more systemic and intractable challenge of a minority party that through gerrymandering, the relic of the electoral college, and a longtime assault on truth and comity itself seeks to dominate the majority. And it seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, considering the stealing of two Supreme Court seats, two presidents this century who lost the popular vote, statehouses gerrymandered in favor of the minority party, and a massive, on-message propaganda machine ranging from the Koch Bros. to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, et al, that uses ersatz patriotism, faux religion and scapegoating to make their base think they actually care about them.
Not a bad record, if brutal effectiveness is the be-all/end-all. Is part of the problem that Democrats are just too liberal in an illiberal world?
It just may be, in fact, that we live in an illiberal world. It appears that nativism and nationalistic inclinations toward authoritarian one party rule and the attendant requisite blind and unwavering loyalty is trending. It makes me sick to even suggest it, but . . .
The activities of this week—the kowtowing of virtually all Republican elected officials to a defeated president’s attempted election theft, and the utterly confounding politicization of a pandemic disease that makes denial a gesture of virtue and defiance rather than self-destructive lunacy—leaves me wondering whether anything at all is possible with respect to binding up this nation’s wounds (apologies to Abe Lincoln there). If we can’t get buy-in from upwards of 40% of the population on such basic principles of a free and responsible society, Joe Biden has a very difficult road ahead of him, I fear. And therefore, so do we all.
Increasingly I fear that the support for Trump to drain the swamp four years ago was coded imagery for the complete destruction of democracy. It appears that far more people than we could fully comprehend felt left behind and deeply outraged by not getting enough from the playing field of the rule of law and democratic principles. Their revolution is to break all that we assumed to be true and virtuous and to take hold by taking power through loyalty, and Congressional Republicans are more than pleased to accept this undying loyalty to their party for the sake of sustaining power. I too wonder what, if anything, is possible to restore the nation we have long respected. If there is an encouraging word out there in the Traversing blogosphere, I very much need to hear it.
All right, Bubs, I will hitch up my Big Boy pants and offer you this glimmer, culled from noted neuroscientist Sam Harris’s most excellent podcast, the most recent being “Republic of Lies,” a penetrating analysis of the mortal threat Trump’s entire presidency has presented to our democracy, but which has been particularly exacerbated by his post-election maneuvering. The podcast is here, lasting 32 minutes of time well-spent: https://tinyurl.com/y68t445w
Anyway, the glimmer is that on November 6, the FAA established the skies above Joe Biden’s home in Delaware as restricted airspace for one week, and subsequently extended the restrictions until inauguration day. Harris and many other observers took this to mean that the system was holding, reality was prevailing, and the perfectly normal functions of government that this represented were a very encouraging sign. The story on the FAA action, facts only, no commentary, are here: https://thehill.com/policy/transportation/aviation/525332-faa-extends-restrictions-over-bidens-home-through-inauguration
That will have to do for now, I’m afraid, but it’s something!
Thanks, Drew. The Harris podcast is something indeed; not the least of which is a much appreciated introduction to Sam Harris. Yes, the system is holding, and I agree that it is likely to hold. I have never really doubted that likelihood. My dismay and my deepest concerns have, and continue to be, the readiness and apparent desire of 70 million Americans to embrace authoritarian rule. Our leaders have often said that our freedoms and democratic values are things for which we must be ever vigilant and for which we must fight, and vote, to protect. Conceptually, this has long made sense to me, but I have been shaken to the depths of my soul by how the truth of the fragility of our governing values is currently playing out before us. Many thanks for engaging in this dialogue, and for the Harris intro.