Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day in Trump's America

This Independence Day, I am grateful to live in a country led by a strong, fearless, authoritarian figure who can fix everything and solve all our problems. I am grateful that America has finally realized the promise of its founding and elected a reality show entertainer and expert Tweeter to its highest office. I am thankful that instead of conventional politicians, we finally have a man in the White House who understands the common people with the unique perspective that only living in a gilded penthouse can provide.

I weep patriotic tears of joy at the courage our Great Leader displays in taking on the true enemies of our nation: a free press and our country's court system. May multitudes of fireworks spew forth tonight like the torrents of 140-character-truthbombs he targets at the hearts of these un-American swine.

I thank the Great Leader and his Great Collaborators in Congress for fighting dangerous ideas like the separation of church and state. I thank them also for working hard to correct the errors of our Founding Fathers who, let's face it, were pretty cool but could they really be as amazing as the Great Leader? Had John Adams lived under the tyranny of Barack Obama rather than George III, he surely would have appreciated the benefits of a government of men -- succesful, non-loser, high-energy, nonconsenual-female-genitalia-grabbing men -- not laws.

I look skyward, not only at the pyrotechnics (which are awesome, btw!), but also towards a future where our Great Leader will tweet America to realize its true potential as a nation of non-immigrants with massive social programs and expansive government controls that benefit the true Sons and Daughters (but mostly Sons) of Liberty: native-born people who basically look like me and simultaneously think they were born in the greatest country in the world yet have somehow gotten a raw deal.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why I am concerned about Trump supporters

This is a post about why I am concerned about Trump supporters. Most of my recent political commentary and Facebook activism has been about analyzing and trying to oppose militant pro-Trump people. Why am I spending time doing this? Why do I think it's important? Why is it something I'm uniquely interested in? Here's why.

First, what this isn't: This isn't a post about why I'm concerned about Trump being President. I am concerned about this, to be sure, and I think my main concerns here differ from what most people are concerned about. I may post on that another time, but I'm actually much more concerned about the emergence, behavior and ideology of Trump's supporters and the effects they are likely to have on the country than I am about Trump's occupancy of the Oval Office and the effects it might have (even though, again, I do think some of those are very serious).

Second, a clarification of terms. By 'Trump supporter' I mean 'someone who is enthusiastic about the candidacy or Presidency of Donald Trump.' Not all Trump voters are Trump supporters: many voted for him un-enthusiastically or as the lesser of two evils. I'm talking about the people who actively embrace Trump and view him as being representative of them and their views. That still lumps a broad group of people together who obviously don't share a single, well-defined set of characteristics or views. This post is aiming to get at what I take to be the fundamental nature of Trump support as a movement an what it represents, and I think what I am about to describe captures that essential, even if it isn't literally true of every Trump supporter (or to the same degree).

Now, on to two important things you should know about me and my beliefs that ground this discussion:

First of all, I think two of the major cultural achievements of modern western society -- and of America in particular -- are the recognition of individual rights and secularism. In only western societies, and only for the last several hundred years or so out of the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, has it been possible to live one's life without having to conform to the tenets of some religious doctrine enforced at the point of a gun. And it's only these same societies who have embraced the principle that one's life has value because one is, fundamentally, an individual with inalienable rights, rather than by virtue of being a member of some group (such as a tribe, a religious sect, the aristocracy, etc.). While America has struggled and continues to struggle to fully embrace these principles, we're the first and only country to embody them in our founding, and that, in my opinion, is amazing.

Secondly, I think economic freedom -- in particular freedom from government control over the economy -- is a pretty great thing, as well as a corollary of the individual political freedom described above.

It's not my intent to argue for those beliefs here. Rather, I'm simply noting that 1) Those are my beliefs and 2) I think our country's greatness and success have a lot to do with the extent to which it embraces those principles.

This bring me to this analysis of polling data by Lee Drutman. You can read a summary of the analysis in the second half of this column on Slate. One of the things that Drutman observes is that the traditional left/right political spectrum isn't really helpful in understanding the Trump phenomenon. As an alternative, he uses polling data about different groups of voters' attitudes on various issues to break the single left-right axis into a two axis system. In his model, the x axis represents people's views on economic issues (ranging from 'liberal' on the left side to 'conservative' on the right). The y axis represents people's views on social and moral issues, ranging from 'conservative' at the top to 'liberal' at the bottom. Here's a graphic from Drutman's report that shows how voters in the 2016 Election clustered in this model:

You'll notice that I put Drutman's 'liberal' and 'conservative' terminology in scare quotes in the paragraph above the graphic. I think his terminology is fine for the purposes of his analysis, but I want to talk about what the two axes really mean. When you look at the kinds of questions that go into the economic axis (the x axis), it's stuff like
  • How important is the social safety net?
  • What is your attitude towards foreign trade?
  • What is your attitude towards income inequality?
  • To what extent should the government regulate the economy?
This axis represents the degree to which the respondents believe it is the proper role of the government to intervene in the economy: it's a familiar paradigm with socialism, communism and economic facisim at the left, laissez faire capitalism on the right and various degrees of mixed economy in the middle.

The social axis appears like a mixed bag at first, combining questions like
  • What is your attitude towards gender roles? Towards black people? Towards Muslims?
  • Are your stances on moral issues more or less traditional?
  • Do you feel that people 'like you' are in decline in this country?
In fact, I think this axis reduces to a measurement of the respondents' valuing of secularism and individualism (at least with respect to non-economic issues) vs. valuing of non-secular, Christian values and group allegiance.

At any rate, Drutman uses this model to divide the electorate into four segments based on the quadrant they fall into:
  • The bottom left segment: the folks who tend to support government intervention in the economy and value secularism. These are liberals. Most factions within the modern Democratic Party fall here and this group made up a plurality of the 2016 electorate (44%)
  • The upper right segment: the folks who favor less economic control and don't dig secularism. Traditionally, this was the Republican religious conservative base, however, as Drutman's analysis shows, the GOP base is increasingly being co-opted by folks from the next segment (in fact, in 2016, there were just about as many GOP voters in the next segment as these traditional conservatives).
  • The upper left segment: the folks who favor more economic control and don't dig secularism. Drutman calls these folks 'populists', but I'm going to go ahead and call them Trump supporters. These are the folks who favor things like restrictive trade policies and increased government control of healthcare (as long as the name 'Obama' isn't attached to it), hold regressive or traditionally Christian views on social issues, and, in particular, see themselves as members of group that is in decline and getting a raw deal at the hands of other groups. This group has surpassed the traditional religious conservatives and now is the second largest group (28%) behind the liberals.
  • The bottom right segment: the folks who want more economic freedom and value secularism: libertarians in popular (and Drutman's) parlance. This is the group I place myself in (though I dislike the term 'libertarian'), and there are so few of us (less than 4% of voters) that we have almost no voice as a popular movement.
I'm used to my views being in the minority. But what's interesting and disheartening this time is that there's now a major political group whose views are, in both key dimensions, the diametric opposite of my own. This group is now ascendant, has become the second largest political faction and is on the verge of becoming the dominant faction within one of the two major parties. And all of this happened more or less in the space of an election cycle.

And this isn't just about a group whose political views differ significantly -- even very significantly -- from my own. It's not about pure disagreement or rival teams. It's about a political movement that's views on both economic freedom and secularism are antithetical to American values. While it's true (as Trump supporters are fond of pointing out) that other political figures have long advocated for and continue to advocate for parts of this worldview (the barely closeted socialism of progressives, the attempts to institute Christian morality by law of religious conservatives, etc.) there's never been a major political group whose very essence on both fronts represents a 180 degree turn away from our founding principles.

This is concerning because there are tens of millions of these folks. Had Trump lost the election, these folks would still be out there and they'll continue to be out there after he leaves office. They can't be ignored. Their most likely home -- the GOP -- certainly isn't ignoring them. How could they? They make up about half the Republican base. Moreover, as I've argued elsewhere, the more traditional Republicans who comprise the party leadership seem to think they are well-served by allying with these folks, even where they differ on concrete policy issues.

And it doesn't matter if (as I suspect) most of the Trump supporters would disagree with this characterization of them (especially, I expect, with the parts about being opposed to capitalism and the idea that their principles are un-American). What matters is what's actually operative for these folks and what their political beliefs lead to, to the extent that they're successful in furthering them. And on those fronts I think it's pretty clear where these folks are headed: more authoritarian government; a more Christian, less secular country; more government interference in the economy in the areas where they like it; and a political apparatus that is increasingly hostile to those who disagree with them.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook

Wait... what? Seriously? What?

Why would you try to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook? Nothing good can possibly come of that.

If you're going to get into an argument with someone -- and I mean argument in the sense of a debate in which the parties share and react to a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition -- or really have any sort of discussion, there has to be some common understanding of the basic rules and goals of the exchange. And here's where you're doomed to failure if you approach the discussion unawares, because the Trump supporter is playing by an entirely different set of rules and with an entirely different goal in mind.

Let's start with the rules. When normal people make arguments, they follow the rules of logic. To condense the entirety of Logic 101 into less than a sentence, this amounts to presenting premises in a valid structure, supported by evidence, that, taken together, give us reason to believe a conclusion is true.

This only works, however, if both parties A) are willing to actually consider the evidence objectively, B) agree on what it means for something to be true and, crucially, C) acknowledge that the truth is important. But the typical Trump supporter, not unlike Trump himself, is determined to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with their preexisting viewpoint. Similarly, most of us outside of Philosophy Departments at major universities hold a view of truth that has something to do with a statement corresponding to what we can observe in reality. But for Trump and his supporters, not so much.

The last issue -- agreement with the principle that the truth is important -- is, however, the most significant consideration. It relates to the other major point of departure the serious arguer has with the Trump supporter: goals. There are lots of potential goals one might have when engaging in a political discussion with someone of a differing viewpoint, on Facebook or otherwise, for example:

  • To change the other person's mind (though this is pretty dubious)
  • To better understand the other person's position
  • To use the process of arguing/discussing as a means to better understand the topic or discover the truth (which may not lie in either party's original position)
  • To understand the flaws in one's own (or one's opponent's) reasoning
The thing is, the Trump supporter's actual goal isn't any of those things.

As Matthew Yglesias at Vox persuasively argues, there's something else going on when a Trump supporter repeats one of the president's statements (or one from the right wing media, or constructs an original argument using material from one of those sources):
[The statement] serves... as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.
I've argued elsewhere, as Yglesias does in his piece, that the essence of Trump-the-utterer-of-falsehoods is not that he is a liar, but that he is a bullshit artist. The difference is that the liar is trying to deceive you about the substance of his statement: he knows something to be true but wants to convince you that what's true is something other than that. The bullshit artist, on the other hand, makes statements without caring whether they are true or not in order to serve some other purpose.

I have long been of the opinion that the defining feature of the Trump supporter is tribalism: putting membership in and allegiance to group above all else. When Yglesias says that Trump supporters repeat statements 'to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community,' he is identifying one manifestation of this tribalism.

When you or I post the opinion on Facebook that, say, it was improper of Trump to fire James Comey under the circumstances that he did, we do so because we believe that opinion to be correct. We believe it is true. We believe it is right. We hope that by posting it and by providing arguments and evidence that support it, we will convince others of our opinion's righteousness. We could be forgiven for assuming that a Trump supporter, in posting the opposite opinion, is doing so because he believes he is similarly correct and with similar goals in mind.

But the Trump supporter is not, in fact, concerned with the righteousness of his statement. He neither believes nor disbelieves what he is posting, and his posting of it is in no way impacted by any evaluation of whether the statement is true. Truth is not important. In fact, 'winning' the argument in the conventional sense isn't even important (since the Trump supporter knows he is unlikely to convince his counter-party and can simply take a page from Trump's book and unilaterally declare victory with no apparent basis at any time anyway).

What is important is loyalty. The purpose of making the statement is to demonstrate membership in and loyalty to the tribe. To demonstrate it to other members of the tribe. To those who are not members. To the president. To oneself. It is the Facebook equivalent of wearing a MAGA cap.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you can't hope to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook. For you, winning involves being successful in convincing your Trumpian opponent to come around to your side. It requires him to engage in a specific way, which he may or may not do (but -- let's be real -- probably won't). For him, however, winning requires only that you engage with him at all, which you've already done by entering the argument in the first place. Once you've engaged, he has all the opportunity he needs to achieve his actual goal: articulate a pro-Trump position and thereby demonstrate his loyalty. And the more you continue to engage, the more opportunities you provide for him to do exactly that. #winning.

None of this is to say, by the way, that I think one shouldn't get into arguments with Trump supporters on Facebook (or be politically active there in general). I just think one shouldn't do so with the goal of winning the arguments in mind. There are plenty of good reasons to argue other than trying to win, and some of them are more important now than ever.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

But Hillary Clinton...

Whenever some new revelation about a bad thing Donald Trump has done comes to light, his supporters practically trip over themselves racing to remind us of something Hillary Clinton (or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or some other hated liberal) did that is supposed to be similar. The idea seems to be that something about one of those Democrats having done the similar thing is more significant than or mitigates what Donald Trump is alleged to have done.

Having tried to engage with a number of Trump supporters who do this, I am convinced that this tactic is utterly disingenuous. Still, I think it's instructive to examine it. What are these folks trying to accomplish when they do this? I think a few things are going on, and I want to talk about why they are all bullshit.

Trying to appear as if they are calling for justice

On the surface, most of these attempts take the form of a call for overdue justice. For example, when it comes out that Donald Trump shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and someone demands that he be held accountable, the inevitable response is "but Hillary Clinton was never held accountable for her private email server!" The implication here is that whatever Donald Trump has done, it is a far greater miscarriage of justice that Hillary's email indiscretions went unpunished. An occasional variant of this goes "We know Hillary did something improper with having the private email server whereas the allegations against Trump haven't been proven, yet you're all concerned with nailing Trump while giving Hillary a free pass."

Why this is bullshit: Someone who is truly concerned with the mishandling of classified information should, of course, be concerned both about what Hillary Clinton did and what Trump is alleged to have done. Since it's not as if there's a finite amount of justice to go around, it's possible to think Hillary should be held accountable and that we should investigate credible allegations of the same behavior involving Trump and hold him accountable if they turn out to be substantiated.

If you want to present yourself as a true and consistent champion of justice, you need to demonstrate that you want to see the underlying principle applied in all cases. But of course the Trump supporter never does this. It's always "but Hillary Clinton..." and then a blank out. No mention of what should be done about Trump's indiscretion, and certainly no suggestion that the same principle should be applied in his case.

Even if the Trump supporter is willing to concede that Trump should be held accountable, the level of concern never rises to Hillary email level (or Bill Clinton doing inappropriate things with a cigar tube level). As I've argued elsewhere, this way of thinking is ridiculous. Regardless of how egregious you think Hillary's actions were in the email case, she is not the current President. In fact, she holds no office whatsoever. If Trump is doing something similarly bad -- or even, I would argue, something considerably less bad -- it's appropriate to be much more concerned about his behavior right now, since he is the current President and is thus in a position to potentially harm the country through his active misdeeds. In fact, by identifying and addressing Trump's misdeeds now, we may be able to prevent damage to our country, rather than having to resort, at best, to retrospective justice (as was our only option in the Clinton email case). It seems to me that someone who was genuinely concerned with the country's well being would be all forr that.

Accusing liberals of hypocrisy

This usually takes the form of "Look at how the media / Democrats / the person I'm talking to is all over Donald Trump but gave a free pass to Hillary / Obama / whoever over the similar thing they did. What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the target of this attack is guilty of hypocrisy, the Trump supporter raising the issue entails two significant admissions that undermine his own position. First, because it asserts that the target should have been concerned with the thing that Hillary or whoever did, it means that we ought to be concerned about the essentially similar thing Trump is doing now. Thus, the Trump supporter is conceding the premise that what Donald Trump is alleged to be doing (if true) is cause for concern. Secondly, because the Trump supporter then doesn't go on to demand that Trump be treated the way he believes Hillary (or whoever) should have been treated (see above), he opens himself up to the same charge of hypocrisy he is trying to level against his target.

To obfuscate and distract

Most of the Trump supporters I talk to aren't dumb, so I think they grasp the incoherence of their approach on some level. However, just bringing up Hillary has the effect of changing the subject to something other than the misdeeds of the person they support. As Trump himself has demonstrated, obfuscation and distraction are effective weapons, and Trump supporters like nothing more than to rail against their favorite liberal targets anyway. This tactic is also especially effective against well-meaning interlocutors who assume the Trump supporter is approaching the conversation with the same good faith as they are and attempt to answer the Trumpy's charges against Hillary point-by-point, allowing the Trump supporter to succeed in changing the subject.

Why this is bullshit: It's senseless to argue with someone who isn't approaching the conversation in good faith, and these tactics are prime examples of bad faith. Once it becomes apparent that the Trump supporter has resorted to them, he exposes himself as a partisan sheep who doesn't bring anything to the table intellectually.

To garner sympathy

The Trump supporters often fall into this mode among themselves, but sometimes it bleeds out into discussion with people who don't share their viewpoint. The refrain goes like this "The media / Democrats / whoever are out to get Donald Trump. They never went after Hillary like this. The deck is totally stacked against him. See, unless you're part of the liberal establishment, you can't get a fair shake. Woe is us!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the media went easy on Hillary, the appropriate response to their going tough on Trump for similar (or worse) misdeeds is thanks (perhaps with a small dose of 'what took you so long?'). But more insidious is the notion that Trump -- and particularly his supporters -- are deserving of sympathy. Trump supporters championed and voted for a man who is, obviously and transparently, the least qualified, most despicable, most pro-authoritarian person ever to hold the office of President. Far from being victimized by those of us who refuse to tolerate this unacceptable state of affairs, Trump's supporters deserve to be held accountable for being complicit in it. A Trump supporter asserting that we, as decent, concerned citizens, are somehow in the wrong for calling the president to task for, e.g., sharing classified material when they themselves participated in enabling him to do so is obscene.

Regardless of the motive, bringing up Hillary Clinton is an attempt by the Trump supporter to switch the topic to one where he believes he holds the moral high ground. But, as noted above, one can only claim to hold such a position if one wants to see the underlying moral principle applied equally and universally. If you don't, it amounts to an admission that you don't believe there is any moral high ground (or principle) at all: just partisanship and allegiance to whatever team you're on. I don't think that's true, and I don't think someone who thinks that deserves to be let off the hook. In the future, my standard response to the 'But Hillary Clinton...' arguments is going to be as follows:

"This isn't about Hillary Clinton. This is about the conduct of the person you put in the White House and continue to support. What he's doing isn't OK, and neither is your supporting someone who does it."