Benched

Beware, I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court this past weekend caps one of the strangest performances of political theatre I’ve seen in some time.

I say this without taking sides on the main issue at the hearings. Let us assume that Kavanaugh was guilty of all the crimes and other forms of misbehaviour he was accused of: that he was an angry drunk while a student and had a history of sexually assaulting women. What then followed was still bizarre from a strategic standpoint.

In the first place, the Democrats must have known that there would be no way they could prove such charges. The main complaint was of an event that took place some 35 years previously, with no corroborating witnesses or evidence. This was always going to be a case of “he-said, she-said,” and no matter how credible the complainant (and she was) or how big a train wreck Kavanaugh turned out to be (and he was), we weren’t going to be left with any clearer idea of what really happened.

Added to this was the fact that the nomination was a lock. The Democrats had no way of stopping Kavanaugh’s appointment. This, in turn, made the Republicans’ “victory lap” at the vote for confirmation baffling. It seems a strange thing to pat oneself on the back over.

In short, none of the wall-to-wall cable coverage seemed to be very much concerned with Christine Blasey Ford’s complaint, which was left in the air. Nor did it seem to be about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which was a foregone conclusion even after his manic and disingenuous performance. Instead it was all about turning out the vote. Both sides were jockeying for position, trying to co-opt a spirit of outrage. Winning!

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The new victimology

In late August 2018 the news wires had a field day with a story that seemed designed to trigger a public backlash, or at least light up Twitter for 24 hours.

During a sentencing hearing for Christopher Garnier, who had murdered an off-duty police officer and dumped her body in a compost bin, the convicted killer’s psychologist revealed that Garnier suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on by his crime. It was then argued that said condition should be a mitigating factor in determining Garnier’s sentence.

Few commentators could resist invoking the classic definition of chutzpah: the kid who kills his parents and then begs the court for leniency because he is an orphan. There were also howls of outrage that Garnier should even be receiving veteran’s benefits (including his therapy for PTSD), which he was only eligible for because his father had been in the armed forces.

People were right to be upset, but while Garnier’s case is egregious there is nothing out of the ordinary about his desperate claim to victim status. This has become not just a shrewd tactical move but an imperative in many legal proceedings. As Lewis Lapham once explained, to be a victim is to be “Always and forever innocent.” But even outside the courtroom being credentialed as a victim has real benefits. In general these fall into two categories. Being a victim means:

(1) You aren’t personally responsible (or, worse, liable) for anything.
(2) Somebody owes you — at least a special duty of care and quite possibly a lot of money.

What this has led to has been described as the “victimhood Olympics” or, in the words of Todd Gitlin in his book The Twilight of Common Dreams, a race for the crown of thorns.

There have long been critics of this development, usually from the political right. They are quick to label those claiming to be victims as whiners looking for special treatment. Today these people are sometimes mocked as snowflakes, but the diagnosis of the victim condition goes back well before this, to the first wave of political correctness in the 1990s and books like Charles J. Sykes’s A Nation of Victims (1992), Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint (1993), and Alan Dershowitz’s The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-Outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility (1994).

What concerned Sykes was, as his subtitle puts it, “the decay of the American character” through the cultivation of an ideology of the ego and the rise of therapeutic culture. He has a whole theoretical framework explaining how this “fundamental transformation of American cultural values and notions of character and personal responsibility” happened. Along the way he gets to mine some funny headlines that help to make the larger point. Here’s just a sample of where things were heading twenty-five years ago:

Men have sued diet clinics because they sponsor female-only weight-loss programs; the San Francisco Giants are sued for giving away Father’s Day gifts to men only; a psychology professor complains that she has been victimized by the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party, and claims sexual harassment. In the current legal climate, even an attempt to uphold civil rights can become a source of claimed victimization: In Miami, a court ruled that a woman be paid forty thousand dollars in worker’s compensation benefits after she complained that she was so afraid of blacks that she was unable to work in an integrated office.

Two Marines alleged they had been unconstitutionally discriminated against because the Marine Corps had discharged them for “being chronically overweight.” A postal clerk who is left-handed accused the U.S. Postal Service of discriminatory bias in setting up filing cases “for the convenience of right-handed clerks.” A twenty-four-year-old Colorado man sued his mother and father for what he called “parental malpractice.” In Hawaii, a family of tourists who had been shunted to “less desirable lodgings” by their overbooked hotel not only sued for their economic losses, but were awarded cash for their “emotional distress and disappointment.”

It’s not such a big stretch to get from here to Garnier’s PTSD.

I mentioned that this was all being said at the time of the first wave of political correctness. As I’ve written before, what we’re currently going through is PC’s second wave, which has in turn given rise to its own critical voices challenging the victimhood Olympics. Here, to take only one prominent example, is anti-PC warrior Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Christie Blatchford:

There’s an epidemic of self-diagnosis among young people, there’s a race to multiply pathology, there’s a glorification of disorders like borderline personality disorder, which is rare. When being the most oppressed victim gives you the highest status, then it’s a race to the bottom.

We’re not helping young people figure out a noble and difficult pathway forward, where they bear responsibility and march forthrightly into adulthood. Quite the contrary. We’re saying, ‘Well, the system is corrupt and there’s no point in taking part in it. You’re going to be victimized no matter what you do.’ And so the race is on for who gets to play the victim card with the highest degree of status.

I’ve said this is a critique most often coming from the right, but it’s a vice we find at both ends of the political spectrum. After facing blowback for posting a picture of herself holding the severed head of Donald Trump, comedian Kathy Griffin tearfully claimed victim status, as did right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after having his book deal canceled when reports of some of his earlier comments about sex with minors were made public. Hillary Clinton has always cast her political failings in terms of something done to her, but nobody tops Donald Trump in his role as Victim-in-Chief, whining that no politician in history has been treated more unfairly. As Katy Waldman puts it: “Trump has always played the victim, never more so than when he’s occupied the highest perch in the land. He could be sitting on an ocean of gold like Smaug in The Hobbit and still demand sympathy, moaning that the haters and the liars were robbing him blind.”

But if the criticism of what Sykes calls “victimism” and its attendant race to the bottom – where we are all, in his words “competitors for the honor of most downtrodden” – has remained constant, some of the events in the victimhood Olympics have changed. In particular, two new labels have recently grown so common and widespread in the last twenty years that today they dominate the field of victimology. They are PTSD and the autism spectrum.

Now before I go any further I want to be clear on this: PTSD and autism are real conditions. The point I want to focus on is their co-option: the way they’ve been adopted and exploited by opportunists. As Sykes put it: “Criticism . . . of the distortions of what it means to be ‘handicapped’ does not apply to the genuinely disabled. It merely highlights the gross cynicism of a culture of victimism that encourages and allows others to latch onto the moral and legal standing of the disabled for their own advantage.”

The reason PTSD and autism have become so popular is precisely because of their diagnostic fuzziness. Of course in extreme and perfectly valid cases diagnosis is so obvious one needn’t have any professional qualifications to determine that something is wrong. But any healthy person so inclined (and the incentives are there) can easily find the correct checklist of symptoms to evidence just by heading to Wikipedia. The problem then becomes how you prove someone doesn’t have PTSD or how you can establish that someone is not on the autism spectrum.

It is a spectrum, after all, and once you get to the place where it borders whatever you want to define as non-autistic who can draw the line? Recent years have seen numerous celebrities testing the waters. Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps most famously, initially speculated that he might be on the autism spectrum and then backed down in the face of public backlash. Meanwhile, autism has come to signify not a disability at all but a gift of superhuman powers. Shakespeare, we are told, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. And just about every Silicon Valley tycoon. Pity the billionaires!

One can appreciate the resulting confusion among the general public. I know individuals who struggle with autism but I also know men (they have always been men in my experience) who use the label as an excuse for some other failing or deficiency. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes. Instead I’ll let some professionals describe what is going on.

In 2012 Benjamin Wallace wrote a long piece that was published in New York Magazine talking about how the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been experiencing significant clinical mission creep. It’s worth quoting some of what he has to say at length:

The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.” On Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Asperger’s diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official “seemed to concur,” Pinsky told viewers. On the Asperger’s community site Wrong Planet, threads like “Real life celebrities who have or probably have Asperger’s” include Jim Carrey, Adolf Hitler, Daryl Hannah, Slash, Billy Joel, J. K. Rowling, and Adam Carolla, who makes the cut because “I’ve heard guests on his podcast remark on his lack of eye contact.” “Kanye Probably Has Asperger’s,” BuzzFeed recently declared.

Still others are seeing it in themselves. David Byrne: “I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.” Craigs­list founder Craig Newmark, noting his poor eye contact and limited social competency, blogged that Asperger’s symptoms “feel uncomfortably familiar.” Dan Harmon, the volatile creator of NBC’s Community, told an interviewer last year that he had boned up on Asperger’s symptoms when researching the character Abed: “The more I looked them up, the more familiar they seemed.” Dan Aykroyd told NPR’s Terry Gross that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child (a puzzling claim given that the diagnosis didn’t exist prior to 1981, when Aykroyd turned 29); Aykroyd insisted he was being serious, and as evidence of his continuing symptoms he noted his “fascination with law enforcement and the police.”

What is happening?

This is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.

[Psychologist Bryna] Siegel, who has been running her clinic since the eighties, says she’s seeing “more false-positive assessments than ever before.” Of the roughly ten new assessments she’s asked to do every week—kids showing up with spectrum diagnoses from another therapist—six of them might not have an autism-spectrum disorder. This isn’t to say that they may not have psychological issues, only that those are either other disorders or they don’t rise to an impairing level. “A lot of kids are just delayed in development, slow to talk, or anxious, or hyperactive, and a lot of kids are just terribly parented.”

Siegel sees overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis as driven largely by economic and social priorities rather than medical ones. Some adults who might be very high-functioning seek a formal diagnosis because it enables them to, in Siegel’s words, “wallow” in their symptoms rather than “ameliorate” them, because they’re “a lunch ticket.” Poor parents want diagnoses serious enough to merit state-funded school services, and rich parents want the least stigmatizing diagnoses. (“When you say a kid is mentally retarded,” Siegel says, “parents try to talk you out of it.”) And some parents are simply flummoxed by their own kids’ irrational mood swings, refusal of food, or inability to express emotion. When these parents come to Siegel, they get a surprise: She diagnoses their children as suffering from childhood.

“We see a lot of diagnosis-of-childhood kids, whose parents have never set limits, plus kids who are temperamentally difficult to raise.”

Also temperamentally difficult: husbands. Put-upon spouses have seized on the autism rainbow as a simple, esteem-boosting way to pathologize what used to be called “a typical guy.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading expert on Asperger’s at Cambridge (and, as it happens, the cousin of Sacha), has theorized that the autism spectrum represents the “extreme male brain,” turned up to eleven. Hence the ubiquity of spectrum references in the coastal power centers where Nora Ephron spent most of her time. And the Internet abounds with unhappy married women diagnosing their callous workaholic husbands with Asperger’s, whether or not a clinician has seconded their opinion. In a forum called Asperger Divorce Support Group, posters share war stories, some less harrowing than others: “My ex … did not GET a sunset. He took pictures of fall color trees last year and said, ‘I guess its cool looking, right?’ ”

“It’s become more frequent in the last five years,” confirms a Connecticut divorce lawyer who says she has represented parties in several cases where a wife accused the husband of being on the spectrum. “It’s women complaining, ‘He lines up my towels perfectly. He complains if his shoes aren’t lined up right.’ ”

Men have caught on and, in a kind of inverted gaslighting, begun to describe themselves as having Asperger’s as a way of controlling their spouses. “Having Asperger’s-like syndrome does not give you Asperger’s,” says David Schnarch, a Colorado-based couples therapist. “Having a big belly does not make you pregnant. I’ve not seen a single case of what I would consider to be diagnosable Asperger’s. But I have seen any number of cases of wives accusing husbands of it, any number of cases of husbands claiming to have it.” It’s the new ADHD, he says. “The wife doesn’t want to accept that the husband knows what he’s doing when he’s doing something she doesn’t like.” Schnarch recalls a man who phoned him the day before a scheduled initial couples session and announced that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. “As soon as this happened,” Schnarch says, “I knew I had difficulty.” He contacted the referring therapist, who said he’d suspected the man had Asperger’s because he said things to his girlfriend that were so cruel he couldn’t possibly understand their impact. As far as Schnarch was concerned, it was an all-too-familiar instance of sadism masquerading as disability. “If you’re going to perp, the best place to perp from is the victim position.”

Because Asperger’s lives on the outskirts of normal, and because its symptoms can resemble willfully antisocial behavior, there’s now a presumption of excuse-making whenever someone invokes it to get out of a pickle. Last October, South Park aired an episode in which the people at an Asperger’s group-therapy center turn out to be faking their symptoms and not even to believe in the reality of the disorder. (Cartman, meanwhile, mishearing Asperger’s as “Ass Burgers,” tries to fake it by stuffing his underwear with hamburgers.) “You’re not autistic,” a doctor tells Hugh Laurie’s abrasive character in an episode of House. “You don’t even have Asperger’s. You wish you did; it would exempt you from the rules, give you freedom, absolve you of responsibility, let you date 17-year-olds. But, most important, it would mean that you’re not just a jerk.”

But, and the question demands to be asked, what if you are just a jerk? What if, instead of having Asperger’s, a condition that calls for support and sympathy, all you are is an asshole? In online forums too numerous to count this is a possibility that must never be entertained: we must always and absolutely believe and support victims in everything. Yet professionally it does seem to be an issue.

A similar problem is being encountered by therapists looking to deal with the explosion in cases of PTSD, another condition that can be very difficult to define and diagnose. Here’s a piece from the Los Angeles Times by Alan Zarembo headlined “As disability awards grow, so do concerns with veracity of PTSD claims”:

The 49-year-old veteran explained that he suffered from paranoia in crowds, nightmares and unrelenting flashbacks from the Iraq war. He said he needed his handgun to feel secure and worried that he would shoot somebody.
The symptoms were textbook post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Robert Moering, the psychologist conducting the disability examination at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Fla., suspected the veteran was exaggerating. Hardly anybody had so many symptoms of PTSD so much of the time.

As disability awards for PTSD have grown nearly fivefold over the last 13 years, so have concerns that many veterans might be exaggerating or lying to win benefits. Moering, a former Marine, estimates that roughly half of the veterans he evaluates for the disorder exaggerate or fabricate symptoms.

Depending on severity, veterans with PTSD can receive up to $3,000 a month tax-free, making the disorder the biggest contributor to the growth of a disability system in which payments have more than doubled to $49 billion since 2002.

“It’s an open secret that a large chunk of patients are flat-out malingering,” said Christopher Frueh, a University of Hawaii psychologist who spent 15 years treating PTSD in the VA system.

Again I have to stress that PTSD is a real condition. It is, however, uncommon, and traditionally has its roots in extreme traumatic shocks. Being caught in an artillery bombardment, for example, or surviving a violent sexual assault. And yet one reads today of people claiming PTSD for what are scarcely more than the common disappointments of everyday life, just as one hears of people claiming to have autism simply because they don’t like other people or have become bored with their jobs or sick of their wives. And then there is Christopher Garnier.

Commentators seem unsure of whether there really is an increase in the rates of autism and PTSD or whether it is just being diagnosed more. The problem is that with no clear diagnosis both conditions have been adopted as all-purpose excuses for any sort of misbehaviour or disability claim. In general, I think professional therapists understand what is going on and want to push back. If you are committed to getting properly credentialed as a victim, however, there’s nothing stopping you from shopping around until you finally get the diagnosis you want. One would hope that the communities involved would try to do more to police this abuse, but so far I’ve seen little evidence of that happening. Instead, the labels continue to expand their reach. Garnier may not be where all this ends.

Billion dollar babies

A recent cover story in Forbes Magazine heralds Kylie Jenner, who is a month shy of turning 21, as being the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Some have criticized Forbes for their definition of “self-made,” arguing that Jenner was born into wealth and celebrity. This is true, but today she is apparently worth more than the rest of her extended family combined, so I guess she must have done something on her own. I wouldn’t deny her the title.

I also wasn’t too surprised at her age. We’ve been hearing about boy billionaires for years now, and the tech industry in particular has already thrown up more than a few. If Jenner does become a billionaire in the next year or so — and once you’ve accumulated that amount of wealth, increasing it becomes almost inevitable — then she’ll be beating out Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billiionaire at the age of 23. These things happen in our lottery economy.

What I did find surprising was just how lucrative the cosmetics industry is. When Lilian Bettencourt died last year she was said to have been the richest woman in the world, due to her having inherited the L’Oréal fortune from her father. But Kylie Jenner only launched her own cosmetic brand in 2016 and Forbes today values it at nearly $800 million (it did an estimated $330 million in sales last year). That’s amazing growth. Markups and profit margins in cosmetics I know are high, but this sounds like a license to print money.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between cheap and very expensive cosmetics, either in terms of what they cost to produce or how well they actually work, so marketing is very important. Jenner has taken her name and fame and successfully branded herself, as is often recommended to young entrepreneurial types. Her stunning success, in other words, is another example of the triumph of celebrity in our time, as if any more were needed after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This is something that I think we really need to be more concerned about.

Election round-up

Thoughts on the 2018 Ontario provincial election.

(1) They changed the location of my polling station from a hotel that’s just down the street to a public school out in the boonies. I didn’t appreciate this at all. Kids are still in school so the hallways were filled with ankle-biters. I arrived just before the poll opened so I sat on a bench outside the principal’s office. They told me I had to wait outside the building. I didn’t move. Bad enough they had to change the location to such an unsuitable place. I wasn’t going to be inconvenienced any more.

(2) I really hate the first-past-the-post system. The PCs got a resounding majority with just barely over 40% of the total vote. But I no longer wonder how much longer this bullshit will go on. I know it’s never going to end.

(3) Province-wide the voter turnout was considered very good, at around 58%. This was up significantly from the 2014 election when it had been 51%. This underlines a depressing reality: that in most elections, federal and provincial, here and in the U.S., roughly 40% of the electorate are never going to vote. Never. You can’t make them.

(4) In his victory speech Doug Ford declared Ontario now “open for business.” Why does that sound so threatening? It shouldn’t, but it does. It also reinforces the widening gulf between what are the two main party positions, again both here and in the U.S.: the party of business and the party of the state, private vs. public sector.

(5) Ford gets compared to Trump a lot. I think he’s smarter. Plus he can actually deliver a speech. But he may be an even nastier guy.

(6) The collapse of the Liberals isn’t that surprising. Basically what happened was a re-run of what happened to the PCs federally in the 1993 election, when the party was wiped out nation-wide. This was because the PCs had unexpectedly won a majority in the previous (1988) federal election, at a time when they were deeply unpopular. The spring of resentment against them was then pressed even tighter for another five years before it could finally be unleashed. Similarly, the provincial Liberals won an unexpected majority in 2014, despite being widely disliked, mainly due to the hopelessness of the PC leader Tim Hudak. Again, the spring of resentment was pressed tight, and when it came to be released the party was swept away.

(7) Of course the Liberals will be back. After fifteen years (or whatever it’s been) voters just wanted to punish them with a time out.

(8) In my own riding the Greens got their only seat, which was their first ever. I’m glad they’ll have a voice at Queen’s Park but I don’t know where they go from here. At some point the party has to make the case for a green economy and get people to buy into it. We seem so far from that now.

(9) I don’t know where the NDP go either. Their “success” was only to inherit the Liberal’s doomed position. Now they can’t do much, given their seat total, and are probably just going to be placeholders until people go back to the Libs. How do the NDP make the case for being a real opposition? I can’t think of anything other than aligning themselves even more with public sector unionism.

(10) Justin Trudeau should be happy. Ford is a perfect foil for him to play off, and since Canadians tend to like divided provincial and federal government a Ford majority in Ontario should keep the province’s federal seats with the Liberals. Especially since . . .

(11) I think Ford will be a lousy premier. Though I suppose his “ready to govern” cabinet might help him avoid the worst of it. He’s going to say the province’s financial situation is worse than anyone knew, which I can actually believe. This is going to lead to cuts in services and other belt-tightening measures. Round and round we go.

What did we do to deserve this?

Not as bad as the other one?

The rise of populist leaders and parties in many Western democracies has led to much hand-wringing over the fate of democracy itself. There may be grounds for concern, but it seems to me that another point, one which all sides might agree on, is being ignored. The quality of our leaders has gone into the toilet.

The 2016 presidential election in the U.S. was a negative affair. What I mean is that it was decided by people who were voting not for but against a particular candidate. Donald Trump (after clearing out the entire leading rank of the Republican party, who proved to be imbeciles) and Hillary Clinton (who simply bought the Democratic party wholesale) entered the campaign with the highest negative poll ratings of any candidates in history. Neither one should have had any chance of winning. Unfortunately, one of them had to.

I was reminded of this with the election of Doug Ford as head of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party heading into the upcoming provincial election. By any normal reckoning, or at any other time, I think this would be considered a disastrous choice. The supposedly smart Ford has the public persona of a loud-mouthed, ignorant boor. He is often compared to Donald Trump, and the comparisons are not all to his advantage. The idea of him being premier makes no sense. But opposing him is Kathleen Wynne, not just one of the most hated politicians in Canada but a thoroughly incompetent one as well. The only reason she is still in power is because her last opponent was Tim Hudak, who campaigned as an utter moron. Hudak was then replaced by Patrick Brown, who may be innocent of the charges of sexual harassment leveled against him but who still proved to be a complete idiot in thinking that he was going to come back and lead the party after they ran him out on a rail.

What did we do to deserve this? How did politics reach the point where such creatures have risen to the highest offices in the land? Presumably the provincial election will play out along what are becoming disturbingly familiar lines: with citizens voting against the candidate they find the most reprehensible rather than for anyone or anything in particular. Something has clearly gone wrong with democracy. That doesn’t mean that it’s doomed, but it does mean that things are moving in a bad direction.

Checking privilege

There’s recently been a bit of fuss in the news over a series of poster campaigns in British Columbia and Ontario challenging the notion of certain groups having a special social privilege. If you are male, able-bodied (“physically and mentally,” though I’m not sure what being mentally able-bodied means), Christian, a Canadian citizen at birth, heterosexual, or (most damning of all) white, then you are privileged, defined as having “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” For some reason being rich or coming from a wealthy family isn’t included, though I would have thought it mattered more than the rest of the markers combined. In any event, to become aware of your own level of privilege is considered a good thing, not because it becomes a source of shame or guilt, as unavoidable as that seems, but because it will lead to awareness and allow you to join in building “a more just and inclusive world.”

I’m a member of almost all of the aforementioned “dominant social groups.” And I’m aware of the fact that I’m better off in many (though not all) ways for being so. But what of it? I didn’t choose being any of these things, and I couldn’t not be any of them now without extreme difficulty. So what follows from this awareness?

In one poster a picture of Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs appears alongside a quote: “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is unacceptable.” If this isn’t just empty virtue signaling, then what is Teresa Downs going to do about the unfair and unacceptable benefits she has received? Is she going to resign? Or does building a more just and inclusive world only mean getting other people to make restitution for your sins? I think it’s safe to assume the latter.

Luckily, this kind of rhetoric tends to go through cycles. Tom Wolfe satirized it in a pair of essays in 1970, later collected in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. In the mid-1990s radical chic became political correctness and hit another peak. It then went into remission but has since come back again. I’ve written about this before here, and my own sense is that we’ve entered into the late, silly stage of the current phase, which has resulted in the rise of such prominent anti-PC warriors as Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson. It seems the two sides depend on one another. Whatever results from all the sound and fury, I doubt it will be a more just and inclusive world.

Trump happens

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately in order to write an omnibus book column looking at the flood of books on the Trump election, geared toward the release of Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised What Happened. Here are some gleanings.

Ressentiment, writ very large

From Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra:

1.

Today, however, this vision of universal uplift seems another example of intellectuals and technocrats confusing their private interest with public interest, their own socio-economic mobility as members of a lucky and fairly arbitrarily chosen elite with general welfare. Nowhere does the evidence of moral misery accumulate faster than in the so-called public sphere. The setting for opinion and argument originally created in France’s eighteenth-century salons by face to face relations, individual reason and urbane civility, is now defined, in its digital incarnations, by racists, misogynists and lynch mobs, often anonymous.

In the absence of reasoned debate, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain broad credence: it was while peddling one of them, “Obama is a foreign-born Muslim,” that Donald Trump rose to political prominence. Lynch mobs, assassins and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people can think only in terms of the categories of friends and foes, sectarian loyalty or treason. The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking. The world at large – from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.

2.

The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth. The fruits of human creativity – from smartphones to stem-cell reconstructions – continue to grow. But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed: for instance, nearly half of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity and, even in rich countries, there is a growing life-expectancy gap between classes.

In an economically stagnant world that offers a dream of individual empowerment to all but no realizable dreams of political change, the lure of active nihilism can only grow. Timothy McVeigh with his quintessentially American and First World background illustrates the passage from passive to active nihilism as vividly as men from impoverished postcolonial societies. For he claimed to be defending, with his spectacular brutality, the idea – individual autonomy – that modernity itself had enshrined, and then barred him from.

He was born into a way of life common until the 1980s among large numbers of the depoliticized and apathetic working-class and middle-class populations in the United States and Europe. [. . .] McVeigh grew up as this period of general affluence and leisure peaked, and a series of economic crises from the 1970s onwards began to make the American Dream, as he himself pointed out, seem less and less credible. McVeigh found it hard to get jobs commensurate with his sense of dignity. Brought up by a culture of individualism to consider himself unique, he seemed to have suffered from a sense of diminishment as he grew older and sensed the vast political and economic forces working around an on him. In our own time, support for Donald Trump’s white nationalism connects with middle-aged working-class men, who have suffered a dramatic deterioration in mortality and morbidity due to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.

3.

A heightened sense of rhetoric of self-empowerment accompanied, for instance, the IT revolution, as young graduates and dropouts became billionaires overnight in the Bay Area, and users of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp briefly appeared to be toppling authoritarian regimes worldwide. But the drivers of Uber cars, toiling for abysmally low fares, represent the actual fate of many self-employed “entrepreneurs.”
Capital continually moves across national boundaries in the search for profit, contemptuously sweeping skills and norms made obsolete by technology into the dustbin of history. We may pretend to be entrepreneurs, polishing our personal brands, decorating our stalls in virtual as well as real marketplaces; but defeat, humiliation and resentment are more commonplace experiences than success and contentment in the strenuous endeavour of franchising the individual self.

4.

There is plainly much more longing than can be realized legitimately in the age of freedom and entrepreneurship; more desires for objects of consumption than can be fulfilled by actual income; more dreams than can be fused with stable society by redistribution and greater opportunity; more discontents than can be allayed by politics or traditional therapies; more demand for status symbols and brand names than can be met by non-criminal means, more claims made on celebrity than can be met by increasingly divided attention spans; more stimuli from the news media than can be converted into action; and more outrage than can be expressed by social media.
Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.

Growing tired of an excess of democracy

From The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce:

1.

In Enlightenment terms, our democracies are switching from John Locke’s social contract to the bleaker Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. We are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of our history, indifference towards society’s losers and complacency about the strength of our democracy. It has helped turn society into a contest of ethnic grievances, in which “awakened whites” – as the alt-right now call them – are by far the largest minority.

2.

The story of liberal democracy is thus a continual tension between the neat democratic folk theory and the more complex liberal idea. Nowadays they have turned into opposite forces. Here, then, is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will. In the words of one Dutch scholar, Western populism is an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” The British and American people supposedly reclaimed their sovereignty in 2016. I call it the Reaction. It is pretty clear which direction the Western elites are bending. Davos is no fan club for more democracy. Having hived off many areas that were once under democratic control (such as monetary policy and trade and investment), post-2016 Western elites now fear they have not gone far enough.

But elite disenchantment with democracy has been rising for many years. According to the World Values Survey, which offers the most detailed take on the state of global public opinion, support for democracy has plummeted across the Western world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is particularly true of the younger generation. For a long time, academics assumed that rising signs of disaffection with democracy were simply a reflection of dislike of the government of the moment. Government legitimacy may have been on the wane, but regime legitimacy was still robust. There were no alternatives. Democracy, after all, was the only game in town. That reading was far too complacent.

The United State of Anger

From The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore by Jared Yates Sexton:

1.

Everyone had it backward and they’d had it backward all along. The pundits had wrung their hands over the poll numbers, wondering what it would take for Trump to finally lose his momentum while Saturday Night Live booked him to host and the cable news programs interviewed him every second they weren’t showing him live at his rallies.
Between appearances, they’d wonder aloud: How does Trump drag so many people to his extreme point of view?

Trump hadn’t dragged anybody anywhere. And he didn’t have impressive poll numbers because he’d somehow or another convinced anybody of anything. Trump was, as of that moment, the heartbeat of an America with which many of us were unaccustomed. His was not a proactive candidacy but a pure, unadulterated reaction to what a slice of the American public wanted. This was a group that lived their lives steeped in unbelievable anger. They were either poor or less rich than they thought they should be, they were middle or upper middle class, and they were, almost to a person, white. They were angry and all they wanted in the fucking world was to blame somebody.

Trump wasn’t the cause; he was the disease personified.

Hillaryland and Clintonworld: Building a better bubble, together

From Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

1.

Over the course of the summer, the confidence of party insiders had been replaced by a degree of paranoia that nearly matched Hillary’s own outsize phobia. She was convinced that leaks of information had helped doom her 2008 campaign. In reality, the leaking and disloyalty were symptoms, not the cause, of the dysfunction in her first run for the White House. As long as she was seen as the prohibitive favorite to win the primary and the election, Democrats would fear being branded traitors or leakers. But if she wasn’t going to be in a position to reward or punish them, they had no reason to worry about whether they were rated as ones or sevens on her loyalty scale. After the 2008 campaign, two of her aides, Kris Balderston and Adrienne Elrod, had toiled to assign loyalty scores to members of Congress, ranging from one for the most loyal to seven for those who had committed the most egregious acts of treachery. Bill Clinton had campaigned against some of the sevens in subsequent primary elections, helping to knock them out of office. The fear of retribution was not lost on the remaining sevens, some of whom rushed to endorse Hillary early in the 2016 cycle.

2.

The one person with whom she didn’t seem particularly upset: herself. No one who drew a salary from the campaign would tell her that. It was a self-signed death warrant to raise a question about Hillary’s competence – to her or to anyone else – in loyalty obsessed Clintonworld. Most of the people around her were jockeying to get closer to her, not make her wonder about their commitment. And many didn’t know her very well personally. Even Huma Abedin, who was close to her, had all but given up on guiding her toward shifting course. She had long since started telling Hillary allies outside the campaign to take their complaints and suggestions straight to the candidate. For the mercenaries who had joined the campaign in hopes of finding jobs in the next administration, there was little percentage in getting on Hillary’s bad side. They also feared – appropriately – that unflattering words about Hillary or the strategy would be repeated at their own expense by those who hoped to gain Hillary’s favor. Concern about being cast out to the perimeter of Hillary’s overlapping circles of influence far outweighed the itch to tell Hillary what she was doing wrong.

3.

The rise of populism, and particularly right-wing populism, wasn’t a phenomenon limited to American politics. Brits were locked in a tense battle between those who wanted to exit the European Union and those who wanted to remain. Populist figures with nationalistic tendencies – like Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, and Norbert Hofer in Austria – were on the rise across Europe. By ceding the reformer mantle to Sanders – and to Trump – Hillary was dismissing a whole world’s worth of evidence that she was running into the headwinds of history.

The blunt instrument

From Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

1.

Trump, who has an uncanny ability to read an audience, intuited in the spring of 2011 that the birther calumny could help him forge a powerful connection with party activists. He also figured out that the norms forbidding such behavior were not inviolable rules that carried a harsh penalty but rather sentiments of a nobler, bygone era, gossamer-thin and needlessly adhered to by politicians who lacked his willingness to defy them. He could violate them with impunity and pay no price for it – in fact, he discovered, Republican voters thrilled to his provocations and rewarded him. National polls taken in mid-April, two weeks before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, showed Trump leading the field of 2012 GOP presidential candidates.

Privately, what amused him the most, he later told a friend, was that no party official in a position of power dared to stand up to him. In his first nationally televised interview, on C-SPAN, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, was confronted about Trump’s possible candidacy and his birther attacks on Obama. “Is the birther debate good for the party?” Jeff Zeleny, a reporter for the New York Times, asked him. “I think all these guys are credible,” Priebus replied, looking slightly nauseated. “I mean, obviously, people are going to have different opinions. And, you know, you’re going to have a lot of different candidates that are running, they’re gonna talk about different things at different times. . . . I think having a diversity of opinion is fine.”

The lesson Trump took away was that the party gatekeepers, who were privately appalled at his behavior and did not want him in the race, would pose no threat to him at all if he decided to run.

2.

In the summer of 2016, Bannon described Trump as a “blunt instrument for us.” But by the following April, Trump was in the White House and Bannon had raised his estimation of him to path-breaking leader. “He’s taken this nationalist movement and moved it up twenty years,” Bannon said. “If France, Germany, England, or any of these places had the equivalent of a Donald Trump, they would be in power. They don’t.”

When he took over Trump’s campaign in August, Bannon did indeed run a nationalist, divisive campaign in which issues of race, immigration, culture, and identity were put front and center. This wasn’t by accident or lacking purpose, even if the candidate himself didn’t care to understand its broader historical context. By exhuming the nationalist thinkers of an earlier age, Bannon was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, or what might more accurately be described as an American nationalist-Traditionalism. Whatever the label, Trump proved to be an able messenger.

Trump: the show (part one)

From Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi

1.

There are some people now who are urging the media to ignore Donald Trump, and simply not cover him. But it’s a little late for that.

The time to start worrying about the consequences of our editorial decisions was before we raised a generation of people who get all of their information from television, and who believe that the solution to every problem is simple enough that you can find it before the 21 minutes of the sitcom are over.

Or before we created a world in which the only inner-city black people you ever see are being chased by cops, and the only Muslims onscreen are either chopping off heads or throwing rocks at a barricades.

This is an amazing thing to say, because in Donald Trump’s world everything is about him, but Trump’s campaign isn’t about Trump anymore. With his increasingly preposterous run to the White House, the Donald is merely articulating something that runs through the entire culture.

It’s hard to believe because Trump the person is so limited in his ability to articulate anything. Even in his books, where he’s allegedly trying to string multiple thoughts together, Trump wanders randomly from impulse to impulse, seemingly without rhyme or reason. He doesn’t think anything through. (He’s brilliantly cast this driving-blind trait as “not being politically correct.”)

It’s not an accident that his attention span lasts exactly one news cycle. He’s exactly like the rest of America, except that he’s making news, not following it – starring on TV instead of watching it. Just like we channel-surf, he focuses as long as he can on whatever mess he’s in, and then he moves on to the next bad idea or incorrect memory that pops into his head.

Lots of people have remarked on the irony of this absurd caricature of a spoiled rich kid connecting so well with working-class America. But Trump does have something very much in common with everybody else. He watches TV. That’s his primary experience with reality, and just like most of his voters, he doesn’t realize that it’s a distorted picture.

If you got all of your information from TV and movies, you’d have some pretty dumb ideas. You’d be convinced blowing stuff up works, because it always does in our movies. You’d have no empathy for the poor, because there are no poor people in American movies or TV shows – they’re rarely even shown on the news, because advertisers consider them a bummer.

Politically, you’d have no ability to grasp nuance or complexity, since there is none in our mainstream political discussion. All problems, even the most complicated, are boiled down to a few minutes of TV content at most. That’s how issues like the last financial collapse completely flew by Middle America. The truth, with all the intricacies of all those arcane new mortgage-based financial instruments, was much harder to grasp than a story about lazy minorities buying houses they couldn’t afford, which is what Middle America still believes.

Trump isn’t just selling these easy answers. He’s also buying them. Trump is a TV believer. He’s so subsumed in all the crap he’s watched – and you can tell by the cropped syntax in his books and his speech, Trump is a watcher, not a reader – it’s all mixed up in his head.

He surely believes he saw that celebration of Muslims in Jersey City, when it was probably a clip of people in Palestine. When he says, “I have a great relationship with the blacks,” what he probably means is that he liked watching The Cosby Show.
In this he’s just like millions and millions of Americans, who have all been raised on a mountain of unthreatening caricatures and clichés. TV is a world in which the customer is always right, especially about hard stuff like race and class. Trump’s ideas about Mexicans and Muslims are typical of someone who doesn’t know any, except in the shows he chooses to watch about them.

This world of schlock stereotypes and EZ solutions is the one experience a pampered billionaire can share with all of those “paycheck-to-paycheck” voters the candidates are always trying to reach. TV is the ultimate leveling phenomenon. It makes everyone, rich and poor, equally incapable of dealing with reality.

That’s why it’s so ironic that some people think the solution to the Trump problem is turning him off. What got us into this mess was the impulse to change the channel the moment we feel uncomfortable. Even if we take the man off the air, the problem he represents is still going to be there, just like poverty, corruption, mass incarceration, pollution and all of the other things we keep off the airwaves.

2.

Of course, Trump’s ignorance level, considering his Wharton education, is nearly as awesome as what Bush accomplished in spite of Yale. In fact, unlike Bush, who had the decency to not even try to understand the news, Trump reads all sorts of crazy things and believes them all. From theories about vaccines causing autism to conspiratorial questions about the pillow on Antonin Scalia’s face to Internet legends about Americans using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to shoot Muslims, there isn’t any absurd idea Donald Trump isn’t willing to entertain, so long as it fits in with his worldview.
But Washington is freaking out about Trump in a way they never did about Bush. Why? Because Bush was their moron, while Trump is his own moron. That’s really what it comes down to.

And all of the Beltway’s hooting and hollering about how “embarrassing” and “dangerous” Trump is will fall on deaf ears, because as gullible as Americans can be, they’re smart enough to remember being told that it was OK to vote for George Bush, a man capable of losing at tic-tac-toe.

We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment. The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island. Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married With Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs. It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.

Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines. There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.

3.

Politics at its most basic isn’t a Princeton debating society. It’s a desperate battle over who gets what. But during the past 50 years, when there was a vast shift in the distribution of wealth in this country, when tens of millions of people were put out of good, dignified jobs and into humiliating ones, America’s elections remained weirdly civil, Queensberry-rules reality shows full of stilted TV debates over issues like abortion, gay marriage and the estate tax.

As any journalist who’s ever covered a miners’ strike or a foreclosure court will report, things get physically tense when people are forced to fight for their economic lives. Yet Trump’s campaign has been the first to unleash that menacing feel during a modern presidential race.

Some, or maybe a lot of it, is racial resentment. But much of it has to be long-delayed anger over the way things have been divvied up over the years. The significance of Trump’s wall idea, apart from its bluntly racist appeal as a barrier to nonwhite people, is that it redefines the world in terms of a clear Us and Them, with politicians directly responsible for Us.

It’s a plain rebuttal to the Sullivan explanation for why nobody between the coasts has a decent job anymore, i.e., that there are “global economic forces” at work that we can no more change than we can the weather. Trump’s solutions are preposterous, logistically impossible and ideologically vicious, but he’s giving people a promise more concrete than “tax cuts will stimulate growth that will eventually bring jobs back.” He’s peddling hope, and with hope comes anger.

4.

Trump’s early rampage through the Republican field made literary sense. It was classic farce. He was the lewd, unwelcome guest who horrified priggish, decent society, a theme that has mesmerized audiences for centuries, from Vanity Fair to The Government Inspector to (closer to home) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When you let a hands-y, drunken slob loose at an aristocrats’ ball, the satirical power of the story comes from the aristocrats deserving what comes next. And nothing has ever deserved a comeuppance quite like the American presidential electoral process, which had become as exclusive and cut off from the people as a tsarist shooting party.

The first symptom of a degraded aristocracy is a lack of capable candidates for the throne. After years of indulgence, ruling families become frail, inbred and isolated, with no one but mystics, impotents and children to put forward as kings. Think of Nikolai Romanov reading fortunes as his troops starved at the front. Weak princes lead to popular uprisings. Which brings us to this year’s Republican field.

There wasn’t one capable or inspiring person in the infamous “Clown Car” lineup. All 16 of the non-Trump entrants were dunces, religious zealots, wimps or tyrants, all equally out of touch with voters. Scott Walker was a lipless sadist who in centuries past would have worn a leather jerkin and thrown dogs off the castle walls for recreation. Marco Rubio was the young rake with debts. Jeb Bush was the last offering in a fast-diminishing hereditary line. Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer. And so on.

The party spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” as solutions to the growing alienation and financial privation of the ordinary voter. In place of jobs, exported overseas by the millions by their financial backers, Republicans glibly offered the flag, Jesus and Willie Horton.

In recent years it all went stale. They started to run out of lines to sell the public. Things got so desperate that during the Tea Party phase, some GOP candidates began dabbling in the truth. They told voters that all Washington politicians, including their own leaders, had abandoned them and become whores for special interests. It was a slapstick routine: Throw us bums out!

Republican voters ate it up and spent the whole of last primary season howling for blood as Trump shredded one party-approved hack after another. By the time the other 16 candidates finished their mass-suicide-squad routine, a tail-chasing, sewer-mouthed septuagenarian New Yorker was accepting the nomination of the Family Values Party.

Trump: the show (part two)

From Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

1.

Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis. If he hadn’t run for president, I might not have mentioned him at all. But here he is, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize this book.

He’s driven by resentment of the Establishment. He doesn’t like experts because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts, to feel the truth. He sees conspiracies everywhere. He exploits the myths of white racial victimhood. His case of Kids “R” Us Syndrome – spoiled, impulsive, moody, a seventy-year-old brat – is extreme.

And he is first and last a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex. “He is P. T. Barnum,” his sister, a federal judge, said to his biographer Tim O’Brien in 2005. Even as a teenager in the early 1960s, Trump himself told O’Brien, he understood that any racket in America could be turned into an entertainment racket. “I said, ‘You know what I’ll do? I am going to go into real estate, and I am going to put show business into real estate. I’ll have the best of both worlds.” Back then, in 1961, the historian Daniel Boorstin already saw what was coming in politics, what would make Trump president. “Our national politics have become a competition for images or between images, rather than reality,” Boorstin wrote. “Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.”

Although the fantasy-industrial complex had been annexing presidential politics for more than half a century when candidate Trump came along, his campaign and presidency are its ultimate expression, like nothing we’d witnessed in real life or imagined we ever would. [. . .] Before the full emergence of Fantasyland, Trump’s various enterprises would have seemed an embarrassing, ridiculous, incoherent jumble for a businessman, let alone a serious candidate for president. What connects a Muslim-mausoleum-themed casino in New Jersey to a short-lived sham professional football league to an autobiography he didn’t write to hotels and buildings he didn’t build to a mail-order meat business to a beauty pageant to an airline that lasted three years to a sham “university” to repeatedly welshing on giant loans to selling deodorant and mattresses and a vodka and toiled waters called Empire and Success to a board game named after himself to a TV show about pretending to fire people?

What connects them all, of course, is the new, total American embrace of admixtures of the fictional and real and of fame for fame’s sake. Trump’s reality was a reality show before that genre or term existed.

Tyranny of the minority

From One Nation After Trump by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann

1.

Trump took advantage of a trend in American politics toward minority rule, or what might be called “non-majoritarianism.” Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population), and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box. Trump profited from this bias against the majority, becoming president despite losing the popular vote by the largest margin ever for an Electoral College winner.

2.

Trump’s victory was less an endorsement of his program than a rejection of Clinton. Exit polling found that in the electorate that made Trump president, 60 percent had an unfavorable view of him; only 38 percent had a favorable view, which suggests how small his core support was on Election Day. But Clinton’s numbers were nearly as bad, as 55 percent had an unfavorable view of her. Here is what should be seen as the decisive piece of data about the 2016 election: Among voters who had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton (nearly a fifth of the electorate), Trump won decisively, 47 percent to 30 percent. Among the quarter of voters who explicitly said that the main motivation of their choice was dislike of the other candidate, the numbers were similar: 50 percent for Trump, 39 percent for Clinton. The 2016 election was a negative verdict, not a mandate for Trumpism.

These numbers are critical for understanding how fragile Trump’s hold on the public is and why he began his term with the lowest approval ratings of any new president in the history of modern polling. They explain why his disapproval numbers increased so quickly after he took office and why a large-scale grassroots movement rose up against him so rapidly. Trump did not speak for the country, and Trumpist ideology – to the extent the he even has a consistent ideology – does not command majority support.

Through all of the controversies in Trump’s early months in office, political analysts regularly argued that despite his problems, Trump was still hanging on to support from his “base.” But his base was a minority, and Trump showed little capacity for expanding beyond this core. This will have consequences in the long run, and it should give heart to Trump’s foes.

The diagnosis

From Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump by Allen Frances

1.

So, how does it add up? Successful politicians succeed in winning hearts and minds because they are good at understanding and exploiting human nature. Platforms, policy, and pronouncements are just empty words without empathic connection – the bond that conveys to the electorate that they are listened to, understood, and will be cared for. Hucksters like Trump are expert at feigning this connection, to the detriment of all of us. True statesmen aspire to see political life as a selfless journey with, and for, their constituents – not a game of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. At the beginning of our experiment in democracy, political discourse was conducted in the high-toned intellectual style of the enlightenment. Arguments used logic and were meant to appeal to reason. In this past election campaign, the contrast between the cortex and the amygdala was won by the amygdala – extravagant emotion triumphed over rational thought.

Trump won. American democracy, societal sanity, and the future welfare of our children and planet all lost. He isn’t crazy, but we are for electing him. And for allowing our society to degenerate to the point that someone like Trump could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. The contingencies contributing to his win were crazily long-shot, requiring the unlikely convergence of sixteen Republican dwarfs in the primary, a vulnerable opponent in the election, the Putin push, the heavy hand of the FBI, the spite of Julian Assange, and wacky third-party candidates splitting the vote. We are now paying the price.