Monday, April 24, 2017

The greatest blog post in history

Recently a lawyer for conspiracy theory-loving radio host Alex Jones described Jones' on-air persona as "performance art." I just have to ask: is anyone really surprised?

On the other hand, I'll tell you something I heard recently that did throw me. According to Jon Meacham's 2015 biography of George H.W. Bush, in 1988 Donald Trump went to Lee Atwater to be asked to be considered for Bush's running mate. Bush thought the request "strange and unbelievable."

This little anecdote should put to rest a belief about Trump that a lot of people (including me) have long held. Trump has been making nods to possible presidential runs for over 30 years. Even now, the conventional wisdom is that all those previous times (and possibly even the 2016 one, initially at least) were intended as publicity stunts. And when he finally became an official candidate in 2015, the Huffington Post decided to run all its articles about him under "entertainment," a move even I found ridiculous at the time.

But now it turns out that Trump went privately to seek a vp spot from the GOP nominee in 1988. It wasn't a public pronouncement; it was entirely behind the scenes, and the most striking thing about it was that it was in pursuit of a position that's supposed to be one of the most thankless roles in politics, basically the president's lackey. It would seem a most un-Trumpian thing to do unless we assume he really was serious, all those years ago, about wanting to get to the White House.

Why is it so hard for so many of us to wrap our heads around that fact? It's because Trump, like Alex Jones, always comes off sounding like a performance artist. It's like we've become so jaded over the years, we just assume by default that any celebrity with a bombastic, over-the-top persona must be doing a kind of act. Thus, it comes as a surprise to discover they may be in earnest.

Trump has been described as a narcissist, and while that is self-evidently true, in a way it misses the point. The fact is that few narcissists behave the way Donald Trump does. It is one thing to believe you are the greatest person alive. It is quite another to believe that the most effective way to convince others you're the greatest person alive is by boldly declaring it to be so at every opportunity. That would be the equivalent of a comedian who laughs at his own jokes.

In 2011 he told an audience, "if I decide to run, you'll have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States: Me, Donald John Trump." In 2015, he said, "I'm the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody's ever been more successful than me." A report allegedly written by Trump's personal physician declared that Trump would be the "healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

In December a press release by the Trump team went, "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history." (It was actually the 11th smallest.) A few weeks ago he said, "I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency." (Spoiler: he didn't.) And to top it off, there was his July 2016 interview on 60 Minutes, which featured the following exchange:

LESLEY STAHL: You're not known to be a humble man. But I wonder --

DONALD TRUMP: I think I am, actually humble. I think I'm much more humble than you would understand.

Well, of course. Since he's the greatest human being ever to walk the face of the earth, by definition he must also be the most modest. A man who has surpassed Lincoln in presidential greatness has surely eclipsed Moses in humility.

You know what? I think I've finally figured out who Donald Trump really is. It's coming to me...just give me a second. Here it is:

Yup, Gilderoy Lockhart. The Harry Potter character from Chamber of Secrets who constantly talks about how great a sorcerer he is, who claims to have vanquished numerous dark wizards, who has several books to his name detailing his achievements, who hawks products of questionable quality, who grins and smirks a lot, and who of course is finally exposed as a fraud--a man who takes credit for the achievements of others, as should have been painfully obvious to anyone with a grain of common sense but which somehow escaped the attention of the school administrators who hired him.

You might think it strange of me to be comparing a US president to a comic relief character from a series of children's books, but that's just the point. Trump isn't a standard vain person. He's a cartoon caricature of a vain person, more like the villain from a Disney flick than someone actually existing in the real world. And perhaps the weirdest thing about the Trump phenomenon isn't that so many people believe in him, it's that he apparently believes in himself.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What do Trump's promises reveal about his motives?

If there's one thing I've learned from the rise of Donald Trump, it's to trust my instincts more. I had a dream about a year ago that Trump would be the Republican nominee in 2016; after I woke up, I shrugged it off as a laughable fantasy. In early December (though the scenario had been in my head for a while) I wrote this post, where I mused about the possibility of Trump winning the nomination then suddenly announcing at the convention that it was all a giant practical joke. Even then, I was quick to add that I still saw his nomination as "unlikely."

A lot has already been written on how Trump managed to win the nomination, less about why pundits and others considered it so unlikely in the first place. Partly it was his lack of experience in political office, partly his extreme positions, partly his bucking of party orthodoxy, and partly his utter lack of support from the GOP establishment. All those are important factors, but there's another that especially had an effect on me. It goes back to my memories of an earlier presidential candidate you have probably never heard of: Mike Gravel.

Mike Gravel is a former U.S. Senator from Alaska who unsuccessfully sought both the Democratic and Libertarian Party nominations in 2008, nearly 30 years after the last time he held office. There are two things I remember most about him. One was his involvement in what has got to be the weirdest political ad of all time. The other was an interview he gave with a Jewish publication, where he declared that, if elected president, "I will bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and thereby diffuse the entire confrontation between the Islamic world and the West."

What struck me about this remark was its complete lack of qualification. He didn't say he was going to try to bring peace in the region, he said he was going to do it, full stop. And he assured us that not only would he singlehandedly solve this immensely complicated problem that has eluded generations of past presidents, but that doing so would all by itself diffuse "the entire confrontation between the Islamic world and the West." Did he also say something about giving everyone a pony?

In other words, it was a proto-Trumpian statement.

Why would he make a statement like this? At the time my thought was that it reflected his own cynical self-awareness of his marginal status. He could make the boldest and most far-reaching promises of what he'd achieve as president, secure in the knowledge he'd never be held to a single one of them. Candidates with a realistic path to the White House never talk that way. Despite the stereotype of politicians promising the moon before they're actually elected, serious candidates usually exercise at least some caution in their campaign pledges, because they know that when they don't ("Read my lips: no new taxes"), it can actually get them into trouble.

Donald Trump, alas, has blown that theory out of the water. In 2013, he said, "I don't think I'd be cutting Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. I think what I do is make the country so rich, you wouldn't have to bother." He began his 2015 campaign promising not only that he'd build a wall across the US-Mexico border, but that Mexico would pay for it. In December one of his spokesman told the press that Trump was going to win 100%--yes, 100%--of the black vote. He has more recently downgraded that goal slightly: "And at the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote."

You'd think a candidate with his eyes set on the White House would avoid the sorts of statements that are very, very, very, very likely never to happen. That was a major reason why I didn't take Trump seriously when he first began running. It all struck me as a game--an exercise in provocation.

And what would be the purpose of the game? One popular conspiracy theory holds that he's a "Clinton plant," a candidate who got in the race with the secret intention of helping Clinton win. This theory provides a neat explanation for all his past heresies, not the least of which is his apparent support for Bill and Hillary Clinton in the past. In some versions of this theory, his run was part of some private deal he made with the Clintons, though what they could possibly have had to offer him is a deep mystery. In other versions, the Clintons aren't involved and it's just Trump's own personal attempt to screw with the populace. According to one Internet hoax, he told People magazine in 1998, "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country...I could lie and they'd still eat it up."

I have to admit that my (mostly facetious) post from December was expressing a variant on this theory. I never bought the notion that the Clintons were in on it, but I did at least flirt with the idea that he deliberately wanted to hurt the Republicans. And it's weird, because I'm not the sort of person usually tempted by conspiracy theories of any kind, least of all ones popular on the right. Yet there's just something about Trump that makes me think--makes a lot of people think--that he's somehow putting us all on, that it's all some kind of elaborate gag.

In the end, I do still believe he didn't enter the race with any intention of getting this far, that it was some kind of publicity stunt aimed at drumming up media attention he could use to funnel into some other venture. But now that he's here, there's no turning back, and whether he actually wants to be president or not, he definitely doesn't like the thought of being a looooooooooooooser. That we don't even need to speculate about.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The gazillion Trumps

HuffPost ran an intriguing article the other day entitled "Trump’s Neo-Nazi And Jewish Backers Are Both Convinced He’s Secretly On Their Side." Specifically:
Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, the founder of the Facebook group Rabbis for Trump, argues that Trump’s daughter’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism is proof enough that he harbors no ill-will toward Jews. “You’ve got two Trumps — The Trump that’s trying to get the vote, and the Trump in real life,” said Rosenberg, who renamed his group “Rabbi for Trump” after failing to attract support from other Jewish clergy members.

[Neo-Nazi Andrew] Anglin agrees that there are two Trumps, and he isn’t worried that Trump has Jewish supporters and family members. Trump, he said, is too savvy to openly announce his views on Jews, and only allowed his daughter to convert to Judaism to trick Jews into supporting him. “He couldn’t simply say it straight,” Anglin wrote. “That just wouldn’t fly in America.”

The notion that "there are two Trumps" is one I have seen expressed by a number of supporters. Here, for example, is former rival Ben Carson explaining his endorsement of Trump:
"There are two different Donald Trumps," Carson said at the billionaire's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. "There's the one you see on the stage and there's the one who is very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully. You can have a very good conversation with him. That's the Donald Trump that you're going to start seeing more and more of."
In a similar vein, Rush Limbaugh describes Trump's heresies as proof of his brilliance:
Will we finally now admit how brilliant Trump is? Can we all finally admit that he’s been setting these people up for years? He’s been out there praising the Clintons. He’s been fooling them. He’s been making the Clintons think he loves them, he supports them, he’s in their camp, he’s got them tamed, they’re not even thinking about Trump, even looking about Trump, and Trump is just icing them.
I could go on with further examples, but you get the idea. In my last post on Trump, written in December, I wrote that I didn't think he was going to win the nomination, but I also imagined that if he did I'd be half-expecting him to suddenly announce it was all one big joke. What I failed to grasp was the extent to which his supporters have embraced his aura of profound unseriousness, to the point that it's become their main rationalization for dismissing any areas of disagreement they have with him. If you like his border wall idea but don't like his past support for the Clintons, you say he wasn't serious about the latter but is serious about the former. If you have doubts about the border wall but like other things about him, you call it a "virtual wall," as Rep. Chris Collins did a couple of weeks ago.

Politicians have always found ways to attract disparate groups, like FDR being able to garner support from both blacks and segregationists. But I don't know that it's ever been accomplished by having the different groups assuming he's telling boldfaced lies for the things they're against and the unvarnished truth for the things they're for. I'm not sure if that makes his supporters incredibly cynical or incredibly naive--or some bizarre combination of the two.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The troll primary

For some reason I've been having the following fantasy lately:

Donald J. Trump sweeps the Republican primaries, easily collecting enough delegates to nab the nomination. The mainstream GOP press starts to panic. After a few stray comments by a couple of pundits and operatives hinting at the idea that the convention should ignore the results and pick a more conventional candidate, the right goes berserk. Erick Erickson accuses the RINO establishment of attempting a coup d'etat, and Michelle Bachmann says they're working in cahoots with ACORN and the IRS. After a few days of this, most mainstream Republicans start to make peace with the idea of a Trump nomination. They note that it's really not so bad: they won't have to worry about turning out "the base," and they're relieved to see that some polls show Trump trailing Hillary by only 10 percentage points, well within striking distance. The convention is set up in Cleveland. A slot of speakers is introduced including Rubio, Kasich, Jindal, and a host of other figures who had once bashed and ridiculed Trump, but who now tout Trump's business acumen and talk about how he's going to bring back greatness and to save America from the horrors of the Obama years and "the Clinton machine." Several days pass until finally Trump is introduced to speak. He walks triumphantly across the aisle, chin set, bird's nest on head, and he steps up to the podium. After a lengthy pause, he opens his mouth and speaks, in front of America and in front of the entire world:

"Fooled ya! This whole candidacy has been a joke, and you fell for it! I just did this to prove once and for all how dumb Republican voters are, and to destroy their chances of winning. Which I just have, ha ha ha! Of course Mexicans aren't rapists and Muslims didn't cheer on 9/11, but by giving me your support you just proved beyond any doubt you're all a bunch of racist, backwards lunatics who are so moronically predictable you'll believe someone who's totally faking it! What a sad, pathetic bunch of assholes you all are, and don't blame me: you brought this on yourself. And oh, one more thing: God bless America."

He steps to the side of the podium and makes an up-yours sign straight at the camera. He then turns around and walks back down the aisle, leaving everyone in stunned silence.


Is this really as far-fetched as it sounds? Well, for the record, I don't think Trump is going to win the nomination--I don't even think he wants it--and in the unlikely event that he does win it, I doubt he'd have the balls to pull off something like the above scenario. But I do seriously believe there's a decent chance this hypothetical speech represents what he truly thinks about the GOP.

After all, his public persona as an unreconstructed wingnut basically goes back to 2011, the first time he flirted with a run for the Republican nomination--there's no record of him ever holding such views prior to that year. Some of this has already gotten a lot of press, such as his defense of single-payer health care or his donations to Democrats. Other past statements of his have been surprisingly overlooked, as when he praised President Obama to high heaven in 2009. Now, I'm well aware there are people who soured on Obama in the course of his first term. Still, it's really hard to reconcile these statements with the birther stuff he got into in 2011. Not only did Trump never sound this right-wing, he simply has no history of embracing lunatic conspiracy theories of any sort, and it's not as if the stuff he complains about now weren't part of Obama's agenda from the start.

I'm not saying his candidacy is necessarily some Borat-like social experiment to expose the GOP base's stupidity and bigotry. But I do strongly believe it's an act of some kind. I agree with those (like Nate Silver) who have described Trump as basically an Internet troll. (That's actually one of the reasons I think it's quite likely he will go third party in the end; it will enable him to milk this thing for as long as he can without having to worry about actually winning.)

Truth be told, I've had similar feelings about other figures on the right--Ann Coulter especially, though it's a style that goes back at least to Rush Limbaugh. I'm not saying any of those people are closet liberals, but they do very often give the impression that they’re engaged in some bizarre type of trolling. When Coulter says that women should be denied the right to vote, does she really mean it? Or is she simply reveling in the reaction this statement provokes among liberals and the media? Whatever the reason, I've never been able to bring myself to be actually outraged by anything Coulter says, because I get the sneaky feeling I'd be reacting exactly the way she wants me to. I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert once wrote about a Monty Python film: "This movie is so far beyond good taste, and so cheerfully beyond, that we almost feel we're being One-Upped if we allow ourselves to be offended." So whenever I hear someone react to a Coulter remark by exclaiming "That's terrible!" I'm almost tempted to roll my eyes and say, "Whatever." Coulter has another thing in common with Trump: she has never publicly apologized for anything, ever. Their consistent response to criticism is to double down on their controversial remarks.

This places him in a different category from demagogues of the past he's often been compared with, such as Charles Coughlin or George Wallace. If you've ever read any of Coughlin's monologues (I have), he sounds almost intellectual. And while Wallace was somewhat of an opportunist ("I will never be outniggered again"), I wouldn't describe him as trollish. True believers or not, these men were either extremists or pandering to extremists for political gain. People who think that's all what Trump is about are missing something, in my view.

The point isn't to make excuses for Trump, whose rhetoric is deeply dangerous regardless of his motives for engaging in it. The real lesson of his candidacy is what it says about a large segment of the Republican Party. It's like an experiment I read about years ago in which scientists designed a robotic honeybee that real honeybees ended up accepting as one of their own. The fact that it was fake didn't take away from the fact that it did a good enough impression of the real thing.

Friday, September 25, 2015

More on Trump's "authenticity"

Frank Rich is a good columnist who over the weekend engaged in a bit of silly contrarianism entitled "Donald Trump is saving our democracy." And no, he wasn't being sarcastic.
...for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.
Steve M. of Crooks and Liars wrote in response:
Candor? You can use a lot of words to characterize Trump's rhetoric in this campaign, but the one thing he's not giving us is candor -- certainly not about himself, and certainly not about the vast majority of the issues.... We know he's lying when he says he has a "foolproof plan" to beat ISIS. We know he's lying when he says he'll get Mexico to pay for a border fence. We know he's lying about his own net worth. We know he lied in the last debate about his efforts to establish casinos in Florida.
In my last post I marveled at how quick so many people are to attribute honesty to Trump, but it's especially striking coming from a liberal like Rich. It shows how deeply ingrained this way of thinking is in our culture--this habit of equating sincerity with a willingness to outrage. Commentators like Rich overlook the fact that some celebrities seem to have a pathological need to put themselves in the headlines, and that they achieve that goal by deliberately stoking outrage. It's a tactic that usually works very well, because outrage is to the media what a flame is to moths.

Why do so many people mistake this tactic for honesty? I think it comes from a sense most people have that if they were placed in front of a TV camera and were to speak aloud every thought that passed through their mind, they'd start offending people before long. I'm reminded of a bit from a Steven Wright routine:

"Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" Yes, you're ugly. See that woman in the jury? I'd really like to sleep with her.
One thing most people figure out sometime after their 6th birthday is that an essential part of functioning in the world is avoiding saying what you really think about other people. You learn not to tell someone you find them annoying and would like them to leave; you learn not to tell someone your assessment of their sexual attractiveness or how that colors your perception of them; you learn not to say you feel immediate anxiety at the sight of a young black man walking down the street; you learn not to say transgender people make you uncomfortable.

Since many people avoid saying these sorts of things out of fear of shame, embarrassment, and ostracization, they automatically assume that the only possible explanation for why someone might break these taboos is honesty and courage. They fail to understand the topsy-turvy world celebrities live in, where it can be remarkably easy to lose one's sense of shame when doing so can be the source of a lucrative career. And it's especially seductive to think of such celebrities as bold truth-tellers if the things they're saying happen to agree with your own private beliefs.

For the record, I do think there are aspects of our culture that have gone too far in trying to suppress feelings of prejudice on such matters as race, religion, and gender. We've made bigotry into such a supreme evil that many ordinary, well-meaning people feel they have to pretend no such feelings exist inside of them when it would probably be healthier if they got it out into the open. You can call this problem "political correctness" if you like. But confronting these feelings is only a good thing if your ultimate purpose is to grow past them. Most attacks on PC, including Trump's, are based on the idea that these feelings should be expressed because they reflect sound judgment and an accurate perception of the world--and, further, that we know that's true simply because they've been suppressed. Their taboo status is their justification.

The attack on "political correctness" began in the 1980s as a critique--and a largely legitimate one, in my view--of the stifling atmosphere on many college campuses in America. But it has since devolved into a rallying cry in defense of ignorant and reactionary beliefs. When someone says "I'm not politically correct," what they usually mean is that they're refusing to rethink their beliefs in the face of other people's negative reactions to them. It's a way of celebrating a primal and simplistic outlook and treating any challenges to it as censorship.

What PC originally referred to has hardly any relevance to a figure like Trump. His views aren't being shut down, and he isn't going to starve for having expressed them. And however entertaining his candidacy may be, I can't bring myself to call his taboo-breaking courageous, not when he's getting exactly the kinds of results he craves: he's the center of attention, he's riding high in the polls, he's generating all the headlines. It should be patently obvious that he's saying what he says because he knows what buttons to push. Bashing immigrants in a Republican primary doesn't take courage; defending immigrants would. Now that would be a true example of "political incorrectness"--except nobody uses the term that way. Instead, we use it only to describe the outrageous and offensive, and to wallow in the delusion that it automatically shows authenticity and courage.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Political correctness and sincerity

One thing I found interesting about the recent showdown between Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly is how he brought "political correctness" into the discussion:
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness.
What I noticed was that he didn't actually bother to defend the behavior which Kelly complained about, namely his disparaging remarks about women. He wasn't so much making a bad argument as making no argument at all. He simply observed that his behavior is "not politically correct" and claimed that political correctness is a big problem in this country--as if to suggest that his behavior's taboo status was itself proof of its worthiness.

You could use this reasoning to defend any position at all. Hey, I think a man should beat his wife with a frying pan every night! You offended? Sorry, I'm not PC. I think black people are feeble-minded, Jews are cheap, and only the rich should be allowed to vote. Don't like what I'm saying? That's just because you're too PC.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this type of thing as simply another Donald Trump absurdity. On the contrary, it lies at the heart of most arguments attacking political correctness, and it's been a feature of these arguments for the last thirty years. Whenever you say something that offends someone, you say you're "not being PC" as if pointing that out automatically absolves you of responsibility for your remarks.

I mentioned the following anecdote a couple of years ago on this blog, but it bears repeating. I was once reading a blog discussion on a subject that had nothing to do with politics. One commenter referred to the author of some book as an idiot. The blogger said he agreed with the criticism but added that there was no need to engage in ad hominem attacks. The commenter retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC."

One of the assumptions underlying attacks on PC is that you're being more authentic, more truthful, than the other person. As a result, the anti-PC trend in our society has fostered an idea that civility and common courtesy are nothing more than strategies for hiding what people are really thinking.

This idea is reflected in the repeated claims I keep hearing--and not just from Trump admirers--that Trump is "speaking his mind" or engaging in "straight talk." This is a patent misunderstanding of Trump's whole public profile. It's obvious to anyone who bothers to pay attention that Trump's antics are pure theater. I literally have no idea what he really thinks about Mexicans or PMS or Obama's birthplace. It doesn't matter. He understands something which shock jocks began capitalizing on more than a generation ago, which is that outrage sells.

That's part of the whole allure of attacks on PC: they equate sincerity with a willingness to offend. The assumption is based on a fundamental fallacy. It's certainly true that professional politicians typically behave in a canned and artificial manner by avoiding saying anything that will offend their constituents. But it doesn't follow that going to the opposite extreme, acting rude and boorish in an erratic and unpredictable way, automatically implies authenticity.

Nobody argues that when Andy Kaufman did his Tony Clifton act, he was showing a truer version of himself. Yet that's just the sort of assumption people make whenever celebrities or politicians stray outside the boundaries of what is generally considered decent behavior. Trump may be a walking caricature, but like a lot of caricatures he throws some things about the real world into sharp relief.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The joys of being persecuted

In a piece on separating myth from reality in the history of anti-Irish bigotry, Megan McArdle writes:
As I read about these notices, I wondered: Why was I so glad to read that my ancestors had, in fact, faced nasty discrimination? It's a reaction that needs scrutiny.
This is something I was thinking about recently in light of all those stories on Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as black and became an NAACP leader. It reminded me of the case of "Binjamin Wilkomirski," a man who published a memoir in the 1990s detailing his experiences as an Auschwitz survivor before it was discovered that the events he described never took place, he wasn't even Jewish, and he had a totally different name.

What fascinates me as a Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors is why people would want to engage in this kind of deception. Cases like these are as bizarre as they are uncommon, and surely mental illness is involved. But I also think they stem in part from the same tendency McArdle is alluding to, of taking pride in being the member of a historically persecuted group. Modern society has romanticized persecution to the point that everyone wants part of it, as when a billionaire last year claimed the wealthy in America today were being treated like the Jews during Kristallnacht. The statement was both silly and offensive, and it's hard to imagine anyone who actually lived in the 1930s making such a comment. Back then, being the victim of anti-Semitism or racism wasn't regarded as cool.

It brings to mind a Mark Twain quip: "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read." Nobody wants to be in a concentration camp or be lynched by the Klan or beaten by cops or harassed or discriminated against--but a lot of people, whether they admit it or not, wouldn't mind having those things on their résumé.