Cracks in the Foundation Of American Political Institutions
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Trump and Post-Truth Discourse
[I am republishing this because it was an early warning about Trump and violence. The video tells the story of how Trump does not understand what he is responsible for.]
Trump is dangerous and worse yet he’s unaware of how dangerous he is or doesn’t care. Even at the risk of a little hyperbole we are seeing the consequences of a “post-truth” society where information is distorted, low quality, and attached to a cultish individual full of shibboleths rather than data or reasoning. The post-truth society no longer observes and gathers data in the service of a defensible conclusion; rather, one’s established beliefs and group identity seek confirmation and discourse becomes characterized by a series of cognitive shortcuts designed to confirm what you already believe. Below are three qualities of Trump’s discourse.
But first listen to Trump tell an audience that a heckler from the audience should be “punched in the face.” This is a man running for President of the United States encouraging the audience to start a fistfight. Trump does not even have a rudimentary understanding of his own behavior and the likelihood he could start a riot and hurt someone. His own social and political development is so stunted that he does not understand the tinderbox nature of the situation.
Here is Trump telling us he must be smart because he knows a lot of words.
Then again, this is the same presidential candidate who said the only way to defeat ISIS is to kill their family members. This is a candidate for president who is advocating for a war crime and instructing the military to break the law.
Trump is an essentialist. His rhetoric is filled with references to groups of people and their “essential” qualities. He refers to those who are “stupid” and “not the best.” He regularly makes references to a family member who is a professor at an elite university and to his own elite university attendance. He believes himself and his family are of superior descent. In the video Trump embarrassingly tries to perpetrate this myth by referring to how many words he knows.
Trump demonizes the other side. He refers to Hillary Clinton in extreme terms including name-calling, polarizing language, and blame. By creating the opposition as the “devil” incarnate then it becomes easier to scapegoat them and attach blame. He also has no qualms about dehumanizing others also referring to his opposition as “criminal” or “the most incompetent.” This demonization is simply a substitute for his own inadequacies. Trump essentially knows nothing about policy and hasn’t even taken the time to prepare. Moreover, his followers don’t want to hear policy they just want to hear tough talk and demonization.
Third, and more characteristic of Trump than any other candidate, is a strategy that says attack, blame, and accuse and don’t worry about accuracy or justification because the blame and the accusation is what will be remembered and not the explanation or the truth. Hillary Clinton is bombarded with accusations regarding Benghazi, or emails, or accusations about trustworthiness none of which have much merit but are all designed to do damage first and not worry about the truth. These are all tactics associated with authoritarians trying to damage in opposition rather than engage them argumentatively.
A more shocking and deeper question concerns the explanation for why so many people support Trump. He is not so difficult to explain but the collective delusion of the populace is far more troubling.