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Trump Has the Keys to the Candy Store: Suicide is Painless

trump-and-suicide

 

 

 

 

Sung to the theme of M*A*S*H

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
[REFRAIN]:
that suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

 

What madman or anguished society would give the keys to the candy store we call the United States to Donald Trump? No candidate in history has been less prepared and, moreover, does not seem to be bothered by it. His cabinet and advisor appointees make for a ghoulish monster’s ball of Wall Street billionaires who have no experience in government, business executives who think running the government is the same thing as running a business, and ideologues with an agenda that is ironically counter to the mission of the office they are running.

Trump’s election has been regularly compared to populist movements in history and currently around the world. It is in line with populist and nationalistic parliaments in Hungry, Poland, Greece, and the rise of the right in France. And the rhetoric of populism is consistent across cultures. Such rhetoric is often an early indicator of unstable and vulnerable democracies. Truly consolidated democracies are the most resistant and stable forms of government and most likely to be immune to the siren call of nationalism and populism. But less established democratic political cultures, especially those with charismatic strongmen as leaders, are more susceptible to the political discourse that constitutes populism.

That is, the modern populist praises tough and decisive leadership, belittles and distrusts elites and specialists in an effort to alienate the average person from the truly competent, and is critical of institutions. Trump, interestingly, has some new wrinkles for this pattern because although his rhetoric strikes a chord with the struggling and downscale demographics, he has successfully convinced them that he will improve their lives. Curiously, Trump traffics in elitism. And he will soon go about the business of using his own appointees as loyalists who will compromise the media, silence the opposition, and create a threatening discursive environment.  He has already begun to undermine trusted institutions such as the CIA (taking the unprecedented position that the CIA is wrong about Russian cyberhacking), the media (a regular flow of criticism and delegitimization that cast even more doubt on quality sources of information), the legislative history of conflict of interest policy (refusal to release tax forms, challenges to his own business interests), and foreign policy traditions (a more volatile and aggressive foreign policy such as breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran, harsh challenges to China, and name-calling).

The United States’ record of promoting liberalism and generally making the right decisions is strong enough. We commit our military when necessary; typically pass legislation that protects the rights of individuals (whether it be guns or abortions); we continue to make progress on due process and equal protection under the law; and we have a decent history of widening the circle of citizen inclusion with respect to rights and opportunities.

But we momentarily lost our minds when we voted for Trump. It was a reckless mistake that requires a “do over.” Clinical research explains that for successful suicide victims there is only a few seconds in which they will actually pull the trigger or jump. The rest of the time they are holding back but there remains some moment – some brief period when the window is open – in which all of their stress, pressures, and cognitive distortions conflate and they actually step off the ledge or pull the trigger.

So we have the United States and Trump. The American citizenry momentarily lost its mind and pulled the trigger. It’s going to be a crazy few years riddled with mistakes resulting from Trump’s lack of preparation, his long and embarrassing record of bad behavior and misogyny, his refusal to listen to security briefings because he can lone wolf-it, his knee-jerk congenital lying (his loss of the popular vote by almost 3 million was from people casting illegal votes; Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the American election), and his naïveté about world leaders.

I fully expect Trump to expand his control and throw the population a bone or two on occasion, all the while converting the presidency into a postmodern spectacle designed to continue Trump brand recognition.

 

 

Trump and the American Media Landscape

New media cloud

There is a correlation between the American media landscape and the change in public discourse, especially presidential discourse. Trump represents a different type of person to occupy the office and that is especially true of his language, digital media use, and discursive practices. As more than a few people have noted, we are in a historical period were authority is disrespected and challenged on all sides. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And when we become disconnected from facts it is possible to believe anything. So science is rejected and challenged on the basis of arguments and reasons outside the boundaries of science. Global warming, climate change, the value of vaccinations, etc. are all subjected to a set of criteria and justifications incompatible with proper scientific standards of reasoning.

Trump is a frightening extreme when it comes to ignoring facts and simply making it up or saying whatever he pleases. And the situation is even more egregious when you combine his temperament with a personality disorder. That is, he is so incapable of accepting criticism or recognizing defeat that he digs in his heels and lashes back even more aggressively. The truth be damned. When you combine this disposition with the fact that he actually knows very little and is unschooled in diplomatic, political, and intellectual conversations you have a problem. The mix can be combustible. Remember he said most of his knowledge is based on the Sunday news shows so his political knowledge is about equivalent to whatever information comes in a headline service.

The Media and the Formation of Trump’s Consciousness

What kind of mediascape does Trump live in? His vocabulary, short assertions, egocentrism, and incomplete grasp of the issues have been fashioned as a result of his emergence from a network of communication patterns and exposure to issues situated within the particular media environment. In a word, Trump talks like and processes information like those in his dominant mediascape. Let me be more precise.

Rodney Benson in a paper for Goldsmiths describes “The New American Media Landscape.” Benson essentially posits three segments of the US journalism field. The first is a vast infotainment field that is populated by well-maintained websites such as Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Local commercial television and the innovative websites Vice and Vox are included in this category. These sites produce news in an appealing fashion intended to attract audiences; they do some interesting things but are designed more to attract attention then quality information. A second segment of the mediascape is the partisan media represented by Fox (conservative) and MSNBC (liberal). The political blogosphere is also pertinent here. This is the terrain of biases and shouting matches where slavishly clinging to a political perspective, even if it’s an indefensible perspective, in order to bring down the other side is the primary motivation. And the third territory is the mainstream quality media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Specialty magazines and academic papers are also part of the quality media landscape.

Trump is always critical of the mainstream quality media because they are issue and data based in an effort to treat issues according to their quality and allowing good solutions to emerge rather than insisting on a political perspective that is forced on everyone else. The mainstream quality media is more critical and analytical and seeks to attract an audience on that basis. Trump’s discourse and primary influences clearly match the second level partisan terrain of the media characterized by distortions and misinformation. His name calling and bombastic style are contrary to what a functioning democracy requires which is a public narrative that recognizes differences.

The image of Trump as a populist nationalist (I will reserve judgment on using the word fascist for now) is increasingly defensible as he continues to appeal to an angry population by stoking the fires of their resentment. His 3 o’clock in the morning tweets make him an active participant in the partisan landscape. Apparently, a couple of nights ago Trump was watching a program on flag burning as symbolic speech. Consistent with his unreflective style he tweeted his immediate emotions which were to assert that burning the American flag should result in either jail time or loss of citizenship. He used new social media (Twitter) to blurt out an unconstitutional and indefensible gut reaction exerting a sense of power. His behavior from the partisan landscape was responded to by the quality media with a lecture for Mr. Trump on the Constitution and the extent to which it protects symbolic speech, of which the Supreme Court has established. This is one thing – maybe even to be expected – from a private citizen but a little scary and disappointing from the President of the United States. I suspect we will see more media territorial framework tensions as Trump’s partisan media style clashes with other segments of the media landscape.

 

 

 

 

Trump and Israel – He’s Confused

trump-and-israel

The problem with trying to understand Trump’s relationship to Israel and the Middle East in general is that he knows nothing about either, and has no foreign policy record. His positions are confused and contradictory especially with respect to Iran and Saudi Arabia. He seems to care very little about most places except Iran in which he has threatened to pull out of the US-Iran nuclear agreement. And this is particularly dangerous if Trump surrounds himself with a Secretary of State such as Bolton or Giuliani both of whom are bellicose and more capable of inflaming differences then cooling them. Trump is sufficiently confused such that he is publicly critical of Iran but supportive of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Soon it should occur to him or his advisors that supporting the Syrian governing regime bolsters Iran, not to mention being on the wrong side of the ideological spectrum.

Israel primarily wants two things from the United States – its regular military aid, and the support and recognition that comes with our cultural and democratic affinities. Both of these can be in potential danger depending on which planks of Trump’s tangled platform end up emerging as the strongest. Trump has, on the one hand, signaled a lack of interest in the Middle East and an almost isolationist sensibility. In his businessman’s language, he does not see it as a “good investment.” On the other hand, Trump is committed to defeating ISIS and does not seem to fully realize the central role Israel must play with respect to intelligence and support. Moreover, continuing his confusion, he has taken highly inflammatory and unrealistic positions by expressing support for the settlements and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. At other times he just wants to remain distant from the issues. The Forward has suggested that Trump will probably reduce America’s involvement in the Middle East. This is generally not good news.

His conservatism is not yet fully honed because Trump sometimes appears to be the isolationist who does not want to be the world’s policeman, and at other times he seems to resonate with neoconservatives who want to assert American political and military power. Trump has a lot to learn and it is the type of learning that requires some development and maturation. He cannot see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just one negotiation trick away from resolution. He is more comfortable with business deals and negotiations which are subject to more rational marketplace considerations. “The art of the deal” is governed by a logic that requires one to maximize benefits and minimize losses and the deal is done when both sides can accept their gains and losses. This is not the governing logic of asymmetrical ethnopolitical conflicts that are intractable; in other words, the issues of sanctity, identity, fractured history, violence, and deep emotions are not part of the rational model of the “art of the deal.”

I suspect Trump’s limited experience in international affairs blinds him to the type of communication necessary to solve problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which does not profit much by seeing it only through a prism of rational exchange. I fear that when he becomes fiercely entangled with the knotty issues that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he will see it through a narrow American prism rather than a broader global and cultural one. And the tools that enabled him to succeed in business will not serve him so well in the arena of international conflict.

The Republican Party is generally more blindly supportive of Israel but for now all we know about Trump is the blind part.

 

 

The Problem of False Equivalencies

One of the most egregious reasoning fallacies is false equivalencies; that is, the claim the two things are equal when they are not. All those who claim there’s nobody to vote for or these are two pathetic candidates for the presidency have fallen into the trap of false equivalencies. By any sensible measure Hillary Clinton is far superior to Donald Trump. That does not mean she’s a perfect candidate but clearly the better of the two choices. In fact, one may disagree with Hillary on political grounds but Trump is just plain dangerous. The below is reprinted from the Forward-Progressive website.
There’s this notion concerning the 2016 presidential election that both choices are terrible and that we’re all simply trying to choose “between the lesser of two evils.” While I know that’s a popular belief among many, the reality of that couldn’t be further from the truth. Look, I’m not here to claim that Hillary Clinton is a flawless candidate. Just because I proudly support her campaign doesn’t mean that I’m not realistic about the fact that she has flaws like any other human being — especially politicians.
That being said, to claim her flaws are on the same level of Trump’s is not only completely inaccurate, but it’s absolutely ridiculous. To prove my point, I thought I’d compare some of the top “controversial scandals” surrounding the two candidates. Let’s start with Hillary Clinton:
Her emails: While her use of a private server was definitely a bad idea, she’s admitted to that fact and has apologized for it, repeatedly. Furthermore, the FBI carried out an extensive investigation that ultimately concluded that she did nothing illegal. The only reason this became a “story” again is because while looking into the Anthony Wiener sexting allegations, the FBI found emails that may (keyword: may) need to be reviewed to determine whether or not they contain classified material. Though at the end of the day, not only was Clinton not charged with a crime, but there’s been absolutely no evidence where her use of this private server led to any sort of national security issues.
The Clinton Foundation: While many have tried to make the foundation seem like some international crime syndicate linked to a pay-for-play criminal empire, ultimately, the foundation has an A-rating from a respected charity watchdog group and spends 88 percent of all the money it raises on charitable causes. Oh, and the Clintons don’t actually make any money from the foundation — as they don’t receive a salary.
Paid speeches: Considering it’s not remotely uncommon for former presidents or politicians to give paid speeches, I’m not sure why this is a big deal. Again, there’s been absolutely no credible evidence that any paid speech her husband gave was linked to any sort of “pay-for-play” scheme while she was Secretary of State.
“She gleefully helped a child rapist go free”: Nope, she sure didn’t. Not only was she ordered by a judge to defend him (she tried getting out of it), but the guy actually went to prison on a plea deal the victim’s mother pushed prosecutors to offer of 5 years — only to have the judge reduce it to one. The audio of Clinton laughing about the case actually came years later when she was discussing how, even though the guy was guilty, he passed a polygraph — and that forever ruined her faith in the test. She was not mocking or laughing at the victim.
Benghazi: Here’s another “scandal” that numerous investigations have ultimately concluded wasn’t her fault. Though if you don’t believe me (or the investigations), then ask the family of the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, who’ve publicly said that it’s unfair to blame her for the attack.
She called “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorable”: Not only did she immediately apologize for saying this, but she wasn’t really wrong. In fact, “half” is probably underselling how many of his supporters fit into the “basket of deplorables” she mentioned (racists, bigots, sexists, Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic). Now if you think I’m going to entertain the absurd conspiracies about her having multiple people killed, or that I’m going to hold her husband’s issues against her, you’re sadly mistaken. If you’re someone who actually believes that insanity, then you’re clearly someone who can’t be reasoned with. But those are the main attacks I’ve seen Republicans and the media obsess about throughout her campaign.
Now let’s move on to Donald Trump: Mocked a man with disabilities. Attacked the parents of a fallen American hero. Belittled POWs and the war record of Sen. John McCain. Lied about how much money he raised for veterans. Called a former Miss Universe “disgusting” and fat, telling his Twitter followers to find her non-existent sex tape. Accused an American-born federal judge of being unfit to do his job because of his Mexican heritage. Likely avoided paying taxes for nearly two decades. Called most Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, even though that’s not remotely factual. Lied about seeing “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11. Lied about getting a letter from the NFL complaining about the debate schedule. Tried to exploit the death of an African American woman in Chicago to say that’s why black voters will support him. Found the “bright side” to tragedies because his poll numbers tend to go up. Settled with the Department of Justice after his company was found guilty of racially discriminating against minorities. Has cheated on at least one wife. Was discovered on video admitting that he not only tried to cheat on his current wife, but he attempted to do so with another married woman. Had his first wife publicly say that he did nothing when it came to raising their children until they were old enough to talk business. Tweeted that women should have expected to be sexually assaulted when they mixed males and females together in the military. Said he wants to target the families of terrorists. Stated that he wants to ban an entire religion. Praised a Russian president who obviously hates the U.S. and Americans. Encouraged the Russian government to commit espionage against Americans. Insinuated that another Republican’s wife was ugly. Tried to implicate another Republican’s father in JFK’s assassination. Sought out the help of former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes after he was fired following multiple allegations that he had sexually harassed women for years. Made Breitbart’s Steve Bannon one of his top campaign people. Had a former campaign manager abruptly resign after a report came out linking him to pro-Russian groups that were directly trying to undermine U.S. policy in eastern Europe. Called Carly Fiorina ugly. Has said climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese — then denied saying it. Was a leading conspiracy theorist when it came to the racist-driven birther conspiracies against President Obama. Dismissed nearly eight years of accusing the president of not being an American with a less than 30-second statement where he didn’t apologize for any of it. Re-tweeted anti-African American propaganda created by a white supremacy group. Played dumb about knowing who former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke was. Skipped a presidential debate because he was scared of a moderator. Called a husband doing things like changing diapers and helping with the children, a man “trying to be the wife.” Has said he wants more countries to have nuclear weapons. Said he can’t release his tax returns because they’re currently being audited — even though the IRS said that’s a lie. Feels he has the right to sexually assault women. Is currently battling a fraud lawsuit where victims allege he created Trump University to scam them out of tens of thousands of dollars. Used funds raised by his charity foundation to pay his personal legal fees. Said that one of the women accusing him of sexual harassment wasn’t attractive enough for him to have assaulted. Has a long history of not paying contractors for doing work they had already completed. His bankruptcies benefited him, while ultimately leaving many people to which he owed money out to dry. Outsources most of his company’s manufacturing jobs to other countries. Has said that all the women accusing him of sexual assault are liars. Refused to say if he would concede the election if he loses on November 8th. Allegedly asked military advisers why we can’t use nukes since we have them. After being told that our security experts know that Russia is behind the hack of the DNC and American citizens, continued to deny that they knew anything, effectively defending and taking the word of Russia over believing and trusting our own intelligence agencies. Once said that women who have abortions should be “punished.” Alluded to the size of his penis during a presidential debate. Mocked the looks of Ted Cruz’s wife. Was accused of planting a fake story in the National Enquirer concerning Ted Cruz having multiple affairs. Currently has a court date set for allegations he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old. Claims he’s donated millions to charity but refuses to prove it. Called Hillary Clinton a “nasty women” when she factually called him out for tax evasion. Evidence seems to indicate that he bribed the Florida attorney general to avoid the state joining the fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Has admitted to trying to buy off politicians. Following his meeting with the Mexican president, he lied about being told that there was no way Mexico would pay for his wall. Has repeatedly advocated for committing war crimes. Said he knows more about terrorism and the Middle East than our generals. Has repeatedly said that our NATO allies are going to have to “pay up” for our protection. Said more countries should have nuclear weapons — then denied saying it. Has, on several occasions, suggested he finds his daughter attractive. Tried to blame Hillary Clinton for his racist birther propaganda. Said, with a straight face, that nobody has more respect for women than he does. During an interview said that “a flat-chested woman can never be a 10.” Asked how stupid the people of Iowa could be for supporting Ted Cruz.

But, please, tell me again how “both candidates are the same” and they’re “equally as flawed.” Because if that’s what you really believe, then you’re choosing to ignore reality and believing whatever the hell you want to believe.

Read more here

How the Trump Monster Slouched toward the Republicans

Note the data in the table below from the Pew Foundation. There have been more than a few stories written about how Trump is a monster created by the Republican Party. Let’s take a closer look at just what the Republican Party has created and why. There are lots of reasons but let’s focus on two. First, the Republicans have simply failed to appeal to Hispanics and minorities even though their after action report from the 2012 election recognized this problem. They did little or nothing about it. 86% of Republicans or those leaning that way are White where only 57% of Democrats are White. Curiously, the Republicans should be able to appeal to Latinos who are family oriented, religious, and patriotic to the extent that they oppose leftist regimes. There are two prominent Republicans in Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who could be electable if conditions were right. The Democrats have begun to include minorities more into the family tent and these minorities recognize their own progress – Donald Trump’s claims that their schools and inner cities are a mess notwithstanding.

Moreover, the Republicans began to run more on moral and social (guns, God, and gays) issues then on economic ones. The angry less educated white male strand of Republican has countered any genuine Republican attempts to include minorities because of their racism and general rejection of the argument that immigration is good for America rather than bad. The foreign-policy hawks in the Republican Party are an attractive appeal for many Americans, and can resonate with American strength, but this group has essentially been co-opted by Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton moved to the party to the center and brought in more professionals leaving working-class whites to find a place in the Republican Party. These working-class whites have been frustrated by the Republicans who promised to look after their interests but haven’t done so very successfully. So this group had one more reason to radicalize and movements such as a Tea Party began to emerge and differences between minorities and whites and Republicans and Democrats began to polarize even further.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The table below strongly illustrates this polarization. The blue dots represent Clinton supporters and the red dots Trump supporters. Look at the differences between the two on a few key issues that are ideological in nature. Statements about how wasteful government is and should be smaller are dramatically associated with Republicans (83% and 87% agree). And statements about how government should help the needy and regulate business (most associated with Democrats) are strongly supported by Democrats over Republicans (72% and 70%). These patterns in the electorate are the reason Donald Trump was so successful in the primaries. Moreover, rather than finding a candidate who genuinely coalesced around cultural and economic issues Trump represents fear and nationalism. How is a political party supposed to get anything done when they express such disdain for government?

Trump’s populist nationalism makes us particularly vulnerable because the public currently has so little confidence in many American institutions such as the courts, the presidency, public schools, and banks. When the golden haired man comes on TV and tells you that nothing is your fault – it’s all the fault of immigrants, elites, and the media – there’s plenty of people who will listen.

voters-who-say-gov-too-big

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump and “Muted Eloquence”

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In the classical literature on rhetoric there is a concept called “muted eloquence.” The term is attributable to Rousseau and is part of the common distinction between reason and emotion or appeals to rationality versus attempts to arouse interests and stir passions in order to induce conformity. There’s always been this argument between those who champion the unadorned use of reason – as if humans were all mind – and persuasion that induces change through baser and more primitive appeals to passions. We can see this distinction borne out between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with Hillary more oriented toward (although not completely) defensible reason and Trump who was almost completely consumed by stirring tribal emotions as opposed to reason-based policy analysis.

The distinction is also one made between “persuading” and “convincing.” Again, persuasion is affecting change through typical appeals to emotions, passions, and the like; and convincing is the act of completely reconstituting the psyche and will of the other by giving them new content and reconstituting their consciousness. Classical scholars argue this point because they were deeply divided with respect to the primary avenue of change that citizens were capable of. Some argued that the highest form of reason was convincing which led to the purest and most accurate formation of preferences and opinions. Others challenge the ability of humans to be reasonable in the purest sense and argued that legislators and leaders needed to find a way to “persuade without convincing” because the only way to effect change was through appeals to the passions on an equal level with reason. Most people were deeply flawed, as the argument went, with respect to their ability and receptiveness to “pure” reason. Persuasion could be musical and non-rational even at the risk of potential fanaticism. Charismatic leaders aroused deeper and more immediate passions in listeners, and their oratory was musical in the same way that chanting could be prophetic of charismatic religious figures. They did not use rationality to convince but persuasion to move. Mohammed and Moses are examples of the link between reason and passion and illustrations of how stirring the passions can lead to fanaticism.

I certainly would not call the oratory of Donald Trump musical but it does function the same way in that it is processed holistically and produces a gut pre-rational passion. “Muted eloquence” is when a visual sign has a sense of immediacy and impact. It is when some physical object or image communicates with a powerful effect. So, for example, The King cuts down the tallest flowers in the garden as a message to kill his enemies. In the movie “the Godfather” when a smelly fish wrapped in newsprint arrives at the door the character Tessio explains “it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The message that Luca Brasi is dead and his body dumped in the ocean is semantically ratified by the dead fish. It is a mute wisdom that speaks clearer and more powerfully than a long discourse.  These visual signs are a form of persuasion that differs from the ideal of reasoned discourse.

We pivot to Donald Trump surrounded by three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. They were then seated in the audience for the debate. The presence of these women was supposed to attenuate Trump’s behavior and signify sexual malpractice in Hillary’s case in addition to Trump. And even though these women are accusing Bill Clinton not Hillary just the image of sexual impropriety is supposed to be a form of muted eloquence designed to associate blame and shame with Hillary, and as a piece of evidence that Trump is no different than anyone else. Even though Trump is the sexist perpetrator here he sought to bathe himself in the victimhood of other woman.

The alleged rapist of one of the women, Kathy Shelton, was defended by Hillary and acquitted. Hillary was little more than the court-appointed attorney and she was fulfilling his constitutional right to legal counsel. But such argument seeks conviction rather than persuasion. Her innocence in the Kathy Shelton case is logically and rationally undeniable, but the muted eloquence of Trump’s debate has closed off appeals to conviction.

The brazen and stunning stunt struck at the core of our unhinged national consciousness, a consciousness increasingly reason-free.

 

 

What You Saw in the Debate

clinton-trump-debate

Most pundits figured if Trump could tie his shoes then he would have the most to gain from the debate. He really did have a lot to gain by appearing presidential and in control but the issue is of course whether or not he actually maintained any sense of presidential decorum. He didn’t.

Presidential debates are mostly spectacle and this one was no different. Sure, Hillary won especially if you keep score according to a debate coach’s tally sheet of arguments and counter arguments. Presidential debates such as these are not interested in who comes up with a better argument but rather who can make the other look bad.

But the public anticipates debates with a certain amount of enthusiasm. It’s a contest between democracy’s formidable gladiators; there is an underdog challenger doing battle with a superior opponent and we talk about debates with all the war metaphors we can muster. There are “attacks,” and “aggression,” along with “victors and the vanquished.” We would be better off viewing the debates as platforms to make judgments about individuals leading to a decision about which candidate is best. The “winner-loser” frame extends the war metaphor but also causes us to watch it like a horse race constantly attending to who is ahead and who is behind rather than learning something about the issues.

But still, debates contribute to voter knowledge and the acquisition of information. It is true enough that journalism rarely these days considers itself to be a platform for issues and deliberative consideration. So debates have slightly appropriated this role. The debates give us an opportunity for a raw look at the candidates including how they appear on TV, how they handle themselves spontaneously, and general issues of charisma and attraction. This is an important and satisfying counterpoint to political ads which are strategically constructed and designed to be manipulative and the voters know it. It is quite easy to dismiss candidate commercials but less so for debates because of their increased perception of authenticity.

So what did we see the other night and how does it fit in with some of the research on debates?

Even though debates are known to reinforce partisan preferences, the first Clinton-Trump debate transcended that conclusion because Hillary sliced and diced Trump. She set traps (the coming Miss Universe interview), behaved more politely, had very few fact checking problems, appeared composed and in control, unhinged him a few times as was the debate plan, and spent more time on policy.

Dorothy Rabinowitz – of the conservative Wall Street Journal of all places – wrote that Hillary is the only thing that stands between the United States and the “reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House.” Since in one study almost 30% of the viewing audience considers the presidential debates more helpful than talk shows or advertising spots, this means that a lot of people witnessed the Hillary performance in the debate. And given that the viewership was the biggest in history (over 80 million viewers) she was in a position to reintroduce herself to many people.

Presidential debates also produce multiplier effects. This means that post debate citizen communication about political issues is stimulated. The debate induces communication. And this post debate communication is one way that partisan preferences are mediated. In other words, debates because of information processing and selection biases are strongly implicated in reinforcing existing partisan biases. But these effects are mediated by post debate conversation. As citizens engage others, especially if this engagement represents some sense of substantive exchange, then partisan positions are challenged. From my own experience anyway, the Clinton-Trump post debate interactions were robust. This of course has something to do with Trump’s media presence and inimitable personality along with the uniquely personal and conflict oriented nature of the campaign. Nevertheless, it prompted post debate conversation relative to the issues people are thinking about.

One might continue to think, in naïve rationality, that Trump will make the necessary adjustments but it’s getting late and first debates are the most watched as the audience trails off for the next two. But we will tune in waiting for some sort of catastrophe that we can talk about after the debate.

The Flowering of the Post-Truth Era of Politics

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It is fashionable – especially for liberal academics – to decry the current state of politics crouching in fear as the beast Donald Trump slouches toward Bethlehem. The center is no longer holding. But just because it’s “fashionable” doesn’t make it any less true. Trump is a unique candidate who represents the accumulated intellectual and linguistic decline that has been fomenting in the background for a few decades.

This undercurrent has been creeping up on the culture but hiding itself in the small interactions of people, commercial culture, and media that structure and reproduce the nature of society. For example, a few of what we thought were ongoing debates or genuine contentions in our political culture that require critical analysis and defensible conclusions have now been either settled or are leaning so far in one direction as to constitute a tide. So, there was once a debate between “bias” and “objectivity” the goal of which was to clarify objectivity or move toward it as much as possible. But we woke up one morning and the tables were turned telling us that objectivity didn’t exist and everything was biased. The only issue was whose bias was going to overwhelm the other. Argument, the foundation of democratic processes and quality decision-making, has been enervated because when everything is considered “just your opinion” or “just the way you see things” then even quality evidence-based argument loses its standing. The best thinking is easy to ignore because there are no standards of objectivity only degrees of bias.

There also used to be a boundary between entertainment and civic life. Even the most insightful political operative did not assume that Trump’s television show “The Apprentice” would be a launching pad for his presidential run. But when exposure and recognition become equivalent to knowledge of history, politics, and policy then appearing on television is just as good. The increasing ease with which exposure is conflated with competence is one of those undercurrents that has finally bubbled to the surface as commercial media, and the logic of its presentation structure, has become the dominant form of information processing and organization.

Additionally, it is remarkable how the public has been separated into fact universes. People live in their own information enclave that includes a collection of their own facts and interpretations – or at least conclusions they believe to be facts. Somehow we got to the point where rather than observing and gathering facts and information and then interpreting upwards toward a conclusion, we start with conclusions and reason downward looking for confirming facts and ideas. We criticize politicians who change their mind rather than respecting them for learning something and adjusting accordingly. It is all part of the post-truth society.

Finally, and by way of one more example, the quality of public discourse (e.g. presidential speeches and advertisements) has shifted shapes so that now it looks more like bloated rhetoric then considered analysis. Trump is of course a good example of a speaker who is so befuddled that he has little left to do but lash out and call names. He reflects a specialized strand of reality, one in which when you are wrong you blame reality rather than yourself. It is the ultimate in the common characterization of Trump as a narcissist.

 

 

 

How Trump Misunderstands Islam

Trump Tower

Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.

The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.

But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.

It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:

“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).

I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.

But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.

 

*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.

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.

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