In a crowd looking at four lights

>> Tuesday, February 14, 2017

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
- Andrew Sullivan, "The Madness of King Donald"
New York Magazine, February 10th, 2017.

Except this isn't the real source of trepidation.  At some point, the shock and wonder that Big Brother is constantly dominating the news with lie after lie after lie wears off; you no longer are provoked and surprised, you roll your eyes and you laugh and shoot knowing looks at your neighbors--

And that is when the trepidation sets in.  Because some of your neighbors shoot knowing looks back, are rolling their eyes and laughing right along with you... but not all of them.  And you look around and realize that a number of people--a surprising number of people, aren't rolling their eyes and laughing and shooting knowing looks: a surprising number of people are nodding in agreement, are looking grim and serious.

None of that is necessarily literal, of course: it's reading the comment threads on articles about the latest round of lies, it's reading Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, it's stumbling into a conversation with a friend or relative who shocks you by repeating some new lie or old bit of gaslighting.  It seems self-evident, doesn't it, that there aren't five lights and the proper response to anyone saying that there are five lights is to shout back that there are only four--or maybe even to giggle, because even a small child can count to four and stop.  But there are people all around who are saying "Five," yes of course, there were always five.

And they don't even appear to be under duress, is the thing, you know.

You think to yourself, "Anyone who believes this has got to be stupid," and you look around again... and, again, no.  No, not really.  You see people nodding and affirming--there are five lights and three million illegal voters and seventy-eight unreported terrorist attacks on U.S. soil--and among them are people who have educations and careers and whose opinions you might have valued yesterday if you'd asked them for advice about buying a car or who to call about a leaking water heater or to suggest a good restaurant to take out-of-towners to.  People you'd listen to, or would have thought you'd have listened to, and now look at them.

You wonder, have you stumbled into an Asch conformity experiment?  Or did you lose your mind?  Or did they?  Who are these people?  Where did they come from?  And how did you get in here with them?

And this is when the existential horror sets in, because, really, there are only two possibilities, and they're both just awful.  The first is that you're right, but the world is crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed.  You are surrounded by people who are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level, the level of agreeing to a consensual reality.  Or, the second possibility, they're right and you've lost your mind if you ever had it, you're delusional, and you're crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed, and you are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level of being a part of a consensual reality.

An Asch conformity experiment?  Nevermind: you've wandered into a Philip K. Dick novel.

It's easy to forget that this is one of the real horrors of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (since Sullivan alluded to Orwell).  The superficial horror is the one everyone remembers, Big Brother looking down from everywhere, but this isn't unlike thinking the monster is named Frankenstein.  Big Brother's surveillance state doesn't extend to the proles, it only covers those who are in the party, and not all the time, and a party rank-and-filer like Winston is frequently able to find a nook here or there to maintain a diary or conduct an illicit affair (even if, spoiler, those things might ultimately turn out to have been dangled in front of him to provoke him into thoughtcrime for the party's unfathomable purposes).  No, the real horror is the Memory Hole, the real horror is that Winston is facing a world that changes day by day and his own recollection of the pre-war, pre-Oceania world is constantly being eroded by the party's daily rewrites of what he knows to be true; and rather than being able to depend on other human beings to support his recall, he is surrounded by Two-Minute Haters who go along with the erosion of objectivity, sadistic cynics who don't care whether there's a reality or not so long as they get theirs, and a few like-minded people who will inevitably let him down and betray him.

I think we forget sometimes, that the point behind Orwellian ideas like Newspeak isn't that people say one thing meaning the opposite just for its own purpose, or even for the purpose of merely obscuring truths; Orwell was positing a much nastier, much more insidious idea: that language could be infantilized to a point that reality became impossible to talk about in the first place.  That you could turn language into gibberish not to hide what a state actor was doing (though that might be a definite plus), but rather to keep people from establishing a consensual reality where, say for instance, "freedom" or "justice" are meaningful things, things that have a common reality, however abstract, so that we can have a conversation about freedom or justice where we have a mutual understanding in which the conversation takes root and from which it blossoms.

Winston is alone in his ideas and memories, even though there are surely other people equally alone with shared ones.  All these islands of thought, in an ocean of consensual delusion.

That is at least as frightening as a ratcage hat.





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Nearer the end

>> Friday, February 10, 2017

I have my better days and my worse days.  I feel a great deal of pride in the way my fellow Americans have responded to the Trump presidency*, from friends who have until now otherwise been apolitical for much of their lives to what appears to be a renewed vigor in the American press.  I haven't really lost confidence that Trump is likely to go down one way or another; in the three weeks he's been President, he's demonstrated levels of incompetence, venality, and instability that are surprising even to people like me who thought he was a greedy, nutty hack ten or fifteen years ago when he was mostly famous for going bankrupt in the casino industry.

But my worse days, I remind myself of how we got here, and I find myself wondering what happens when we beat him.  Because I have gone from thinking the Constitution is broken--something I've been saying for quite a while--to thinking that the Constitution is broken and we are in the midst of a Constitutional crisis of which Trump is paradoxically both a mere symptom and a catalyst; a crisis that has possibly been proceeding in slow motion since the end of World War II; a crisis that was in motion but masked for its first two or three decades by the willingness of national leaders to hew to republican traditions for the sake of form or honor, a willingness that seems to have gone by the wayside since the Obama administration, or maybe since the G.W. Bush administration.

Ezra Klein recently wrote an excellent piece for Vox observing that Donald Trump is, ironically, exactly the kind of disaster the Constitution is designed to mitigate and purge.  Whatever the Founders' many, many faults, they at least could imagine an autocratic Executive--a tyrant, in the classical sense of the word--attempting to use the enforcement and military authority of his office for personal gain and aggrandizement.  Hence the separation of powers.  As Klein writes:

But the danger of a demagogic, aspirational autocrat winning the White House is one problem the Madisonian constitutional order is exquisitely designed to handle. The founders feared charismatic populists, they worried over would-be monarchs, and so they designed a system of government meant to frustrate them.

...

The president can do little without Congress’s express permission. He cannot raise money. He cannot declare war. He cannot even staff his government. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to compel Trump to release his tax returns, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to impeach Trump unless he agreed to turn his assets over to a blind trust, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to take Trump’s power to choose who can and cannot enter the country, they could....

Klein goes on to point out a fatal vulnerability in this system: the Constitution is implicitly built around the premise that politicians won't be immune from acting towards regional interests (the interests of New Yorkers versus Virginians, say) or personal interests, and pits those interests against one another; but it completely overlooks the prospect that ideological and national interests--party interests--will override regional and personal interests.  That is, the Constitution is full of mechanisms to pit the representatives of Georgia against those of Delaware, or to pit the interests of Senators against those of Representatives, but it has nothing to deal with the ugly possibility--now the ugly reality--of two national parties each treating governance as a zero-sum game wherein the most important thing is scoring points for the national team and the needs of constituents or the Republic be damned.

Not only that, but the Constitution doesn't deal with the prospect of the parties themselves; that is, there's nothing setting forth whether there should be one party or a hundred, whether those parties are private or public entities, whether there should be some kind of balance between them, who they represent, etc..  Which has left it to the parties themselves to enforce democratic traditions (or not) and turned an electoral system premised on the states sorting out who should be President and Vice-President into an awkward hybrid of political parties choosing who should be President using the forms and structures of the state-centric system; i.e. the whole business of electors being beholden to which party won the election in a particular state instead of showing up to vote the interests of the states themselves.

And since the parties are left to their own devices to select their nominees, the parties themselves are subject to subversion that they may or may not have the wherewithal to fight.

I think this is where we remind ourselves how Trump got here: between February and April, 2016, the only time he cracked 50% of the votes in the Republican primaries was in the Northern Mariana Islands (where he was unaccountably popular); he continued  to have trouble getting 2/3 of the GOP primary vote until it became a three-man race and didn't consistently break 75% until his nomination was all but secure (and even then, there was an active, if ineffectual, "Never Trump" movement at the convention).  Overall, he won by a healthy plurality but merely a plurality, securing just under 45% of the GOP popular vote through the primary season; enough to secure the nomination, obviously, but it would be fair to say that 55% of Republican primary voters would have preferred somebody--anybody--else as a candidate.

It's probably also fair to say that many of those "Not Trump" Republican voters who went on to vote for Trump in the general election only did so out of their dislike for Hillary Clinton.

There's a good bit of circumstantial evidence (and even a few insider claims) that Trump never meant to win the nomination at all--or at least didn't mean to when he entered the race; that he entered the campaign as a publicity stunt and egoboo, and just happened to have the (mis)fortune to run in a year when the Republican field included a dozen people, the most qualified of whom ran as if he'd lost a bet with his family and dropped out in February 2016 after somehow barely scoring single-digit results in every state except New Hampshire (where he managed to crack double-digits with 11% of the vote).  In short, he stumbled into an exploit in a vulnerable system at a moment in time when it just happened to be exceptionally vulnerable.

Lest this be seen as a uniquely Republican problem, we might remind ourselves that Bernie Sanders was the "good" version of Donald Trump in the Democratic primaries.  While I voted for him in the NC Democratic primary, threw a little bit of money his way, and strongly supported his candidacy, it didn't escape my notice (and shouldn't have escaped yours) that Sanders was doing the exact same thing Trump was doing for completely different reasons: whereas Trump is a preening narcissist, Sanders has a career of public service and an obvious and consistent belief system regarding the purposes and uses of government for the public weal; nevertheless, he was also an outsider stepping into someone else's internal contest and benefiting from dissatisfaction with the "establishment" party candidates.

There were two crucial differences in the situations, of course.  First, that Sanders was a "good guy" interloper, representing actual values expressed by the Democratic party and representing the interests of at least a portion of the Democratic coalition.  The second--and this was frustrating for Sanders supporters despite the fact it was really a good thing--was that the Democrats had more robust internal mechanisms for fighting off an invader (even a heroic one) than the Republicans had.  And we have to call this a good thing even if some of us aren't wholly pleased with the results: consider an alternative in which Sanders isn't an interloper for the left, but someone wholly equivalent to Trump, simply playing a demagogic charade to steal the nomination from a real Democrat; you'd thank your stars for superdelegates.

Much as so many of us can wish there'd been something to stop Donald Trump at the Republican convention.

I realize that this seems like a long digression: from the vulnerability of our system when a partisan Congress lacks the will to stand in the way of an Executive from the same party, to the vulnerability of the parties to invaders who may not have the interests of the party at heart.  I sort of hope that last sentence shows where I'm going with that and where these two concerns join, however; the parties are susceptible to takeover from outsiders because they lack the means to stop an interloper, and then that takeover is inflicted upon the country if the interloper ends up in a position of power and the mechanism for reeling him in breaks down because the party is now in the position of having to accept him because they're more interested in their team "winning" than they are in whether the now-embraced interloper is fit to hold office.

Did that make sense?  I hope that made sense.

This leaves us in a terrible place.  I still have some hope that President* Trump will make himself such a nuisance that the House has no choice to impeach, fellow Republican or not.  And I think it's still possible he might be in a position where he's forced to resign, though the size of his ego leaves me a little skeptical about the size of that possibility.  There's also his age, his obvious misery, suggestions his health (mental and physical) may not be as best as he maintains, raising the possibility he could die in office or be subject to the "Twenty-Fifth Amendment solution" that's been murmured about here and there.

But whether Trump makes it through four years or doesn't, we will always be in danger of the situation we are in now.  And this is the long-brewing Constitutional crisis I fear has come to a boil.  Trump stumbled through vulnerabilities in the nominating process that any other politician--in either party--might exploit in some form or another; even if the parties fix their nominating mechanisms to make it harder for outsiders to secure the nomination, 2016 surely isn't the last time a party will enter the primary season with a veritable clown-car full of laughable aspirants bumbling out of the doors and trunk (not to mention that closing the party nominating process to outsiders has its own anti-democratic problems and in some ways doubles down on the problem of having a party-centered system of government under a non-party Constitution instead of mitigating the issue).  And there will still be the same problem--which we've already had under the Bush and Obama administrations, frankly--of the checks and balances in the system completely malfunctioning (effectively absent when the same party controls the Executive and Legislature, and completely obstructionist to the point of non-governance when the branches are controlled by opposing parties).

This problem has been brewing at least since the end of World War II (I have an argument for that marker, but this piece is already too long; suffice it to say, if you wanted to trace this problem all the way back to the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, or to any of the party-system-transition points in between, those are all fair and sound arguments that don't change the main point).  It's been mitigated by convention and tradition: until recently, the parties balanced their desire to win alongside some consensus that traditions dating back to George Washington and the First Congress be honored (or at least paid lip-service to).  It's been increasingly clear for a while that the Republicans can no longer be expected to honor those political mores and the Democrats can no longer afford to.  But the most depressing thing about the Trump presidency* is that he has precipitated this unstable situation into a contemporary crisis while accidentally creating a roadmap for any other demagogue who wants to take advantage of the system's infirmities on purpose.

And because this is a systematic, institutional problem, it isn't something we can fix by doing the things we can and will and need to do.  This is the part that's ruining me this week.  By all means, we have to do what we can within this terrible system to try to make it work, because it's the system we have; but it will still be broken even when we do, and I don't know what we do with the prospect of a complete system failure floating around in the air.  Liberals need to run for local races, call their representatives, get the vote out, support progressive institutions like the free press and organizations like the ACLU--but all of this is a lot like making short-term repairs to an automobile one can't afford to replace, knowing that one is sinking money into a vehicle that will eventually crap out and total itself with a blown engine or similar disaster.

I will say that we have had Constitutional crises before, and we have come out of them with new spins on the old order.  The American Civil War, for example, resulted in three amendments redefining citizenship and an implicit reordering of the country as a Federal entity (with the central government having supremacy over the individual states).  Maybe something like that happens at the end of the path we're on.  But what we need, really, is a new Constitution altogether, one that dispenses with the delusions of the old one, reinstates the ideals of liberty and justice, and acknowledges the reality of the United States as a vast and diverse global power in an age of rocketry and telecommunications.

I don't know how we get there.  I don't think we can.  And it agonizes me.




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