I. Who Is Guilty?
I keep seeing articles about how the Republicans created Trump: The Phenomenon. Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the internet, it’s that whoever claims, “I am not to blame” is the one who, as we used to say, “dealt it.” I’m not here to absolve Republicans of all responsibility, but I think things are more complicated that the comforting narrative of “people I always thought were bad did bad things again.” That’s the kind of thing Trump would believe, and I hope we can come around to believing something more nuanced.
Another common set of articles (and I’m sick of helping Trump “trend” with my searches, so you can go find them yourself) in the “Trump is finished now” genre. Trump contradicts himself or insults John McCain or fails to persuade us that he doesn’t love the KKK or whatever, and everyone would wipe the sweat from their collective brows and proclaim that Trump’s run had ended. And it hadn’t ended. This genre is moribund now, as we realize, finally, that every one of our pronouncements was wrong. But why were they wrong?
I realized something watching Trump on John Oliver (as I’ve pointed out before, for better or for worse my sources are filtered such that I will never see Trump speak unmediated through someone insulting him). In the clip Trump demands we kill terrorists’ families because, he states, we had hitherto been waging war in a “politically correct” fashion. The implication is that the US has been fighting a namby-pamby war in which the main priority is that no one would get hurt.
There’s an episode of Robotech (Southern Cross) where Louie invents a targeting computer for a video game, and the Earth Government wants to co-opt it for military purposes to fight aliens; so Louie and his friends are scandalized and object most strenuously. “It’ll be slaughter!” they complain. This episode makes no sense because Louie and his friends are all soldiers, and they are using tanks to stop an alien invasion, and slaughter is more or less their job. Not inventing a targeting computer to shoot down the aliens that are trying to kill your friends is actively irresponsible.
If Trump said to Louie that he was waging a politically correct war, and should step up his game, Trump would have a point.The idea that the US military has been “pulling a Louie” in the recent past is an extremely dubious proposition, but no one should be surprised if Trump deals less with facts that with perceptions. A constituency could easily assume, based on old Lone Ranger cartoons, that US troops were trying to shoot guns out of insurgents’ hands, and be frustrated with this perceived poor strategy.
The point is that Trump is reacting to someone else’s behavior. In this case it’s the behavior of some cartoon characters, but that’s somehow fitting for Trump. You can rebut him with facts, but you can’t rebut him with, for example, trying to shoot a gun out of his hand or waging a bloodless war against him. That would not be rebuttal, it would be confirmation; and so no one even tries it.
II. Maybe Margaret Sanger Is Guilty?
Last week I wrote about stupid memes, so here’s another one.
Specifically, this is an example of what Slate Star Codex calls “The Worst Argument in the World,” but even if you don’t like following links, you should be able to see the problem. Assuming both quotes are correct (ETA: Apparently Sanger never said that after all. Thanks, Stephanie!), there is still the problem that we can’t really expect any politician, before expressing admiration for another human, to vet her every utterance and opinion. If the first thing you learn about Margaret Sanger is that she was a eugenicist, you are doing it wrong. A lot of people in history had a lot of opinions you won’t agree with, and if you nitpick through their lives to make sure they 100% guessed what the future would deem acceptable, you would admire zero people in history. Even Francis of Assisi went on the Fifth Crusade.
That’s pretty obvious, but something made a lot of people I know share this meme as though it were a damning piece of evidence. Probably no one who shared it thought that Clinton sincerely endorsed Sanger’s views on eugenics, but they shared it anyway. There are, I think several reasons why they (and they means you, you know; they means we) shared it, but irregardful of reasons, sharing this kind of thing is the kind of thing we do. We nitpick other people’s speech searching for any crack we can get a toe hold in. Clinton tried desperately to eulogize Nancy Reagan or Sanders uses the word “ghetto” out of turn, and we begin dancing with joy, our red pens already in our hands.
III. Still Looking for the Guilty Party
Some people say they admire not Margaret Sanger but Donald Trump, even though Donald Trump has said enough crazy things to fill three of Sanger’s lifetimes. His admirers often single out, as their motivation, the fact that he speaks his mind. This is probably more or less true, or at least Trump spends less time pussyfooting around trying desperately not to offend anyone than politicians usually do. Politicians have good reason to pussyfoot: George Romney said “brainwashed” and he was out of the race (1968); Howard Dean said “yeah” and he was out of the race (2004). Trump says war heroes are losers and Mexicans are rapists and we should eliminate the first amendment and…
Well, he should be out of the race. Pundits and sensible people do what they always do in these situations, wash their hands of a candidate and go look for someone else to nitpick. But when they, when we do this to Trump, we are doing precisely what Trump backers dislike about us. Trump’s claim that war is “politically correct” is somewhat mysterious, but if he were to look at the hallmarks of political correctness (extreme real world penalties for verbal slips, for example) in political punditry, it would be right there. Clinton says something that may or may not be foolish, and we act like picking it apart is a valid argument.
The irony is that picking apart Trump’s crazed and manic statements really is a valid argument. Pointing out that no, we should not abrogate religious freedom is a far cry from pointing out that Sanger was sometimes a jackass. But we have used this weapon so often on the wrong targets that it appears to be firing blanks.
IV. Surprise! The Monster at the End of the Book Was Us All Along!
Ten or fifteen years ago, I watched Fox News once. All my friends had been telling me that it was a the home of crazed right-wing nut jobs, and the coverage I saw — I don’t even remember what was being covered — was nothing like their alarmist cries. I assumed, not for the first time, that my friends were crazy, and that Fox News was no better or worse than, say, CNN; and I shut off the TV.
A couple of years ago I saw Fox News again, and found that it had become the home of crazed right-wing nut jobs.
This was hardly a double-blind scientific experiment, and all sorts of things could have contributed to the change, but I think a lot of people would agree that Fox has become, over the years, “worse,” meaning more fringe, more partisan, more alarmist, etc. Let me propose one possible reason behind the change, and see where it takes us:
Journalists are in the business of getting ratings, and the only real check keeping them from going hog wild TMZ style is a sense of shame. Journalists have integrity, after all, and anyone with childhood dreams of Woodward & Bernstein, or Lane & Olsen, does not want to be Geraldo Rivera. That would be shameful!
But what if you were already being shamed? What if, when you were behaving well, or mostly well, everyone sneered at you for being the worst kind of yellow journalist? What is the motivation for continuing to behave well, and not, say, pander to your demographic?
Trump is obviously an unstoppable mindless kaiju and nothing we say about him is going to change his behavior. But Trump’s supporters are, apparently, your reasonable neighbors. They are also a herd of brainwashed neonazis motivated by hatred and violence — if everyone who is not a Trump supporter is to believed.
But this is precisely what you can’t do: you can’t tell people they are a horde of moronic thugs and then tell them that their hero just did something new that’s bad and that’s the end of it. You can’t shame someone you have already maximally shamed! You can’t tell someone: “Act reasonably or I will ridicule you; also, I will ridicule you anyway.”
This is a pickle we are always in, and I don’t pretend to know the way out of it. If you spend enough time calling people ignorant racists for their football allegiances, you make racism feel normal. Any time you claim that attacks on Clinton are due to misogyny, you’re making a brinksmanship gamble: either your opponents are going to have to cave to you or they’re going to have to decide that misogyny must not be so bad, if everyone who criticized a candidate does it! (They could also say, “I don’t want to sound sexist, but…” but we already now how well that flies.)
Of course, not calling people out for their rotten behavior is hardly a good option. But telling everyone that a vote for John McCain or Bob Dole is a vote for Hitler seems a lot less funny and charming when those same people are voting for a guy who literally wants to track certain religious minorities.
Like Batman with the Joker, we are always creating our own villains. Individually it’s unlikely that our opprobrium is going to have much effect, but by our powers combined we can make moderates into radicals and reactionaries. We’re going to keep saying “If you’re not with me you’re against me,” until everyone is against us in the war of all against all. We’re going to keep enforcing our purity standards until no one can qualify.
“The trick [I say like four times per day] is not to care.” But when you don’t care at all, all that’s left is Trump.
All of us.