The Casual Blog

Category: Uncategorized

For next Thanksgiving, some hope for peace

Bald eagles at Jordan Lake

Because of the pandemic, we had an extremely quiet Thanksgiving — leftover pasta, Netflix, and an extra glass of wine.  There were, as always, many things to be grateful for, including the hope that next Thanksgiving we’ll still be here and can do a big happy family gathering.

We’re also thankful that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and company were elected and will soon be taking over the presidency of the United States.  My anxiety level about politics has been falling, and I’m now able to go more than three hours without checking the headlines for a new Trumpian outrage or disaster.

Great blue heron at Jordan Lake

But Covid-19 is still rampant.  So far, the pandemic has killed enough Americans to depopulate a mid-size American city, or to fight a mid-size war.  Joe B has attempted to get and follow qualified scientific advice and model best practices on masking and social distancing, which is a big improvement over what’s his name.  With a true crisis in progress, it isn’t surprising that Joe has declared that we’re at war with the coronavirus.

But here’s a suggestion:  the war metaphor needs to be retired.  We’ve had the war on terror, which has killed many more people than any possible definition of terrorism, with no end in sight.  For generations, we’ve been fighting a war on drugs, which has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and drugs are more popular than ever. We’ve also had wars on cancer, on poverty, and on crime, not to mention continuing culture wars.  In none has there been anything like victory.

Bonaparte’s gulls at Jordan Lake

Our tendency to default to war language suggests a deeper cultural assumption:  that addressing our serious problems usually requires something like intensive violence.  You don’t have to be a full on pacifist to question that.  With a little thought, it’s not hard to see other options, like negotiation or Niebuhrian considered acceptance.  And the horrendous losses in life and treasure from our more recent actual wars (like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) suggest we should always look for a path of non-violence.

Apropos of Afghanistan, I recommend an op-ed piece this week by Timothy Kudo, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, about coming to grips with our disaster there.  After spending some $6 trillion and with more than half a million people dead, it is difficult to argue we accomplished anything.  There was, of course, valor and sacrifice by honorable soldiers, but to what end?

Hooded mergansers at Shelley Lake

The new Biden administration will have plenty of crises to address, including Covid-19 and getting our remaining troops out of Afghanistan with as little additional damage to them and others as possible.  Even though they’ll be busy, perhaps our new defense establishment can take a few minutes to read Kudo’s piece, and reflect on strategies for avoiding future needless, bloody wars.    

I took the pictures here in the last two weeks at Shelley Lake in Raleigh and Jordan Lake in Chatham County.  As always, I was grateful to have some time with the birds and their world.

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Thankfully, this is not a dictatorship

We were not really happy with the yellow we chose for our living room (too bright), and so we got the painter to come back to put on a slightly calmer shade this week.  It being the season for expressions of gratitude, I’m grateful he could do it, and we could pay him.  Though I must admit, it’s been a long and not very fun process, and I’m glad the end is in sight.

I’d say the same for the Trump presidency.  It looks like we’re going to survive it, though with our democracy somewhat the worse for wear.  I’m still having a hard time getting my head around his continuing claim that he won the election, and that millions of Republicans are buying that claim.  This is, of course, ridiculous nonsense, but it says something about us.  

In the campaign, Trump actually said that the only way he could lose the election was if there was fraud.  The natural corollary to this is the election is illegitimate unless he is declared the winner.  This is Ministry of Truth material, at least as bizarre as anything conceived by Orwell.  It means that, contrary to what we previously understood as reality, in Trumpworld elections have nothing to do with choosing a leader.  It means that democracy as we’ve practiced should be deemed a farce.

It’s shocking that most Republican leaders have gone along with this attempt to steal the presidential election, which is in clear violation of their oath to protect the Constitution.  It is also shocking that seemingly respectable attorneys have filed lawsuits lacking any factual basis in support of the effort, which plainly violated both their constitutional oath and their professional ethical obligations.  Lawyers can be disbarred for filing lawsuits without a legal or factual basis, and for lying to courts.  Now that most of Trump’s election lawsuits have been kicked out of court and into the trash, the state bar ethics committees need to get to work investigating this misconduct.

As the courts and election officials have overwhelmingly confirmed there was no gigantic election fraud, it’s increasingly hard to understand why Trump and his supporters continue to attack the election.  Can they really accept as normal and laudable an attempt to steal the presidency?  

I doubt it, but who knows?  Possibly even the proponents don’t expect the theft to work this year, but are working towards an end that is even more deplorable:  destroying faith in democracy.  It sounds hard to do, but it’s starting to seem that the foundations of our system are more fragile than we knew.  We used to think it was almost automatic for people to agree on basic facts, and hard to get people confused as to what is reality.  

But plainly, Trump has confused a lot of people.  It sounds counterproductive, but non-stop lying and obfuscation can be an effective political strategy.  Vladimir Putin’s “chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been a pioneer in this field.  

Part of the idea is that if the government incessantly pumps out outrageous lies, ordinary political discourse becomes impossible.  Opponents spend all their energy trying to counter the lies, with none left for more substantive opposition.  Meanwhile, the public is increasingly not only confused but also cynical, persuaded that there’s no way to get the real truth, that all politicians lie, and that ordinary politics is pointless.

At this point, a lot of people might tune out of politics entirely, figuring the status quo is no worse than any known alternative.  Or they might come to the view that we should give up on messy traditional politics and replace them with something that doesn’t depend on agreeing on relevant facts and searching for compromises.  As the Germans and Italians once put it, a Leader.

If you wanted to push along in this direction, you’d likely quit talking about political opponents with terms like “the loyal opposition” and insist that they be treated as enemies.  Political opposition, formerly considered a normal and necessary part of democracy, would be reclassified as subversion or treason.  

For example, liberals who supported, say, universal health care would be attacked as disloyal socialists or communists.  Indeed, conservatives would find that consideration of any policies supported by liberals would be evidence of their disloyalty.  Compromises with liberal enemies would be morally anathema, akin to consorting with Satan worshippers, child-abuse ring leaders, and cannibals.  

Let’s face it, white nationalist militias and QAnon conspiracists are already here, and they don’t seem ready to leave along with Trump.  Millions of ordinary Republicans seem to be rejecting the new Biden administration as illegitimate.  Just when you thought polarization couldn’t get any worse . . . .  For those concerned about the future of democracy, this does not bode well. 

Fortunately, we also have a long tradition of non-fascist politics.  We know a lot about compassion, respect, and tolerance for others.  We have a lot of experience with scientific study, curiosity, and openness.  Even with our many differences in ancestry, religion, and culture, we have widely shared norms of decency, fairness, and justice.  

Maybe the fever that is Trumpism will suddenly break.  More likely, though, we’ll need to keep confronting a Trump who thinks he may make a comeback, and continue to be patient and careful with those Trumpically infected.  It may be a long, slow process to build relationships of trust and confidence, and persuade ex-Trumpists that progressive politics have nothing to do with communism, Satan worship, or child molestation.  

We can start right away, since, thankfully, we’ve already got a lot in common.  We want to know how each other’s kids are doing, and how the job’s going.  We like a lot of the same things, like sports, music, or books.  We already know how to talk about a range of things, and with some work we can expand the list.  We might eventually be able to work on more charged subjects, like, say, taxes, or health care.  

Breaking news: Trump did not win, and Trumpism may be on the way out

A red-legged seriema calling loudly

As I mentioned last week, while we were having our apartment repainted we went on a big road trip.  One of our stops was Philadelphia, where we’d planned to see the museums and historical sights like Independence Hall.  It so happened we arrived the day after election day.  To our surprise, our hotel, which was close to the Convention Center, was around the corner from the nationally televised political protests about the Pennsylvania vote count.

We kept back a bit from the protests out of coronavirus concerns, and also out of some concern for possible violent conflicts.  There was a big group that supported counting all the votes and another than supported four more years of Trump.  The protesters, a diverse group, were peaceful while we were there, but loud, with lots of drumming, chanting, and dancing.  There were hovering helicopters and a lot of police, but they rode bicycles, rather than military vehicles, and looked relaxed.  

The next day, we’d planned to visit the Barnes Foundation museum, but it was closed.  Instead, we spent the morning in the Mutter Museum, a collection of medical specimens and oddities, including numerous skulls and other body parts.  As a former surgical technologist, Sally was keen to take all this in, while for me it was intriguing but trying.  Confronting death can wear you out. After the Mutter, we walked to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has a world class collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, among other attractions — art comfort food.  

As we walked back from the PMA toward the protests the next afternoon, a young Black man approached from the other direction, and said as he walked by, “White people are angry about Trump.”  I thought at first he was looking for solidarity, and I said something like, “They have good reason to be.”  

What I was thinking was, Yes, Trump supporters are unhappy about losing, and that’s just fine.  But I realized almost instantly that my comment was ambiguous, and I probably sounded to him like a Trump supporter.  He most likely had assumed that I, as a white person and no spring chicken, was a MAGA type, and was hoping to rile me a little.  Since, unfortunately, the majority of people who looked more or less like me voted for Trump, this would not be an unreasonable assumption.  But still, it felt a bit unfair.  It isn’t nice to be stereotyped!   As any Black American could tell you.  

A Eurasian eagle owl

One day, race may be a matter of only historical interest in America, but right now that day doesn’t seem anywhere close to happening.  Race is still a significant driver in our political alignments and has all sorts of subtle influences in our personal lives.  

I’ve been genuinely puzzled that many mostly sane white people characterized the Black Lives Matter protests as mainly violent and scary, rather than mainly peaceful and hopeful.  Part of the reason may be Fox News and similar media that focused obsessively on rare violent episodes and generally ignored the much more prevalent non-violent expressions.  

But here’s another possible explanation:  in the American caste system, protests relating to race will always be viewed as violent, or at least, as threatening violence.  Indeed, a serious challenge to oppression of the subordinate caste is by definition a threat to the existing order.  Loud, rhythmic chants to end police killings of Blacks will sound to some like violent attacks against civilization.  

For those with comfortable positions in the caste system and unquestioning commitment to it, it’s hard to conceive of protests by Black people that are peaceful.  Thus such peaceful protests are redefined as violent invasions.  Which are likely coming to the suburbs!  Our minds do some strange things.  

As of this writing, Trump has still not conceded that he lost the election, and has an army of unprincipled lawyers and hacks making evidence-free arguments and threats to get judges, election officials, or legislators to change the result.  One upon a time, this would have been considered scandalous, borderline criminal, or just criminal.  

For lots of us now, it’s just Trump being Trump, that crazy old uncle, at it again with the stories.  But amazingly, about half of Republicans now believe that he won.  That is, many, many Republicans are buying his whole cloth lie that the election was a fraud and our entire system is not to be trusted.  

A red-shouldered hawk

This is fascinating from a social-psychological point of view, but fairly alarming from every other point of view.  I keep thinking we’ve finally hit bottom in terms of Americans’ gullibility and capacity for destructive self delusion, and keep discovering, no, it just got worse.  

The good news, or at least, the less appalling news, is that he’s also starting to talk about possibly running for President in 2024.  Presumably he understands that he could not do this if he had won in 2020.  So it’s  looking unlikely that he’ll stage an actual coup at this time, but he might be back to promote Act II of Trumpworld before we’ve fully recovered from Act I.   

In the meantime, he’ll likely continue his B grade showmanship for his grotesque and deplorable enthusiasms.  His ratings will likely slip. But the  dark forces that animate him, including racism and xenophobia, have been with us since long before he hit the scene, and whatever he does, they are not about to suddenly vanish.  

A barred owl

One good thing Trump accomplished was to pull back the covers on some deep American problems.  While whipping up our traditional fears of those who are different, he’s also exposed the close relationships among racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, speciesism and other forms of othering.  We’ve been schooled in these closely related systems of dominance and hierarchy for so long that they feel natural.  But they’re human creations, and we’re capable of undoing them and doing better.    

So for those who are wondering, what are we going to do now that we’re almost done with the daily possibility that there’s about to be yet another Trump moral disaster, not to worry.  First, we’ll catch up on our sleep. Then, for those who are interested in working on building a more just, equitable, and peaceful world, there’s almost no risk of running out of interesting projects.    

As to these pictures:  Sally and I went to the Carolina Raptor Center near Charlotte last week and saw some beautiful birds that were either being rehabilitated or were unable to live in the wild.  It was inspiring to spend some time with these remarkable creatures.

A broad-winged hawk

Is Trump almost history?

Corolla, NC, shortly after sunrise and shortly before high tide

Sally and I have been on a road trip for the last couple of weeks while our apartment was being painted.  We visited beloved relatives and saw the sights in several eastern states, including the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I took these pictures.  The painters did a nice job.  Thanks, guys!

Meanwhile, we all made history.  Of course, that’s always true, but from time to time we’re particularly aware of a major shift.  Getting rid of Trump is one of those moments.

Sanderlings

I won’t lie:  the Trump years have been tough for me.  So much of what he’s done has been directed against the things I took as hopeful and positive aspects of this country, like Americans’ usual tolerance, curiosity, and courage, and directed towards our fear, ignorance, and greed.  He was surprisingly successful in bringing out the worst in us, and convincing many that there was nothing to be ashamed of.  To some extent he created a type of alternative reality, where facts, rationality, and ethics were severely discounted.  

After three days of vote counting, almost all election experts agreed that Trump decisively lost both the electoral college and popular vote.  Oh joy! 

Still, I was disappointed that there was not a massive repudiation of Trump. He seems to have won about 47% of the popular vote.  Even more disturbing, he won well over half of white people’s votes, and increased his percentage of that group from the last election.    How incompetent, dishonest, and racist would he have had to be to be buried in a landslide?  Other than the obvious, what is going on with all those Trump supporters?  More research is needed.

Wild horses at Corolla

Part of the reason for Trump’s showing surely relates to the long term Republican project to suppress votes by the opposition.  Measures including gerrymandering, cutting early voting, closing voting sites in Democratic leaning areas, and requiring more voter IDs were part of the equation.  So were threats and intimidation.  The system we call democracy has been under attack.

To overcome those obstacles, Democrats, always a diverse and motley assemblage, had to pull together in an unprecedented effort.  Amazingly, it happened.  And now we’re finally done with Trump’s alt-reality.  Or are we? 

I expected that Republicans would need some time to process Trump’s defeat.  It’s tough to lose.  It’s emotional.  So it wasn’t surprising that Republicans’ first reaction was denial.  But now they’ve had some time, and there’s a problem.  

Trump continues to claim, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that he won the election.  Just as he promised, he is refusing to acknowledge defeat and cooperate in a peaceful transition.  Few Republican leaders have rejected what could be construed as an attempted coup d’etat.  This is, to put it mildly, unprecedented.

It’s admittedly a strange thing to say, but there may be an upside to Trump’s profound corruptness.  It could easily be that his lust for wealth at all costs, rather than all out treason, is what’s driving his latest ruse.  He’s reportedly soliciting donations for his election challenge fund which will actually be going to his personal slush fund.  

In any case, there’s a clear upside to Trump’s incompetence and stupidity:  whatever his despicable hopes and dreams, he’s unlikely to engineer anything nearly as complicated as an overthrow of the government.  So far, his supporters have remained peaceful, and some of them are starting to come to terms with losing.  Two cheers for that.  This painful episode may soon feel as strange and immaterial as a bad dream, as a new day dawns.  Fingers crossed!    

New paint, and shining some light on the dark money

We’re getting ready to have our apartment painted, and it feels a lot like getting ready to move.  All the books are coming off the shelves and going into boxes or the used bookseller, and some old furniture is going to charity or the dump.  It’s unsettling, but we’re ready for some new colors.  Change can be good.

We’re feeling a little shaky as we enter the home stretch of the presidential election.  I still haven’t recovered from the shock of the disastrous election four years ago, and I doubt those scars will ever heal entirely.  Of course, we all always knew, anything can happen, but the 2016 election was a point when we realized, truly, anything could happen.  That is, of course, still true.

But it’s also true that we know a few things we didn’t in 2016, and we’re learning more all the time.  We may or may not have hit bottom for degraded hypocrisy by Republican Senators with the confirmation process for Judge Barrett.   But one good moment in the process came from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., RI), who managed to shed a bit of light in the darkness. 

Specifically Senator Whitehouse called out the contributions of millions of dollars in dark money that went into confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominees.  That is, boatloads of money from rich individuals and corporations have been and are being spent to get a Supreme Court that concerns almost exclusively with the well being of corporations and wealthy people, and the favored beliefs of one type of religion.  It should be shocking.  

A new report by Senator Whitehouse, Senator Warren, and others gives more details about the dark money and its success in controlling the courts. It’s here.

The enormous changes that the rich have wrought in our society in the last 50 years are the subject of Kurt Andersen’s new book, which I’ve almost finished.  In Evil Geniuses:  The Unmaking of America (A Recent History), Andersen gives a lively and readable account of changes in politics, law, and finance that quietly transformed our lives.  The elites got much, much richer, and most everyone else got leftovers.

As Andersen explains, the ideas behind the changes were not complicated.  The main objectives were and still are about lower taxes for rich people, and eliminating regulations on corporations.  The implementation involved enormous expenditures by people like the Kochs, Scaifes, and Olins to maximize political influence.  Beginning in the 1970s, they cleverly normalized their extreme position by establishing a network of conservative think tanks, endowed positions for friendly academics, politicians, and eventually, judges.  

Among the happy recipients of all that dark money was the Federalist Society, which engineered the nomination of Judge Barrett and boosted five current Justices, not to mention many other federal judges.  The group has been funded by a rogues gallery of super wealthy right wingers, including the Kochs, Olins, Scaifes, andMercers, and now gets millions of dollars annually from such sources.  

The publicly expressed ideology of the Federalist Society is all about freedom, constitutional rights, and tradition.   Much of its actual work is all about making sure the rich get to keep all the money they have and get a lot more.  Otherwise, group members generally support right wing positions on social issues of special interest to a regressive branch of Christianity, including abortion, gay marriage, and maintaining the racial status quo. 

As Andersen explains, we arrived at our current situation of oligarchic control and extreme inequality in small steps, many of which were legally and financially complicated. Most of us didn’t even realize the takeover was happening.  But with raw and unapologetic power plays like the Barrett confirmation process, the big picture is snapping into focus:  one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for the rich.

Getting to this point took a very long, careful, intensive effort on the part of the super greedy.  The good news is, the brutal oligarchic system we’ve now got is not set in stone.  We can change it and make one that’s fairer and more compassionate.   It may be we’re just about to start that work.  We’ll have a better idea in a couple of weeks.  

One quick postscript to my post of October 9 regarding Judge Barrett, Justice Scalia, and originalism. Erwin Chemerinsky, an eminent constitutional scholar, reinforced a couple of my points in a NY Times op ed this week . He notes that originalism is not at all what it pretends to be, in terms of its certainty and objectivity. He also points out that some of its positions run directly counter to our basic ideals regarding equality.

A different way of looking at Trump’s racism

Sally’s new orchid, a gift from Jocelyn and Kyle

There are a lot of different ways of looking at the world, aren’t there?  Although President Trump looks to be headed at full speed towards an election cliff, I still keep hearing startling interviews with his supporters.  There are some who think he’s honest and effective, and they like his style.  They find him both admirable and lovable. 

This week I heard normal seeming people saying it’s unfair to tag Trump as racist.  Didn’t they hear him calling neo-Nazis very fine people, and telling the Proud Boys to stand by?   What’s going on?  I have a few thoughts.

Racism is not the only problem we’ve got in the U.S., but it’s a big one.  Not so long ago, I thought white people (my birth group) were making great progress in putting behind us the myth that people of color are inferior.  We’d enacted laws requiring racial equality, and started seeing the pervasiveness of more subtle discrimination.  

So I assumed that when Black people started pointing up the fact that they are too frequently targets of police violence and other discrimination, most white people would be receptive and sympathetic.  I figured those who were unaware would want to learn more.  I thought most everyone would be interested in how to fix the problem.

And happily, a lot of white people have spoken along these lines.  But there has been a strong counter reaction by others.  The storyline for them goes something like this: Black protesters are violent ne’er-do-wells who are unfairly targeting the police, who have done nothing wrong.  The real problem (in this view) is how to stop the protesters, and how to prevent them from destroying businesses and invading the suburbs.  White people, not Black people, are the real victims.  

This upside down storyline has been promoted in right wing media such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-type talk radio, and, of course, President Trump.  At first I thought the torrent of slick, angry, fear mongering media accounted entirely for the right wing narrative.  That is, I imagined that those who saw white people as the true victims were were overwhelmed by the propaganda of Fox and its various friends, and simply not getting enough correct information.

But I’ve come to  think this is not a complete explanation.  There are some who fail to see the point of Black Lives Matter protests who do not live entirely in a right-wing media bubble.  They are exposed to other information sources.  For them, the problem is not lack of information, but something more complicated.  

I don’t have all the data, of course, but I assume Trump supporters are in most regards the same as everybody else.  That is, we all have basically the same physical make up, the same genetic components, and the same brain structures.  There are individual variations among Trumpists, with some being loud and obnoxious, and others quiet and thoughtful.  I’m sure there are many who are loving parents, good employees, and charitable community members.  There are certainly some that I like as people and respect, except for their Trumpism.  

The big difference between us has to do with information processing.  We ordinarily think that if we see, say, a star, everyone in the vicinity is seeing the same thing. Similarly, if we hear a story about children being separated from their parents and held in cages, or about hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic, we think our reaction is about the same as everyone else’s.  But this, it turns out, is not necessarily so.   

We don’t usually think of reality as something we each create and maintain with our brains, but it is, in a way.  As infants, we learn to distinguish significant from insignificant, and pay attention mostly to those things that are either pleasant or threatening.  Eventually we learn how, without conscious effort, to filter out the great majority of sound waves, light waves, and other potential stimuli.  

We couldn’t function otherwise.  Our brains don’t have the processing power to render coherent all the sound, light, and other physical activity around us.  We can choose to train ourselves to notice some things we might not otherwise notice, like rocks that may actually be fossils or meteorites.  But in general we take the mental framework we’ve built up, and don’t perceive much outside of it.

Our social reality is similar, in that it’s something we each construct, piece by piece.  We start as infants learning who and what to trust, and who and what to fear.  We accumulate a library full of working assumptions about what sort of behavior is normal, and what sort is alarming.  And we situate ourselves in communities of people with similar assumptions about normal and abnormal ideas and behavior.

There are significant advantages in being in a community with its own culture.  We can outsource a lot of the work, relying on others to detect threats or opportunities.  The community helps its members with food, clothing, and social contact.  But the community also imposes restrictions.  These include the requirement not to question basic assumptions of the community.  

So for example, in a mining community, raising questions as to the risks of global warming may be unwelcome.  For a long time, I assumed that in such situations, many people might have doubts on factual or moral questions but consciously keep quiet about them, so they could remain community members.  

But now I’m thinking it’s more likely that they have no doubts.  That is, if being in a community requires that you believe something, you may well sincerely believe it — even if it has no factual basis. 

And if there’s a challenge from outside the community to the belief (such as, say, a broad consensus of expert opinion that man made climate change is happening and potentially disastrous), it takes no conscious effort to ignore it. You don’t register conflicting information, or instantly dismiss it.  The belief carries with it a kind of filter that traps and isolates dissonance, so that inconsistent information has no effect on the thinking of the community.

How could we test this theory?  We could do surveys or brain scan experiments, and probably should, because it would be helpful to get more data about how our minds can settle on conclusions at odds with our basic moral principles and all known evidence.  But in the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that people develop thought patterns that have nothing to do with physical reality while remaining otherwise sane and productive members of the community.  

This week I had a minor epiphany listening to an interview with a Trump supporter.  The supporter was defending Trump against what he viewed as unfair charges of racism.  When the interviewer asked how he’d describe racism, the supporter gave a surprising explanation:  it’s when you consciously hate Black people and want to hurt them.  The Trump supporter said he’d never personally known a racist.

Conscious hatred and malice is a very narrow definition of racism, obviously.  For this Trump supporter, and probably a lot of others, racism is not a big problem, because as they define it, it is only rarely found in the real world.  

This would explain why Trump supporters reject and resent suggestions that they themselves are racist.  They don’t consider themselves malicious towards Black people, and think it’s unfair that anyone one would think that of them. This is understandable.  

But racism is actually much broader. A fair understanding of racism takes in a range of attitudes and behaviors, from violence and hate speech all the way and to hurtful social slights and indifference.  A lot of our behavior and institutions have strong and non-obvious assumptions as to one race being superior and others inferior.   Under a broader definition, almost all of us are raised as racists, and are to some degree racist.  Understanding and correcting for our own inherited and unconscious racism is hard work.

Isabel Wilkerson has argued in her new book Caste that it’s helpful to talk about the American system using the terminology of caste, rather than race.  That is, the American system is in some ways like other caste systems of history, such as the Indian, South African, and German ones.  Like us, other countries have had elaborate systems for defining degrees of inferiority and permitting oppression.  Using this caste approach might be a good workaround for the definition problem with the word racism. 

Anyhow, I now get why Trump may actually think he’s not a racist, and his supporters may agree.  I would argue that redefining racism to exclude most of the actual social problem is nonsense driven by what we’ve traditionally called racism.   But I don’t expect that will be at all convincing to Trump supporters. 

For these supporters, I doubt that any unapproved argument will get through the filtering system and affect their thinking. But even so, it’s important to keep talking, and maintain loving and respectful relations. Most of the time, we can have differing world views and still enjoy each other’s humor, intelligence, creativity, and affection. In fact, you never know how things will turn out. From time to time, people change their minds.

Changing colors, and the problems with Judge Barrett

 

When the leaves start changing, I’m always a little surprised and reassured.  This week in Raleigh we had a few more reds and golds, and the Canada geese at Shelley Lake were practicing flying in formation.  I enjoyed spending some time with the trees and birds.  A friend told me recently she found my nature photos to be a calming counterpoint to political discussions, which I do as well.  

In the closing days of the presidential campaign, the Trump show has not gotten better.  Trump is looking to short circuit the election, promising miracle Covid-19 cures, and agitating to have his political enemies arrested, while finding new ways to share the coronavirus with his employees and supporters.  

With polls indicating a strong possibility of a landslide against him, I’m hoping we’ll soon be changing the channel.  Unfortunately, Trump will be leaving a mess that will take a while to clean up.  Hard to know what to do with those racist militias, for example. There’s also the Supreme Court.

With Justice Ginsberg’s untimely passing, I thought there was a chance that a remnant of decency and shame on the part of Senate Republicans could lead to postponement of a decision on a new Justice.  Don’t ask me why I ever thought such a ridiculous thing.  As of this writing, it looks like the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is greased to go.

Judge Barrett is a bit of an oddity among Supreme Court nominees, in that she didn’t go to a top tier law school, didn’t serve time in a power elite law firm or federal agency, and is a long time member of a luridly patriarchal religious cult.  Her primary qualification, according to supporters, is her experience as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia. 

This is essentially code for:  law school success and rock solid far right conservatism, with a low probability of a new justice straying toward the liberals.  As a former clerk for Justice Scalia myself, I understand this logic.  Also, for the minority who think the only important issue in American politics is stopping abortions, she is certainly an understandable choice. 

Here’s the problem:  in pledging allegiance to Justice Scalia, Judge Barrett is also signaling that she adheres to a  judicial method that is seriously flawed.  A lot of people don’t understand the inherent problems of that method, and the good reasons for abandoning it.   

First, let me say, it was a great honor to clerk for Justice Scalia, and I personally liked him.  He had a lot of warmth, and a good sense of humor.  He and I shared a passion for classical music, tennis, and good Italian food.  Although we were far apart on politics (I was a Democrat well to his left), we got along well.

When I began my year as a Scalia clerk in 1987, I was a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.  Like most clerks, I’d done well in law school but had hardly any experience as a lawyer.  Scalia presented me and others with a seductively attractive system for deciding cases which initially seemed logical and practical.  

American appeals court judges, including Justices, are charged with deciding unclear points of law, and they are expected to give reasoning in support of their decisions.  There are no set rules on what qualifies as adequate supporting reasoning.  At a minimum, decisions are supposed to have some basis recognized in the law, and to represent more than the personal preferences of the judges.

Scalia’s declared methodology for interpreting the Constitution was to rely as much as possible on the original text, without reference to later developments or current views.  He had a similar methodology for interpreting statutes, focusing on the language and disregarding legislative history or social context.

Scalia promoted his originalist system as objective and rational.  It was, supposedly, the opposite of judicial activism, in which a judge promotes his or her own political and social views.  Observing the methodology in action over the following decades, however, I came to see it as at best unreliable, and at worst a kind of intellectual grift. The reasons relate to the building blocks of language and history.

First, language is far less fixed and determinate than Scalia acknowledged.  He presented ancient dictionaries as highly reliable guides, not recognizing they all have ambiguities, inaccuracies, and gaps.  Moreover, there is never certainty that a particular writer meant the exact same thing as a particular lexicographer.  Thus relying on dictionaries to interpret constitutional words and phrases like “commerce,” “due process,” or “equal protection,” is dubious.

At times, Scalia relied on historical research in support of his position, but he normally included only historical examples that supported the conclusion he hoped to reach, and skipped over evidence against his conclusions.   He had no interest in the sometimes tedious work of professional historians examining new evidence to develop a richer understanding of the past.  Indeed, he seems not to have recognized that respectable historians aren’t generally expecting to arrive at unchanging eternal truths.  And of course, Scalia had neither the training nor the time to be a professional historian.  

In fairness, Scalia was not the only judge ever to cite history selectively or otherwise stack the deck in favor of a desired outcome.  Indeed, there is nothing unusual about judges using history and other evidence selectively to support their initial intuitions, rather than using legal analysis to determine the solution to a legal problem.  Like other humans, judges are inclined to find that arguments supporting their intuitions are much more persuasive than those conflicting with them.

Few judges, though, have Scalia’s fierce belief in his methodology as always superior, and his corresponding utter disdain for alternative approaches.  This belief made him reluctant to compromise and inclined to see those who disagreed with him as ignorant or acting in bad faith.  It tended to undermine the possibilities of reasoned debate with colleagues leading to better decision making.  If you already have figured out the truth, why waste time trying to work things out with those who haven’t seen the light?  

As many have noted, Scalia was highly intelligent, and he was a skilled legal craftsman.  A former debater, he was extremely good at avoiding arguments he disliked and diverting attention from his own weak points.  Especially when his position was difficult to defend, his writing could be dense, lengthy, and exhausting.  He was also sometimes very witty.  

But there is no reason to think that Scalia’s opinions were generally either better reasoned or more often correct than his colleagues’.  In fact, his confidence in his method — his self certainty — virtually assured that he would be less likely than others to examine his own prejudices and to try to account for them.  It’s possible he believed his own biases were not a factor in his decisions, but his record shows the contrary.  

Scalia’s world view and personal prejudices generally mirrored those of white, conservative, privileged men of his generation.  I doubt that he developed his originalist method with the explicit intention of freezing the existing elite power structure or preventing the advancement of the less powerful.  Perhaps he mistakenly thought he’d found the perfect formula for objectivity and the cure for activism.  

Whatever his original reasons, in retrospect, it is obvious that his legal decisions closely conformed to his cultural assumptions and prejudices.  Scalia almost always ended up where he started, having worked out an originalist argument that harmonized with his views.  His system did not work as advertised, and was far from objective.  

His positions in cases involving claims by racial minorities, women, gays, immigrants, prisoners or other less powerful groups were highly predictable:  they would almost never get his vote.  Environmental causes, such as controlling pollution or preserving habitats for endangered species, also didn’t get his vote.  He favored teaching creationism, and didn’t pretend to be much interested in science.  Large corporations, religious organizations, and other defenders of the status quo were to him the most appealing litigants, and most likely to get his vote. 

If Judge Barrett models herself on Scalia, she will be using a judicial approach that pretends to be objective, but that almost always yields a result that favors those with wealth and power.  She will see little merit in arguments for the rights and welfare of the less powerful.  

Perhaps worse, taking Scalia as a model, a Justice Barrett would be unable to acknowledge that she had personal biases that, unless recognized, tend to drive her decisions.  She would mistake the cultural assumptions bequeathed to her, such as patriarchal authority and aversion to homosexuality, as bedrock truths, and insist that those holding different assumptions were threats to democracy.  She would find it difficult to take seriously any argument inconsistent with her intuition.  

In addition, a Justice Barrett following the Scalia approach would reduce the possibility of collegiality and reasoned debate.  The ideal of a well informed group of Justices collaborating together in search of reasonable solutions is hard to reach, but even harder if any Justice believes that only she has the truth.

Perhaps Scalia’s passionate but wooden approach to legal reasoning will eventually morph into something more useful, and his successors will get better at questioning their own cultural assumptions and considering those of others.  In the meantime, there is ample reason to resist adding a Scalia acolyte to the Court.  

The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history

The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about.  President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account.  When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.  

Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre.  Why would anyone do that?  But perhaps there was a method in the madness.  Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics. 

And that would make some sense.  If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger.  Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.  

The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates.  One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.

So I have an idea!  Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes?  We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates.  Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover.  We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say.  After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.

In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys.  If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.     

With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy.  I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial.  We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.  

Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history.  But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.  

If only!  It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections.  Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections?  Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.  

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic.  I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it.  But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke.  We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.  

The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history.  A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring.  As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.  

But I quickly got less excited.  The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.  

The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about.   My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise.  It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.  

As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021.  But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy.  Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.  

For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz.  See how you do! 

 

  1.  Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
  1. Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
  2. Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
  3. Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
  4. Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor

 

  1.  How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
  1. Not bad.  They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
  2. Fairly well.  Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
  3. Well.  They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
  4. Quite well.  They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky

 

  1. What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
  1. Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
  2. Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
  3. Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
  4. Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting

 

  1. What was eugenics?
  1.  A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
  2. A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
  3. The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
  4. All of the above

 

  1. What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
  1. No idea 
  2. They clearly make no sense
  3.  They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
  4.  They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs

See, it wasn’t that difficult!  In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit.  Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading.  The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.  

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

Sleeping trouble, adieu to RBG, and picking the lesser of evils in Trumpworld

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

I heard on the news last week that a lot of people are having trouble sleeping these days, and thought, me too!  My insomnia seems to be getting worse, though it’s nothing new, and over the years I’ve learned to make the best of it.  Lately when I wake up at 2:00 a.m., I’ve been watching YouTube videos of gifted pianists playing Chopin and Liszt, which are stimulating, but in a soothing way.  

There are so many things to feel anxious about that just listing them makes me anxious, so I won’t.  I can scratch from the list the worry that Justice Ginsburg might not survive until 2021, since yesterday she died.  I met her when I clerked at the D.C. Circuit, where she was then an appeals court judge, and found her pleasant, though quiet and in no way charismatic.  Only more recently, from the documentary RBG, did I realize that in her quiet way, she was an extraordinary person, who devoted her life to justice and did a lot of good for our country.  

Great egret at Shelley Lake

What will the Republicans do now?  The thought of a Justice Bill Barr, Justice Stephen Miller, or Justice Roger Stone is more horrifying than another Justice Federalist Society Ideologue, but they’re all horrifying.  Is there some chance that a few Republican senators will feel enough civic responsibility and/or shame to put off confirmation until after the election?   We can only hope.

Even if we didn’t face the strong possibility of an even more politicized, reactionary Supreme Court, we’d still have big problems.  We’re at a crossroads of American history, and I’m seriously worried that democracy as we know it is at risk.

Although I have nothing good to say about Donald Trump, I’m not profoundly worried about him in particular.  In the last two centuries, we’ve had leaders almost as corrupt and unqualified as Trump, and survived.  My sense of dread is more about the new way of engaging with politics that he reflects and inspires.

This came into focus for me last week with an odd op ed in the Washington Post arguing that although Trump had a lot of negatives, he was still the lesser of evils.  The criticisms of Biden were vague, but after a couple of re-readings, I think I got the gist:  Biden’s policies would destroy the republic, because they were liberal ones supported by Democrats.

This was difficult for me to process, because I’ve always thought that liberalism was not a monolith, but rather just one collection of views among many on the American political landscape.  In the 20th century, there were all kinds of political positions in America, from far left to far right, and it seemed normal for people to have different ideas on what were the best policy solutions.  To resolve our political differences, we had institutions, like legislatures, where we tried to persuade others and find compromises.  We agreed to have regular fair elections, where we could get rid of bad players, and the winners could carry on with the democratic experiment.

For me, there was never a time when the Democratic Party seemed particularly wise or enlightened.  Indeed, for more than half a century I’ve watched Democrats participate in a long series of what I thought were terrible choices on business regulation, criminal justice, healthcare, social services, foreign policy, and other areas.  In all of those, it arrived at compromises with Republicans.  Neither party had a monopoly on bad ideas, or good ones.  

I thought there was general agreement on this:  that political parties could fumble and sometimes fail, but politics would continue, with the possibility that future compromises would be better.  It never occurred to me to view American politics as a winner-take-all game, in which political opponents were viewed as by definition illegitimate.  

So it took me a while to grasp that Trumpism involved a different kind of thinking, with little in common with traditional Republicanism other than the name. But I think I’ve finally got it:  Trumpism at its core is defined not by any policy objective, but by fear and dread of enemies.  And in the political arena, the primary enemy, as they conceive it, is all those to the left of far right — that is, Democrats, and people like me. 

Of course, not everyone who supports Trump thinks the same way, and there are surely some who will vote for Trump without intending the destruction of all Democrats.  Still, the thing that drives the Trump movement is not a set of policies or even a value system.  Rather, it’s a strong conviction that Democrats aren’t just ordinary people who happen to have different ideas as to policies.  They are evil.  And very frightening.  

Once I understood this, some things I’d thought were plain lunacy started to make a kind of sense.  It seems crazy to deny the reality and effectiveness of science — unless science is consistently supporting Dark Forces that want Us to change Our Way of Life.  Increasingly popular nutty conspiracy theories like QAnon have at their base a belief that politics is not just politics, but a battle between good and evil.  And as everyone knows, there can be no compromise with evil — that is, according to this way of thinking, with Democrats.

If you’re persuaded that Democrats are not just a political party, but rather agents of Satan, it probably seems reasonable to buy more guns and ammunition to defend yourself against them.  It also would seem right and proper to use force against them when they assemble to protest something.  

On the other hand, under the Democrats-are-evil assumption, it makes no sense to have free and fair elections.  If you did that, there’s a possibility Democrats might win.  And then we’d be in big trouble!  No, in this new, Trumpist view, to save our democracy and our traditional way of life, we need to have a different kind of election, in which those who disagree with us cannot win.  If they insist on winning, a reasonable response is violence.    

For a full on Trumpist, encountering opposition to Trumpism is different from an ordinary political disagreement.  It is treason, or worse than treason — blasphemy!   In this strange worldview, those who attempt to argue that Trump has minor or major shortcomings like, say, lack of intelligence or lack of character, simply prove that they themselves lack intelligence or character.  Those who oppose Trump (that is, Democrats and others),show, by their opposition, that they are wrong and evil.

This is not to say all Trumpists like everything about Trump.  Some do, but some have various criticisms of his manners or certain policies.  But Trumpists believe he is the lesser of evils, because his opponents are really and truly evil.    

Obviously I’m putting things a bit strongly, and not trying to address every individual variation.  Again, I don’t think every Trump supporter is this extreme.  I realize that there are a minority of them who are willing to have a sincere, good faith political discussion, and who are willing to allow that political opposition can be legitimate.  I’m always on the lookout for those, and happy to have more discussions with them.  

But there’s really no point in attempting to have a discussion with an extreme Trumpist.  They are not willing to listen to anti-Trumpist ideas, and may react violently.  If they’re carrying weapons, I advise keeping at a safe distance.  If we’re going to continue the American political experiment, we’ll need to get back to basics.  First of all, Democrats and others who still believe American democracy is worth preserving need to vote.