The Casual Blog

Tag: Trump

Gassing up and heading out, and the latest election fraud fraud

The Tiller ride at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

This week our gas stations had gas again, which was cheering for those of us with internal combustion engines.  I headed east to Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes looking for wildlife.  It was good to connect with animals again, though as always, I regretted my own greenhouse gas emissions.  Along the dirt roads it was pretty quiet.  I saw plenty of birds and one handsome (I think) young rattlesnake.    

On the drive out and back, I listened to various podcasts and audiobooks.  I strongly recommend a new podcast series called The Improvement Association.  The subject is election fraud in Bladen County, NC, where in 2018 they had one of America’s tiny number of actual election fraud incidents.  The podcast was put out by Zoe Chace and some of the same folks that made the podcast Serial.

The fraud involved improper ballots in support of the Republican congressional candidate and resulted in invalidation of the election.   During and after the scandal, Republicans in Bladen County claimed that Black politicians there had done much worse.  Zoe Chace decided to investigate.

Chace is not a showy personality, but she is an excellent journalist.  She asks reasonable questions, lets people have their say, and resists pat answers.  She recognizes that people often aren’t able to put things into words, including their own feelings about race, and that such feelings sometimes help account for how they see things. 

 

Much of her podcast focuses on the persistent accusations of white Republicans that Black organizers regularly committed election fraud, and she finds hardly any evidence that they did.  But she also examines the very interesting question of why white Republicans keep insisting the opposite.  She found both political opportunism and sincere racial fears, which sometimes hardened into an impossible-to-shake belief.  

In a way it’s a small story, but just now it has a lot of resonance.  Those of us not on the right are finding it difficult to comprehend how the majority of Republicans can continue to think, as they do, that Democrats committed election fraud that resulted in Joe Biden wrongfully becoming president.  

Chace’s podcast suggests part of the answer:  traditional racial attitudes have a psychological filtering effect, blocking out certain facts (like the nonexistence of evidence) and concentrating some assumptions (like Blacks are like [something]).  Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can feel just like logical thinking.  

With some of the generosity and curiosity of Zoe Chace, I want to give Trump supporters the benefit of a doubt.  I’m willing to assume that they aren’t just gaslighting, and most aren’t specifically hoping to overthrow democracy and reinstitute legal white supremacy.  They may truly believe that America faces an existential threat from leftists who seek to institute radical socialism and outlaw Christianity, and the only defense is Trump or someone like him.  They may actually be unable to process the overwhelming evidence that none of this is true.    

As far as I know, there’s no easy way to assist folks perched on this perilous ledge to gently move back towards a more fact-based reality.  But unfortunately, it is quite easy to make them feel even more terrified,  confused, and in need of a powerful leader to defend them.  Opportunistic Republican leaders and right-wing networks, concerned with maintaining power and audience share, are currently doing so, with a vengeance.

A recent new ploy is instituting more recounts of the 2020 election votes.  As most people know, the presidential election has been officially completed and confirmed, with massive oversight by qualified specialists and courts.  But state legislators in Arizona and Georgia have decided to continue recounting.  This could, I guess, go on as long as they think, or want others to think, that there was a conspiracy and all the tallying so far is wrong.  That is, potentially, forever.

It may be that such shenanigans will keep the MAGA base energized and eager for the next election battle.  It’s at least as likely that it will slowly drain away belief in fair elections.  Big lies, like Trump’s gigantic lie about the 2020 election can work by fooling gullible people, but they can also have an even more insidious effect.  

Repeating unbelievable things while demanding they be believed works to erode belief in one’s own common sense.  The big liar implicitly says, belief and loyalty are more important than reality, and anyhow, it’s impossible to know what’s true.  Your only choices are uncritical belief or hopelessness and confusion.  The big lie can work by getting people to give up on the idea that political action may be a force for good, and make them both despondent and acquiescent to power.

This is a difficult moment in the American political experiment.  We’ve learned that there are malign forces at work that are more infectious than we thought, and there’s no vaccine at the moment.  But we’ve still got a lot of the good sense and good will that have sustained us in difficult times before.  

Attacking fact checking, and the big election lie emergency

Osprey and fish at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to head to eastern NC this week to look for black bears and other creatures.  Unfortunately, in Raleigh and elsewhere, there was a gas shortage.  For a few hours, drivers and cars waited in long lines to get into stations, and then, the lines disappeared, and all the stations that I checked were out of gas.  

The primary cause was a criminal hack of a major fuel pipeline company, with a secondary cause of a mass freak out (panic buying).  People will probably calm down eventually.  In the meantime, anyone taking a long road trip faced a good chance of getting stranded without gas, and so I sadly put off the bears.  These pictures are ones I took recently at Jordan Lake and Raulston Arboretum

I’d been looking forward to taking a break from the subject of Trump, elections, and democracy.  For a couple of weeks, it looked like we were heading towards normal, still with big problems, but having avoided a crash into full-on fascism.  Right now we’ve got a full plate of wars, diseases, and other miseries, and it would be good not to add to the to-do list.  So I’m sorry.  But this is an emergency:  our democracy is in a crisis.

Before I get to the crisis, a related development:  this week a state legislator in Michigan proposed a new law aimed at fact checkers.  As a former professional fact checker, I wondered what was up.  According to the Washington Post, the legislator in question was a supporter of “Stop the Steal” and opponent of Covid safety measures.  He proposed that fact checkers be required to register with the state, post a million dollar bond, and face fines and lawsuits for their mistakes.

As an ex-lawyer, I’m pretty confident that such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional, as long as we have anything resembling our current constitutional system.  But the proposed law is one more indication of the fragility of that system.  

It’s been four decades since I worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker, and through the years it never occurred to me that the government might try to put the lid on fact checking.  I assumed that almost everyone would prefer to have truthful, reliable information, as opposed to mistakes or lies.  Even though right-wing propaganda networks regularly play fast and loose with facts, the idea of making it a crime to try to get the facts right is something new.     

Here’s fact checking in a nutshell:  the job of the checker is to figure out whether statements purporting to be factual are accurate.  Sometimes this is straightforward, as with correctly spelling names and confirming addresses, but other times it requires more research and analysis.  On issues requiring expertise or first-hand knowledge, it requires consulting reliable experts or sources.  It requires judgment when, as happens, experts or sources disagree.  In such cases, the checker may add a note that there’s a disagreement.  

Like all humans, fact checkers sometimes make mistakes.  In such cases, they may be reprimanded, fired, or, in cases of libel, sued.  So the proposed Michigan law would seem pointless, if the point were to punish mistakes.  It makes sense, though, if the aim is to clear the way for big lies by discouraging checking.  For those whose careers depend on lies, facts are pesky things.

And so we come to the crisis.  This week Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney was tossed out of the Republican leadership because she called out the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and was denied the presidency because of fraud.  

This action resembled Republicans’ refusal to impeach Trump, but it was actually worse.  It’s the difference between quietly tolerating a lie and loudly shutting down those that oppose the lie. Instead of merely declining to hold Trump accountable for the January 6 attempt to overthrow the election, the Republicans are now effectively co-signing his lies about the election and endorsing the January 6 insurrection.  

In an almost-but-not-quite comic development, some congressional Republicans are now rechristening the mayhem of January 6 as a normal tourist visit unrelated to Trump and his supporters. 

For any who have forgotten, Trump supporters waving MAGA flags and sporting MAGA paraphernalia stormed the Capitol, shouting death threats, and vandalizing the premises as they searched for fleeing legislators who’d been about to complete certification of the election of Biden.  There were several deaths, dozens of injuries, and legislators and guards who feared for their lives. 

Meanwhile, having narrowly lost the last election, Republicans in 30-some states are moving forward with new voting laws designed to reduce the number of Democratic voters.  According to a new report in Mother Jones,  this effort has been organized with military precision by a right-wing dark money outfit associated with the Heritage Foundation.  

The quasi-clever cover story for these laws is that they are needed to address voter fears of election fraud.  There could be such fears, but in fact, there is no significant election fraud problem.  The fears are based on the outrageous lies propagated at high volume by Trump and his supporters in connection with their effort to overturn the last election.  

Senate Bill 1 could put a stop to the worst of the state level election rigging, but that legislation is opposed by Senate Republicans and can’t advance as long as the filibuster stays in place.  At the same time, state Republicans are getting rid of election officials who refused to go along with the Trump attempt to steal the 2020 election, and replacing them with Trump loyalists.  That is, they’re putting in place election officials who appear committed to stealing elections when directed.  

There are a lot of moving parts, but the direction is clear:  the end of our traditional system of transferring power peacefully based on fair elections.  Republicans are in the process of replacing it with a system in which elections are a sham used by the powerful to fool the gullible.  Such systems have a long history, but only in countries that we would not call democratic, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.  To put it plainly:  Republican leaders are now working on a large-scale effort to undermine the foundation of American democracy.

There are, of course, some principled Republicans who oppose this effort, and others who haven’t yet heard what’s happening, but would not support it.  But right now the Republican leaders at the national and state level are moving ahead to set up a system where only their candidates can win.  For many rank-and-file Republicans, persuaded by decades of right-wing lies that Democrats are evil socialists and otherwise very scary, changing the system to keep out Democrats may seem like a good idea.   

Possibly the Trump fever will break, and those with the illness will revert to traditional support for fair elections and facts over lies.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  It’s more likely that our democratic experiment will only survive if we fight for it (non-violently, of course).  We could start by junking the filibuster and moving ahead with Senate Bill 1.

Flowers, and the latest culture war battlefield: stopping anti-racism

Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people.  Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State  a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year.  Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully.  The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.  

It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care,  voting rights, and education.    


Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base:  attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery.  Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order.  Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”

Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system.  McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil.  Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.

This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense.  For anyone just arriving from outer space:  Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people.  Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated.  The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.  

It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be:  the racial caste system doesn’t exist.  That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats.  But here we are.  

Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist.  In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction.  It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.  

But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races.  We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature.  Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project.  It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders. 

We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.    

On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations.  Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs.  This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.

The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist.  Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system.  As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.  

The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste.  As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion:  the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.  

As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks.  We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).  

Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems.   For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks.  With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us.  Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.  

But here we are.  We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery.  We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy.  Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught  Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.   

Ospreys, crock potting, and the Trumpist campaign against fair elections

Osprey at Jordan Lake in late afternoon

When I went out to Jordan Lake late Wednesday afternoon, I saw my first osprey of the year perched in a pine across the river.  I put my camera on the tripod and waited for it to fly before dark, but it didn’t.  However, when I went back on Friday afternoon, there were a couple of them patrolling, and in the last patch of sunset on the river, I caught one catching a fish.  I also saw many great blue herons, and one young bald eagle.  

I’ve been learning to cook with an old school crock pot, which has generally worked out fine, though this week I had a near disaster.  I tried to adapt a recipe for spinach lentil soup with lemon.  Crock potting is a good style for me.  It gets to the point without much fuss, but allows for improvisation, and after a long simmer, the result is usually surprisingly good.  

But I was well into adding a lot of chopped vegetables before I realized there wasn’t room in our crock pot for everything, and I had to start subtracting.  The lentils came along much slower than expected, and were not nearly ready by dinner time.  So we ordered  takeout falafel.  We had the lentil soup the next night, and it wasn’t bad.  In fact, Sally said she really liked it.    

Speaking of disappointments, I was hoping the Trump Show was over, but unfortunately, it’s not.  Since 2015, our Disgraced Former President (DFP) has taken up way too much of my brain space!  Whatever you think about the DFP, you have to admit, he is not a quitter.  Last weekend he recycled his patented mix of pomposity, ignorance, and fear mongering to a gathering of Republican leaders in Florida, and guess what?  They cheered him on.

It’s no surprise that the DFP won’t shut up (has he ever?), but I was surprised that the Republican establishment wouldn’t seize the opportunity to change course and dump him.  Surely most of them know perfectly well that his election fraud claims are absurd and despicable lies.  Don’t they?  Is it possible that these accomplished and privileged people have been infected by a mass delusion?

If so, it would not be a first.  Starting in the eighteenth century, American political movements were built on and amplified hysterical fears of Native Americans, Germans, Mexicans, Asians, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Croats, and the list goes on.  Not to mention movements against Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and other non-mainstream religions.  And of course, witches.  Last and also first, there was and is the hateful ideology of white supremacy used to justify enslavement of Black people, and their continuing oppression.

Each of those sad chapters was partially driven by ignorance and fear, but there were also political opportunists who exploited such fears.  The current Republican leaders mostly look like opportunists.  Some of those now cheering the DFP truthfully acknowledged his leadership of the January 6 insurrection just weeks ago.  Last week they were not only supporting the outrageous lie of a stolen election, but were joining the attempt to blame the Trumpist insurrection on antifa and left wingers.  Have they no shame?

Apparently not, and so we’ve got some hard work ahead of us, with the next elections not far ahead.  The reliably incisive Charles Blow recently reported on work by the Brennan Center for Justice finding that state lawmakers have legislation in the works to restrict voting access — meaning suppressing voting by minorities to maintain power by mostly white elites — in 43 states    That’s a lot of states — 86 percent!  As Blow notes, similar voter suppression happened after the Civil War, and subverted democracy.  The current Republicans appear to have decided there is only one way for them to win a fair election:  not to have it.

Fortunately, their efforts to further unlevel the elections playing field are now out in the open, and defensive measures are in process.  The House has passed H.R. 1 with much needed election reform going in the fairness direction, and it is conceivable that the Senate will modify the filibuster and do likewise.  Maybe someday we’ll go further with a commitment to fair elections by simplifying the process and incentivizing participation with paid leave and cash.  

Along with the big challenge of having fairer elections, we also have the separate challenge of how to fashion a government that better serves ordinary people, rather than tilting in favor of corporations and plutocratic elites.  This week I heard a podcast introduction to the proposal of Helen Landemore, a political scientist at Yale.  She sounded brilliant and unafraid to experiment with new ideas for practical improvements to democracy.  

Landemore proposes setting up counsels of randomly selected ordinary citizens to work on important problems.  In an interview by Ezra Klein, Landemore explained that even at its best, our existing system systematically excludes minority and other voices, and that including these voices would improve decision making.  Landemore had some real world examples suggesting how to move forward along this line, including experiments in Iceland, France, and Switzerland.  I’ve got a bit of a reading log jam at the moment, but I’m thinking her book, Open Democracy, could be worth reading.  

Getting through spine surgery and the impeachment trial

Get well flowers

It’s been an eventful week.  I had to get through both spine surgery and the Trump impeachment trial, and by golly, I did!  These photos show my get well flowers from Jocelyn and Kyle, which smell wonderful.  Here’s what happened.  

Last Wednesday at 5:15 a.m., I checked into Rex UNC hospital for an operation on the upper part of my spine called a cervical discectomy.  My neurosurgeon, Dr. Koeleveld, had determined that the disc between vertebrae C3 and C4 was deteriorated and pressing on the adjacent spinal nerves, and thought this explained the persistent tingling in my hands.  His proposed solution was basically to remove the damaged disc and bolt in a replacement.  

Dr. K was kind, smart, and very experienced, but even so, I  considered the possibility that he was mistaken, or that something completely unexpected could go wrong in surgery and make me a lot worse.  After learning what I could about the relevant biology and technology, I still wasn’t sure I knew the right answer.  But I had a reasonable basis for trusting the doc.  On the theory that that’s about the best you can do, trusting is what I did.

Of course, I was completely unconscious during the actual surgery, but I was groggily conscious not long afterwards.  The nurses and aides were cheerful, kind, and competent.  Dr. K said the operation had gone beautifully, but he wanted me to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.

I had a room to myself with a lot of machines and a painting of a flower.  My bed had lots of buttons to control the position and call for help, and it automatically adjusted when I moved one way or another.  There was also a TV.

It was about as good a day as possible to be stuck in a hospital room — cold and gloomy outside, and with some absorbing reality TV:  the historic second impeachment proceeding against Donald J. Trump, the disgraced former President (DFP).  Watching the  footage of the invasion of the Capitol gave me a new perspective on last January 6th.  At the time, I’d wondered why the Capitol police and others didn’t seem to be putting up much of a defense, but I learned that inside the building, they were plenty busy.  It looked like the battle scenes in Braveheart or Gangs of New York.  Kudos to those brave officers who protected lawmakers and showed remarkable restraint.  If they had not, and had instead used their firearms, there would have been many more deaths.

As a former lawyer, as I watched the video and listened to the lawyers’ explanations, I kept thinking of how the case was being presented, and whether I would have done it differently.  I thought the House Managers’ team was amazingly good — clear, concise, and powerful.  After years of Trump’s craziness and chaos, I was reassured that such competent and caring people were now helping lead our country.  

The DFP’s lawyers were like him:  loud, smug,  disorganized, angry, and apparently shameless.  They showed no hesitation in lying, even when it was completely obvious they were lying.  

As odious as the ex-President’s lawyer’s were, they raised a couple of interesting points.  As part of their hand waving attempts to distract from what the DFP had done, they showed a video montage of Democrats who had said things like “We’ve got to fight.”  Although it was obvious that the DFP’s statements about fighting were in quite a different context and led to serious violence, it was interesting to see how the same words could mean entirely different things.

In recent months I’ve been doing some reading on structuralism and deconstruction, and getting new insights into how language works and how it doesn’t.  The ambiguity of language is, it seems, an inherent property.  We may think we all know what we mean when we talk about fighting, but we actually mean many different things at different times.  If we keep talking, and observing each other’s activities in relation to the words, the degree of ambiguity may lessen, though it probably never disappears.

The DFP’s lawyers also argued that under the Constitution, only current, and not past, presidents could be impeached.  Although the great weight of scholarly opinion goes against this argument, I still thought it had some force.  If the lawyers hadn’t covered it up with layers of bogus arguments and slimey lies, it would have been easier to swallow.

In a way, I hoped that the DFP’s lawyers could give Senate Republicans a reasonable basis to vote for acquittal, which it appeared from the outset they were determined to do.  It’s depressing to think that most of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country are still in thrall to Donald J. Trump and his base.  Whatever their motives (probably including fear, opportunism, and tribalism), it is hard to understand their countenancing a deadly attack on Congress, including on themselves.  

Anyhow, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the House Managers and to the Senate majority who voted to convict the DFP, including seven brave Republicans.  Trump’s shameful betrayal of his office and our country is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt and a matter of public record.  With any luck, any future Trump headlines will be about his business failures and criminal liability.  Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end of our Trump political fiasco, and the start of a saner, more compassionate chapter for addressing our big challenges.

Last night we saw Time, a new documentary on Prime.  It’s about a Black family in which the father is in prison and the mother is determined to get him out.  It’s an intimate and moving story of strength and heroism that opened a new window on the tragedy of our mass incarceration system.  We liked it a lot.  

A few reasons to quit being a Trumpublican

President Biden has certainly hit the ground running, with executive orders and actions addressing aspects of some of our biggest problems, including the covid pandemic, climate change, racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ discrimination, a stagnant economy, inadequate health care, right wing terrorism, and the nuclear precipice.  His cabinet and other new top officials appear to be experienced and sensible.  There are good reasons to be hopeful, and I’m trying to be.

But I’m still very worried.  Lately, and especially since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, our democracy  has been looking as fragile it’s ever been, and it’s still under threat.  A significant part of the country continues to believe the despicable lie that the election was a fraud.  Shockingly, despite strong evidence that Trump and his cronies supported the insurrection, Republican leaders continue to support the ex-President.  

The hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Trump seems a fait accompli.  If Trump should go to his reward, Cruz, Hawley, or someone even slimier will race to step into his role.  There are still some traditional Republicans who aren’t happy about what has happened, but very few of them have found the necessary courage and gumption for opposition.  

But for traditional Republicans who still care about our country and are considering whether to leave the Trumpublican party, I would ask, what’s keeping you?  I understand you want to weigh the pros and cons of leaving.  And of course there are some cons, like parting ways with old comrades-in-arms and the risk of becoming a target of deranged right-wing hate groups.  But let me suggest some of the pros.

Patriotism.  If we don’t give way to Trumpism, we may yet work together to realize and sustain our finest traditional ideals, including free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, checks and balances, freedom of expression and of the press, and peaceful transfers of power.

Honesty.  Trump took corruption in government from an occasional lapse to standard operating procedure.  He constantly lied about everything, as did many of his cronies.  It was dirty.  Wouldn’t it feel good to get cleaned up?  

Decency.  Scapegoating disadvantaged minorities and whipping up fear of foreigners was once considered something no decent person would do. Actually, it still is.

Reason.  Trumpism made considerable headway in obliterating the distinction between reality and fantasy, but reality isn’t going away.  It’s reminding us of this in various ways, including the ongoing deadly pandemic, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and species going extinct.  Denying science when it doesn’t fit with our fantasies has made a bad situation worse.  See also Honesty, supra.     

Personal safety.  There are many things that seriously threaten our safety that are beyond our personal control, from collapsing dams and bridges to the possibility of nuclear war.  In the old days, we counted on our government to mitigate such threats, rather than to ignore or increase them.  Wouldn’t it be great to go back to those good old days?    

Future generations.  We owe much to our forebears, without whom we wouldn’t be here.  Hopes for the happiness of our children, our grandchildren, and their successors are part of what gives meaning to our lives.  The earth that has given us so much is in serious peril, which puts at risk the lives of our successors.  We could choose to make it worse.  Or better.   

Compassion.  While concern for those less fortunate used to mean giving a helping hand, under Trump it meant figuring out how to make them more miserable.  But apart from Trump himself, most of us feel badly when we’re aware of people who are hungry, sick, or otherwise suffering, and wish we could do something.  We used to look to government to help in such situations.  We still can.

Self respect. This one is self explanatory.

Making history, as Trump goes bye bye

So we can scratch one major problem off the list:  Trump is history!  He left much as he arrived, as offensively as possible.  But fortunately, we’re still here, in one piece.  He left us with a lot of problems, some of which he made bigger.  But the day after our new president was sworn in, when I woke up, something felt different.  I thought at first it was just relief, and then I realized there was something else — hope.   

It was entirely in character that on their way out, Trump’s people pushed out a fake history effort they called The 1776 Project.  Their idea seems to have been to counter The 1619 Project , a NY Times series that shined light on our long history of slavery and how that affects us today.  According to news reports, The 1776 Project attempted to downplay slavery and compared progressives to fascists.  

I had read The 1619 Project with great interest, and I braced myself to read The 1776 Project.  However, President Biden, in his first day, took the thing down from the White House web site.  Now (as opposed to earlier in the week) you could say, it’s history.  

Rewriting history in an attempt to inculcate patriotism and discourage critical thought is nothing new.  As Trump’s failed 1776 Project shows, the whitewashing project continues, though less and less convincingly.  

If you’re historically inclined, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, which I recently reread.  Loewen spent several years analyzing widely used American history textbooks, and discovered that most of what our children are taught consists of heroic myths, scrubbed of difficult truths.  He gives several major examples, including Columbus, African enslaved people, and Native Americans, showing that most of us were taught a version of American history that had little to do with the facts.  He also shows that reality-based history, though sometimes painful, is far from boring.  

The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overturn the election is a strong reminder that there’s still a lot we need to figure out about our history and the new brand of right-wing fanaticism.  Some of the fanatical elements are familiar, like extreme racism, fascination with gun violence, and paranoia.  Even the bizarre conspiracy theories, like QAnon, are not entirely new.  But the coordinated involvement of lots of seemingly ordinary people in creating such violent conspiracy ideas is something we haven’t seen before.        

We already knew, from the mass-murdering authoritarians of the 20th century, headed up by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, that brute force propaganda works.  Repeating false information over and over is effective, in the sense that it changes people’s beliefs, or in the alternative makes them understand they must keep quiet.  

These old time propaganda efforts were top down criminal projects. But the new thing is at least in part bottom up — DIY propaganda.  We’re seeing that there are large populations that not only won’t resist government lies — they’ll voluntarily and happily join in inventing them.  

Not long ago, we might have thought that almost no one would voluntarily sit in front of a screen for long periods to receive, embroider, and pass along right-wing falsehoods.  But it turns out that millions do, apparently happily.  With easy-to-use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler, some of these millions become participants of what may feel to them like a computer game, book club, or craft project.  As they play, they garner likes and thumbs up, and feel like they’re part of a community. Gradually they disconnect from ordinary reality.  

We’ve arrived at a surreal moment with well over half of the once conservative Republican Party believing that voter fraud by Democrats wrongfully deprived Trump of victory.  News flash: this is a breathtakingly groundless lie.  This “conservative” group is the breeding ground for a smaller subgroup that believes that it is reasonable to defy such an “illegitimate” government with violent opposition.  The percentage of this subgroup prepared to act on such beliefs is still to be determined.  

A key part of the new rightwing alt-reality is that Democrats want to impose a dangerous alien ideology — socialism, or some other ism — that will destroy the American way of life.  This, too, is a groundless delusion.  It may be that the new administration’s calmer, gentler tone and practical public-spirited agenda will defuse some of this paranoia, and help some of these people return to ordinary reality.  

Let us hope so.  If their extreme fantasies and fears lead them to real violence, we will face another threat to our democratic aspirations — how to address radical right terrorism without unnecessary violence and without devolving into a surveillance-heavy police state.   

Trying to understand more about how human minds work is always interesting, and just now it seems time sensitive.  Along this line, I recommend Lisa Feldman Barrett’s short and fascinating new book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, which I just read for the second time.   Barrett, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, summarizes recent research and presents some useful new ways of thinking about ourselves.  

For example, she argues convincingly that the primary function of the brain is energy management, rather than conscious thinking.  Behind the scenes, our brains keep the various  body systems running — heart pumping, lungs breathing, monitoring and attacking invading bacteria and viruses, and much else.  Whether to eat, sleep, or debate politics all depends on the brain exercising its professional judgment on resource management in processes we usually don’t perceive.

Barrett also shows that  what is happening when we’re perceiving and analyzing the world is different from what we suppose.  Our brains are shut away from the external world in a thick bone case, with only limited information from our sense organs to work with.  

We’re constrained by the physical structure of our neural networks, and also by our culture that has bequeathed us all kinds of assumptions and biases.  Yet with all these inherent limitations, our brains continuously spin up our reality and predict the immediate future.  Given the nature of our brain systems, it’s no wonder we make a lot of mistakes.  The amazing thing is we can learn from our mistakes, and can get some things right.

  • * * * * *

The pictures here are of Sally’s orchids, which look like they’ll be happily blooming for a while. 

What a not nice surprise: the radical right

I’m still struggling to get my head around what happened in Washington, D.C., last week.  The attack on the Capitol was only a few blocks from where we used to live on Independence Avenue.  When our kids were little, we took them to the Capitol grounds for picnics.  It’s a beautiful building, and a moving symbol of our democracy.

My first impression of the mob there was that it was hapless and disorganized.  But as more information has come in, the storming of the Capitol looks more like an insurrection intended to overthrow the government.  Right wing message boards had plenty of messages about plans for the attack, and some of those involved were wearing tactical gear.  

I was stunned when, right after the attack, 147 Republican congressmen and congresswomen got behind Trump’s ridiculous lie of election fraud and voted to reverse the election.  This week, I was restunned when 197 Republicans voted against impeaching him for sedition. Most of these 197 wisely decided not to try to speak in defense of their vote, but a few doubled down, claiming that the true victim was Trump, and the true wrongdoers were liberal Democrats.  

A handful of Republicans voted with the Democratic majority in favor of impeachment, so we know that rational thinking and honesty were not impossible for the 197.  What is going on?

Some Republican representatives have reported fearing that Trump supporters would kill them and their families if they voted for impeachment.  It’s chillingly plausible that some representatives fear becoming a target.  We seem to be seeing a radicalization of the Trump base that recalls the Islamic State, with passionate, confused people looking for a meaningful cause and getting comfortable with lynchings, shootings, and other shocking crimes.

When I first heard of QAnon, it sounded like a goofy-but-probably-harmless game, like Dungeons and Dragons.  Surely, I thought,  no one could actually believe that the government, already controlled by Trump with the backing of rich Republicans, was actually a dark conspiracy of Satanist pedophiles opposed to Trump and fated to be put down by him in a messianic triumph?  If people were spending hours every day on the internet reading about such fantasies, it seemed a little sad, but at least they weren’t hurting anybody, and it was hard to believe there could be many such people.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the one six attack, but seeing those folks at the Capitol convinced me I had underestimated the seductive power of QAnon.  For some, it has become a religion, with fellowship services over social media.  It seems to be morphing into a big tent of right wingnut conspiracies.    

At any minimum, QAnon is a friendly neighbor in the extremist swamp that includes white supremacists, gun rightists, and anti-government militias.  It’s part of  an echo chamber that amplifies fear and hatred of foreigners and minorities.  The idea that the election was fraudulent and the presidency was stolen from Trump, though provably false, seems to have become an article of the QAnon faith.

ISIS demonstrated that feelings of religious righteousness and extreme violence can go hand in hand.  QAnon believers seem to feel that they are righteous, and are fighting against terrible evil.  They see dark forces threatening their America, which must be stopped by whatever means are necessary.

There’s no way to know how many of these folks are prepared to target perceived enemies to the right and left with AK-47s and blow them up with IEDs.  But recent events in D.C. indicate that the answer is more than a few.  

Thousands of National Guard members have been called to Washington, and the FBI is warning state capitols to be prepared for attacks.   Good luck to the Guardsman and local police charged with the frontline response.  May they be safe and avoid violence whenever possible.

Also, may the QAnon believers and similarly radicalized Americans avoid mayhem and find a path out of their paranoid fantasies.  May those of us with an opportunity to speak to them share a kind word of reason, decency, and compassion.  It’s unlikely any one person or conversation will change them, but we might plant a seed.  

Finally, it’s time for accountability all around.  That includes those who led the attack on the Capitol, those politicians who supported overturning the election and continue to repeat the lie that Trump won, and those in traditional and social media who amplified the long string of Trump’s lies.  It also includes the corporations that funded and are now defunding the politicians who supported the insurrection, and those that still need to stop that funding.  

There are a lot of problems underlying the one six attack, including opportunistic political leaders, dark money, seductive social media, economic stagnation and inequality, a pandemic, and deep seated racial prejudice.  The combination is  producing radicalized Americans at scale.  This is something new and dangerous.  We need to address it without delay.  

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These photos are of my Slinkies.  I’d been thinking about photographing them for a while, and this week, I did it.  It was fun experimenting with camera settings, morning and artificial light, different background colors and textures, and different processing techniques.

Why Americans attacked the Capitol, and some budding orchids

Yesterday — January 6, 2021 — was a day that will live in infamy.  After a rally in Washington in which President Trump encouraged his supporters to keep fighting and never admit defeat, a group of them attacked the Capitol, where Congress was in the process of certifying his defeat.  The proceedings were halted and the legislators were evacuated.  The mob then vandalized the building.  There were several injuries and one shooting death.  

By the time I started watching on television, the mob was no longer inside the Capitol, and they seemed to have calmed down.  They lounged on the Capitol stairs, and milled about on the lawn.  I watched the show for several hours, trying to figure out who these people were.  Apart from Trump flags, Trump hats, and other Trump paraphernalia, they looked normal.  There were no visible symptoms of rampant mental illness or extreme emotional states.

Even some steadfast Trump supporters, including Pence and McConnell, spoke out in opposition to the violence.  Some of the right wing media, including figures who have spent years feeding the Trumpist movement, tried to distance themselves by blaming the attack on liberals and antifa.  This will not wash.  The mob may have been of the extreme extreme right, rather than simply the run-of-the-mill extreme right.  But their actions were a natural extension of several years of florid right-wing fantasies.  

One thing we can be fairly sure of:  the people that attacked the Capitol sincerely believed.  They swallowed the Trump line whole, and were convinced that evil liberals had stolen the election and were wrongfully taking over the country.  When every traditional, reputable source of information conflicted with Trump’s lies, they concluded that everything was fake news, except for the statements of one man.

These folks were particularly gullible, susceptible to propaganda, and prone to anger and hateful fantasy.   Still, they were in many ways normal Americans.  The America that produced them is our America, with its many problems still to be addressed.

The January 6 mob reminded us that, as Faulkner said, the past is not dead.  Our history is still with us.  The one-sixers, almost all white, included some who carried Confederate flags, glorifying our history of racial oppression.  Some of them raised banners with mystical evangelical sayings.  Their conspiracy theories, like QAnon, echoed earlier American strains of millennial authoritarianism.

And there were so many American flags!  It is a great paradox that those most inclined to throw out elections and end American democracy are often the ones who wave the American flag the most vigorously.  Few one-sixers wore covid masks.  There’s another great paradox:  those most susceptible to paranoia and groupthink are the loudest cheerleaders for idealized  freedom and individualism. 

It was a surreal day, but we got through it.  Against tough odds, Georgia completed the election of two democratic senators, enough to divide the Senate 50-50, with Vice President Harris in charge of tiebreaking.  Early this morning, the Congress finished addressing the last spurious election fraud charges, and certified the election of President Biden.  It’s a new day.      

The pictures here are of Sally’s orchids, which continue to grow beautifully. 

A very Trumpy Christmas

We like Christmas, but didn’t do much celebrating this year.  For decorations, Sally put up some colored lights on our balcony rails, and that was it.  The other balconies we could see were even less festive.  Maybe we weren’t the only ones having a hard time getting in the holiday spirit.

The news of the day is mostly about continuing disease and death from covid-19, and the continuing grotesqueries of Trump.  He’s handing out presidential pardons right and left, some to his personal henchmen, some to criminal friends of friends, and some to mass murderers.  While continuing to insist that he actually won the election, he’s explored the possibility of declaring martial law and using the military to get a vote with a different outcome.    Another hare-brained-but scary-Trump idea is to get Congress to reject the electoral college results.  

Talk about a war on Christmas!  That would be the ultimate anti-gift:  Grumpy Trump and his Capitol Trumpettes Steal Democracy!

I don’t view that as likely.  Still, it’s depressing that something like 70% of Republican voters say they believe that Biden stole the election, and very few are speaking out against Trump’s reckless talk of a coup.  After having several years to observe Trump’s dishonesty, incompetence, and brutality, they love him as much as ever, and maybe more.  Most evangelical Christian voters are particularly firm in their commitment to this flagrantly un-Christian president.  About 80% of them voted for him.  

Many find this puzzling.  As an atheist and former evangelical, I’ve given this puzzle some thought, and have a theory that may help explain it.  For those with no religious background or one unrelated to evangelical Christianity (EC), I’ll share my own in-a-nutshell version of EC’s fundamental tenets.  

First, in heaven there is an all powerful, all knowing, entity named God, who is in charge of everything.  He listens to millions of prayers asking for things, which he ignores, and observes lots of earthly disasters (like hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, spreading cancers, and little children on bikes getting run over), which he also ignores.  

God’s favorite non-work activity is being worshipped, and he gets quite grouchy if the worship is not to his liking.  In God’s view, all humans are sinners who deserve to be tormented in hell for all eternity, but he is prepared to give them full pardons and save them if (1) they confess to being sinners and (2) their worship of him is up to his standards.

I’m leaving out a lot of details, like the baby Jesus, the wise men, water turning into wine, and so on, but this is only a slight parodizing of evangelical ontology as it was taught to me.  It’s not hard to see how EC adherents find it easy to relate to Trump.  

Like God, Trump is big and has powerful weapons.  He’s authoritarian, but we need a strong leader.  He’s moody, and the best way to keep him happy is to keep telling him how great he is.  If you get on his enemies list, you may lose business, go to jail, or worse.  But if you manage to not do anything he doesn’t like and make him really happy, he may give you a pardon.  

So if you were someone who thought, God is a good fellow, someone who understands me and cares for my personal welfare and wants to torture and kill my enemies, you could easily think the same of Trump.  Their personalities and interests are surprisingly similar.  

But that’s not all.  Although being saved (that is, accepting Jesus as your personal savior, along with adopting the EC ontology already discussed), seems undemanding, in fact it requires developing a subtle, far-from-natural skill in mental gymnastics.

Being saved requires the unfortunate sinner to do a twisting back flip over the area of everyday thinking and land in a spot where the usual rules for processing reality do not apply.  In this landing area, there is no need for evidence, and indeed, curiosity and questioning are unwelcome. 

Of course the EC doctrine doesn’t make sense.  It’s not supposed to.  Accepting the absence of facts and logic is part of how believers define faith, and how they prove they have it.

I used to view EC thinking as simple, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually not so easy.  Somehow the EC believer develops two kinds of brains that think in opposite ways.  There’s an EC brain, where things that otherwise make no sense are enthusiastically endorsed, and a non-EC brain, which covers holding down a 9-to-5 job, safely operating a vehicle, paying the bills, cooking, taking care of kids, and everything else in day-to-day reality other than EC rituals, including Republican politics.  

The EC brain professes an extreme level of certainty as to EC beliefs.  At the same time, that brain is very anxious, constantly on high alert for threats from enemies, and easily alarmed.   There is a strong and clear distinction between good and evil, with evil defined as anything not aligned with EC.  Enemies are evil, and evil must never be tolerated.

In ordinary times, the EC brain does not seem like such a big deal.  People, including non-religious people, believe all kinds of odd things, and they still generally function and get along together.  EC thinking doesn’t normally bother me, and I wouldn’t have thought it worth discussing here, if it were not for one problem. 

Trumpism has shown that groups that become expert in suspending rational thought are hazardous in certain situations, such as our current one.  The EC brain is fully primed to believe Trumpian statements that contradict facts or physical reality.  That brain is also much more likely to push the panic button when told that ordinary political opponents are evil enemies seeking destruction of our way of life. 

For example, EC mental gymnastics allow the believer to screen out and ignore all evidence that the presidential election was fair and valid, and all evidence that the president-elect is not a dangerous communist.  Our traditional reality-based correctives don’t work, once the believer accepts (as Trump maintains) that mainstream media is the enemy of the people and full of lies, and that only right-wing sources that support Trump are reliable.  

The EC believer can easily follow Trump’s lead and recategorize peaceful Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality to read that police are under attack by dangerous Black radicals who want to destroy our cities and then invade the white suburbs. On the other hand, after developing a fact-free-but-anxiety-filled operating system, the believer can more easily buy into anti-liberal conspiracy theories, like birtherism or QAnon.  

Of course, some EC believers are extremely intelligent and gifted, and some manage to stay in much closer touch to reality.  In their non-EC brains, some of these have good ideas and projects, including supporting equality for minorities, fighting climate change, and refusing to acquiesce in a Trump coup.  These believers will not be viewing the pandemic as a hoax or signing on for QAnon, and they might even support health care for all. 

I’m not so sure about that last thought.  In fact, it may be I’m off track on the EC thought process, which I once shared, but haven’t for many years.  But it certainly looks like Trump figured out how to make the most of the authoritarianism, reality-denialism, and anxiety that are part of EC culture, and Trumpism seems hard to explain without the support of EC.  

I am not proposing anything against EC, other than to challenge its ideas.  I’m strongly in favor of religious tolerance, both on principle and for reasons of self preservation. But I see no reason why EC shouldn’t be called to account and asked to explain its Trumpism.  As things stand now, a lot of EC believers seem ready to support the next Trump, and our poor system may not be able to survive another one.