We are living in Future Shock

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

Trump is cracking

The real Donald Trump could no more wrestle down a CNN reporter than he can ascend White House staircases without using the handrail. (Reputedly, most of the time Trump uses the White House elevators.) In short, as a bully Trump’s only weapons are his mouth, his tweets and his many followers. Of the three, the only weapon that means anything are his followers.

His recent tweet linking to an alt-right Reddit group video showing him punching a CNN logo shows what he’d like to do with CNN and the other parts of the media that don’t parrot him, a.k.a. the so-called “fake media”. Recently when CNN discovered inaccuracies in one of its stories, it fired the responsible reporters and published an apology. Trump saw this as vindication that CNN is part of the fake media. Of course firing those reporters demonstrates just the opposite: that CNN reporters who don’t report the news accurately will be fired.

Who likely won’t be fired? Don’t hold your breath for any National Enquirer reporters being fired. The National Enquirer is reportedly Trump’s surrogate bully. After all it was the one that filed a “story” about MSNBC Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, engaged to be married, from such stellar sources as a liquor store owner who reportedly told the Enquirer that Scarborough regularly buys six packs of beer at his store, a charge Scarborough denies.

Reportedly Trump was looking for apologies from Joe and Mika for saying nasty things about him on their show and if he had gotten them he would have called the Enquirer to pull the story. In any case, his previous anti-woman tweet mostly about Mika set a new low for Trump, at least until the publication of this latest tweet with the linked Reddit video. The video sure looks like the president is promoting violence against CNN in particular and the so-called “fake media” in general.

What a peculiar world we live in! CNN is part of the “fake media” because it occasionally publishes a factually incorrect story for which its reporters are fired. Meanwhile presumably the National Enquirer is now part of the trusted media. Of course the Enquirer routinely publishes many stories of dubious authenticity; it’s its whole business model. These included that a hooker murdered Justice Scalia, a Hillary Clinton sex romp was caught on video and that Florida senator Marco Rubio has a love child.

These tweets by Trump are both alarming and pathetic. They are alarming because they give glimpse into a spectacularly disordered mind of the person we unwisely chose to be our president. They are pathetic because as many on both sides of the aisle in Washington have responded, they are beneath the dignity of the office Trump holds. What they really show is a president who is in the process of cracking and thanks to his tweets and our 24/7 media we all have front row seats, whether we want to have them or not.

None of this is particularly surprising, at least if you read my post about Trump’s severe case of narcissism. Trump checks off all the checkboxes, often more than once a day. Trump perceives constant threats from the press. Aside from puerile acts like not letting CNN reporters into White House briefings, there’s really not much he can do to punish the “fake media”. It’s possible that some of his more unhinged supporters will do the attacking in person of the “fake media” that Trump obviously cannot. So someone call up Special Counsel Mueller and ask him to look into charges that Trump is inciting violence along with other suspicious crimes. A classic tactic of a bully when threatened is to bring in reinforcements: more bullies in this case. There are plenty of them among his followers. Some of them have already demonstrated they are unhinged enough to commit crimes against those he hates.

Expect Trump to keep egging these people on. Expect it because this is what narcissists and bullies do when under severe pressure. Trump feels the White House walls closing in around him. Apparently he keeps a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. How long before, like Richard Nixon shortly before resigning, he starts talking to presidential portraits?

Trump doesn’t seem to find much time for governing. He is too busy trying to defend himself from perceived threats. Perhaps that’s why at 9 AM instead of holding meetings or getting briefings he is tweeting instead. Perhaps that’s why his administration is probably no more than 10% staffed. Perhaps that’s why his agenda is in shambles, one of the few positive aspects of Trump’s illness from the Democratic Party’s perspective. Prospects for the repeal of Obamacare look dubious at best. Cutting taxes is usually high on the Republican agenda but seem to have been kicked down the road. It’s not even clear if a Congress in Republican control can even extend the debt limit. Trump’s dysfunction has real world consequences: grinding government to a halt and emboldening our enemies.

At this point it’s not too hard to predict how this will play out. Trump is dissembling. Since pretty much every day his tweets become more outrageous than those from the day before, his dissembling is picking up inertia. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t know how to get off this train and he likely doesn’t want to get off of it.

The longer it goes on the more likely it is that something will force this train off its tracks. My bet is that action behind the scenes is even more interesting that Trump’s train wreck of a presidency. I’ll bet the White House staff is taking macabre bets on how long Trump has. I’ll bet that Pence is making discreet inquiries among the cabinet about whether there is a support for a 25th amendment solution.

Most likely it will be Trump to push the locomotive off its track. He probably needs to do one spectacularly stupid thing, like physically pushing a reporter or badly bungling a foreign crisis, for politicians to find their backbone. In the meantime Trump continues to add to the pile of evidence that he is unfit for the office he holds.

There was not one thing that brought down President Nixon, but a culmination of factors. That will likely be the case here. For me, it’s looking like these factors will arrive sooner rather than later.

How to bring down Trump

Today on just the 88th day of Trump’s presidency I am frankly astonished by the speed by which his presidency is sinking. An insurgent Democrat is a deep red Kansas district came within less than seven points of beating a Republican, a district Trump carried by nearly thirty points. Today there is another special election in Georgia, in Newt Gingrich’s former seat. It’s unlikely that Democrat Jon Ossoff will win a majority of votes tonight and take the seat. It looks almost certain that he will win a plurality, which is a good sign for the general election.

The Washington Post calculated that so far Donald Trump has spent one in five minutes of his presidency at his Mar-a-Lago resort. For a president that said he was high energy and would never stop working, it’s clear he likes three-day weekends and spending much of his free time playing golf. It’s also clear that he doesn’t really like his job very much, which is why Mike Pence is spending ten days in Asia instead of him. Trump just loves to delegate stuff because this way he can forget about it. If worse turns into worst, he can fire them later and blame it on them. Those who he dumps his problems on know that their tenure is likely to be short. He’s a constantly vacillating president, moving the country in whatever direction satisfies his ego. He enjoys looking for new and shiny distractions.

And because of his supersized ego, he spends much of his presidency monitoring what others are saying about him. It used to be that presidents would be reading briefing books in the evenings, or be dialing up party donors. Trump spends much of this time watching Fox News and scanning headlines instead. Since a lot of it is disinformation or slanted he is not getting much in the way of objective news.

One thing is clear: he really wants to be liked and if not liked then feared. If you kiss up to him, as China’s president Xi Jinping did recently at Mar-a-Lago, then there can be some great bonuses. Of course it’s just coincidence that Xi brought his daughter Ivanka some Chinese patents with his visit and that later in their meeting Trump decided China wasn’t a currency manipulator after all, despite having run on how tough he was going to be on China. Still, the pattern is clear: flatter him and he will probably grant favors. Disagree with him and he will notice, hope to find ways to get back at you, but probably won’t bother. He can’t seem to find the time beyond the tweet, as he is easily distracted. “Crooked Hillary” was the obvious exception. Note that since he won the election, he doesn’t care, which is why his supporters are disappointed his Attorney General isn’t prosecuting her.

He did note protests around the country last weekend. Protestors were calling for Trump to release his tax returns. It’s an unsurprising request as all presidents since Nixon have done so. (Ford just released a summary.) But they are under audit so he says he can’t release them, even though (this will sound familiar) he said he would be happy to do so during the campaign and there is no law prohibiting him from doing so. Releasing them though might clear the fog on issues like the extent of his Russian business interests. That he prefers to keep the issue murky suggests that the fog may instead be smoke. That he tweeted about the protests though is quite interesting. These protests got his attention. He knows the issue riles people, including most Republicans and that on some level it makes him look bad.

There is nothing good about being a narcissist but knowing he has this clinical condition also gives his critics enormous insight into how to effectively work against him. As best we can tell, Trump isn’t seeing a shrink about it, and never has. I am hopeful we can get him out of power before he does something catastrophically bad, like preemptively use nuclear weapons against North Korea.

How? Let’s look at the characteristics of narcissists and figure out strategies that will play Trump’s narcissism for the country’s good:

  • Grandiose sense of importance. Steve Bannon’s demotion and likely eventual firing is not an accident. That’s because Twitter’s been afire with #PresidentBannon This in turn has raised the question in the press: who is really running the White House? This is a good question because Bannon wrote his inaugural address, which Trump apparently only scanned and did not bother to edit. Lesson: aim fire at those in his administration who are or are perceived to be the power behind the throne. The many #PresidentKushner hashtags are a direct result of the success of this approach: Trump noticed! The more he believes others inside his government are undermining him to their benefit, the more dysfunctional his White House becomes.
  • Preoccupation with unlimited success. Trump is really bothered that he has little to show for the first 88 days in office. It’s clear that there won’t be much of substance in the next 12 days either. Most of his policies have been blocked. Obamacare hasn’t been repealed. His tax overhaul is looking dead as neither party can get behind it. Courts have consistently ruled against many of his major initiatives. Additionally, protests are quite effective when you have a narcissist in chief. Lesson: keep pointing out Trump’s many failures. Feed, rather than try to heal the divisions inside the Republican Party. Stroke the egos of your fellow Tea Party Republicans if you have any. (“Never give up! Never surrender!”) Also encourage moderate Republicans to break with Trump on issues like tax cuts for the rich and ending Obamacare.
  • Lack of empathy. There was nothing funny about the Syrian air force’s recent chemical weapons attack against his own citizens. Trump though did express concern about the pictures of dead children and said that’s why he lobbed 59 missiles at their air base. Only it seemed wholly insincere and was funny in a way. Why? It’s because he lacks the empathy gene. He can’t fake it because he never has empathized with someone unlike him in his life and who could be more unlike him than a dead, likely impoverished Muslim child? (It’s probably their fault for being born in Syria.) Remember the Flint water crisis he was going to solve? There are all sorts of positions like this he campaigned on that he can’t be bothered to actually do anything about because he just doesn’t care. From the blue-collar workers in the Appalachians who won’t see a resurgence in coal mining jobs to highlighting the story of those he would kick off Medicaid from these same areas, there is plenty to mine. Lesson: show how his lack of empathy is hurting those who voted for him and everyone else too.
  • Arrogance. We know Trump will act like an asshole because that’s what he does. It was his entire shtick on The Apprentice. It was the entire basis of his campaign and now his presidency where unsurprisingly it works as well as a lead balloon. We are supposed to be tired of winning. Lesson: show how his arrogance really means he is incompetent because he lacks the people skills to get things done. I am using the #tiredofwinning hashtag when I see these egregious disconnects. Use it too every time he does something stupid and maybe it will become a trending hashtag. It should. Yes, we may know already but if it makes enough of a buzz, he hears it and it will feed his psychosis.

I’ll let you work with some of his other characteristics, but it’s not hard to pick at these and there is plenty to work with. If enough of us do, he will probably react, and react badly. Here are some to work on:

  • He thinks that beauty and money mean more than character
  • He won’t hold himself to his own standards
  • He’s a coward rather than a great leader because he won’t release his tax returns. What is he hiding?
  • He overcommits his staff and expects the impossible from them
  • He has shamelessly ripped people off for his own profit yet feels zero remorse, like the many contractors who didn’t get paid, or got cents on the dollar
  • He has an egregious sense of entitlement, and much of his wealth is made possible on the backs of others and taxpayers
  • His Nixonian inclination toward paranoia and a president above the law, most recently demonstrated by his refusal to provide White House visitors logs

Trump’s fatal weakness is his narcissism. It means he can’t see or judge things clearly because he sees the world through a warped mirror. He’s already holding the anvil. We can speed up his fall by piling it on. And since Trump won’t get treated for his narcissism and dismisses the possibility that he has a case of it, piling it on becomes your patriotic duty.

So if you haven’t started and you love your country, get to work.

The never-ending battle of me vs. we

What really distinguishes the United States from most other countries? For me, two things came to mind, and both are related. First, in America it seems to be much more about “me” rather than about “we”. That seems to be implicit with our notion of freedom, at least as Americans have come to understand it. Second, since it’s all about “me” and we see selfishness as a virtue, many of us have lost empathy for those not like us, if we ever acquired it at all. For many Americans, getting in touch with others not like us is dead last on our list of priorities. In fact, we are often openly hostile to the whole idea and want to bend policy on all levels to make sure this value permeates all government and society.

“Me” vs. “we” characterizes in two words our great and seemingly never-ending national political debate. As with most things, being exclusively “me” or exclusively “we” tends to be unworkable in the real world. Right now the “me” crowd is in control, at least in the House of Representatives but arguably in a majority of state houses as well. The “me” crowd are principally Republicans. The “we” crowd are principally Democrats. It seems that mostly neither side can understand where the other is coming from.

Political forces seem aligned to never allow one crowd to get into ascendancy for long. Arguably, the passage of the Affordable Care Act last year was a recent peak for the “we” crowd’s success in exercising its political power. Granted, for many of us it did not go far enough. Its passage, rather than settling the issue, had the effect of whipping the “me” crowd into a hornet’s nest of activity. To the “me” crowd, just about anything that the “we” crowd enacts into law amounts to socialism, because they see it as redistribution of wealth. (That the whole point of government is to redistribute wealth seems to escape them.) In their minds, any redistribution of wealth is socialism. Passage of the Affordable Care Act stirred up the “me” crowd, perhaps beyond expectations. It resulted in a near record eighty-seven new House Republicans in the 2010 election.

As Democrats discovered when they swept into power in 2008, controlling the reins of power is a heady experience that usually quickly leads to a reaction commensurate with the newly acquired power. It was swift in coming last November, not so much in Washington where Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, but in state capitals where Republicans found themselves with veto proof majorities. The tendency, particularly when your party is highly united, is to push your agenda through with all deliberate speed and to take no prisoners. (Democrats, perhaps because we have so many divergent opinions, frequently divide among themselves.) Therefore, being true to form, states like Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin overturned previous long-standing laws allowing public employees to collectively bargain. Republicans could have addressed just the issue in front of them (aligning taxes with public expenditures) and likely not have triggered any reaction. Instead, they went for the ideological “cure”. Collective bargaining for public employees became unlawful, not because it saved money, but because collectivism in any form sounded socialistic, and was “we” behavior rather than “me” behavior.

Arguably, too much “we” behavior can be dangerous and foolish too. We can see it being played out in the European debt crisis. In general, the more socialistic the state, the bigger the debt crisis was. However, the degree of socialism was just one contributing factor. The competence of government was also a major contributing factor. Arguably Germany is as socialistic, if not more so, than Greece and Spain who are struggling with debt. However, Germany also has a strong manufacturing sector whose growth makes their level of socialism affordable. Greece and Spain have suffered from poor economies for decades, and Greece in particular has been run by a succession of incompetent, if not corrupt governors.

The converse is true as well. Too much “me” behavior is dangerous and foolish. Republicans are quickly reaching a dangerous and foolish phase where ideology is substituting for critical thinking. As Ezra Klein pointed out recently, as bad as our deficit spending is, the long-term costs get worse if you are not regularly doing things like fixing our infrastructure. For example, it is much more costly to replacing bridges later compared to repairing them now. This is not a matter of ideology; it’s a matter of fact. Chopping government spending in an unintelligent fashion, as seems to be the rage in the House, is counterproductive. An intelligent response to our deficit would include raising taxes, particularly on those who can easily afford to contribute more, and cutting programs that are demonstrably inefficient or don’t solve the intended problem. It also involves looking at programs that are inefficient but necessary, like Medicare, and figuring out how to make them efficient.

If your philosophy is always “me first” then at some point you end up narcissistic, which means you become unconcerned or inured to the problems of others. The problem with narcissism is that it gives you a false perspective and feeds feelings of righteousness as well. “Me first” does not solve the problem of global warming. You can, of course, assert that it is not happening, which many “me first” types are happy to do. Perhaps even worse is to acknowledge it and simply not care. It’s kind of like a criminal saying, “I know I torched that house but, hey, it wasn’t my house.”

“Me first always” is a very dangerous ideology. It is like choosing to go through life wearing blinders. It’s like Mr. Magoo driving his car unaware of the pedestrians his Rolls Royce has run over. At its essence, “me first” either denies or discounts the connections between people and our environment. The opposite is true. Our connections mean everything. None of us would be alive had we not had concerned parents who nurtured us. None of us would have flourished without teachers, who connected with us as people so that we could learn to deal effectively with reality. It is little wonder then that the public is solidly behind teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere. If you have a “me first” view then you don’t care about people like firefighters or public school teachers. Whereas, if you are a typical parent who is trying to raise a child to adulthood, your child’s success depends on teachers. You can make the obvious connection between overcrowded classrooms and the probability of your child’s success in life. Teachers are not your enemy; they are your friends and provide a critical service. It is in your interest to see them succeed, so your child succeeds and thus to ensure teachers are treated decently by government. For a “me first” person like Governor Scott Walker, none of this matters.

The result is a predictable and surprisingly powerful blowback, which might make this latest Republican resurgence remarkably short-lived. The public is quickly rediscovering why they do not like Republicans. They see them as people enthralled with tearing things down, not building things up. They see them as people remarkably detached from the real world. They see them as people who are not only narcissistic, but sadistic as well, and even gleefully sadistic. Their sadistic tendencies are now on display all over the country. Most of the rest of us find it revolting. They are the antithesis of the Christian values so many of these Republicans claim to champion.

How we resolve these polarities, if we do it at all, will be telling. It will be interesting to see which polarized politicians, if any, will find the courage to move toward compromise rather than embrace the destruction of rigid adherence to ideology alone. For those that do, perhaps they can thank a teacher.