The Allure of the Irrational

Is it possible for a politician to go too far? There’s that 1971 Woody Allen movie Bananas – the Latin-American dictator goes mad and decrees that all citizens must now wear their underwear on the outside, among other things. He’s deposed and the revolutionaries then make the hapless Fielding Mellish, Woody Allen, the new dictator. He also is not very good at it. It’s a comedy, but like all comedy, it’s grounded in the idea that there is such a thing as going too far, and that’s damned funny, unless it’s tragic. We all laugh at the character that has gotten way too far out there, who is in over his head and doesn’t know it, while making an absolute fool of himself. That’s damned funny unless someone dies. In that case it’s tragedy – all noble tragic heroes go too far too. And then there’s Donald Trump. Are we laughing now?

Well, no one has died yet, but there’s this:

During a Friday-morning interview with Donald Trump, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was baffled by the Republican front-runner’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good. Especially when the person heads up Russia,” Trump told cohost Mika Brzezinski when asked about Putin praising him as “very talented” the day before.

Scarborough pointed to Putin’s status as a notorious strongman.

“Well, I mean, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?” Scarborough asked.

That might be going too far, but Trump, either comically or tragically, doesn’t see it:

“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied. “Unlike what we have in this country.”

“But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough said.

The Republican presidential front-runner said there was “a lot of killing going on” around the world and then suggested that Scarborough had asked him a different question.

“I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know,” Trump replied. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is. But you didn’t ask me [that] question, you asked me a different question. So that’s fine.”

Scarborough was stunned:

“I’m confused,” the MSNBC host said. “So I mean, you obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?”

“Oh sure, absolutely,” Trump said.

But he hadn’t sounded absolute – people are killed all the time and at least Putin is a leader. That is what Trump said, but Scarborough didn’t press him on this, although others have pressed him on this Putin thing, not that it made any difference:

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, questioned Trump’s foreign-policy knowledge. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested Trump visit Ukraine, where the Russian state has backed separatist rebels. And Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said he was “really glad not to win the Putin primary.”

But Friday during his “Morning Joe” interview, Trump said he always “felt fine” about Putin and touted the Russian president’s poll numbers.

Putin’s poll numbers are good, but the Russian government’s control over most of the Russian news media assures that those poll numbers are always amazingly good, not that that matters either:

“I always felt fine about Putin,” Trump said. “I think that he’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader … He’s actually got a popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader.”

“I think he’s up in the 80s. You see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s. And he’s up in the 80s,” Trump said. “And I don’t know who does the polls. Maybe he does the polls, but I think they’re done by American companies, actually.”

But he really doesn’t know who does the polls, and Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway states the obvious:

Putin has a long history of oppression of political dissidents and journalists that extends all the way to imprisonment on trumped-up charges and murder. He orchestrated an obviously fixed referendum in Crimea that resulted in that peninsula’s re-absorption into Russia proper. And, his backing of pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine, which seems to have clearly included Russian troops and special forces engaging in at least some combat on the ground, clearly played a direct role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last summer, killing all 298 people on board.

Trump, apparently, is okay with all of this, or at least okay enough with it to gladly accept what he seems to be taking as Vladimir Putin’s endorsement of his campaign for the Republican nomination.

On the other hand, maybe Trump was just trying to hint that America could have avoided all the turmoil of Watergate had Nixon been a real leader and somehow, somewhat secretly, had Woodward and Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, assassinated. That is implied, and Mataconis adds this:

Given Trump’s own history of appealing to the worst of American politics and why I personally feel free in calling his rhetoric seemingly fascist demagogic, along with the appeal to xenophobia inherent in his positions on things like Muslim immigrants, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Donald Trump welcomes Putin words.

The fact that this probably won’t impact the way his supporters feel about him, though, continues to say something about the state of American politics, and none of it is good. Trump is awakening a kind of populism that has, on the whole, never had a positive influence on the state of the country, and the fact that it’s likely to long survive whatever becomes of his candidacy is quite troublesome.

Many people at the edges do like this Trump-talk, and Josh Marshall, at his Talking Points Memo, sees that moving in from the edges:

Again and again over the last six months we’ve seen Donald Trump take memes and messages which are either implicit in mainstream Republican politics or explicit on the fringes of conservatism and make them loud and explicit. That might be on bashing Mexican immigrants, banning Muslims or any number of other examples. Now we’re seeing the same thing with Vladimir Putin.

As I’ve written on a number of occasions and as many others have noticed, US Republicans are really, really into Vladimir Putin. Yes, yes, they think he’s a menace, threatening us in Ukraine and Syria and so forth, overmanning President Obama on various fronts. But it’s been pretty clear that for many Republicans, while they decry him as evil and awful, they actually like the way he acts. He doesn’t pussyfoot around. He doesn’t do nuance. If he doesn’t get respect, he invades. He doesn’t dilly-dally around in Syria – he just goes in and starts shooting. My erstwhile pals over at Bloomberg News several weeks ago had a lede that read something to the effect of, Barack Obama has been hemming and hawing about a Syria no fly zone for years, Putin just took over the skies overnight.

They practically cheered, and one thing leads to another:

Trump is now on this, too, first saying he’s proud to have the admiration of such a respected leader like Vladimir Putin and this morning, well, if Putin occasionally has to kill a domestic critic, at least he knows how to lead.

US Republicans look at Vladimir Putin and mainly wish he was playing for their team. Trump, like in every case, has simply taken what was implicit and made it explicit and loud. Vladimir Putin? Yeah, he’s awesome. I’ll be like him!

Is simply taking what was implicit and making it explicit and loud going too far? That’s a judgment call, but there was this too:

During a Friday “Morning Joe” interview, The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart asked Donald Trump if he has any responsibility to urge his supporters to treat protesters respectfully.

Capehart held up the front page of The Post, which featured a story about Trump’s raucous rally this week in Mesa, Arizona. The paper reported that a young man there hurled a racial slur at two Latino protesters.

“You talk about leadership a lot. I’m wondering if you feel any responsibility for your crowds, for keeping them – and the passions that they clearly have, and you’ve tapped into – keeping them in check.” Capehart asked Trump. “Whether it’s Black Lives Matter protesters being punched and assaulted, or, as in this story Latinos being yelled at.”

The story is here and the words shouted were “‘Motherfucking tacos” – an odd concept to be sure, but first things first:

Trump first addressed the Black Lives Matter part of Capehart’s question. He appeared to interpret it as a reference to November rally in Alabama, where a heckler was reportedly punched and kicked by his supporters.

“There’s a lot of love at those rallies. There’s tremendous love there. And the person you’re referring to from Black Lives Matter was really, really out of line. I mean, the screaming was unbelievable,” Trump told Capehart. “In fact, I think Luciano Pavarotti could have taken vocal lessons from the guy. The screaming.”

Trump added that it was “the police” who dealt with the protester: “These weren’t my people.” (The day after that Alabama rally, Trump ignited a small firestorm by saying “maybe he should have been roughed up.”)

The real-estate mogul and Republican presidential front-runner proceeded to tell Capehart about the “great spirit” of the people at his campaign events.

“With all of that being said, my rallies have tremendous spirit and tremendous love,” he continued. “These are people that love our country. These are smart people by the way, very smart people. These are people that have watched our country be so foolishly run and so stupidly run at so many levels. And these are people that have great spirit – I mean, unbelievable spirit.”

Ah, but can these people that love our country go too far? It was then that Scarborough decided to switch sides:

Trump also complained about how the media covers protesters at his rallies. “The biggest problem is I can have 15,000 or 20,000 people. If there’s one person that’s a protester, that’s always: ‘Protester at Trump Rally,'” he said. “It’s really unbelievable.”

Host Joe Scarborough then defended Trump. Scarborough suggested it was unfair for the media to cherry-pick the most outrageous supporters at events, citing Confederate battle flags at then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s rallies in 2008.

Fine, but she didn’t seem to mind – she never said that was going too far – so that proves nothing about Palin being noble and all that. And Kathleen Parker addresses the Muslim thing:

Anti-Muslim rhetoric merely buoys the terrorist narrative that the United States is the enemy of Islam. Thus, demonizing or marginalizing Muslims leads not to greater safety but to greater numbers of recruits willing to self-detonate in the service of something no sane person recognizes.

It is also rude and un-American.

It’s funny, in an unfunny way. We seem to have no trouble demanding that moderate Muslims condemn the radicals, but we’re less than impressive when it comes to moderate Americans taking a stand against our own extremists. It isn’t really as painful as it looks and should be viewed as an act of patriotism, something the individual citizen can do as part of the nation’s war effort.

That’s a thought, and Fareed Zakaria notes the other damage done:

I think of myself first and foremost as an American. I’m proud of that identity because as an immigrant, it came to me through deep conviction and hard work, not the accident of birth. I also think of myself as a husband, father, guy from India, journalist, New Yorker and (on my good days) an intellectual. But in today’s political climate, I must embrace another identity. I am a Muslim.

I am not a practicing Muslim. The last time I was in a mosque, except as a tourist, was decades ago. My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated – somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook. But as I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realize that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born.

And yet, that identity doesn’t fully represent me or my views. I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.

The problem is being forced to be nothing but a Muslim:

This is the real danger of Trump’s rhetoric: It forces people who want to assimilate, who see themselves as having multiple identities, into a single box. The effects of his rhetoric have already poisoned the atmosphere. Muslim Americans are more fearful and will isolate themselves more. The broader community will know them less and trust them less. A downward spiral of segregation will set in.

The tragedy is that, unlike in Europe, Muslims in the United States are by and large well-assimilated. I remember talking to a Moroccan immigrant in Norway last year who had a brother in New York. I asked him how their experiences differed. He said, “Over here, I’ll always be a Muslim, or a Moroccan, but my brother is already an American.”

Well, that’s over now:

Trump has taken the country by surprise. People don’t quite know how to respond to the vague, unworkable proposals (“We have to do something!”), the phony statistics, the dark insinuations of conspiracies (“There’s something we don’t know,” he says, about President Obama) and the naked appeals to peoples’ prejudices.

All of it is overwhelming, but David Ignatius points to the real underlying conflict here:

President Obama gave a speech Tuesday at the National Archives that stood in almost perfect counterpoint to the Republican presidential debate that took place that evening in Las Vegas: Against the rising GOP tide of anger toward immigrants, Obama anchored himself among the historical documents that define American tolerance.

Obama’s speech was a homily to American values. He welcomed new citizens from 25 countries to the fellowship defined by our Constitution and Bill of Rights: “You don’t look alike. You don’t worship the same way. But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.”

Obama delivered a blunt message to those who are embracing Donald Trump’s counternarrative of nativism and intolerance: “The truth is, being an American is hard. Being part of a democratic government is hard. Being a citizen is hard. It is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. There’s no respite from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves – not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient. When it’s tough. When we’re afraid.”

The contrast is obvious:

As Obama prepares to begin the last year of his presidency, he stands in an unusual position on the national stage: He is the rationalist, a creature of intellect rather than emotion. Dry as a bone, often disdainful of politics, averse to selling his policies (and also not very good at it), he is sometimes his own worst enemy. But compared with our other recent two-term presidents who stumbled as they neared the finish line, Obama seems to be gaining strength.

In fact, things went quite well:

Certainly this was a year in which the president delivered on the rationalist’s agenda, against intense emotional opposition. He achieved an Iran nuclear deal that was bitterly opposed by Israel and the GOP; a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade rejected by much of his own party; a normalization of relations with Cuba that broke a national political taboo; and a climate change agreement that triumphed over a right-wing cult of rejecting scientific evidence.

But that may be too rosy a picture:

This was a good year, you might conclude, for fact-based governance. But watching the swelling movement symbolized by Trump, you might think otherwise. It’s a paradox that Obama can have so many successes, and yet be seen by some at home and abroad as weak.

He hit a wall:

Obama’s political education has been expensive, for him and the country. He came into office believing that good ideas would prevail. He disliked the messy, boisterous work of salesmanship and retail governance. Perhaps he worried deep down that some of the opposition to his policies was rooted in prejudice against him as an African American. Perhaps he was right.

From his first year in office, Obama encountered a raw rejectionism from the Republican right; it wasn’t just criticism of his policies but a challenge to the very legitimacy of his presidency. Many details were fabricated, such as the allegation that he was secretly a Muslim, or that he had been born outside the United States. Yet these themes were repeated so often on conservative talk radio and cable news that they began to constitute an alternative reality.

It’s hard to know what a better counterstrategy might have been, but Obama’s cool public posture (while he was smoldering inside) didn’t work very well.

And now there’s the guy with the orange hair:

The rise of Trump has surprised most pundits, but it doesn’t seem to shock Obama. Trump is a crystallization of the angry rhetoric that Obama has been facing from the GOP since he took office. Trump is just louder, more shameless and more charismatic. He’s the marriage of P.T. Barnum and Rush Limbaugh.

It would be good if Obama were better at projecting the rationalist’s faith in this moment of irrational politics. One of his heroes is clearly Pope Francis, who conveys with every action his rejection of fundamentalism and absolutism. Perhaps the pope gives lessons.

The pope doesn’t give lessons, but there’s this:

Obama has made skepticism about easy answers and quick fixes the cornerstone of his foreign policy. In the Situation Room, he is said to quiz his advisers about unintended consequences – to ask what Iraq or Syria or Ukraine would look like in the months after a proposed action. Those are the questions the country should want asked, but Obama hasn’t found a way to make them sound like good leadership.

They don’t sound like good leadership, and at Politico, Katelyn Fossett suggests a reason for that:

If you’re naturally a little bored by national politics, but still attracted to candidates who lie, shout and make you a little angry and scared, like many American voters are today, you have evolution – and the brain it created – to thank.

The modern human brain formed during the Pleistocene epoch – a period from about two and a half million to 11,000 years ago when the southern Andes were covered by an ice sheet that extended to Antarctica. Built to rely on instinct over reflection – instincts more suited to hunting saber-toothed cats than making public-policy decisions – our brains have changed very little since.

That’s her introduction to her interview with Rick Shenkman, the guy who wrote Political Animals: Why Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics – the guy who wrote the book on this. She has only four questions:

Why do we believe politicians when they lie? Why do we shun nuance and flock to demagogues? Why do many of us never go to the polls? Do we have any hope of changing?

Fair enough, and Shenkman’s answer to the first question is revealing:

Trump’s supporters don’t particularly care whether he’s lying or not. Our brain doesn’t really care – I know that’s appalling. Our default position is we simply want to be right.

This is why our brain rationalizes our actions even when they’re at variance with our principles – that’s what cognitive dissonance is all about. So Trump supporters – when they hear Donald Trump say thousands of Muslims celebrated 9/11, and that turns out to be a lie, that obviously creates a conflict. Our brain tries to get out of these types of conflict in any way it can. One of the standard ways is to discredit the messenger – we say the mainstream media is full of it, for example. That’s true for Hillary Clinton supporters and true for Donald Trump supporters. All of us, Republicans, Democrats, we are all afflicted with this inclination to believe what we believe, and it doesn’t matter what the facts say. It took 11 months before public opinion started going against Nixon during Watergate.

By nature, human beings are meant to be believers. We aren’t skeptics. We believe, and only at the second step do we subject our beliefs to scrutiny – this is all based on research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. That inclines us to deceptive politicians: We are inclined to believe them unless we have a previous reason not to believe them.

And lying comes naturally to us anyway:

Human beings are deceivers by nature; you can’t go through the day without practicing some form of deception.

When you read primate studies of chimpanzees, they show that chimpanzees are also by nature deceptive. Roger Fouts, a primatologist, was the first to teach chimps how to use sign language. One day, he sees that one of the chimpanzees he was studying had defecated in the middle of someone’s living room. He confronts Lucy, his chimp – they are using sign language – and she responds instantly, “It’s not me! It’s you!” And he says, “No it’s not me.” And then she blames it on a graduate student. And finally, after a heated exchange, she admits, “Yes, it was me,” and she turns sheepish.

It’s more than likely our common ancestor was deceptive by nature, which is why humans and chimpanzees have that trait. We like to think we’ve created the ideal community by encouraging people to be honest; the problem with that is that one traitor can take advantage of everybody. That is what happens in an honest community. Cheaters have the run of the place.

In order to protect against that, we have cheater detection software. It’s a very sophisticated: With most humans (except psychopaths, who don’t show signs), when someone is standing face-to-face with you and lying, they’re twitching, the pitch of their voice might increase, their use of language becomes less detailed – and our unconscious brains take over to identify them as a liar.

The problem in politics today is that our candidates are not face-to-face with us. We’re seeing them on TV, so our cheater detection software doesn’t work so well.

There’s much more, but it comes down to evolutionary biology. We’re hard-wired for Trump, and he really can’t go too far. He’s only stopped being funny. Tragedy is no more than comedy when good people die, and this isn’t a Woody Allen movie.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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