Testing the Limits of Scorn

Kim Jong Un can fire off all the missiles he wants, testing this and that, and test his hydrogen bomb, but Donald Trump has an answer to that. He has taken to calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” – like in the 1972 Elon John song – and since Elton John is a short little gay man who dresses funny, this is the ultimate mockery. Kim Jong Un is a queer, and this sort of thing has worked for Donald Trump before. Find the right nickname. Starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted and moving on to Crooked Hillary, Donald Trump humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. Whatever it was, he hit back ten times harder – and 62,984,825 voters loved it even if 65,853,516 voters didn’t. The two-word mocking nickname did all the work. People laughed. People laughed in spite of themselves. People do like to sneer at others, even if they might not admit it. That’s human nature. Donald Trump weaponized highly-compressed scorn. He won the presidency. Scorn works.

That’s the theory, and it was time to test out that theory at the United Nations. The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Rick Gladstone report on how that went:

President Trump brought the same confrontational style of leadership he has used at home to the world’s most prominent stage on Tuesday as he vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States and denounced the nuclear agreement with Iran as “an embarrassment” that he may abandon.

In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Trump framed the conflicts as a test of the international system. The bombastic flourishes that generate approving roars at political events were met by stony silence, interrupted a few times by a smattering of applause, as Mr. Trump promised to “crush loser terrorists,” mocked North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and declared that parts of the world “are going to hell.”

That stony silence was telling. No one was laughing in spite of themselves:

The president’s tone carried real-world implications for the future of the United Nations and the escalating confrontations with international outliers. In the space of 42 minutes, he upended decades of rhetorical support by the United States for the collective philosophy of the United Nations as he defended his America First policy. He repeatedly extolled “sovereignty” in a setting where the term traditionally has been brandished by nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to deflect criticism.

Donald Trump didn’t seem to care:

“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said, generating light applause in parts of the chamber. But he argued that nationalism can be the foundation for strong nations to join common causes.

“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he said.

The idea seemed to be that if every nation looked out for itself, and only for itself, the world would be a better place. This might be an analog to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of competition – unregulated selfishness produces the greatest good for the greatest number, at the lowest cost, as competitors try to outdo each other in a totally free market. The best product wins.

It wasn’t that. It was unrelenting scorn:

Mr. Trump singled out North Korea, broadening his indictment of the Pyongyang government beyond its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its treatment of its own people and captured foreigners like the American college student who died shortly after being sent back to the United States.

“No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” Mr. Trump said. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Without mentioning it by name, Mr. Trump also chastised China for continuing to deal with its rogue neighbor, calling it “an outrage that some nations” would trade, arm and support North Korea.

He assailed the Iran agreement, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama and leaders of five other powers and ratified by the United Nations Security Council to curb Tehran’s nuclear program for a decade in exchange for lifting international sanctions. Under American law, Mr. Trump has until Oct. 15 to certify whether Iran is complying with the agreement, which he has done twice so far since taking office. But he has made clear that he would prefer not to do so again, which could unravel the accord.

“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Mr. Trump said. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”

The stony silence became disgust:

“If Trump was determined to demonstrate to the world that he is unhinged and an imminent danger to world peace, he has succeeded with this speech, and will only make it harder for him to win over the world to his self-destructive goals,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that criticizes the Tehran government but advocates more engagement.

Neither Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, nor Mohammad Javad Zarif, its foreign minister, was in the hall for Mr. Trump’s speech. North Korea’s ambassador left his seat before the president started speaking.

In an interview taped before the speech, Mr. Rouhani castigated Mr. Trump for considering a withdrawal from the nuclear accord. “The exiting of the United States from such an agreement would carry a high cost, meaning that subsequent to such an action by the United States of America, no one will trust America again,” he told NBC News.

Donald Trump didn’t seem to care about that either, but he should have cared about that:

Mr. Trump’s choice of words raised hackles among allies too, as Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign minister, made clear at a reception on Tuesday evening. “We never talk about destroying countries,” she said.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has a friendly relationship with Mr. Trump and whose country was one of the negotiating parties for the Iran deal, likewise took exception. In his General Assembly address, Mr. Macron called the agreement “solid, robust and verifiable,” and said renouncing it would be a “grave error.”

While he shared Mr. Trump’s view that North Korea’s nuclear belligerence was dangerous and unacceptable, Mr. Macron said multilateral diplomatic pressure was the best solution. “France rejects escalation and will not close any door to dialogue,” he said.

The French president also confronted a big issue Mr. Trump conspicuously omitted, climate change. “The planet will not negotiate with us,” Mr. Macron said, referring to the Paris climate accord that Mr. Trump has renounced.

In short, this wasn’t going well, but Trump lives on unrelenting highly-defensive scorn:

Mr. Trump arrived at the United Nations with a more overtly nationalist approach than past American presidents, predicated on a belief that the United States has been taken advantage of in areas like trade, security and other international affairs. In addition to abandoning the Paris accord, he has renounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement if it is not renegotiated to his liking.

In his speech, he used the word “sovereign” or “sovereignty” 21 times. “The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies,” he said. “But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.”

That too was met by stony silence, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains why:

President Trump’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday may have been the most hostile, dangerous, and intellectually confused – if not outright dishonest – speech ever delivered by an American president to an international body.

Kaplan notes the contradictions:

Several times in the speech, Trump listed the “pillars of peace” as “sovereignty, security, and prosperity,” but he evinced little understanding of what those terms mean. He was particularly contradictory about sovereignty. At times, he expressed the concept clearly: “In America,” he said, “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.” And: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

He even went so far as to say that the “true question” for the United Nations and for people all over the world is this: “Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their future?”

These are good questions, consistent with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which consecrated the sovereignty of nation-states as the basis for diplomacy. But if Trump believes what he’s saying here, he should know he has no business threatening to “completely destroy” North Korea, a country of 25 million people, because its leaders are testing missiles and nuclear weapons. Certainly the emergence of a Pyongyang nuclear arsenal is a worrisome development, but from the North Koreans’ point of view, it may be a way – perhaps, as they see it, the only way – to guarantee their own security and sovereignty in a world that they see as threatening.

Yes, Trump was making no sense, but the contradictions continued:

Trump vaguely threatened action against Cuba and Venezuela, attributing their economic failures to the inherent shortcomings of socialism. But, again, if respect for sovereignty is a pillar of world order, should anyone care what ideology or economic system a country decides to pursue, as long as it doesn’t seek to impose it on others?

Trump hadn’t thought this through:

Especially since the rise of al-Qaida and the safe harbors its militias found within the territories of failed states, politicians, scholars, and diplomats have debated whether sovereignty has, or should have, limits – whether certain circumstances justify regime change or some other form of intervention within a foreign country. But Trump seemed unaware of this debate. He invoked sovereignty when it suited his purposes – and proposed violating sovereignty, without a thought, when it didn’t.

That may be because this was all about scorn:

Trump’s main purpose in this speech was to tout the doctrine of America First. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first,” he said, “just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always – and should always – put your countries first.” Unless, of course, your country is North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or Venezuela – in which case Trump insists that your country’s real interests lies in aligning those interests with our interests: with his interests.

And the rest was just dangerous:

Even if you believe that Kim’s nuclear program warrants a military response, it is senseless – strategically risky and morally appalling – to threaten the total destruction of North Korea if Kim continues on his course. Even if you have problems with some aspect of the Iran nuclear deal (though, in fact, the deal was far-reaching and equitable), it is senseless to scuttle it, not just because Iran is abiding by its terms but also because doing so would harden Kim’s will to push on with his nuclear program. Why should he negotiate limits on his nukes, much less give them up, when Iran did the same—and the United States seems set to pull out of the deal anyway?

Finally, the Iran deal was a multinational pact – signed not only by the U.S. and Iran but also by Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany, and a delegation from the European Union. Why should anyone, anywhere, trust the United States if it pulls out of such a pact simply because of a president’s ignorance and pique?

That may be so, but Donald Trump’s ignorance and pique won him the presidency. The ignorance didn’t matter and his voters loved the pique. That should have worked at the United Nations too, but it didn’t. Who knew?

Andrew Sullivan knew, and in a new long and detailed essay, he explains the root of the problem here:

Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful, cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; they are turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing right now in Myanmar. British imperialists long knew that the best way to divide and conquer was by creating “countries” riven with tribal differences. Not that they were immune: Even in successful modern democracies like Britain and Spain, the tribes of Scots and Catalans still threaten a viable nation-state. In all these places, the people involved have been full citizens of their respective nations, but their deepest loyalty is to something else.

But then we don’t really have to wonder what it’s like to live in a tribal society anymore, do we? Because we already do.

There’s no denying that:

Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous. I don’t just mean the rise of political polarization (although that’s how it often expresses itself), nor the rise of political violence (the domestic terrorism of the late 1960s and ’70s was far worse), nor even this country’s ancient black-white racial conflict (though its potency endures).

I mean a new and compounding combination of all these differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.

I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.

Sullivan senses a change:

The project of American democracy – to live beyond such tribal identities, to construct a society based on the individual, to see ourselves as citizens of a people’s republic, to place religion off-limits, and even in recent years to embrace a multiracial and post-religious society – was always an extremely precarious endeavor. It rested, from the beginning, on an 18th-century hope that deep divides can be bridged by a culture of compromise, and that emotion can be defeated by reason. It failed once, spectacularly, in the most brutal civil war any Western democracy has experienced in modern times. And here we are, in an equally tribal era, with a deeply divisive president who is suddenly scrambling Washington’s political alignments, about to find out if we can prevent it from failing again.

That won’t be easy:

Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the overwhelming majority of our time on this planet, the tribe was the only form of human society. We lived for tens of thousands of years in compact, largely egalitarian groups of around 50 people or more, connected to each other by genetics and language, usually unwritten. Most tribes occupied their own familiar territory, with widespread sharing of food and no private property. A tribe had its own leaders and a myth of its own history. It sorted out what we did every day, what we thought every hour. Tribal cohesion was essential to survival…

The tribes that best survived (and thereby transmitted their genes to us) were, moreover, those most acutely aware of outsiders and potential foes. A failure to notice incoming strangers could end your life in an instant, and an indifference to the appearances of other human beings could mean defeat at the hands of rivals or the collapse of a tribe altogether. And so we became a deeply cooperative species – but primarily with our own kind. The notion of living alongside people who do not look like us and treating them as our fellows was meaningless for most of human history.

Comparatively few actual tribes exist today, but that doesn’t mean that humans are genetically much different.

That means we get Trump:

Healthy tribalism endures in civil society in benign and overlapping ways. We find a sense of belonging, of unconditional pride, in our neighborhood and community; in our ethnic and social identities and their rituals; among our fellow enthusiasts. There are hip-hop and country-music tribes; bros; nerds; Wasps; Dead Heads and Packers fans; Facebook groups. (Yes, technology upends some tribes and enables new ones.) And then, most critically, there is the Über-tribe that constitutes the nation-state, a megatribe that unites a country around shared national rituals, symbols, music, history, mythology, and events, that forms the core unit of belonging that makes a national democracy possible.

None of this is a problem. Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies. And the most significant fact about American tribalism today is that all three of these characteristics now apply to our political parties, corrupting and even threatening our system of government.

Still, we should have seen this coming:

The re-racialization of our parties began with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, when the GOP lost almost all the black vote. It accelerated under Nixon’s “southern strategy” in the wake of the civil-rights revolution. By Reagan’s reelection, the two parties began to cohere again, into the Civil War pattern, and had simply swapped places…

Then there were other accelerants: The arrival of talk radio in the 1980s, Fox News in the ’90s, and internet news and MSNBC in the aughts; the colossal blunder of the Iraq War, which wrecked the brief national unity after 9/11; and the rise of partisan gerrymandering that allowed the GOP to win, in 2016, 49 percent of the vote but 55 percent of House seats. The greatest threat to a politician today therefore is less a candidate from the opposing party than a more ideologically extreme primary opponent. The incentives for cross-tribal compromise have been eviscerated, and those for tribal extremism reinforced.

But wait, there’s more:

Add to this the great intellectual sorting of America, in which, for generations, mass college education sifted countless gifted young people from the heartland and deposited them in increasingly left-liberal universities and thereafter the major cities, from which they never returned, and then the shifting of our economy to favor the college-educated, which only deepened the urban-rural divide. The absence of compulsory military service meant that our wars would be fought disproportionately by one tribe, and the rise of radical Islamic terrorism only inflamed tribal suspicions. Then there’s the post-1965 wave of mass immigration, which disorients in ways that cannot be wished or shamed away; the decision among the country’s intellectual elite to junk the “melting pot” metaphor as a model for immigration in favor of “multiculturalism”; and the decline of Christianity as a common cultural language for both political parties – which had been critical, for example, to the success of the civil-rights movement.

We were doomed:

The myths that helped us unite as a nation began to fray. We once had a widely accepted narrative of our origins, shared icons that defined us, and a common pseudo-ethnicity – “whiteness” – into which new immigrants were encouraged to assimilate. Our much broader ethnic mix and the truths of history make this much harder today – as, of course, they should. But we should be clear-eyed about the consequence. We can no longer think of the Puritans without acknowledging the genocide that followed them; we cannot celebrate our Founding Fathers without seeing that slavery undergirded the society they constructed; we must tear down our Confederate statues and re-litigate our oldest rifts. Even the national anthem now divides those who stand from those who kneel. We dismantled many of our myths, but have not yet formed new ones to replace them.

That leaves this:

When a rank tribalist wins the office and governs almost entirely in the interests of the hardest core of his base, half the country understandably feels as if it were under siege. Our two-party, winner-take-all system only works when both parties are trying to appeal to the same constituencies on a variety of issues.

Our undemocratic electoral structure exacerbates things. Donald Trump won 46 percent of the vote, attracting 3 million fewer voters than his opponent, but secured 56 percent of the Electoral College. Republicans won 44 percent of the vote in the Senate seats up for reelection last year, but 65 percent of the seats. To have one tribe dominate another is one thing; to have the tribe that gained fewer votes govern the rest – and be the head of state – is testing political stability.

What you end up with is zero-sum politics, which drags the country either toward alternating administrations bent primarily on undoing everything their predecessors accomplished, or the kind of gridlock that has dominated national politics for the past seven years – or both. Slowly our political culture becomes one in which the two parties see themselves not as participating in a process of moving the country forward, sometimes by tilting to the right and sometimes to the left, as circumstances permit, alternating in power, compromising when in opposition, moderating when in government – but one where the goal is always the obliteration of the other party by securing a permanent majority, in an unending process of construction and demolition.

There’s much more – Sullivan is depressingly thorough in support of these main points – but it comes down to this:

One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.

That’s when you begin to operate on pure scorn. There’s nothing else left. There’s no way to imagine anything else, and that might explain Trump’s speech at the United Nations. He really couldn’t imagine all those other nations – but there they were. There was the stony silence. Donald Trump had weaponized highly-compressed scorn. He won the presidency. Scorn worked. And then it didn’t. Now what?


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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