The Case for Extreme Worry

The week ended with that stock market falling off the cliff – the Dow down over seven hundred points and then recovering to lose only five hundred seventy-two points – which was awful enough. Donald Trump was the cliff. In a fit of pique he suggested another one hundred billion dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods – his latest angry reaction to their reaction to his first and second in-your-face tariff announcements. He was ticked that they’re fighting back. He acted on impulse. He didn’t even tell his new economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, that this was coming.

Kudlow recovered. He spent the day telling everyone in sight that this wasn’t a trade war. These were just proposals. Nothing had happened yet. No one had done anything yet. This was just positioning – a negotiation tactic – and no one believed that for a minute. Everyone knows that Trump is impulsive. There will be a trade war. There already is a trade war. It seemed likely that international commence will grind to a halt, some exporters will go bankrupt, jobs will be lost, the price of most everything will skyrocket, leading to a recession, maybe a major recession, or worse. It was time to sell off stocks in American producers of goods and services – Boeing and all the rest – even at a loss. No one would be buying anything until China had been thoroughly humiliated and bowed to Trump’s will – and China seems to have decided they’d rather not be humiliated. Kudlow couldn’t fix that – and it didn’t help that Trump, in a radio interview, said that sure, there will be pain, but that after that pain everything would be wonderful, finally.

That didn’t help matters. Trump didn’t say how long that pain would last or when it would end, and of course he won’t feel a bit of it. He’s worth billions. Others will feel the pain. That’s their problem, not his – but they have to understand that pain is for the greater good. This was a bit like what Lord Farquaad says in that Shrek movie – “Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

Lord Farquaad was the powerful but pathetic and absurd villain in that movie, always lashing out because he felt inadequate – he was very short – and there’s a bit of Farquaad in Trump.

That’s a worry. Jonathan Chait understands that some people are on the inside, so he respects an insider’s reporting:

Axios editor Mike Allen is a consummate Establishmentarian who has spent his career laboring to win the approval of elites in both parties. Yesterday, Allen published a column headlined “The case for extreme worry.” His observations are, indeed, quite worrying. “Checks are being ignored or have been eliminated, and critics purged as the president is filling time by watching Fox, and by eating dinner with people who feed his ego and conspiracy theories, and who drink in his rants,” he notes. “Trump’s closest confidants speak with an unusual level of concern, even alarm, and admit to being confused about what the president will do next – and why.”

That Mike Allen item is here and Chait adds this:

It would be a mistake to overstate the change at hand. The Trump presidency has been a slow-moving freakout, every new episode representing a surreal extension of the unknown. Still, there is evidence that the chaos has increased in some important new way. After many members of the administration seemed to convince themselves last year that they had gained some control over their erratic chief executive, they see him slipping the restraints.

In short, things are getting worse:

The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House staff has attempted to correct Trump’s mistaken beliefs about Amazon, to no avail. Staffers a “arranged private briefing” that “they believed debunked his concerns that Amazon was dodging taxes and exploiting the U.S. Postal Service.” But Trump continued to directly contradict what he had learned because, a source explains, “It’s not the narrative he wants.”

The Associated Press reports that Trump has grown tired of his chief of staff’s management, but also has not seen fit to fire him outright. Instead, “Trump recently told one confidant that he was ‘tired of being told no’ by Kelly and has instead chosen to simply not tell Kelly things at all.”

Trump’s advisers, despairing of their inability to educate the president, have taken to using television as the preferred vehicle for their tutelage. The Washington Post reports that Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News program is the show of choice for this purpose. “Aides sometimes plot to have guests make points on Fox that they have been unable to get the president to agree to in person. ‘He will listen more when it is on TV,’ a senior administration official said.” Pirro duty is considered important enough that “officials rotate going on Pirro’s show because they know Trump will be watching – and partially to prevent him from calling in himself.”

Another report in the Associated Press describes Trump ranting uncontrollably in a meeting with military brass. “The president had opened the meeting with a tirade about U.S. intervention in Syria and the Middle East more broadly, repeating lines from public speeches in which he’s denounced previous administrations for ‘wasting’ $7 trillion in the region over the past 17 years,” the report notes. At one point, a general interjected to inform Trump “that his approach was not productive and asked him to give the group specific instructions as to what he wanted.”

All of that is from one single twenty-four-hour news cycle, which worries Chait:

Should we be scared that the president is unable to focus or learn or even adopt a coherent management structure? Yes, we probably should.

That’s the case for extreme worry, and then there’s Madeleine Albright – our former secretary of state, born in what used to be Czechoslovakia – the daughter of a diplomat who had to get the hell out of there with the signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, eventually handing over the country to Adolf Hitler – to prevent war. The family was forced into exile because of their links to Edvard Beneš and others not fond of fascism. Of course there was war, but after that unpleasantness the family returned to Prague. The fascists were gone, but then the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia took over the government in 1948, and the Albright family had to get the hell out of there again. They didn’t like the communists any better than the fascists, and the feeling was mutual. That’s how Madeleine Albright ended up here in the United States. The family felt that they were finally rid of that nonsense. This was good place – no fascists and no communists. They all became naturalized citizens. Madeleine Albright eventually became our first woman secretary of state. The nonsense was over.

Now she knows better. There’s now a case for extreme worry. In the New York Times she reviews the situation:

On April 28, 1945 – 73 years ago – Italians hung the corpse of their former dictator Benito Mussolini upside down next to a gas station in Milan. Two days later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath the streets of war-ravaged Berlin. Fascism, it appeared, was dead.

To guard against a recurrence, the survivors of war and the Holocaust joined forces to create the United Nations, forge global financial institutions and – through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – strengthen the rule of law. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the honor roll of elected governments swelled not only in Central Europe, but also Latin America, Africa and Asia. Almost everywhere, it seemed, dictators were out and democrats were in. Freedom was ascendant.

And now it’s not:

Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism and the tendencies that lead toward fascism pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.

She’s eighty years old and doesn’t want to have to move again, but the real problem is there’s now nowhere to move to:

Warning signs include the relentless grab for more authority by governing parties in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland and Turkey – all United States allies. The raw anger that feeds fascism is evident across the Atlantic in the growth of nativist movements opposed to the idea of a united Europe, including in Germany, where the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland has emerged as the principal opposition party. The danger of despotism is on display in the Russia of Vladimir Putin – invader of Ukraine, meddler in foreign democracies, accused political assassin, brazen liar and proud son of the KGB. Putin has just been re-elected to a new six-year term, while in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, a ruthless ideologue, is poised to triumph in sham balloting next month. In China, Xi Jinping has persuaded a docile National People’s Congress to lift the constitutional limit on his tenure in power.

Around the Mediterranean, the once bright promise of the Arab Spring has been betrayed by autocratic leaders, such as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (also just re-elected), who use security to justify the jailing of reporters and political opponents. Thanks to allies in Moscow and Tehran, the tyrant Bashar al-Assad retains his stranglehold over much of Syria. In Africa, the presidents who serve longest are often the most corrupt, multiplying the harm they inflict with each passing year. Meanwhile, the possibility that fascism will be accorded a fresh chance to strut around the world stage is enhanced by the volatile presidency of Donald Trump.

Yes, she goes there, noting the signs of incipient fascism:

Instead of mobilizing international coalitions to take on world problems, he touts the doctrine of “every nation for itself” and has led America into isolated positions on trade, climate change and Middle East peace. Instead of engaging in creative diplomacy, he has insulted United States neighbors and allies, walked away from key international agreements, mocked multilateral organizations and stripped the State Department of its resources and role. Instead of standing up for the values of a free society, Mr. Trump, with his oft-vented scorn for democracy’s building blocks, has strengthened the hands of dictators. No longer need they fear United States criticism regarding human rights or civil liberties. On the contrary, they can and do point to Mr. Trump’s own words to justify their repressive actions.

At one time or another, Mr. Trump has attacked the judiciary, ridiculed the media, defended torture, condoned police brutality, urged supporters to rough up hecklers and – jokingly or not – equated mere policy disagreements with treason. He tried to undermine faith in America’s electoral process through a bogus advisory commission on voter integrity. He routinely vilifies federal law enforcement institutions. He libels immigrants and the countries from which they come. His words are so often at odds with the truth that they can appear ignorant, yet are in fact calculated to exacerbate religious, social and racial divisions. Overseas, rather than stand up to bullies, Mr. Trump appears to like bullies, and they are delighted to have him represent the American brand. If one were to draft a script chronicling fascism’s resurrection, the abdication of America’s moral leadership would make a credible first scene.

She has seen this before, and there’s more:

His policy toward North Korea changes by the day and might quickly return to saber-rattling should Pyongyang prove stubborn before or during talks. His threat to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement could unravel a pact that has made the world safer and could undermine America’s reputation for trustworthiness at a critical moment. His support of protectionist tariffs invites retaliation from major trading partners – creating unnecessary conflicts and putting at risk millions of export-dependent jobs. The recent purge of his national security team raises new questions about the quality of advice he will receive.

That’s the case for extreme worry, and since exile is impossible – there’s nowhere left to go now – she offers this:

First, defend the truth. A free press, for example, is not the enemy of the American people; it is the protector of the American people. Second, we must reinforce the principle that no one, not even the president, is above the law. Third, we should each do our part to energize the democratic process by registering new voters, listening respectfully to those with whom we disagree, knocking on doors for favored candidates, and ignoring the cynical counsel: “There’s nothing to be done.”

Something can be done. Do it – and her new book is Fascism: A Warning – because a warning is at least something.

Thomas Edsall, however, has a different warning. It’s not Trump, it’s us. That’s what the research shows:

The election of Donald Trump – built as it was on several long-term trends that converged in 2016 – has created an authoritarian moment. This somewhat surprising development is the subject of “Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting,” a forthcoming book by the political scientists Christopher Federico, Stanley Feldman and Christopher Weber, who argue this:

“Three trends – polarization, media change, and the rise of what many people see as threats to the traditional social order – have contributed to a growing divide within American politics. It is a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence.”

That’s what the research was about:

The three authors use a long-established authoritarian scale – based on four survey questions about which childhood traits parents would like to see in their offspring – that asks voters to choose between independence or respect for their elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; and being considerate or well-behaved. Those respondents who choose respect for elders, good manners, obedience and being well-behaved are rated more authoritarian.

The authors found that in 1992, 62 percent of white voters who ranked highest on the authoritarian scale supported George H. W. Bush. In 2016, 86 percent of the most authoritarian white voters backed Trump, an increase of 24 percentage points.

Something is up, and there’s this:

Last year, Federico, writing with Christopher Johnston of Duke and Howard G. Lavine of the University of Minnesota, published Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, which also explores the concept of authoritarian voting.

In an email, Johnston summarized some of their findings:

“Over the last few decades, party allegiances have become increasingly tied to a core dimension of personality we call ‘openness.’ Citizens high in openness value independence, self-direction, and novelty, while those low in openness value social cohesion, certainty, and security. Individual differences in openness seem to underpin many social and cultural disputes, including debates over the value of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, law and order, and traditional values and social norms.”

Johnston notes that personality traits like closed-mindedness, along with aversion to change and discomfort with diversity, are linked to authoritarianism:

“As these social and cultural conflicts have become a bigger part of our political debates, citizens have sorted into different parties based on personality, with citizens high in openness much more likely to be liberals and Democrats than those low in openness. This psychological sorting process does not line up perfectly with older partisan differences based on class, because those higher in income and education also tend to be higher in openness.”

And there’s this:

In 2009, Marc J. Hetherington of Vanderbilt and Jonathan D. Weiler of the University of North Carolina wrote one of the fundamental texts on this topic, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics… There are “colliding conceptions of right and wrong,” they write, between those on the high and low ends of the authoritarian scale. That, in turn, makes it difficult “for one side of the political debate to understand (perhaps, in the extreme, even respect) how the other side thinks and feels.”

This October, Hetherington and Weiler will publish an elaboration on their argument, Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide. They are abandoning the use of the word authoritarian because of its negative connotations and its association with fascism.

In an email to me, Hetherington said that in their book he and Weiler will describe “people on opposite sides of the divide as having a fixed or fluid worldview.”

Those with a fixed worldview tend to see “American Carnage,” while those with fluid worldviews see the world as a big, beautiful place that is safe to explore. The fixed tend to be wary of what they perceive as constant threats to their physical security specifically and of social change in general. The fluid are much more open to change and, indeed, see it as a strength. For them, anger lies in holding on to old ideas and rejecting diversity.

Hetherington and Weiler argue that the answers to questions about the four childhood traits reveal “how worldview guides a person in navigating the world,” as Hetherington put it in his email:

“Not only do the answers to these questions explain preferences about race, immigration, sexual orientation, gender attitudes, the projection of military force, gun control, and just about every “culture war” issue, people’s worldviews also undergird people’s life choices. Because ‘the fixed’ are wary about the dangers around them, they prefer the country over the city. ‘The fluid’ prefers the reverse.”

Edsall has much more – there’s study after study – and Andrew Sullivan tries to sum things up:

Specific policies are not the galvanizing issue here – they just provide moments for the core feelings to express themselves; we’re talking fundamental psychological orientations, not political philosophies. I think of it as fear versus zeal – or in another scholarly formulation cited by Edsall, “a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence.”

And increasingly, there is vanishingly less space in our culture, or either political party, to represent some kind of mix of the two, to have a moderate and less emotional response, to see progress but also sympathize with those blindsided by it. In fact, we keep sorting ourselves ever more relentlessly into purer and purer versions of both fear and zeal.

And Sullivan adds this:

On the right, the fear pulsating through the collective veins – the caravan! the caravan! – has morphed into what can only be called a leader-cult. In the words of one academic: there’s a “wish for a strong leader who will force others to submit. The premise is that evil is afoot; that money, the media and government authority – and even ‘politically correct’ moral authority – have been usurped by undeserving interlopers.”

The desire for a domineering leader is the desire to see this evil crushed. When you fear social cohesion is unraveling, borders are open, and markets are merciless, your psyche is not in a place to think very rationally about how to fix various problems, with remedies crafted to specific ends, debated by legislators and in the press, and constantly slowed by constitutional bottlenecks and hurdles. It’s in a place to find a strongman whose very style and essence you can repose your total trust in.

That means that Trump is not the problem:

Unwinding the authoritarian impulse is the most urgent task for those of us on the center-right; just as tempering the zealotry of the social justice movement is the most urgent task for moderate liberals.

It’s not going very well, is it?

No, it isn’t. That’s the real case for extreme worry.

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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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One Response to The Case for Extreme Worry

  1. Rick says:

    Madeleine Albright did a great job of summing up our Trump dilemma, but in my opinion, that Thomas B. Edsall guy? Not so much.

    I don’t see all those people who prefer social stability as being Trump voters. In fact, because the “elite” have had their way for so long, with peace and tranquility being the norm, I see the Trumpists as being those who don’t like stability — in fact, Trump supporters are the ones calling for a reshuffle of the deck.

    But, in fact, it wasn’t until I clicked on that Edsall link and noticed that chart halfway through the article that I realized what he was trying to get at: The Trumpists apparently see the world order that existed before all the elitists smarty-pants’ took over as the baseline that we elitists fucked up; they see themselves as trying the restore the world to the way it was and should be, making America “Great Again!”

    So in fact, the rolls have been switched! It is all of us “open-minded” people who are now experiencing fear, anger, and feeling “left behind” and helpless!

    Maybe the true confusion can be seen more clearly in an item listed on the WaPo rundown in my mailbox this morning:

    Opinion
    Folks in the Midwest have Trump all figured out
    They realize that Trump’s hype and bluster are the tools of a huckster salesman.

    By David Von Drehle • Read more »

    Okay, but if they see him as a “huckster”, as I myself do, then why are they still backing him?

    Actually, I think I get it. Not being “elitists”, like me, they don’t see pure salesmanship as suspicious! To them, hucksterism is just a regular part of their daily life, while in the world we live in — the pre-post-truth world of the perpetual “Never-Trumpers” — it’s an insult to call someone a “huckster salesman”.

    And ever shall that be! If you’re thinking of taking the respect for truth away from me, you’ll have to have to pry it out of my cold, dead brain!

    Rick

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