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There is no high road to Trump

April 27, 2020

Trump’s distinguishing trait is his reliance on a constant stream of bullshit. That is obvious in the majority of his public interactions, marked him when he first entered politics, and is core to how he operates. His first response to the coronavirus spreading to the US was to gaslight his followers, telling them it was contained, that the case count was “going very substantially down, not up,” and that it “will have a very good ending for us.” His approach as the epidemic rose was to continue to bullshit, to dodge responsibility, to lie about the state of the disease and his responses to it, and to use it as a way to get the media to cover his daily political rallies. His latest of which was just bizarre.

One of the causes for Trump’s impeachment is that he turned a bogus conspiracy theory about the DNC server into foreign policy. He doesn’t care that his subordinates must either correct him — as Pence did regarding coronavirus test availability — or defend him. He hires press secretaries solely on their ability to paper over his lies. Many of his own appointees have fled his administration simply because they cannot serve under him while keeping intact their own integrity, or have been fired for the sin of telling the truth when under oath. Such as Gordon Sondland. Trump wants subordinates who are loyal — loyal to him personally, not to the US or to American norms or to the law or to simple truth. He doesn’t lie merely more than other people or other politicians. He lies with more abandon. He pressures his subordinates to lie for him. He says things that everyone knows are false, simply for self aggrandizement or because it favors his agenda or to fill the news with contrary fact checking that crowds out more substantive issues. He lies about his lies. That incessant lying places him far outside the normal range of behavior. For once, Ted Cruz nailed it, including Trump’s tactic of accusing others of what he habitually does:

[Trump] is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth, and in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.

That is why the never-Trumpers still are never.

That is what distinguishes Trump from every president past in American history, including those who infamously have told some large lies.

That is why, unlike those presidents past and other national leaders current, he cannot get the support of the nation even in a time of crisis.

That is why honest people watching him grow more and more disgusted.

That is why his supporters who try to pretend this isn’t the case look ever more like cult members.

Note it is another conservative who describes them so. Just as many long-time conservatives, from George Will to Charlie Sykes, recognize Trump’s incessant lying. Even if few of them understand how he uses it to maintain his following. Three groups in particular are attracted to that.

First, there are those whose politics is driven by resentment. Whether their ire is aimed at liberals or at the educated or at foreigners or at SJWs or at Muslims or at environmentalists or at other groups, Trump’s rhetoric gives them an open gate and stirs their anger. His every slur signals they may behave likewise, and many are purposely aimed at the groups they have been led to resent. His gaslighting, including his pro forma denouncements of bigotry, shows them how to defend and cover up their own bad behavior. His lies teach them how to troll. They can laugh at the rest of us who don’t “get” the message, who try to counteract what is literally said rather than going with the serious flow of channeled hate. They relish the notion that at last there is a politician who stands up for them, the “real” Americans.

Second, it attracts those who fall for and spread conspiracy theories, what Hofstadter described more than a half century back. The psychological descendants of the John Birchers in our time spread fear over Jade Helm, listen to Alex Jones, think Bill Gates wants to rule the world, or take QAnon as something more than utter nonsense. A president who spews constant bullshit is right up their alley.

Third, it attracts many who are religious. Now, I already can hear some of my religious family and friends object that their religion is not like that. And theirs well may not be. But the majority of white American evangelicals stand cheek by jowl with Trump. The data on that is clear. The affinity between religion and bullshitters flows in both directions. Not only does the bullshitter find an easy audience, he also finds a home that offers admiration, validation, and redemption. All without requiring him to become more honest.

I understand political calculation. The thought of how one candidate or the other might affect foreign policy and war, or their stance on an issue that affects one close to home, or how one reads long term trends or near threats can lead anyone to voting for most any candidate. They all are flawed. The world is multi-faceted and the future unpredictable. There is a strong argument that party matters more than the individual under most circumstances. In Edwin Edwards’s final and successful run for Louisiana governor, many people voted for him, despite the fact that his crooked ways were well-known. A popular bumper sticker at the time read: “Vote for the crook: It’s important.” That kind of calculation doesn’t turn someone into a booster, into a supporter who is proud to stand with a politician and display his paraphernalia. The Edwards voters sporting that bumper sticker recognized him as a crook, and cast their vote for him only because the alternative was someone who rallied the bigots and nativists. Similarly, there are many who will vote Republican up and down the ticket in November, even recognizing Trump as a bullshitter of a sort not previously seen on the national political stage. There are all sorts of low roads. And if your response to what I write above is, “yes, of course, but…,” that leads to rather different kinds of discussion than below.

Those on a low road are a small minority of those who will vote for Trump. 75% of Republicans say that Trump is honest. That is Trump’s base. They are not merely casting a calculated and reluctant vote. They are his supporters. They either are deluded, and fail to see his singular pathology. Or, worse, they see it and approve it, and emulating it, they lie about it. There is a continuum between mark and con. Each mark buys into their own deception. Every con somehow justifies in their own mind what they do. Those in between often have some share of both ends.

Regardless of where a Trump supporter falls on that continuum, that is the kind of thing that can hurt work relationships and friendships and family ties. Note that I have said nothing here about policy, about immigration or taxes or business regulation or civil rights. The only issue I raise in this post is how to deal with a bullshitter. We live in a strange time and place when that has become a matter of politics. Indeed, the nub of it. But it is more than just political.

And it is funny to watch on social media as Trump supporters cycle through their defenses and denials. They will ask for a clear example of Trump telling a lie. When given one from yesterday, they will ask for another. When given one from the next day, they then switch to kvetching that Obama promised they could keep their own doctor. My, how they love that one. Or they will feign cynicism with regard to all politicians, pretending that Trump is no worse than any other. No Trump supporter, no one who carries or supports Trump’s lies, should be taken seriously when they complain about government corruption, here or abroad, or about any other politician’s deceit, or about the quality of the media, or about any other issue of integrity. That’s like someone dating Jeffrey Dahmer complaining that their friend’s boyfriend is dangerously weird. Nor can the US government now be taken seriously in such complaints. It is headed by a bullshitter of historic proportion, its executive branch is overtly corrupt, its legislative branch failed to remedy that when it had the chance. The rest of the world knows that. Trump loyalists are the only ones who pretend otherwise.

Trump’s lying will continue until he dies or is struck aphasic. I anticipate many of his supporters then will turn around and say, well, yes, of course, they knew all along what he was. And while that perhaps will be better than not, their integrity is being tested now. As with many such tests, it’s better to get it right early than late.

I am not an optimist about American politics. The strain of American culture that made it possible for someone like Trump to rise to power preceded him, and will remain for some time after he is dead. I don’t forecast elections. There are aspects of the world that are hard to scry in the present, even though they are in front of our noses. But this aspect is easy. Or at least, it should be.

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