Disorder In The Court(iers)

Schadenfreude alert!

I really shouldn’t have been surprised by this article in The Washington Post. After all, we’ve  all encountered the sorts of people who have continued to support Donald Trump, and –to put it as kindly as possible–maturity, mental health and measured analysis are not among their most obvious characteristics.

The far-right firebrands and conspiracy theorists of the pro-Trump Internet have a new enemy: each other.

QAnon devotees are livid at their former hero Michael Flynn for accurately calling their jumbled credo “total nonsense.” Donald Trump superfans have voiced a sense of betrayal because the former president, booed for getting a coronavirus immunization booster, has become a “vaccine salesman.” And attorney Lin Wood seems mad at pretty much everyone, including former allies on the scattered “elite strike-force team” investigating nonexistent mass voter fraud.

After months of failing to disprove the reality of Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss, some of the Internet’s most popular right-wing provocateurs are grappling with the pressures of restless audiences, saturated markets, ongoing investigations and millions of dollars in legal bills.

The article characterizes the current state of affairs as a “chaotic melodrama,” and notes that it is being conducted–childishly, as you might suspect–through “secretly recorded phone calls, personal attacks in podcasts, and a seemingly endless stream of posts on Twitter, Gab and Telegram calling their rivals Satanists, communists, pedophiles or “pay-triots” — money-grubbing grifters exploiting the cause.”

I’m sure “snowflake” is in there somewhere too……

Our old catch-phrase–“follow the money”–is apt. The article notes that the infighting reflects the “diminishing financial rewards” for the individuals and groups peddling right-wing disinformation. They are fighting over a limited pool of viewer donations and subscriptions, over fees for appearances at rallies and conferences, and over sales of  books and merchandise.

In addition, tensions have evidently been exacerbated by the sudden, mysterious silence of QAnon’s faceless wacko, Q. Without Q, who should they follow? It’s a puzzlement!

The cage match kicked off late in November when Kyle Rittenhouse, acquitted of all charges after fatally shooting two men at a protest last year in Kenosha, Wis., told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that his former attorneys, including Wood, had exploited his jail time to boost their fundraising “for their own benefit, not trying to set me free.”

Wood has since snapped back at his 18-year-old former client, wondering aloud in recent messages on the chat service Telegram: “Could his life be “literally under the supervision and control of a ‘director?’ Whoever ‘Kyle’ is, pray for him.”

The article reports on the insults each faction is lobbing at the others: betraying the pro-Trump cause, or–much more serious–misusing the millions of dollars in funds that have gone to Pro-Trump groups.

Wood has posted recordings of his phone calls with Byrne, who can be heard saying that Wood is “a little kooky,” and Flynn, a QAnon icon who can be heard telling Wood that QAnon’s mix of extremist conspiracy theories was actually bogus “nonsense” or a “CIA operation.”

Best of all–at least from my perspective– the various groups are looking at massive financial liability.

Beyond the infighting, both sides are also staring down the potential for major financial damage in court. A federal judge last month ordered Wood and Powell to pay roughly $175,000 in legal fees for their “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” in suing to overturn the 2020 presidential election. And Powell and others face potentially billions of dollars in damages as a result of defamation lawsuits filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which they falsely accused of helping to rig the 2020 race.

If you want to help them cover their legal bills and likely losses,  you can buy a four-pack set of “Release the Kraken: Defending the Republic” from Powell’s website, which also offers drink tumblers at $80. Or you can visit Flynn’s newly launched website and buy  #FightLikeAFlynn” women’s racerback tank tops–a “steal” (but not the “Big” one) at only $30.  Wood’s online store is selling $64.99 “#FightBack” unisex hoodies.

Evidently, the merchandising theory is that the “base” likes to wear items that advertise its politics. (Well, there are those red MAGA hats…)

A researcher of conspiracy theories is quoted as saying the arguments “increasingly resemble the performative clashes of pro wrestling.” (He also points out that there is a limited number of people susceptible to being fleeced.)

There’s a lot more in the linked story, and it is all pretty much what you’d expect when  people who are different kinds of crazy go after each other. As a friend told me back in 2016, she was counting on the Trumpers’ sheer incompetence to save us…

What’s that definition of schadenfreude– Pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.

I plead so guilty.


About that 40%…

The problem isn’t Trump. As numerous people have recognized, Trump–despicable and dangerous and deranged as he is– is the symptom, not the disease.

I’ve previously posted about the systemic and structural fault-lines that have been exploited by Trump’s GOP supporters and fellow-travelers–but the disease, the root problem, isn’t the systems. It’s those supporters. Polls suggest that some 40% of Americans fall into that category, and the recurring, haunting question is: why? How could any sane adult look at this man and say, yep, that’s the guy I want directing my government? That’s the role model I want my kids to emulate?

Actually, I think my manicurist answered that question during a recent appointment.

She’s an adorable young woman (and very “woke” as the current terminology would have it). We were discussing the election, and she shared her distress that several family members were Trump supporters. I asked the question I always ask: why? What was her impression/ best guess about the basis of that support? She thought for a moment, then said “I hate to say this, but I think they are sort of racist, and Trump gives them permission to feel that way.”

Her anecdotal suspicions continue to be confirmed by the research, some of which I’ve referenced in prior posts. As more studies emerge, the evidence continues to grow.

The Washington Post recently reported on research into the authoritarian proclivities of Trump supporters–research that  linked those tendencies to racial animus.

In “Authoritarian Nightmare,” Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean marshal data from a previously unpublished nationwide survey showing a striking desire for strong authoritarian leadership among Republican voters.

They also find shockingly high levels of anti-democratic beliefs and prejudicial attitudes among Trump backers, especially those who support the president strongly. And regardless of what happens in 2020, the authors say, Trump supporters will be a potent pro-authoritarian voting bloc in the years to come.

The research paints a picture of  people who are “submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life’s threats.” They are particularly prone to divide the world into friends and foes, and to believe that the foes far outnumber the friends.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions using very different methods. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, for instance, recently used YouGov survey data to find that many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes.

In the most recent study, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Roughly half of Trump supporters agreed with that statement,  which–as Altemeyer and Dean point out– is “practically a Nazi cheer.”

If there has been one overarching lesson to be learned from the past few years, it is the (previously unappreciated) extent to which tribalism, racism and bigotry explain things that are otherwise inexplicable. A recent essay from New York Magazine analyzed the failure of Congress and the President to agree on a second, desperately needed stimulus package. The author’s conclusion was stunning: “bailing out” blue states would benefit ethnic minorities–something Republicans are loathe to do.

The most plausible explanation for this state of affairs is this: Most Senate Republicans face no great risk of losing their seats to a Democrat this year or any other. For them, the main threat to their power is a primary challenge. And right now, conservative media has turned opposition to fiscal aid into a cause célèbre, casting support for “blue-state bailouts” as treasonous.

How hateful do you have to be to withhold aid during a global pandemic to people you see as “Other”–even if by doing so, you and those you view as your own kind are harmed as well?

Even if there is a blue tsunami on November 3d, the people who hold these attitudes will still constitute a troubling percentage of the electorate. We can only hope that they fall far short of a majority.

And I have to wonder: What the hell is wrong with them?


Those Trump Supporters

I frequently refer to the recurring discussions among sane Americans–the ones that begin with incomprehension: what do Trump’s supporters see in him that they find attractive? What evidence can they cite to suggest that he is even minimally competent? How do they explain away the copious, constantly-growing evidence of his corruption, his ignorance, his childish and unhinged behaviors?

Clearly, the ability of voters in the age of the internet to rely on sources of “information” that confirm their desired “facts” has played a major part.

A recent post by a friend of mine suggests that the purveyors of cyber-disinformation rely on the civic ignorance of their audience; he posted a copy of a story from a Trump site about four Democratic Senators who have announced they were switching parties in response to impeachment. There were pictures of the Senators, and they were identified by name. One small problem: None of them were real. They don’t exist.

Presumably, those who created the site were confident that visitors wouldn’t know that there are no Senators with those names (or faces).

That’s what my people call chutzpah, and Kellyanne Conway would call “alternate reality.”

I’ve seen a number of articles either penned by or interviews of psychiatrists, and in most of them, like this article from Raw Story, the professionals identify traits common to Trump supporters: authoritarian personality syndrome, social dominance orientation, and a connected group of diagnoses that revolve around bigotry. Studies following the 2016 election found a significant relationship between racial resentment and support for Trump; studies also found that Trump voters have fewer interactions with people of different races or religions, and are more likely to exhibit “relative deprivation.”

Relative deprivation refers to the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes they are entitled. It is the discontent felt when one compares their position in life to others who they feel are equal or inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.

I was intrigued by an article focusing on the opinion of a long-time conservative named Tom Nichols (full disclosure, I have no idea who he is–hadn’t previously come across him). Nichols says that “being nuts” is Trump’s “superpower.”

If Trump were not able to convince his cult that reality isn’t real, we’d be arguing about who’s really doing well and who isn’t – just as we did under Obama and every other president. Farmers would be up in arms,” Nichols said in a Twitter thread. “When Trumpers say they’re better off, there’s no evidence for it other than that they *feel* better off. Factories aren’t reopening. Dead small towns are not being reborn. The cities? Doing fine, thank you. But Trump says: ‘This isn’t true,’ and being *nuts* is what sells it.”

Nichols noted that Trump’s ridiculous behavior was on full display in the bizarre letter he sent to Nancy Pelosi. He pointed out that the tone and absurdist quality of the letter —not just Trump’s usual lies and numerous exclamation points —have led many observers to genuinely question Trump’s mental health.

I don’t question it. I have long been of the opinion that Trump is significantly mentally ill. Others are finally coming to that same conclusion.

“I’m only 2 1/2 paragraphs in to Trump’s letter and it’s clear to me that our President is unwell, unfit and very uninformed about our government & our legal system. And that fills me with a profound sadness that we’re at this point. It’s time to fix this,” wrote legal analyst Joyce Vance.

Lawfare Executive Editor Susan Hennessey wrote: “This is not a letter authored by someone of sound mind or in full command of his mental faculties. The implications of that are obviously immense and quite scary but how long can we really continue to ignore it?”

As Nichols pointed out, Trump’s supporters celebrated that letter. (“He tells it like it is…”)

How much do people have to lie to themselves, and for how long, before we can conclude that they aren’t just uninformed, but mentally unwell? How much do people have to hate and resent various “Others” in order to reject the evidence of their own eyes and ears?

And most important of all, as we approach November of 2020, how many of these people are there?


Why I Harp On Civic Literacy

In yesterday’s post, I listed elements of necessary political reform, beginning with reinvigorated civics instruction in the public schools.

I would understand if regular readers of this blog shrugged and attributed that particular item in the list to my abiding preoccupation with the importance of what I call “civic literacy.” Civic literacy isn’t civic engagement–important as that is. It is knowledge of America’s history, philosophy and basic legal structure.

When civic ignorance is rampant, Donald Trump can dismiss the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause as “phony” without losing the support of his base. He can repeatedly act in ways that are inconsistent with the Constitution and rule of law, and be defended by Congressmen who are confident that their constituents don’t know any better.

But civic ignorance has consequences that go well beyond Trump. I harp on the importance of basic civic knowledge because I believe it is connected to everything else that ails us–especially the growth of “identity politics,” or tribalism. I addressed that relationship in my recent book; the following paragraphs are what I wrote there, and may explain why I continue to be preoccupied with the issue.


One of the most overlooked connections, and one that makes sensible reforms so difficult, is between low levels of civic literacy and tribalism.  American citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. In some precincts, citizens don’t even speak the same language. In the absence of cultural and linguistic ties, societies require what Robert Bellah called a “civil religion” through which to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and the governing philosophy they embody, what I have elsewhere called “The American Idea.”

The tribalism fed by inequality and social media grows more pronounced in the absence of civic literacy. When Americans are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of their constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity. The absence of a common “civic religion” translates into widespread neglect of an important civic obligation, the duty to be sufficiently informed to evaluate government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Public accountability requires that those in power be forthright and detailed about laws they have enacted and other actions they have taken; it requires journalists who can adequately and accurately convey that information to the general public; and it requires citizens able to compare those laws and activities to the standards prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ability to discharge all of these tasks depends upon a basic familiarity with the nation’s history, philosophy and legal framework.

The widespread deficit of civic knowledge is not simply an impediment to personal efficacy and participation in the democratic process; it is evidence of a fundamental failure of public education. Civic ignorance impedes communication between Americans, and between Americans and their policymakers. It facilitates susceptibility to spin and propaganda. The loss of civic literacy is not confined to the voting public; American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly genuflect to the Constitution, and just as constantly disclose a lack of genuine (or often, even superficial) familiarity with it, let alone the two hundred plus years of jurisprudence applying its principles to ever-changing “facts on the ground.” The result is a lack of a common frame of reference that makes productive political action impossible.


Voting For Chaos

Posted by accident. This is tomorrow’s post. Next one on Thursday. Sorry for cluttering your inboxes.

An intriguing–and frustrating– aspect of our current political climate is the persistent search to understand Trump supporters. What accounts for the loyalty of voters to this man who is personally repulsive and officially incompetent?

We’ve had the economic theory, which was pretty thoroughly rebutted by the data; we’ve had the “racial anxiety” theory, which–again, according to the data–clearly does account for a significant percentage of those supporters. We’ve had the “partisan identity” explanation that I shared a few days ago, which seems valid so far as it goes, but doesn’t explain the origins of the partisan divide.

In September, columnist Thomas Edsell shared another explanation, offered by a trio of scholars in a paper given at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting: a “need for chaos.” The efforts of people who display this need have been facilitated by the ease with which social media allows transmittal of “conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns.

The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.

Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”

We used to have a word for this: nihilism.

The authors of the study surveyed voters in the United States and Denmark, and uncovered disquieting, all-encompassing hostilities. Twenty-four percent of respondents said society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent agreed that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’ ”; and 40 percent agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”

The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.

Trump’s “talent,” according to another scholarly paper,  is his ability to capitalize on the fear of chaos, rather than the desire to trigger it.

“Populist movements,” McDermott and Hatemi write, “rely on inflammatory rhetoric to create a tribal ‘us versus them’ condition — this type of environment instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”

The abrupt rise of social media has played a crucial role, they observe:

In many ways, as we have technologically advanced, we have also regressed to more immediate, emotional, and personal forms of political communication. And it is only in understanding the nature of that personal political psychology that we can begin to grapple seriously with the challenges of today, including the consequences of global populism.

The common element in all of these studies and theories is the extent to which fear–fear of change, fear of the “other,” fear of the unknown–feeds hostility to “the system” and to the  “elites” that supposedly benefit from that system.

There are clearly a lot of disaffected people out there, and the Internet facilitates their expression of rage.

What we can do about it is another matter.