Posts Tagged ‘Trump Supporters’

Of Blood and Bullshit

January 14, 2021

Of Blood and Bullshit

            I am particularly interested by the fact that the Capitol Hill insurrectionists imagine themselves to be patriots.  One rioter was allegedly heard sobbing, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”  Never mind that BLM never stormed the Capitol, that when rioters did attempt to storm government buildings they were met with far more force than the Capitol Hill insurrectionists faced, that BLM or Antifa never posed an existential threat to the nation, sought to overturn the normal functioning of the nation, or planned to seize and execute government officials, as the white supremacist rebels did.  It is a strange riot, a curious rebellion that, without a trace of irony, expresses outrage that its use of force is met with force.  They think they’re the heroes, that they’re the only patriots, that they are saving America. They expected the police to join them, the American people to either greet them as liberators or to slink away cowed, and Donald Trump to march up to the Capitol and reveal how their storming the enemy citadel would now insure his continued benevolent and completely successful reign for at least another four years.  Why?

            As Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1982 essay On Bullshit, there are lies, truth, and then this other sort of verbal action that is neither.  A truth-speaker says what the speaker believes to be true.   A liar finds the truth inconvenient, and instead speaks what the liar believes to be false.  And then there’s the bullshitter.  The bullshitter doesn’t care and often does not even know what is true.  Bullshit is disconnected from the entire true/false dichotomy.  The bullshitter is engaged with some other sort of activity.  Maybe it’s to impress or amuse (the “fish that got away” stories).  Maybe it’s advertising (“cats ask for it by name”).  Maybe it’s to win election (“My opponent is a socialist like they have in Venezuela who will destroy this country”), or to puff up one’s own ego or motivate one’s voters (“The only way I could lose this election is if it rigged”).  Whether the statement is true may not matter at all to the speaker; what matters is the reaction of the receiver.  The bullshitter seeks to manipulate rather than inform. 

            When everyone is sort of in on the joke, it doesn’t matter and, in fact, the BS might even be beneficial.  Imagine a coworker or friend who was always serious, who never exaggerated or speculated or dreamt; that would be pretty boring.  But if the hearer or reader mistakes BS for actual factual claims, then that receiver is deceived.

            Example:  “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”  When DT said that, everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Many of his supporters on TV and elsewhere actually mocked “liberals” for treating it as a factual promise.  They said, “Liberals take Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously——but not literally.”  Everyone knew and at least tacitly admitted that this was bullshit, but his supporters felt it was an honest expression of their desires and values.  But later, the line between bullshit and lying became blurred, as more and more people believed it was promise, a true statement of intentions with a realistic chance of fulfillment, when in fact it was never going to happen.           

            The “fraud” claims seem to be people believing the bullshit.  It was never impossible for Trump to lose a free and fair election.  As the COVID-19 response (largely another exercise in bullshit, or in DT;s terms “cheerleading” for the nation and “being positive” rather than being providing facts and warnings) faltered, losing became more likely.  But his followers took it as a statement of fact; he can’t lose, so if he does then someone cheated.

            As to DT himself, his “power of positive thinking” approach is that if he says it and convinces himself, it will happen.  So he inevitably believes his own bullshit.  He says what will please his audience (pure bullshit, since he neither knows nor cares whether what he says is true when he is saying it).  Then, since he said it, he is convinced that if he doubles-down, it will happen, whether “it” is a business making money for his investors, a loan being repaid, or a disease disappearing as if by a miracle.  He even argued in court, when suing Forbes for allegedly understating his wealth, that he is worth as much or as little as he feels on any given day; if he feels like he’s worth 10 billion he is, but if later he feels like he’s worth only 1 billion then now he’s only worth that.  So when he’s talking to banks about getting a loan and he feels like he’s worth 10 billion, he’s not lying; but if he’s talking to the IRS and feels like he’s about to go broke, that’s not fraud either.  Whatever he says, lo, it is so.

            At this point, what was probably somewhat self-aware bullshit has become full-blown self-deception.  Donald Trump long ago took Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to its illogical conclusion, that if he told himself something and kept positive then the world would conform to his wishes.  As he told others he couldn’t lose, he was telling himself that as well.  As the flatterers told him he couldn’t lose, he believed them; as the true believers sought to motivate themselves and others with an upbeat message, he believed them; and soon his world was echoing that message.  As to his followers, the collection of QAnon cultists, white supremacists and other far-right ideologues that swarmed into the Capitol, all the evidence and their public statements show that they too believe the bullshit.  They are not tethered to the rules of evidence or logic that restrict so many of us, but allow their minds to run free across fantastic battlefields, trampling the bodies of their enemies.  They are the Powerful, Righteous and Knowing, while those who spent their lives learning and serving are the Weak, sheeple who follow “experts” and “recognized authorities” and “science.”   But they are not sheeple; they are too smart to be deceived by people with years of research and years of public service holding them back.  Instead, they are bold and clever enough —- to believe absolutely everything they are told by The Strong Man, The Big Man, Donald Trump, whose many failures in business are never his fault, whose many divergences from reality only reveal his hidden knowledge and his subtle strategy, and whose very excesses and boorishness show that he is One Of Us even though he has lived his entire life literally isolated in a golden tower and has repeatedly stated his “racehorse theory” that he and his family are genetically superior to everyone except other authoritarian billionaires. 

That is why the putsch failed, this time.  As Harry Frankfurt said in On Truth, a society needs truth; not necessarily Eternal Truth, but practical, pragmatic truths, facts about reality and realistic plans given the limitations of reality.  You just can’t do anything unless you know what’s real and what’s reasonably plausible, what needs to be done and what you can do.  The Capitol Hill insurrection was a case of thousands of people believing the bullshit and acting on it.  The factual claims are nonsense; they’ve been refuted in over sixty court cases.  This election literally has been litigated and relitigated dozens of times, and the result is always the same.  At some point, any reasonable person has to accept reality.  But people who believe the bullshit have chosen to reject the rules of evidence and reason that they would apply to any other part of their lives.  The positive spin of Candidate Trump, engaging in a little harmless, standard trumpery that “we’re going to win this election,” metastasized into something more dangerous; from a little harmless bullshit to a major shitstorm.  Then, the bullshit that somehow storming the Capitol would “save democracy” by handing Trump the victory led them to a stupid and dangerous course of action.  There never was a realistic plan; there were just fantasies of revenge and victory.  The terrorists who attempted to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan have since argued that they were never really serious; it was all just bullshit, guys being guys and talking big among themselves about how they’d like to “get” that authority they hated.  The Capitol Hill thugs were, in some cases, apparently doing the same thing:  bullshitting among themselves, then showing up for a rally to feel good, then following the crowd into the building, but with no realistic plan as to how this was all supposed to work or how it would accomplish anything good.  In fact, investigative reports state that they just assumed that at some point Donald Trump would stride onto the scene and tell them what to do next, set wrongs to right and win the day; while instead he was simply sitting in the White House watching on television, enjoying the chaos and the adulation of himself without any solid plan to give any orders beyond blocking law enforcement from getting any reinforcements from the Pentagon.  So once Pence, Congress and the physical Electoral College ballots escaped, the insurrectionists had nothing to do but wander around, loot and vandalize, post selfies and boast on social media, then leave.  Their delusional state is fully displayed in the fact that even after every member of Congress escaped and thus there was no way Joe Biden’s victory would not be certified, they still thought they’d won, that they were the heroes, and that the only future problems they might face were where they would display their Medal of Freedom.

And because they believed the bullshit handed them by Trump, Cruz, Giuliani, Hawley, Gaetz and other opportunistic politicians looking to gain popularity, people died, people were seriously injured, tax money that could have been used to defend the nation or fight the pandemic will be spent on cleaning up the mess, and many, many people who think of themselves as patriots are facing the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 is the natural culmination of a political party drowning in bullshit, incapable of engaging with reality in any meaningful way, incapable of solving real problems but well capable of creating them, only solving bullshit problems.  For three years the Bullshitter-in-Chief, DJ Trump, built walls to stop nonexistent caravans, subsidized farmers hurt by his trade war sparked by his misunderstanding of trade deficits, sabotaged the nation’s most reliable alliances through his incapacity to recognize a good deal when he got one while selling out to enemies because he can’t recognize a con, avoided prosecution only because he was President and then thought that meant he wasn’t a criminal who would land in jail the second he was no longer President so he continued adding to his future legal troubles, and finally got himself impeached for a petty shakedown of an allied nation and was again only saved by rank partisanship—-which his bullshit-addled brain turned into a pronouncement of innocence, leading him to repeat all his past mistakes.  He demands a favor in exchange for doing his job, then says it’s not a “quid pro quo” because he said “no quid pro quo;” I want a favor for a favor but don’t call it a “quid pro quo” and then it isn’t one.  That sort of evasion of clear meaning and clear logic is the hallmark of bullshit.  For three years, a reality TV star who’s production crew largely says was playing a part they created has confused his television role with real life, and further confused the selfishness of a family business conning marks with public service to better a nation, and bullshitted his way through. 

But as they say, “money talks; bullshit walks.”  Or as the pragmatic philosopher William James said, truth is what has “cash value.”  Truth is what works, what gets things done.  What works in the long run is what is true in the practical sense.  To update and expand on James a bit, bullshit may work in the short run, but ultimately it fails.  It can’t solve problems; it can only distract from them.  Bullshit, after all, isn’t even engaged with reality; it is oblivious to truth and thus oblivious to the real problems.  When COVID-19 hit, this political party could only respond one way:  bullshitting.  They covered it up, obfuscated, tried to build a wall which was as useless as the other wall they’d built, issued contradictory directions to states and other regional authorities and then told them they were on their own so they could hide behind the confusion they’d caused, all the while lining their own pockets by investing in stocks that would do well when the dam broke.  Which it did.  The President has said he deliberately downplayed the pandemic because he likes to be positive, rather than deal with reality.  His son-in-law and nominal head of the pandemic response has said they intentionally gave contradictory directives.  All this bullshit naturally made things even worse.  At the same time, the Bullshit President encouraged well-armed, poorly-educated paramilitary loyalists to blame the people trying to carry out those directives for all their real and imagined problems.  They prepared to and, in some cases, even killed others to defend their imagined rights against imagined threats, while all the time their real problems go worse.

The bullshit was walking, walking away rather than solving problems.  And finally, the problems became DJ Trump’s problems.  The pandemic he’d ignored and bullshitted was destroying the economic recovery he’d been left by his predecessor like a squandered inheritance wasted on a foolish prodigal son too vain to repent.  Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, millions more sick and unable to work, many crippled for life..  And people who were tired of the ineffective bullshit were looking to his opponent for real answers to their real questions.  But the Republican party, its information machines and candidates and operatives and paramilitaries and wealthy donors alike, are unable to produce real answers; instead they doubled-down on the bullshit.  They started screaming about fraud and undermining democracy itself even before the voting had begun, preparing to reject any result they didn’t like no matter how clear-cut.  And the ones with the guns and the lack of information or critical judgment, the poorly-educated paramilitary militias with their conspiracy theories and bullshit dreams of racial superiority, believed the bullshit.  They launched an insurrection, which has not yet ended, to try to overthrow the freely elected government of their nation based on the bullshit assertion that it was not elected.  They pursued strategies and tactics which could not possibly achieve the goals they wanted, because bullshit knows neither facts nor logic.  The bullshitters who had encouraged them in their delusions were shocked, shocked that anyone would act to save the democracy which the bullshitters had said was being destroyed, by trying to destroy the actual democracy and kill the actual elected representatives of the actual majority of voters.  Then the bullshitters do what bullshitters do:  they tried to bullshit their way out of the problem as they saw it.  This is a public relations nightmare for Republicans; someone believed their bullshit and created real-world problems while the Republican Party was engrossed in solving phony problems only.  So they made fact-free assertions, before anyone could possibly have any facts at all, that Antifa and BLM had been behind the insurrection.  Because that is what bullshitters do:  they bullshit.  They say whatever will help in the moment, and since they are unconcerned for truth they can speak instantly without having to wait for information.  They say, “I want no violence,” the same way they say “No quid pro quo”—-I want you to do this but I want legal cover so I’ll use words that contradict my clearly expressed desires.

In the meantime, the terrorist rebellion they’d incited with their bullshit, and which they continue to incite by sticking with their bullshit claims of fraud and their bullshit endorsement of racists and paranoids, of Proud Boys and QAnon, was left angered and hate-filled (since bullshit is great at stirring up passions) but without any clear direction or realistic goals (since that would require engagement with reality).  They may do a lot of damage; they are plotting mass murder, and no one really knows who will act on those plans and who is just bullshitting.  But they have no real strategy, no actual idea what winning or losing would look like, and absolutely no idea what they would do if they won or how they would solve the nation’s problems.  They only have their bullshit-fueled rage and bullshit-fueled dreams, dreams of vengeance and power and the magical end of all their problems.  And while their bullshit machines at FOX News and talk radio and the internet produce more bullshit, and their voter base drowns in bullshit and loses all sense of reality, the Republican leaders are incapable of offering useful ideas to solve the very real problems of the pandemic, of racial justice, of a floundering economy, and of a growing white nationalist insurgency.  They can only bullshit and hope that somehow the problems go away.

The bullshit has led to bloodshed, and likely will lead to more.  The bullshitters encourage and incite and protect the bloodshed, even as they denounce it.  They cannot do otherwise at this point; it would take too much self-awareness to change course.  They believe their own bullshit, or else simply cannot conceive of any alternative to bullshitting.  Pirro and Hannity and Jones and Dobbs and the rest cannot simply come out and start dropping truth, even if they know it; they’d lose their bullshit-addicted audience without gaining any new one from those truth-lovers, and thus lose all their power.  The demagogues like Hawley and Cruz and Gaetz are in the same fix; they have power over the bullshit mob only as long as they provide more bullshit, and will be cast aside in a second if they deviate from the established party line and thus lose any influence to stop the madness they started.  So the power in the Republican Party today can only be used to stop the solution of problems and to create new ones; it is incapable of being redirected to solve real problems since it is disengaged from reality.  The only real solution is for the nation to disengage from the Republican Party.  Some new, more pragmatic center-right party will emerge to fill the void, eventually; but until then there are only two sides to American politics:  the party that attempts to engage with real problems in the real world and looks for real solutions even if sometimes it misses, versus the party that attempts to avoid reality, that ignores truth, and which if it ever finds a real solution it is only like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut buried under a pile of bullshit. 

Words Matter: a discussion of violent political rhetoric 2008-2016

April 23, 2016

Words Matter: or, One Reason We’re Where We Are

 

Because I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have a rough July at that convention.”

—-Donald Trump

 

I was struck by the surprise and outrage from Reince Priebus and others over the nasty tone of the Republican primary campaign. Specifically, I was struck by the fact that they professed to be surprised. The latest outrage has been the threats of violence from Donald Trump and his supporters. Trump has darkly warned of riots, in the tone of one whose “warnings” are in fact a promise, if he is denied the Republican nomination. As he is repeatedly outmaneuvered by the Machiavellian delegate-hunting strategies of Ted Cruz, Trump’s supporters have taken to making death threats against delegates and party officials whom they suspect are siding against The Donald. Repeatedly, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination tells us that the system is rigged, that he is being robbed, and that his followers will rise up to oppose this oppression with force.

All of this is nothing new to us who are not card-carrying Tea Party Republicans. In fact, this rhetoric has been so common from conservatives ever since they crashed the world economy and lost the 2008 Presidential election that we’ve almost become used to it. It has come from self-styled “heroes” and “patriots” like the Michigan Hutaree militia, which plotted to assassinate Obama in 2009. In 2014 it came from Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodger who proclaimed that he didn’t even recognize the United States as existing, who raised a private army to point guns at federal officers doing their duty, and who was put on a white horse carrying an American flag while FOX News called him a hero. It has come from two of Budy’s followers, who shot and killed three people in Las Vegas. But it has also come from elected Republican officials. It came from Sharon Engle, an elected Nevada state representative who was running against Harry Reid for the Senate, and said quite seriously that she and her supporters might have to turn to “Second Amendment” remedies and kill Reid if he defeated her in the election. It came in 2009 from state governments of Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana and Alaska, who threatened armed rebellion against the federal government if Obama and Congress enacted any policies they disapproved of. It came from Michelle Bachmann, a U.S. Senator and once a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President, who said in 2009 that she wanted her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.” It came and still comes from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck and other leading voices of the conservative movement. Anyone who disagrees with a conservative in any way can expect death threats, accusations of treason, and even the promise of eternal damnation.

I am not saying that Reince Priebus, Ted Cruz and the other Republicans are hypocrites for expressing their surprise at the rhetoric of the Trump wing of their party. I think they are genuinely surprised that this rhetoric, which they have freely thrown at others since losing in 2008, is now being turned against them. I think their sense of moral outrage is genuine too. The problem, I think, is that they always knew that they weren’t serious. Conservatives have been using threats of violence to convey a more-or-less pretended sense of outrage and anger.   Think about when Palin was tied to an ad showing Democrats in a sniper’s crosshairs. When one of those targeted, Gabrielle Gifford, was shot, Palin quickly explained that no, the ad didn’t show a rifle scope at all; but of course, it did. Instead, the point was that Palin thought she could make an implied death threat and that everyone would know that it was, essentially, a joke. The fact that the people targeted would not see it as a joke was part of what makes it even funnier to the ones making the threat. It’s the adult equivalent of kids back in the days before Caller I.D. making a prank phone call to threaten some stranger with the murder of her children, terrifying the poor woman and then hanging up and laughing. The person making the threat feels powerful and superior and even feels very clever because he or she knows the person being threatened can’t tell if the threat is real. When actually caught, the person making the threat can just say, “Hey, it was all a joke, no harm done” and hope to get away with it, and then feel extra smart because the other person was too stupid to know it is a joke.

I say “joke” and not “metaphor” for a reason. Using violent language as a metaphor for decisive action is nothing new; but we all know when we hear it that it is merely imagery. We speak of “crushing the competition” or of “getting murdered in the primaries,” but we know nothing is getting crushed and no one was threatened. The point of much of the violent political rhetoric we hear today is to sound at least a little bit dangerous, and to enjoy the feeling of strength that comes from making the implied threat. And furthermore, there seems to be a fair amount of enjoyment not only in engendering fear, but in knowing that the target was deceived because you never really meant it.

The problem is that words matter. When Bachman, Palin, Limbaugh, Malkin, Beck, Bundy, Hannity and others threaten civil war and political assassination, it goes into the “just making a point” part of their tightly compartmentalized brains. They know they don’t mean it, so in their minds it doesn’t matter how their words sound or what they actually, literally mean. But their hearers don’t necessarily know they are joking, or that the joke is on them, the supporters. They believe that their government has been taken over, literally, by a Muslim-Kenyan-atheist-Marxist-radical Afrocentrist Christian. And they believe that they have a God-given duty to disobey and resist this phony political system, even if the leaders chosen actually were elected by the will of the majority of American citizens, because the majority chose wrong.

But what happens when conservative voters as a group, carefully educated to believe that anyone who opposes them is un-American, un-Christian and in league with terrorists and thugs, realizes that the people who told them the truth about the world are themselves not living up to those words? For eight years, conservatives have insisted that the nation was being destroyed, even while it slowly crawled back out of the hole conservatives dug for it (except in places like Kansas and Louisiana, where conservative policies made the bad situation worse). And furthermore, they have been told that “liberals” (or in normal language, moderates) were not merely mistaken, but were deliberately trying to destroy the nation, that a vast conspiracy of scientists and historians and teachers and mainline pastors and progressive priests and immigrants and others were quite consciously trying to ruin the USA out of some sort of self-loathing. And then The Donald comes along, and says exactly what the conservative grassroots have been hearing for eight years; and the Republican establishment turns on him. The Republican establishment is, after all, part of The Establishment. Naturally, those dyed-in-the-wool anti-establishment conservatives will turn that same rhetoric of political violence against their opponents.

Lying for short-term political gain is as old as politics itself. Jane Goodall even observed chimpanzees using deceit, so lying predates language. Greater human social intelligence allows us to consider the downside of such tactics. A classic example is the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The moral of the story is that if you lie, when the day comes that you tell the truth no one will believe you. The Republican problem is similar but opposite: people believe their lies too much. This too is a common problem in politics; leaders demonize the other side when it suits them to rally their followers, and then those followers judge the leaders to be traitors when they make a necessary bargain with the “bad guys.” Conservative Republicans have demonized almost everyone, it seems: scientists as a class, religious institutions that advocate for the poor and oppressed, even if they cite the words of Jesus, Muslims, the Occupy Wall Street movement is inherently violent, and so on. The last one is especially egregious, since a self-professed conservative journalist with the Breitbart web site boasts that he himself tried to provoke a peaceful protest to riot, and when it failed to riot on its own, himself posing as a protestor committed the only act of violence at its rally. The list of imagined persecutions and concocted conspiracies alleged by conservatives is too lengthy to be catalogued. But in fact, under the First Amendment, religious differences and political debate are permanent parts of our society. Any political leader must work out an accommodation with people who have a wide range of religious, economic and political beliefs. A politician may win an election by telling voters those others are devils, but in the end he or she must either make deals with those devils, or overthrow the Constitution and impose some sort of Christian Dominionist dictatorship. And worse, arguing against scientists as a class, and science as an institution, is arguing not against the man-made laws of the Constitution, but against reality and the very laws of Creation itself. Eventually, reality wins. So a successful leader must eventually make peace with science, with education, with historical truths, as well as with people with different religions and different politics and even, to some extent, different morals. But if that leader became a leader by promising to crush, or at least ignore and reject all those people, then that leader will eventually have to betray his or her followers and thus become one of The Enemy. And that is what has happened to the Republican Party. Donald Trump has simply taken them at their word, judged the establishment Republicans by their own standards, and his supporters are pronouncing sentence.

Bibliography

Alterman, Eric. “Think Again: Crashing Occupy Wall Street;” Center for American Progress Oct. 13, 2011 (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/general/news/2011/10/13/10438/think-again-crashing-occupy-wall-street/)

Avlon, John. “Wingnuts Excerpt—The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous.” The Daily Beast March 30, 2010 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/03/30/wingnuts-excerptmdashthe-hatriots-armed-and-dangerous.html)

Frick, Ali. “Bachman: ‘I Want People to be Armed and Dangerous on this Issue’ of Cap and Trade.” ThinkProgress March23, 2009 (http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/03/23/36990/bachmann-armed-and-dangerous/)
Matt McLaughhlin, Dianna Parker, Justiin Berrier and Brooke Obie, “Beck Attacks Social Justice,” Media Matters March 12, 2010) (http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/03/12/beck-attacks-social-justice/161591)
Mandvi, Aasif. “Weathering Fights: What’s Science Really Up To?” The Daily Show, (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/x1h7ku/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to-) 10/26/2011
Sneed, Tierney. “GOPers Face Wave of Threats from Trump Fans Incensed by Delegate Counts.” Talking Points Memo.com April 13, 2016 (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/death-threats-trump-supporters)
Stein, Sam. “Sharon Engle Floated ‘Second Amendment Remedies’ as ‘Cure’ for ‘Harry Reid Problem’.” June 16, 2010 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/sharron-angle-floated-2nd_n_614003.html)

P.S. This article also argues, from another angle, one of my foundational points:  that conservative rhetoric today is largely a joke that no one who is part of the conservative-industrial complex really believes.  It came out about two days after the first version of this article did, so it seems to be a case of parallel evolution.

Nick Gillespie, “Donald Trump’s Fatal Error was to Take Conservatism Seriously.” The Daily Beast April 25, 2016 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/25/donald-trump-s-fatal-error-was-to-take-conservatism-seriously.html)