Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism

NOTE: I am afraid in some ways, this post says nothing new. Much of what I am about to say was already said in "The Trump Cult", "A Quick Check In", "A Brief Thought on Trump","Nice to Get Confirmation", "Odds and Ends Concerning Trump", "The Candidate as Inkblot", "The Obama Hangover" and "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism". On the other hand, while much of the content may be the same, in none of those essays do I tie together all of those seemingly unrelated subjects. So, please bear with me through the early parts of this essay. If you read those earlier posts, some of it may seem a bit too familiar, but trust me, the rest of it is something new, and I hope shall prove worth reading through those earlier parts.

In 2008, even before the general election, while Barack Obama was campaigning against Hillary Clinton and a few lesser lights (most of whom did not make it to February), I pointed out that there was something a bit peculiar about his campaign. Rather than making any specific claims, he seemed to be speaking entirely in the most vague of generalities. Not that such a thing is unusual for politicians, ambiguity is essential when trying to cater to a group with disparate desires and, as is the case with most politicians, you are too afraid to honestly tell some they won't get everything they desire. But Obama was unusual in that his generalities were not used to spackle over gaps in his platform, or dodge thorny issues, they formed almost the entirety of his platform. And where they did not, such as his stand on military action in Iraq, he took the novel approach of taking multiple, contradictory stands. In short, he seemed to have absolutely no positions.

What was interesting about this was, instead of what one would expect -- disgust with a man so manipulative he won't say what he believes -- Obama seemed to be charming his way to a victory, with his die hard fans reading into his nebulous phrases their own beliefs, allowing him to seem to be precisely what each wanted, even if they desired very different things. In other words, he used a mix of charm, fanaticism (on the part of his followers) and nebulous or contradictory statements to allow him to seem the perfect candidate to a large number of true believers. It was not unique, as I pointed out at the time many cults seemed to run on similar principles, but for a candidate of a major political party, it was unprecedented*.

At least until 2016. Enter Donald Trump.

Now, Trump is not as charismatic as Obama, and the results can be seen in his poll numbers, but never the less, he is using a vary similar approach. Oh, he is not doing exactly the same thing. He is not trying Obama's original tactic of nebulous answers, instead he is presenting strongly word, forcefully asserted position, which he immediately contradicts with equally forceful pronouncements about a contradictory stand. And another. And sometimes a fourth or even more. In short, he is taking as many positions as he needs on each topic, allowing those who want to find a savior in him to hear what they need to hear.

And it is working, at least for some. Not enough to win, it appears, but he definitely has won over a hard core of die hard followers, followers who are not troubled by contradictory statements, or by his periodic renunciations of points they hold dear. Somehow, they have been won over and their faith is unshakable.

The die hard Trump follower is a bit different than the Obama fan in 2008.

Obama's fans were basically charmed in advance, they wanted to love him, for whatever reason. They were already sold on the idea that he would make a good president. His nebulous statements did not win them over, they just gave them the hook they needed to convince themselves of what they already wanted. They filled in the blanks for Obama because they already wanted to support him.

Trump worked a bit differently. There may have been some sold on him in advance, but for most die hard fans, it was a combination of his stands and his bullying, abusive presentation that convinced them he was the strong man champion they thought was needed to win. And thus, they took those words to heart, and imagined that whatever they believed, Trump must believe too. Each of them imagined he knew the "real Donald Trump" and anything Trump said that contradicted their own beliefs was "just politics", something he "had to say" for other voters, and they imagined he only really meant whatever he said that matched their own beliefs. As with the Obama followers, it did not matter that each follower imagined the "real" beliefs of the candidate to be something different, often contradicting what others imagined them to be. They rarely discussed what they imagined he really believed. They simply talked about how great he was, how strong, how he was going to fix things and make the world right again.

And, in that regard, both sets of the fans were the same. Both were disappointed people, who saw the candidate as a savior.

In 2008, the Democrats were in a bit of a funk. They had lost the last two elections to a man they imagined was an idiot. And in both races the results had been contested with allegations of voter fraud, racism at the polls and a host of other issues. The economy was in mediocre shape, and, despite doing well in 2006 congressional elections, the Democrats still saw little improvement in things (by their lights), and they were in a despondent mood. They were worried that once again they were going to lose the presidency in a close race, and their congressional victories would be meaningless. And, added to all of this, the Democrats, especially younger Democrats, a more prone than conservatives to see politics in terms of impending catastrophe and the need for a dramatic, revolutionary solution**, and thus are more often seeking a savior with a simple, immediate solution. And thus, Obama came at the right time, in the right circumstances. Being potentially the first black president only added to his public image as the savior of the left. And, as a result, there were countless people ready to buy into his empty statements and form what I described at the time as the Obama cult.

Similar circumstances surround the 2016 election. The Democrats have won the past two elections, while the Republican opposition has been largely ineffective and even inert, not just failing to oppose Obama in many cases, but not even offering opposition. And recent elections must seems to many on the right as the flip side of the 2008 situation for the left. Between ACORN and others being accused of voter fraud, accusations of excluding military ballots from overseas and other irregularities, the right is quite worried some races may be stolen. Add to that an economic situation little improved from 2008, the government growth in terms of ObamaCare, gay marriage and other movements leftward, and the right seems quite similarly positioned as the left in 2008. On top of that, there have been a number on the right offering dismal prognostication since 2008. That increased immigration would keep any Republicans from winning in 2012 (or 2016), that Obama would seize all guns, Obama would declare martial law and stop the elections and so on. And finally, the certain nominee being Hillary Clinton definitely did not help. Much despised on the right, the fear that she would be elected made the race seem all the more urgent, with the more hysterical claiming a Clinton victory would destroy America.

Thus, as for the left in 2008, in 2016 some on the right were ready for a savior. Someone who would not behave like most elected Republicans. A man who would not back down from the left. And thus, Trump;s "tough talk" and crude behavior made him seem, at least to a select group, as the obvious choice for that savior. And thus, as with Obama's cult, the Trump cult was born***.


What makes this interesting is that this mindset, the belief one knows the "real" message and can safely ignore the rest, as it is just "talk", is not just part of cults, though they obviously also rely on this mindset to overcome the contradictions between the leader's claims and his actions, but it is also part of the more common, everyday thought processes of those who embrace authoritarian philosophies.

VonMises described socialism**** in terms of petty resentments, and to a degree he is right, but there is something even more prominent, the idea that the individual in question, the believer, knows exactly how things should run. After all, socialism, for all the talk of scientific systems and the like, is a completely arbitrary system. How many shoes to make? Who should get how much bread? is it wheat or white? Plant apples or pears? All of these are decided by the market in a free economy, but in an authoritarian system they must simply be plucked out of thin air. And thus, in every socialist system, in the end, the whole edifice rests on the belief that the planners know better than the market.

However, before they come to power, they certainly will not admit to this arbitrary source of all planning decisions, and so they speak in generalities about scientific planning and shortcomings of the free market and the superiority of the people's will and so on. And the followers, because they cannot easily find any concrete meaning for these words, much like Obama and Trump followers, imagine that these vague words describe the ideal system they would implement. In short, as I said in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", every supporter of socialism or communism or fascism or whatever, imagines the state, when in power, would follow the "common sense" course, by which he means the course that he would follow if in power. Every supporter believes the future dictator will rule as he would would, which is why so many long time supporters of revolutions end up so surprised and disillusioned when the revolution finally comes. And also why so many old supporters end up jailed or executed. They find out a little too late the revolution was not about to follow the beliefs they thought.

I suppose it makes sense, in a way. If vague promises or contradictions were taken at face value, then no one would support the person making them. I certainly would not buy a car on the promise it was "a really nice car" with no specific details, yet people accept presidents and congressmen all the time on promises no less nebulous. But why? Because they do what we described here, they project their beliefs onto the candidate, hear in his vague or contradictory words what they want to hear. Maybe because they are frustrated, having been disappointed and desperate to find a candidate they can support. Maybe they are panicked (as with those who fear Clinton too much in this race) and cannot believe there is no answer, and so they grasp at straws to think there is hope. Whatever the reason, they essentially suspend their reason for a time, do not evaluate what they are hearing by rules they normally use, and instead allow themselves to hear what they hope, not what is actually said. And, having done so, they are hooked, and they come to believe, they imagine they know the candidate as he really is, and thus they join the cult.

Oh, it is not that surprising. We all do this in some aspects of our lives. Imagine a pretty girl is nicer or smarter than she really is because we like her looks. We pretend that troubling knocking from our car engine is perfectly normal since we don't want to have another bill. We do it all the time, we try to see or hear what we want rather than what is there. But, in most cases, we do it for a short time, and we eventually force ourselves to see what is really there.

The problem with cults, be they political like Obama and Trump, or religious or otherwise, is, once the individual comes to believe, he creates a world where nothing can shake his beliefs. As he defines reality solely in terms of those beliefs, and is often reinforced by others, he loses all those cues that would cause us, in other circumstances, to come to our senses, and thus, unless he makes a herculean effort, he will not likely break free of his confused beliefs. And we are seeing this today with the Trump supporters. No matter what he says, no matter what he does, they believe he is really going to do certain things, even as he says clearly he is not. Likewise, no matter the polls, they are convinced he will win. Just like that first rush when you lie yourself into falling in love with the wrong person, they are enamored with Trump. Unfortunately, unlike bad romances, where many outcomes are likely to bring us back to reality, most Trump fanciers (like most true believers of authoritarian philosophies) have so deluded themselves, there is little left to point out the truth to them.

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* Unfortunately, I made a tremendous mistake in predicting the outcome of the 2008 election. I anticipated ("The Obama Hangover") that Obama would win the nomination, but thought, even if the press continued to give him a pass, in the debates, or in opposition ads, he would be called out to elaborate upon his vague positions, and in giving them concrete form he would alienate those who had read different meanings into them. Unfortunately, his opponents never did call him out, nor did the press, so we never saw what would have happened. Though, watching the Trump fans in the current election, it is possible even if he had been forced to give details, his fans may have still heard what they wanted to hear and not abandoned him despite any differences between their assumptions and his statements.

** As I shall mention, there are certain people on the right given to revolutionary fantasies and fears of impending doom, but they are less common than their counterparts on the left. Though, it does it seem the right is becoming more and more inclined to the same sort of hysteria that is frequently found on the left. See "Trump and the Myth of the Outsider", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism, "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood", "The Sky Is Falling! Again! Really! We Mean It This Time!", "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric", "Both Sides Now", "Technophobes and Conservatives -- The Risk of Assumptions", "The Futility of Blame", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "A Small Digression", "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal", "In Defense of Civil Debate"and "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord".

*** As I discussed in "The Problem With the Big Tent", there was a second element at work. The Republican "big tent" was growing uncomfortable for many. Being split between a number of groups, including libertarian/federalist/small government/free market types, social conservatives of varying stripes and nationalist/protectionist/paleocon and even sometime racist groups, there had been an ongoing struggle over what group was truly "conservative" and who the GOP represented. The nationalist/protectionist/populist wing had long been out of favor, and this may have contributed to their fears of impending doom. If they did not soon win a major victory (eg had Huckabee wont he nomination), they were likely to be a permanent minority within the party. Thus, latching on to Trump's populist/protectionist message -- as well as his "alt right" racist supporters who he half-covertly embraced -- allowed them an opportunity to seize control and redefine the GOP and the public image of conservatism. (Though I predict this will have dire results. See "What Does Not Kill You..." .)

**** I am using the term "socialism", but the conversation applies to all forms of authoritarianism, as once you eliminate individual rights, the state effectively controls all. They may choose not to control all production at a given moment, but that does not mean they do not have total control over it. The communists under the NEP did the same. It is not whether they exercise the power or not, but that they have the ability to do so that defines communism. And thus, any authoritarian system is like any other. They may differ in specifics, in how they pass along orders, whether they maintain the fiction of private ownership and so on, but essence, there is no difference.


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