The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and its carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living... It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.
—Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
I got my first Trump withdrawal symptom a few weeks ago. It happened while I was listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast—which, I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t spend my time doing, but then again haven’t the last four years been, among other things, a story of almost all of us using media and social media in very suboptimal ways?
Anyway, Bannon’s podcast had become a kind of nerve center for the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. So I was in the habit of tuning in to monitor the state of play—and also, I admit, because I find Bannon’s seedy charisma fascinating. You can say a lot of bad things about Bannon—that he’s dishonest, that he’s amoral, that his grooming habits could use an upgrade—but you can’t say he’s not a great demagogue.
Each day, in rants that are broadcast not just via YouTube and podcast apps but on hard-right media outlets like Newsmax TV, he rallies his grassroots army (”the deplorables,” he lovingly calls them), exuding boundless confidence in victory against the enemy—the “globalists,” the Democrats (“the party of Davos”), the “Biden crime family,” and so on.
So I was listening to the podcast one day and for a moment Bannon’s spirits seemed to sag, as if the accumulated weight of the legal and political setbacks suffered by the stop-the-steal movement had finally sunk in. Bannon uttered his ritual guarantee of victory—“We got this”—but for the first time it seemed to refer not to Trump’s victory in this election but to the eventual triumph of the movement Trump represents.
Or maybe I was reading too much into it. Certainly Bannon quickly regained his verve; he continues to profess confidence that Trump will be a two-term president. But in that fleeting moment of flagging Bannon energy, I suddenly imagined a day—soon, God willing—when the Trump presidency would be in the rear-view mirror.
My first reaction was relief. Then came the symptom.
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Last Thursday—two days after two Trump opponents were shot to death at a protest in Wisconsin, and two days before a Trump supporter was shot to death at a protest in Portland—the Washington Post ran a piece about the rising tide of civil conflict in America:
In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, Ind., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States’ political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face-to-face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers.
Note the phrase “have been filmed.” Lots of forces—political, economic, cultural—have gotten us to this point, but one of the strongest is technological: the fact that so much of life is now captured on video. Nothing has so intensified tribal animus on both sides of the divide as the fact that every day the worst things done by members of either tribe are injected into the social media feeds of the other tribe.
Which wouldn’t be such a regrettable form of entertainment if everyone kept reminding themselves that these viral spectacles are by their nature aberrant. The reason you’re watching (say) a Trump supporter throw a fit over having to wear a mask in a supermarket isn’t because that’s typical of Trump supporters but, on the contrary, because that’s the most obnoxious thing any Trump supporter in the entire country was seen doing that day.
Or, to take a more timely example: the reason the social media feeds of Trump supporters recently featured a left-wing protester celebrating the killing of that Trump supporter in Portland (“I am not sad that a fucking fascist died,” she said to scattered cheers on the streets of Portland) is because that was the most reprehensible thing a left-wing protester was seen doing that day.
Bari Weiss, who until this week was an opinion editor at the New York Times, has signed two famous letters lately: (1) the “Harper’s letter,” which argued against cancel culture and was also signed by 152 other luminaries; and (2) the “Bari Weiss resignation letter,” in which Weiss, in addition to announcing her exit from the Times, tried to get someone canceled.
The “someone” was the novelist Alice Walker. Weiss called Walker, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, a “proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati.”
I refuse to do whatever amount of googling it would take for me to develop a firm view on whether Alice Walker is indeed anti-Semitic, let alone get to the bottom of the famously slippery lizard Illuminati question. But for present purposes we don’t need that data anyway. I just want to note something others have noted about Weiss: she punctuates fierce defenses of free and untrammeled speech with attempts to expel people from the community of discourse because of things they’ve said. Obviously, if you can get enough elites to share your view that a person is anti-Semitic, that person won’t be welcome on mainstream platforms. To call someone an anti-Semite is to argue for their cancellation.
On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.
But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.
The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)
Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way?
In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.
For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.
The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria. It will not adapt itself to national needs: it is in its essence neutral. It stands outside the clash of passions and hatreds, revealing, to those who seek it, the tragic irony of strife with its attendant world of illusions.
–from Russell’s essay “On Justice in War-Time”
Among the many things Bertrand Russell is known for are these two: (1) laying the foundations of “analytic philosophy,” which values clear expression and fine-grained analysis over grand theorizing; (2) disliking nationalism, especially in its belligerent forms. I’d never imagined a connection between the two, but the philosopher Alexander Klein, in an essay published this month, says there is one.
Russell, according to Klein, hoped that the rise of analytic philosophy would reduce the stature of grand philosophical paradigms with names like “German idealism” and “British idealism.” He wanted to “destroy a conception of philosophy as an articulation of a ‘national mind’,” Klein writes.
This may sound like a pretty roundabout way to combat nationalism—and it would have seemed especially ineffectual at the time Russell was doing some of his writing on the subject, as World War I was engulfing Europe. But, Klein says, there was a second sense in which Russell hoped analytic philosophy could discourage national conflict.
The methodology of analytic philosophy involves defining your terms with painstaking precision, thus crystallizing the meaning of propositions so they can be evaluated via strict logic. Russell’s “theoretical antidote to the irrational, sectarian vitriol between European nations,” writes Klein, “was to try to show how logic could function as an international language that could be used impartially and dispassionately to adjudicate disputes.” Well that would be nice!
A few months ago I saw the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a much-lauded production that, as shaped by playwright Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin, significantly alters the tenor of the 1960 Harper Lee novel.
There’s a lot about the play I liked. The seemingly weird decision to cast an adult as Scout, the novel’s child narrator, worked spectacularly. But ultimately, I think, Sorkin’s rendering of the story drives home this sad fact: If you want to get much lauded for a Broadway production, the safest route is to affirm the prejudices and moral blind spots of your time rather than challenge them.
And here’s the irony: If Sorkin had wanted to challenge the prejudices and moral blind spots of our time, all he would have had to do is leave Harper Lee’s version of the story alone. In an important sense, the novel is actually more subversive now than it was in its original milieu. Sorkin, in trying to make the story edgier, has taken the edge off it. In trying to make it politically progressive, he has made it morally regressive.
To put a finer point on it: Sorkin has written a play for the #Resistance, injecting the story with a subtext about Trumpism and how we should handle it. And that message reflects and reinforces some of the least enlightened and most counterproductive tendencies in the liberal reaction against Trump.
One of the most famous lines in To Kill a Mockingbird comes during a conversation between Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. He says to her: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Remember the “Intellectual Dark Web”? Nineteen months ago, that term was injected into America’s zeitgeist by New York Times staffer Bari Weiss, who, in a lavishly illustrated piece, explained what the IDW was and why it held great promise.
In Weiss’s telling, the loose network of thinkers constituting the IDW was just what America needed in a time of political polarization and increasingly oppressive speech codes. This new tribe of “renegades” was bound not by ideology—“The core members have little in common politically,” Weiss wrote—but rather by a fierce commitment to principle, to the defense of free inquiry and expression. IDW members might disagree about any number of issues, but all courageously stood up to “the tyranny of thought policing.”
Interest in the IDW spiked. (See graph, below, of Google search frequency for “Intellectual Dark Web.”) Then interest began subsiding. (See graph below again.) Then it kept subsiding. (Ditto.) Today, you don’t hear much about the IDW—not even from the people who are, or were, part of it.
If you’re a liberal who has been trying to change the minds of conservative climate change skeptics, social science now offers this guidance: Cut it out! The first step toward convincing them that they’re wrong may be to quit trying to convince them that they’re wrong.
That’s one takeaway from a study presented last month by two political scientists, Dominik Stecula of Penn and Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto. They found that people who strongly identified as Republican and were shown the scientific consensus on climate change were less likely to accept it if they were also shown warnings about the perils of climate change from prominent Democrats.
By itself this isn’t big news. We’ve long known that, just as people sometimes use “in-group cues” to form their views—that is, they uncritically accept opinions prevalent in their tribe—they can also use “out-group cues,” rejecting opinions because they’re held by the enemy tribe. And you’d expect this effect to be especially strong in an age, like ours, of “negative partisanship”—when the two political parties seem to be held together largely by dislike of each other.
The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden.
Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point.
There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.
There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.
Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”
The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.
It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.