Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of NYU Law School and served at the New York Public Service Commission as staff counsel and then administrative law judge (1977-97).


He is the author of eight books including "Albany’s O’Connell Machine" (1973), "Children of the Dragon", and "The Case for Rational Optimism" (2009). Robinson is a professional coin dealer and writes The Rational Optimist blog. He is married to the poet Therese Broderick and has a daughter, Elizabeth.

 

America Trumped

By Frank S. Robinson 

Longtime political observers might have thought the "Access Hollywood" tape would finally kill Trump's candidacy. But America had changed. And Trump is not just a symptom, but a catalyst, opening a Pandora's box, shredding civic culture. A complex cat's cradle of factors is at play.

We hear much about "economic anxiety" underlying his support. While globalization, trade, and technological advancement have actually improved life for most of the world's people, many Americans -- basically, the less educated -- fall behind. Working class men get less respect, not only in the job market but the marriage market too. Their traditional paterfamilias role crumbles. So it's not just economic but a broader status anxiety.

And the ethnic factor looms very large. Looking down on brown-skinned people has always been a consolation for less prosperous whites, but they're losing that too. Psephological analysis shows Trump support actually best predicted by, and correlated with, resentments concerning race and immigration. The idea that those arrivistes are getting undeserved gains, and a less white America is a worse America. Trump may really have won the campaign on the first day with his speech demonizing Mexicans. Hostility toward immigration is now a core part of Republican identity -- with a wall being a powerful metaphor. 

Obama's presidency was a social watershed. We imagined we'd achieved a post-racial Eden. But while blacks could now feel more at home in America, seeing the president as kindred, some whites felt less at home, seeing him as alien. J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy shows the salience of this cultural factor among non-urban working class whites.

 

Trump is, for them, the anti-Obama; his own spiteful obsession about Obama mirroring theirs. Despite being a New York billionaire, he speaks their language, they're invested in him as their avatar, and they won't easily let go -- even if, as he said, he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. Specific policies don't matter that much either. This is cultural. 

 

Tribalism is a basic, ancestral instinct. It's how we create a sense of security. Humanity as a whole has gradually been overcoming this -- a big factor reducing conflict and violence, as Steven Pinker explained in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Yet in American politics, tribalism is actually increasing. And whereas traditional tribalistic divisions entail ethnicity, religion, social class, etc., what trumps them all now is political affiliation. A recent Pew Survey shows that that's become central in shaping many Americans' felt personal identity; "who they really are."

 

And where ethnic or religious divisiveness is frowned upon, politics is a much better outlet for tribal instincts. Flaming someone over politics seems permissible. Indeed, our screens bombard us with such incitements. America's opposing tribes have come to inhabit different mental worlds, strangers to one other, leading to seeing each other as not just wrong but evil. (The left used to be the more guilty, but Republicans have leapfrogged them, the intensity of Hillary and Obama hatred exceeding rational bounds.)

 

Partisanship actually even trumps ideology. You'd think the two go together. But the meaning of "conservatism" has been transmogrified, while most Republican "conservatives" stick with their label regardless. What governs is the tribalistic Vince Lombardi team ethic: winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. With ends justifying means. Evangelical Christians used to be the most likely to say, in polls, that personal morality matters in a president. Now they're the least likely to say it, unfazed by slimy behavior. "Moral majority?" Politics uber alles.

 

There's also a groupthink effect. America grows ever more politically segregated. Political divisions have always been partly socio-economic (and thusly geographic); partisan gerrymandering accentuates this; and politically engaged people tend to gravitate to like-minded communities. That's been shown to intensify shared opinions, moving them toward extremes. And many also tend to conform, Zelig-like, to those around them. In experiments, people will give answers they know are wrong if others in a group give those answers. So when most guys in your local bar are talking Trump, you won't likely be for Hillary.

 

It's significant too that only about a fifth of Americans pay close attention to public affairs. The rest see "through a glass darkly," with day-to-day news just a blurry background buzz. Thus if Trump calls something "fake news," his fans don't know better and just swallow that.

 

This differs from a past when Americans sat down en masse for the networks' evening news. LBJ reportedly said that when he lost Walter Cronkhite on Vietnam, he lost middle America. I remember John Chancellor opening with "President Nixon shocked the nation today . . . ." And Nixon was toast. No such voices of authority today can unhorse Trump. Chancellor's idea of "the nation" reacting collectively has become quaint.

 

The news media was part of our system of checks and balances. Maybe even an overly powerful one -- recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean over a single utterance (the so-called "scream"). That power was largely due to a dearth of other information sources. But now they've proliferated -- often being tailored to the recipient's views. Or what really is fake news. Russia contributes, but there are plenty of domestic sources. One perpetrator, interviewed, explained how he made thousands by crafting a phony "click bait" report about pro-Hillary vote fraud. A recent MIT study found false stories circulate on social media much faster and more widely than real ones. (Mark Twain supposedly said a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.)

 

People might be better able to critically evaluate all this stuff if they had a contextual backgrounding in current affairs, in how government, politics, and society work, and their underlying principles. The civics we've largely stopped teaching in schools. Without it, we're babes in the woods.

 

This aggravates confirmation bias -- we tend to welcome information bolstering our existing opinions, and shun anything contrary. In fact, smarter people are better at such rationalizing. And why listen to NPR, hearing things you don't like, when you can get more congenial content elsewhere? If those "alternative facts" differ from what mainstream media says, it's the latter that might seem problematic. Thus shrinking not only mainstream media's audience, but its authority and trust.

 

Further, striving to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines its ability to report effectually on a shameless liar who says the media is against him (which of course it is, justifiably), that it concocts fake news, and is "the enemy of the people." Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word "lie," and blandly tempered reporting that gives outrages a feel of normality. Mainstream media brings a knife to a gunfight. So it can't do to Trump what it did to Dean (or Nixon).

 

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said everyone's entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. That too seems quaint now. As Kurt Anderson's recent book Fantasyland describes, magical thinking has always been big in America (starting with belief in God and Heaven), but it's metastasizing into politics. It's no coincidence that many holding magical religious beliefs also have political notions defying factual reality. (Climate change denial, guns for protection, and Trump "telling it like it is" are examples on a long list.) Divorcement from reality signals insanity; religion may get a pass, but when magical thinking spills into further realms, the inmates have taken over the asylum.

 

The demise of communally accepted facts corrodes democracy. We see the political equivalent of Gresham's Law ("Bad money drives good money out of circulation"), with Trumpism driving out responsible discourse. To make rational decisions, and serve their genuine interests, voters need a source for, and concern about, truth and reality. That's why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn't care, why should politicians care either -- about facts or voters' real interests? When they can instead succeed by manipulation and lies? That's the authoritarian road, followed by Putin, who destroyed Russia's independent media so he could ensorcel citizens unfettered by truth or accountability.

 

Falling trust in the media is part of a bigger phenomenon, something fundamental that's changing in society. "Social capital" refers to how we relate to one another, with trust a key element. It's trusting that a neighbor won't attack and rob you. That when you buy something you'll get what you pay for. That institutions, like government, will function more or less properly. None is infallible, yet these are the default assumptions of trust underlying participation in society.

 

But surveys show trust in general declining. It isn't people being less trustworthy -- it's just that more of us think it's the case. However, this can become self-fulfilling when it causes behavior that reinforces an atmosphere of lesser trust. Also, social trust is learned -- through repeated positive interactions. But modern life reduces face-to-face interactions and conversations, what with social media, communicating by text, video gaming, and otherwise staring at screens.

 

Trump both exploits the decline in social capital and accelerates it. And not only with his attacks on institutions like the press, the FBI, the courts, etc. Society entails a web of cultural norms of behavior, shaping how we interact with each other. Norms against lying and cheating; shirking debts; insulting people; grabbing them by the pussy. A leader seen to flout such norms with impunity unravels our social cords.

 

People also used to be more trustful and deferential toward those they acknowledged as their betters: journalists again, public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists. Such deference has been eroded by less societal trust overall, but furthermore by a reigning ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. The idea that every person has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it atomizes society; there's less willingness to privilege the greater communal good; and now Joe Sixpack isn't respectful toward elites and feels his own opinions (even if magical) are just as valid. Especially with politicians pandering to them.

 

We call this "populism," connoting people ruling and getting what they want. Nowadays it reflects a notion that they're not getting it, because the system is corruptly rigged against them by elites, who have to be pulled down (the reverse of the mentioned past deference). This damages belief in democracy itself; many feel it's no longer working for them, and even pine for an authoritarian alternative. Especially younger people. A recent poll showed that while large majorities of older people said living in a democracy is essential, only 43% of millennials agreed; and only 19% of them would object to a military takeover. Meantime, declining social trust and communal spirit, growing solipsism, and increasing political ugliness and dysfunction all turn people off toward voting, further undermining democratic legitimacy -- a vicious circle of disengagement.

 

At bottom, too few Americans today even understand the country's foundational ideas and values. That makes those values unsustainable. Remember they're a human construct, not decreed as eternal by God. We won't wake up one day with our democracy dead, but it could be "the death of a thousand cuts."

 

Freud divided the mind into the id, the primal instinctual unconscious; the super-ego, the rational moral cogitator; and the ego which pragmatically mediates between them. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown us that emotion and reason are not at odds, but operate together. Yet while emotion is indeed integral to our mental functioning, it must be moderated by thinking. And Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened our conscious selves to riders upon an elephant, which represents our unconscious. We think the rider is in charge, but often their role is rationalizing what the elephant wants. Trumpian populism is largely id-based politics; the politics of the gut, not the brain; the elephant, not the rider: xenophobia, racial resentment, isolationism, economic nationalism, etc. 

 

The results can only be bad. Like trade protectionism, protecting a few at the expense of the many and the whole economy. Keeping out (or throwing out) immigrants the economy desperately needs. Tax and budget policies deepening inequality and presaging financial ruin. Trashing international cooperation and the rules-based world order America had so painstakingly built. Stoking divisiveness and racial antagonisms. Stomping on the rule of law.

 

"Make America great again?" The most ironic slogan in political history -- forgetting that America is great because it is good. 

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