Some links that might help

Trump supporters who are defending his recent actions are, as per usual, wickedly and strategically misinformed.

They believe:

  • these deportations are only of illegal immigrants;
  • Trump is relying on a bill that Obama signed to identify the countries;
  • their objections to Obama’s executive orders and actions were principled–they objected to his actions on the basis of principles about constitutionality.

So, first, it can help to explain that he is detaining and deporting people with permanent residency status.

I’ve stayed away from NYTimes and other sources they’ve been trained to reject without reading:

From ABC



The proof that they included legal immigrants, initially, is that Trump backed off on that. So, either he was incompetent at issuing an order, or he intended to keep permanent residents out. (If they balk at clicking on the link, tell them to watch the video.)

These deportations include Christians:

Don’t mention this unless they bring it up, because a lot of the sort of people who support Trump just remember nouns and not claims. They’ll remember “Obama bill” and not “this has nothing to do with that.” Here’s the actual bill:

This is the additional change that was made. I still see no connection. (And people who are repeating this talking point won’t be able to come up with one–neither Trump nor the Right-Wing Noise Machine has tried to make clear what the connection is.)

Oops, now he’s claiming it’s another thing. Here’s the refutation of that point:

The DHS is violating the court order. Either they’re out of Trump’s control, or he told them to do that. If it’s the latter, would they be okay if Obama had done that? If not, then their objections to Obama’s actions weren’t based on principle, but on faction.

Here’s the court order: darweesh.v.trump_decision.and.order.document-3.pdf

After I wrote this, the defense of Trump’s actions changed again. First, they were claiming this came from a 2015 bill, then a 2011 action, now I think something else. There are two ways that all that shifting around is important: first, these actions were initially praised by Trump supporters and his media outlets on the grounds that he was finally doing something that Obama hadn’t done, and was finally securing our borders, unlike Obama–the whole theme was that this was a huge break with Obama. Now the talking point is that the outrage is the consequence of liberal media hype, and this is no different from Obama. They can’t play it both ways. Either this is good, and the same thing Obama did, so Obama’s policies were good; or, Obama’s policies were weak, and this really is a big change. It can’t be both.

Second, the EO was extremely unclear and created a lot of confusion–that isn’t decisiveness. It included people with permanent residency status, and the WH continued to insist that those people be included, then walked that back. Making a lot of different and unclear decisions about major issues in a 72 hours isn’t decisiveness–it’s being a loose cannon.

Why the emoluments issue matters

There is a tendency for pundits to say “Trump supporters were all motivated by this” or “Trump supporters are all like that,” but I don’t think those generalizations are very useful. I think about the only accurate generalizations would be “Trump voters were motivated by the sense that he was the better person for the job,” and “Trump supporters are all Trump supporters.”

I think a lot of Trump supporters believe that the government has been on the wrong track for years, with politicians doing nothing other than line their own pockets, pandering to special interests and lobbyists, and creating a government that does little other than waste money and get in the way. Politicians are cynical careerists who say whatever they need to say to get elected, and look down on the regular people who are actually paying their wages. Our lives are filled with unnecessary regulations enforced by petty bureaucrats who just want to protect their own cushy jobs. The supposed elite—professors, doctors, supposed experts—don’t actually know what they’re doing, have very little common sense, and no real experience with the things about which they’re pontificating. The problems that face us are crucial, but not complicated, and the solutions are straightforward but politicians (and experts generally) don’t want to go for the simple solution. If they did, they’d be out of a job.

Take, for instance, a doctor. You have a recurrent complaint, and the doctor keeps giving you different medications (or maybe does nothing at all), and they don’t actually work. And, perhaps, you changed a minor thing in your life (in my case, I changed toothpastes, which got rid of the metallic taste that had completely confused the doctor) and all is well. You might come to the conclusion that doctors act as though they’re all-knowing, but they’re just guessing. Or, you might decide that the doctor is not really fixing you because then he’d lose the money from your visits and tests. Certainly, there are cases of doctors who were ordering unnecessary surgeries in order to get the money—that’s just a fact.

It isn’t just doctors, of course. It’s anyone who claims to have special knowledge. I once had a guy at a gas station claim I needed a new alternator belt because the one I had was all cut up. (This was in the 70s, when alternator belts were notched.) There are “resume services” who will, for free, look at your resume. They’ll tell you it’s awful, and you need their services. Some people have paid for the resume revision, then resubmitted that revision for the “free” review of your resume—the service said that resume was awful, and they needed to revise it.

There are definitely politicians who just liked the prestige and power it provided, and who had no intention of doing any actual work. I’ve known people in minor positions of power who behaved that way, so I’m certain it’s true of people with as much power as even a state legislator has. And we have all been on committees or teams with people who enjoyed the process so much that they never actually wanted anything to get done. We all work in institutions that have rules and processes that have no obvious explanation other than a perverse desire to see that no really good work gets accomplished at all.

For instance, a friend worked as a computer programmer at an institution that had this process for changing anything in a program:

  1. someone submits a change request;
  2. it is reviewed by a team;
  3. if approved, the change is assigned to a programmer;
  4. the programmer comes up with a plan for responding to the request;
  5. that plan is presented to the team;
  6. the team sends that plan up the ladder for approval;
  7. if approved, the change is made;
  8. the change is tested by a quality control group;
  9. the team meets again to determine the change was good;
  10. that information is sent up the ladder.

As you can imagine, that took a long time, and a lot of meetings, and could be irritating if there was some urgency. There was a different process, however, if it wasn’t a change request, but correcting an error. So, my friend’s team took to identifying all change requests as “correcting error” requests. The result was that users were much happier, and more empowered in their jobs. They felt ownership over the programs they were using, as they could have an impact on how those programs functioned. This process was more efficient, since there were fewer meetings, and requested changes happened faster.

They were all called on the carpet because their team was producing programs with too many errors, and had to go to the less effective and less efficient process.

Every interaction with the government is like that. What should be simple—getting a driver’s license—involves forms, lines, not having the right document and so having to come back another day and stand in more lines, filling out the forms again, and then dealing with some grumpy person who makes us jump through every hoop required by a fifty-page set of regulations we’re convinced was written by legislators with nothing better to do.

I think a lot of Trump supporters were motivated by the notion that all of this nonsense is unnecessary, and a really good leader would get rid of it.

But why Trump?

Here is the narrative in which Trump seems like a good choice:

  • politicians refuse to solve the problems, so get a non-politician;
  • politicians don’t solve things because they pander to lobbyists, so get someone who is already rich and powerful enough that he doesn’t need to pander to anyone;
  • he has shown himself in ­the apprentice shows to be decisive, and to be able to make good judgments about people quickly;
  • his success in business shows that he knows how to solve problems without a lot of drama.

Added to this was the sense that

  • Obama had violated the constitution, and Democrats didn’t seem to care, so Dems are generally suspect—Trump insisted he would the constitution.

I want to focus on just three points: 1, 2, and 5.

Are there politicians who don’t really want to solve problems, but stay in office? Yes. Just as there are doctors, auto mechanics, hairdressers, therapists, lawyers, investment advisors, pet sitters, and members of every single profession who are just trying to keep getting money out of you. But, to return to the medical example: if there were, for instance, a simple solution to back pain, and all the things your doctor is making you do are just to line his pocket, then there must be some doctor out there who actually cares about patients, right? It can’t be 100%? And, really, if there were a simple solution to back pain, a doctor who patented it, or wrote a book about it, would be a millionaire, so, it would be out there.

And, of course, those books and videos are out there. There are magazines, links, books, articles that all claim “this housewife discovered the cure your doctor doesn’t want you to know about” (by the way, that selling strategy is at least a hundred years old), but those don’t work either.

So, in fact, there isn’t a simple solution to back pain. It’s complicated. It really is. And when your doctor tells you it’s complicated, she’s telling you the truth. Maybe you have a good doctor who will ensure you get the best treatment possible, and maybe you have a bad doctor who is just stringing you along, but they aren’t distinguished by which one tells you it’s complicated versus which one tells you it’s simple.

Back pain is a good example because it connects to a vexed political problem—use/abuse of painkillers. It’s absolutely clear that some people claim to have chronic pain who don’t, but they use that claim to get doctors to prescribe pain medication which they then sell to people who are just using it to get high. But it’s also clear that the regulations we set to stop those people end up creating a huge number of hoops for people who legitimately need a lot of pain medication because they really are in a lot of pain.

For my job, I have to fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork to do something because someone else really did recently use that process to rip my employer off for $50k.

If there were an obvious solution to the problem of making sure that people who really need pain medication got all the medication they legitimately need without abusers getting any, a politician who figured that out would be the hero of all the TV shows. Perhaps some politicians would decide to take payoffs from Big Pharma or the Mafia or whoever not to go with the obvious solution, but, if it’s really obvious, at some point someone too ethical (or too ambitious) to get bought would have figured out that being The Politician to solve this problem is a golden ticket to Bigger Things.

No one has stepped forward with the obvious solution because there isn’t one. Setting huge penalties for abuse of painkillers isn’t a solution because it isn’t objectively clear whether someone is really in pain or just pretending.

There are politicians who don’t want to solve problems but just keep getting reelected. There are mechanics who don’t want to fix your car but want to bring it back. But in neither case should we assume that getting an outside will solve the problem. Get a different mechanic, but get someone who knows something about cars.

People have a tendency to assume that judgment applies across fields, but that isn’t really how it works out. You can be brilliant at math, and unable to write a check, or great at fixing computers but terrible at fixing cars. The whole point about eggheads who might be brilliant at their field is that brilliance doesn’t apply to other things.

But even setting that aside—whether Trump was, actually, successful at business (something we can’t know because we don’t know his debt load), or if such success would translate—we can know something about the “above corruption” claim.

What everyone wants—Trump supporters and their opponents—are politicians who can’t be bought, who will make decisions on the basis of what’s best for the US, and not for what will line their own pockets. We disagree about how to do that, but we agree it’s an important value.

Trump supporters believe that Trump being so rich means he doesn’t need more money. I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone who didn’t want more money. But, ignoring that, it’s easy to tell whether Trump is that sort of person: is he trying to use his position as President to make more money?

If he is, then everything about the “he’s above special interests” collapses. If he is going to use his position to profit himself, then he is a special interest, and he will corrupt policy to make more money.

This was a major issue for the Founders, and that’s why they put into the Constitution the “emoluments” clause. This is what the conservative site, The Heritage Foundation, has to say about that clause:

Similarly, the Framers intended the Emoluments Clause to protect the republican character of American political institutions. “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” The Federalist No. 22 (Alexander Hamilton). The delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically designed the clause as an antidote to potentially corrupting foreign practices of a kind that the Framers had observed during the period of the Confederation. Louis XVI had the custom of presenting expensive gifts to departing ministers who had signed treaties with France, including American diplomats. In 1780, the King gave Arthur Lee a portrait of the King set in diamonds above a gold snuff box; and in 1785, he gave Benjamin Franklin a similar miniature portrait, also set in diamonds. Likewise, the King of Spain presented John Jay (during negotiations with Spain) with the gift of a horse. All these gifts were reported to Congress, which in each case accorded permission to the recipients to accept them. Wary, however, of the possibility that such gestures might unduly influence American officials in their dealings with foreign states, the Framers institutionalized the practice of requiring the consent of Congress before one could accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from…[a] foreign State.”

Like several other provisions of the Constitution, the Emoluments Clause also embodies the memory of the epochal constitutional struggles in seventeenth-century Britain between the forces of Parliament and the Stuart dynasty. St. George Tucker’s explanation of the clause noted that “in the reign of Charles the [S]econd of England, that prince, and almost all his officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause. The reign of that monarch has been, accordingly, proverbially disgraceful to his memory.” As these remarks imply, the clause was directed not merely at American diplomats serving abroad, but more generally at officials throughout the federal government. (!/articles/1/essays/68/emoluments-clause)

The politically conservative Economist explains the application to Trump:

DIPLOMATS from various countries have spent the past few weeks booking suites at the Trump International Hotel in Washington in the hope of ingratiating themselves with president-elect Donald Trump. The Industrial and Commerical Bank of China, whose majority stakeholder is the Chinese government, rents office space in New York City’s Trump Tower. The 35-storey Trump Office Buenos Aires development is awaiting approval from that city’s government. These are just a few of the unprecedented conflicts of interest presented by Mr Trump’s decision to retain his business empire and hand its management over to his children.  No law obliges Mr Trump to sell his assets or place them in a blind trust, though nine of the 12 presidents since the second world war have done so. But when his businesses accept money (or anything of value) from foreign governments or state-owned entities, Mr Trump may nevertheless be breaking the law. In fact, he may be violating the Constitution of the United States—and specifically, a section known as the Emoluments Clause.

Thus, traditionally, Presidents have been required to take any assets they have and sell them (Carter and his farm) or put them into blind trusts. It’s useful to remember that one of the main points of the “Clinton is corrupt” argument was that she and her husband had violated this clause with their Foundation.Were Trump to do something like give favor to some countries because he has business interests with them, or require that countries trying to get political favors use his hotels, then he would have violated the emoluments clause.

More important, he would have violated one of the major arguments for voting for him—he would have shown that he can be bought, that he will use the position to line his pockets, and that he will make political decisions on the basis of what benefits him personally.

He would have shown himself to be the opposite of the person for whom Trump supporters voted. That matters.


When Italians and Jews were terrorists

Many people sincerely believe that post-9/11 is the first time that Americans felt threatened by terrorism on its soil, but that fear has waxed and waned for most (if not all) of our history. Slaveholders were in perpetual fear of slave uprisings (especially after 1841), as well as of murder, poisoning, and arson on the part of angry slaves; Abraham Lincoln was killed by a terrorist; and the post-bellum era suffered from what amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, as white Southerners reasserted the subjugation of African Americans. The middle nineteenth century had spates of fear-mongering about Catholics (whom, many believed to be in league with the Hapsburg Emperor and the Pope to reinstate monarchy in the US), resulting in serious arguments as to whether they should be allowed to vote, considerable prejudice against their holding office, and some talk of restricting their immigration.The late nineteenth and early twentieth century media, law, and policy show two different sources of existential threat: Asians (especially the Japanese); and a vague and muddled fear of Eastern Europeans, which was often synonymous with Jews, anarchists, and, after 1917, Bolsheviks.
In case it isn’t clear from my tone, I share the scholarly consensus that most of these were not, in fact, existential threats to American democracy (the tolerated terrorism of white supremacy is the one exception, which was intended to prevent democracy, and succeeded in seriously impairing it). But, there were incidents to which people could point that they thought, incorrectly, supported the claim that these are dangerous times, and this enemy merits our suspending normal practices of inclusion and pluralism. These incidents supposedly showed that group was plotting a violent overthrow of the US, perhaps even control of the world. Many of the incidents or supposedly supporting texts were fabrications (wild rumors of slave rebellion plots, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, recasting of incidents of Native American self-defense as massacres, coerced confessions that show more about slaveholder paranoia than slave actions).
But there were real incidents. The slave revolt of Saint-Domingue was real, as was the bomb thrown at Haymarket, the assassination of McKinley, the guard and paymaster at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company were murdered, there really was a series of bombs mailed to various politicians in the spring and early summer of 1919, and various immigrants in the United States were advocating a Bolshevik-style revolution. And, as is often the case, criminals, especially famous ones, often were recent immigrants, or of the same ethnicity—there was a Jewish Mafia, an Italian one, an Irish one. Nineteenth-century Irish voting practices could be pretty dodgy, and cities run by the Irish (New York) or the Italians (San Francisco) were corrupt. Of course, most Jews, Irish, and Italians weren’t involved in crime, cities not run by the Irish or Italians could be just as corrupt (Kansas City), and, given the criminalization of poverty (meaning that there are things, such as getting drunk, that are only criminal if you’re too poor to have a home), the percentage of criminals who were any particular ethnicity was not proof of any kind of inherent criminality.
I’m making two points. First, people afraid of certain groups would not have experienced their fear as irrational—it would have seemed to them to be grounded in “facts.” They could, after all, list a lot of examples of plots, confessions, and authorities who supported their beliefs that this group was too dangerous for the US to admit. They could point to a city run by that group and show it was badly run.
Second, every ethnic group that came over (at least since the First Peoples) had in it criminals, people who were hostile to the “American” system in some way, people advocating violent change, and/or actual terrorists. Every one of us comes from a group with a poison skittle. That’s an analogy that only works with people who have mythologized the history of their own ethnicity and immigration in the US.
If we allow mass immigration of Syrians will some of those people be criminals or terrorists? Yes. Were some of the Germans, English, Irish, Italians, Jews, Swedes, Muldavians whom we allowed to immigrate criminals or terrorists? Yes.
A few years ago, when Berlusconi had recently come to power, largely on the basis of xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric, I had lunch with an Italian professor, who told me that people had tried to refute his rhetoric by showing that same rhetoric had been used by the US about Italians. But, she said, it didn’t work. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Berlusconi’s allies showed that Rumanians and other eastern European immigrants really were committing crimes in Italy. I said, “Are you under the impression that Italian immigrants did not commit crimes in the US?” “Oh,” she said, “Did they?”
It’s a mistake for defenders of standard immigration policies to say that none of the people we allow in will do anything that might enable Fox to fear-monger about them. Someone will. It’s a worse mistake for people afraid of this set of immigrants to think they’re any different from the people who turned away Jewish escapees–to believe that turning Jews back to death was bad, but turning away Syrians is justified.
Before and during World War II, the US refused to admit Jewish refugees. One of the reasons that Jews stayed in Nazi Germany was that so few other countries would admit them—there was nowhere they could go. There’s a lot of argument about whether the Allies could have reduced the effectiveness of the Holocaust by bombing concentration camps; there is none that we could have reduced the number of people killed had we been willing to accept more people fleeing Nazism—Jews, Romas, intellectuals, communists, union members.
Would we thereby have admitted some spies? Probably. Would we have admitted people who would have gone on to commit crimes? Yes. Would it have been the right thing to do? Yes.
So, people supporting what Trump is doing—if you’re arguing that we should refuse to admit legitimate refugees on the grounds that some of them might be terrorists, spies, or criminals, congratulations—you just sent Jews back to their deaths. You can’t defend one and not the other.

A conversation about conspiracy theory web design

[context: I posted a link that had embedded a link to a conspiracy theory site]

Original post : Do NOT click on the link toward the top of the page. It will send you to the kind of site that has epilepsy-inducing web design. Someday (and I’m perfectly serious) I want someone to do a study as to why conspiracy sites all have the same kind of awful web design. The correlation is too strong for it to be a coincidence.


[Cody] I remember you mentioning that correlation when I was in your class. I wish I had the kind of time and insight to do it myself.

[Fred] Hmm. Interesting question. I’m sure all of those sites are made from templates (e.g. WordPress or some canned Drupal crap), so if you are used to a certain kind of “design” (using the term very loosely) it’s a simple thing to reproduce it.

More complexly, I think there is a class or segment of American society that is suspicious and even actively hostile towards beauty and design. So much of our landscape has been made so blighted and ugly by what we build. Examples are endless: Billboards in Death Valley, an outlet mall at the gateway to the Columbia Gorge, etc, ad nauseum. But so many people seem not to see it, much less care about it. It’s almost a badge of honor. (The visual equivalent of “smells like money to me”.) I imagine it must be related to the grand old tradition of American anti-intellectualism. An appreciation for beauty and design is effete, Continental, liberal, a weakness compared to the muscular disdain for anything that is not competitive capitalism.

That’s where I’d start my inquiry if I were still researching stuff like this.=

[me] That’s an interesting point. Also, they’re VERY busy, and their basic strategy of argumentation is accumulatio. So, they don’t argue by one thing leading to another, or being logically connected to another, but by the sheer accumulation of data (that are, usually, disconnected).

It’s funny–isn’t that what a mall is? Maybe it’s some version of consumerism? You just want a lot of shit, and it doesn’t really matter what any individual piece of shit means–it’s that you’ve got a lot of it. So that’s what you do with the site? It’s a lot of shit?

[Fred] I bet a big part of the Right’s hatred of Apple is related to this. How else would you explain so-called free-market Conservatives despising one of the most successful private companies in history?

[me] Huh. That would be REALLY interesting. So it would mean something like simplicity is threatening to reactionary politics?

[Cody] I would jump off of Fred’s statement and say it also represents “plainness”. The evidence speaks for itself, so why do I need to pretty it up? Also, the idea that they have better things to do, like doing REAL American work or researching these coverups than to worry about how pretty their website is.

I’d also tie it into the idea that they’re not spending money on their website’s design. Because they’re “simple folk”. That’s why a lot of them are using free sites like Bloggerand WordPress and tumblr.

[me] Wellllll… they aren’t plain sites, though. They’re very busy. But not complicated, and certainly not pretty. So it’s a weird aesthetic.

[Cody] Right, but it’s surprisingly easy to make a busy website. It’s a lot more work to try and make it all flow correctly. And, like Fred said, it’s effete.

I’d also think it’s an anti-intellectual statement. They’re not well-versed in internet design because they aren’t “those people”. To me, the interest here would be using a platform you’re not wholly familiar with to try and deliver your message. I imagine there might be a correlation with early film? Now I’m sort of just throwing darts.

[Fred] But yes, beauty and design are seen as forms of obfuscation, things that impede and obscure common sense and exchange. Beauty and design are indulgences that get in the way of the business of consumption.

[Cody] By plain, I didn’t mean to imply “simple”. My old Angelfire website back in the 90s was just pictures of Austin Powers and dancing hamsters. It was the easiest thing in the world to make, but would blind a person.

Right, it’s like fast food is American because we don’t have time to research our food. We’re too busy working and being American. Only the intellectuals and the artists have time to sit around and think.

[me] Ooooooooohhhhh….interesting. So a certain kind of simplicity is deliberate and thoughtful, as opposed to a kind of expressive get to the point that means you’re flinging data out there.

Yeah, I think you’re both right. It has something to do with being thoughtful and deliberate (bad) rather than authentic and … what? messy?

[Fred] I also think Trish is onto something with the idea of accumulation. I think there’s a common trope that associates expertise with possession. Owning all the tools for X makes you an expert (as an amateur woodworker, I can tell you plain, this is not the case), and something like that is at work in these websites that are like Hoarders but with “facts” instead of cats.


On Trump voters

There have been a lot of things posted explaining “Trump voters” that assume one cause. They’re stupid; they’re racist; they’re authoritarians; they’re opposing identity politics; they’re rejecting neoliberalism. That’s absurd. It’s classic ingroup/outgroup thinking, in which the outgroup (“Trump voters”) are all the same. I can’t imagine those same pundits and columnists writing articles in which they similarly homogenize “Clinton voters”—they’d recognize the error in regard to their own group.

Having wandered around pro-Trump sites before the election, it seems to me that Trump voters were, on the whole, just as diverse as Clinton voters. Given his approval ratings even at the time of the election, it’s clear that a fairly large number of people who voted for him didn’t support him. I don’t think we should be wondering about Trump voters as much as Trump supporters, and I’d suggest we not try to treat them as though they’re all the same. It looked to me as though it would be more useful to think in terms of four mobilizing passions that helped Trump: opposition to abortion, opposition to Clinton, authoritarianism, relying on charismatic leadership.

Those aren’t discrete categories—a person might have one or all or some combination of those attachments, and different people might have any of them to different degrees.

Shared among all Trump supporters (but not unique to them), it seemed to me, were two characteristics. First, they were wickedly (and deliberately) misinformed, and so narrowly overinformed that it amounted to misinformed. I don’t think the question of whether they were stupid or uninformed (which is how much criticism of them is oriented) is sensible—it’s rarely grounded in any kind of consistent definition of “stupid” or “ignorant.” I would say, on the contrary, that many of them made decisions that appeared rational within the context of the information they had. (And Trump supporters aren’t the only group making decisions that appear rational within a certain set of information.)

Second, consistent among most Trump supporters (and, btw, many supporters of candidates other than Trump) is the premise that you should vote for someone who is like you, and who will sincerely promote policies to support people like you. That’s ingroup/outgroup thinking.

Some people first and only think in terms of ingroup/outgroup. They walk through their worlds flinging every person into two thoroughly opposite categories—Us and Them. There are people whom we can trust, and two kinds of Them—those who are explicitly and eternally out to exterminate us, and those whom they have fooled, or are trying to fool.

Because we believe that we have good motives, and are basically good people, anyone who persuades us that s/he and we are the same has just gotten us to engage in all the ego-protection systems we use for ourselves. As long as we perceive them as in our ingroup, we will attribute good motives to them, even if they do something we normally condemn.

Thus, if a member of an ingroup and a member of an outgroup do exactly the same thing, most of us will explain them differently. An ingroup member who works hard has a good work ethic, and outgroup member is greedy. An ingroup member who promotes zir own family is loyal, an outgroup member is clannish. An ingroup member who uses zir position in government for personal profit is smart; an outgroup member is corrupt.

Ingroup/outgroup thinking isn’t limited to any political agenda, and the most fanatical members of any group, political or not, are highly prone to it (they may, in fact, approach every decision in ingroup/outgroup terms), but research by Jonathan Haidt strongly suggests that people who self-identify as conservative do value loyalty to group, on the whole, more than do people who self-identify as liberal. Thus, while everyone probably engages in ingroup/outgroup thinking sometimes, not everyone does to the same degree, and “both sides” aren’t “just as bad.”

Connected to reliance on ingroup/outgroup thinking is what might be called “social knowing”—that is, relying heavily on group membership for one’s beliefs. It’s been clearly demonstrated that people will engage in considerable cognitive work in order to reconcile their beliefs with what they believe they should believe. (Yes, it’s that circular.) If, for instance, I’m a Chesterian, and I mistrust little dogs—in fact, I think that mistrusting little dogs is one of the essential traits of Chesterians–and I see Chester being nice to a little dog, I have considerable cognitive dissonance about Chester. I might decide that he wasn’t really being nice, it wasn’t really Chester, he was pretending, or that little dog isn’t really little. The more prone I am to ingroup/outgroup thinking, the more I will protect my ingroup from criticism—even my own criticism—and that protection can take some cognitive heavy lifting.

In addition to becoming a foundation I protect, my loyalty to my ingroup may become the basis for any assessment I make of possibly new beliefs. People who rely heavily on ingroup/outgroup thinking assess the “credibility” of a source on the basis of group membership—disconfirming information coming from an outgroup is, a priori, unreliable. Further, any information that disconfirms important ingroup claims or that is critical of the ingroup can be dismissed on the grounds that it is from an outgroup source. That’s pretty abstract, so let me try to make it more clear.

Assume that someone believes that Clinton’s email practices caused people to die at Benghazi–I ran across people who believed that, and they believed that the Benghazi Report proved it. It didn’t–it didn’t even make that claim. What I discovered is that, although they couldn’t give me any links or citations from the report that supported their interpretation, and although I could give sources that would show how wrong that claim was, they refused to look at those sources because they must be biased.

In other words, they believed their beliefs were “objective” and, therefore, any source I gave that contradicted their “objective” believe must be biased and false. It didn’t matter if I gave in-group sources, such as conservative journals or the Benghazi Report itself. That’s called a “hermetically sealed belief system”–the beliefs reinforces each other, and are completely untouchable by outside information. “Clinton’s email practices caused people to die, and I know that true because sources I trust say so, and I don’t trust any sources that say otherwise.”

This hermetically sealed belief system is crucial for understanding why enclaves are so problematic as the basis for public deliberation. And, as I mentioned above, one thing that strikes me about Trump supporters (not just people who voted for him, but who support him) is that they are not ignorant—they are highly and deliberately misinformed, and so narrowly overinformed with context- and comparison-free information that it amounts to misinformation.

One final point about the importance of ingroup/outgroup thinking and public deliberation. For people prone to ingroup/outgroup thinking, every interaction is a competition among the groups, and every discussion is really about which group is better. Thus, if you say that Hubert’s plan regarding squirrels costs less than Chester’s, and is probably more effective, if I’m invested in ingroup/outgroup thinking, then my reaction is not, “Huh, I wonder if that’s true—I should look into that, because it would be great for our community to have an effective and inexpensive method of keeping squirrels from the red ball!” Instead, my reaction would be that you just scored a point for Hubert, and I need to score a point against you. I might do that by pointing out that Chester’s plan for keeping possums away is better than Hubert’s, or become more invested in proving you wrong than in finding the best solution for our community, or even work to make sure Hubert’s policy fails just because that would be a loss for the prestige of my group.

Being in an ideological/informational enclave is, unhappily, not unique to any group, nor is relying on social groups as bases and standards of knowledge. And the four passions are also shared with other groups—this is an argument about tendencies and frequencies, not about identities. Not all Trump Supporters, and Not Only Trump Supporters. One other point I’ll make before talking about the four passions.

To call them passions isn’t to say that Trump supporters are inherently irrational or impaired in their ability to participate in public discourse. I don’t think passions are inherently irrational, let alone bad. We participate in public discourse because we have passions. Particular passions will tend to lead us in various directions, and so it’s useful to think about which ones and what directions they tend to take us.

1) Opposition to abortion

It seemed to me that large number of people advocating for Trump did so on the grounds that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overrule Roe v. Wade, and thereby enable a national ban on abortions and abortificants.

Abortion is being used as a classic wedge issue, and it’s working, especially with groups one would have expected to vote against Trump (such as Latina/os). The notion that we should and could end abortion by banning it is rationally indefensible, especially if the ban is connected to reducing access to and accurate information about effective birth control—the research is pretty clear that a more effective way to reduce abortion is to do what has worked in other countries and increase access to and accurate information about birth control. Abortion must remain a viable option for situations that are, one hopes, unusual—thus, Clinton’s stance that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare.

But what I found about Trump supporters is that they believe that abstinence only is an effective form of birth control—they haven’t seen the studies that show its actual consequences, and/or they argue that it must work because not having sex necessarily results in not getting pregnant. That is, they argue deductively from premises, rather than inductively about the feasibility (in fact, it seemed to me that Trump supporters rarely considered the feasibility of policies, partially because they really didn’t like arguing policies). Similarly, they don’t believe that abortions are ever medically or psychologically necessary, because that’s the information they’re getting.

And they believe a lot of things about abortion and Planned Parenthood especially. Trump supporters on the abortion issue repeatedly asserted as a fact that Planned Parenthood was making money by selling fetus body parts and was actively promoting abortion (so that they could get more body parts to sell), and they seemed to have a perception of it as a for-profit business. Not only is the whole narrative false, it’s even internally absurd: if they are promoting abortions because that’s how they. make money, they wouldn’t bother giving out birth control.

For many Trump supporters, their views on abortion are reinforced by their perception that their particular kind of opposition to abortion is in a binary relationship to being “for” abortion. In other words, if you don’t believe what they do about abortion, then you’re promoting abortion. They don’t understand the “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare” stance because they’ve often never heard it—they sincerely believe that people who want abortions to be legal as a choice want all women to get abortions all the time. (That’s why some people accuse women who support the right to an abortion and who have had babies of being “hypocrites.”)

They don’t know the statistics about abortion rates in other countries, and sincerely believe that telling people (women, really) that birth control is a viable option guarantees that young women will end up getting abortions, STIs, breast cancer, and lead tragic, self-hating lives.

I think they’re wrong, and I think there is good data showing them they’re wrong, but they’ve never seen it. They live in worlds where the breast cancer/abortion correlation—although completely disproven—is a “fact,” and it is only a “fact” because it is repeated so often, and because the people who repeat it are ingroup members; the people who dispute it are (by definition) outgroup members.

What struck me about many of the people making these arguments is that they are perfectly sincere, and that their stances on abortion make sense given the informational world they inhabit. Since they also believe that good people are giving them this information, and they shouldn’t trust anyone who gives them other information, I think it’s hard to imagine what would change that world.


2) Opposition to Clinton

There’s a similar problem of inhabiting a world of misinformation in regard to Clinton. People who insisted that Trump was better than Clinton because she is so evil had a long list of horrifying things Clinton was supposed to have done, and it struck me that the most compelling of them tended to fall into two categories.

Some of it was simply misinformation, and had been debunked multiple times. Clinton hadn’t laughed about a girl getting raped, she didn’t have a warehouse full of ballots in Ohio, she wasn’t directly responsible for what happened in Benghazi, she didn’t approve a uranium deal, she never murdered anyone, and so on. One of my favorites (because so absurd) was probably the most common–that she’s a socialist, who wants to nationalize all industries. (This was one of two on which I made any headway with Trump supporters–I pointed out that she was a third-way neoliberal. It didn’t help in the long run, I think, because they saw the word “liberal” and thought that meant soft socialist–they didn’t know what neoliberal meant.) But these people had never heard the debunkings—they’d just heard the claims, over and over.

The other category was a set of claims that were technically true, but without context or comparison. So, they knew all the problems with the Clinton Foundation, but appeared completely unfamiliar with any of the criticisms of the Trump Foundation; they could list Clinton’s “lies,” but not Trump’s (I really think they’d never read or heard anything that pointed out his problem with accuracy); they called Clinton a Wall Street stooge because of her ties to Goldman Sachs, but were apparently unaware of Trump’s problematic financial dealings. To condemn Clinton for being too friendly to business is a legitimate criticism, but to condemn her for that and advocate voting for Trump instead means not understanding how her stances compare to his–it’s the same thing with their charitable foundations, dishonesty, corruption, and so on.

They were sincere, and, within that world, it made sense to be deeply opposed to Clinton because they didn’t have the information to make any comparison—that they might be wrong, that they might have been lied to, that they might not have been given all the information about Trump, was not part of that world.


3) Faith in charismatic leadership

Weber identified three sources of power for leaders: legal, traditional, and charismatic. His insights about charismatic leadership, and the later research on that, were tremendously important for explaining the volatile power of some leaders. Unhappily, beginning in the 1970s people in management and business coopted the term and significantly changed the concept, so that, for them, “charismatic leadership” is a good thing, and all leaders should have it.

In sociology, however, it means a leader to whom people give power because they believe him (or her) to be extraordinary, divinely chosen, heroic, almost supernatural in his/her ability to succeed regardless of the obstacles. The charismatic leader violates rationality—one follows him/her not because of the policies s/he proposes, but because one believes s/he has the kind of nearly magical perfect judgment that will inevitably succeed. Charismatic leadership is a relationship between the person who is supposed to have those qualities and the followers who attribute those characteristics to the leader.

People drawn into that relationship tend to believe that there are certain characteristics that signify a charismatic leader (boundless energy and excellent health are two that come up often, even if those aren’t qualities that necessarily correlate to good judgment). They also generally believe that we don’t need policy arguments—either the correct course of action is clear to everyone (and politicians aren’t following it just because they’re jerks, they benefit from the dithering, or they’re outgroup members), or, not matter how complicated it looks, their Charismatic Leader can see what to do. They want a leader who will cut the Gordian knot of policy.

In this world, there is no real value to area-specific content expertise—a person who has been successful as a celebrity, for instance, can succeed as a politician or diplomat if s/he has the kind of judgment attributed to a charismatic leader. There is also no such thing as legitimate difference of opinion, or complicated situations, or a reason to argue policy.

Many of Trump’s supporters described him in these sorts of terms, and, as with the other passions, this sense of him was reinforced by the list of accomplishments they believed he had—they hadn’t heard the debunking of many of those claims, they hadn’t noticed that even he was inconsistent in his claims about himself, they hadn’t heard criticism. They liked that he hadn’t stated his policies.


4) Authoritarianism

Erich Fromm argued that Nazism had two important characteristics. First, it offered people an escape from freedom. Genuine freedom, for Fromm, doesn’t mean there are no restraints on you, but that you take full responsibility for whatever choices you have made within your constraints. That’s a huge responsibility, and many people want to edge out of it. So, many people are happy to turn over the responsibility for their choices to someone else. They were just following orders (although they chose to join the organization that gave those orders, or voted for the people who gave those orders, or keep choosing not to leave the institution that requires they follow those orders). Second, it offered what later scholars would call “proxy by agency” which is that you can feel powerful even if you didn’t do the thing. Paradoxically, you feel powerful by giving up your agency.

Fromm described it as a kind of kiss-up/kick-down dynamic. You could be sadistic toward people below you on the hierarchy as long as you were masochistic toward those above you.

I think all of what Fromm said is useful, especially if put it in the context of the research mentioned above about social groups. Here’s the short version: we experience our “self” as constituted by membership in a group, and that group is defined partially (largely?) by what it is not. You are a dog person, and that is only a meaningful sense of identity if there is another possibility—being a squirrel person, or a bunny person, or an anti-dog person. But that description isn’t quite right, because there might be a continuum among people who are for us, through people who don’t care, to those who want to exterminate us. Authoritarianism rejects the continuum, and presumes that ingroups and outgroups are Real and mutually exclusive—you are with us or against us. If social groups are Real, then you are always a member of a group, and if you submit thoroughly to that group, you are guaranteed a kind of protection. And you get to kick the outgroup.

Authoritarianism relies on binaries (this is not a world with grey), and on naïve realism—the assumption that the correct course of action is always obvious to anyone reasonably intelligent. There are two ways of being against us—you might be explicitly and essentially out to kill us, or you might be a dupe of that group.

That authoritarians don’t do grey means they have trouble understanding nuanced arguments, or arguments about tendencies—it’s striking to me how often they read an “often” as an “always” or perceive opposition arguments as making universal claims—a claim that “many members of x group do y” will often be restated as “You’re saying all that all members of x group do y” and then refuted with a single counter-example. I don’t think this is deliberate straw man; I think it’s really what they are hearing in that moment.

George Lakoff uses the term “Strict Father Morality” for what is extremely similar to other scholars’ discussions of authoritarianism. People who believe in the Strict Father Model believe in punishment as the solution to most (for some it’s all) social problems, and tend to see relationships in submission/domination dichotomies. This means that they are particularly prone to handle disagreement in the way described above—a disagreement is not an opportunity to correct one’s course of action, or to find a better course of action, or even to learn. For many people, a disagreement in which you find out you were wrong is a good thing—you’ve won because you are now able to do something better. For an authoritarian, a disagreement is a challenge you lose by admitting error, changing your mind, or being persuaded. You are right because you are saying what the ingroup knows to be right, and that’s all you need to know. This seems to me a tragic world in which to live–one in which you can never admit error, and therefore can never learn from your own mistakes.


The point I’m making about these four passions is that they are enhanced by living in a world of confirmation. And, as I said, it struck me that the most committed Trump supporters with whom I argued were very likely to live in such a world—they hadn’t invented, or misunderstood, the things they believed. They had been told these things, over and over, by sources they trusted (and which told them not to trust anyone who told them anything else). I’m not saying they were gullible—they were just singly informed. And they refused to look at information that even might be disconfirming, on the grounds that it was a from a biased source–which they concluded on the basis that it was disconfirming.

There’s one other point I want to make about these observations. I think they’re empirically falsifiable. I think it would be possible to test them by finding people who supported Trump, opposed him, and the range in between, ask them how much they supported/opposed him, and then tried to place them in a continuum of commitment on each of these passions. If my impressions are right, then people most committed to most of these passions would be most vehement in their support of Trump. Being less committed to the passions would correlate to being less supportive of Trump.

And, if I’m right, then we’re wrong to focus so much on Trump. We need to focus on the problems of enclaves of information.