Dealing with Trump’s triumphant week
Plus: How to be an Epicurean; the roots of nationalism; Is Bernie too radical?
|Feb 9|| 13|
Welcome to another issue of NZN! This week I: (1) admit that Trump had a very good week, and ask what can be done about it; (2) share a conversation I had with the philosopher Catherine Wilson, a proponent of Epicureanism; (3) share links to a bunch of background readings on such things as nationalism’s historical roots, the alleged negativity of popular music, Trump’s disinformation machine, Buddhism and yoga, dating in an age of political polarization, and Michael Bloomberg’s no-longer-secret Instagram influencer campaign.
What could be more painful, for the committed Trump opponent, than watching Trump march into last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and hold up a copy of USA Today with the word Acquitted plastered across its front page, above its story about his impeachment?
No, the answer isn’t watching him hold up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline Trump Acquitted (which he also did). The answer is watching him do both of these things in the same week that (1) his Gallup approval rating reached its all-time high; (2) the Iowa caucuses turned into a display of Democratic incompetence that he seized on with malicious glee, while journalists reported that the Iowa fiasco had intensified Democratic infighting; (3) he delivered a State of the Union address that, in addition to setting a new standard for SOTU cheesiness, successfully employed his patented formula for political survival: simultaneously enraging his detractors and energizing his supporters; (4) he previewed, in his opening SOTU segment, a formidable reelection stump speech, flaunting a series of mainly accurate boasts about the health of the economy; (5) various pundits deemed this “the most politically successful week of the Trump presidency” or said that for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, they believed he will probably be reelected.
But cheer up! For two reasons:
1) This too shall pass.
2) The great thing about bad things is that once you figure out why they happened, you can (in principle) make them less likely to happen in the future.
Consider the decision to impeach. Now, I’m not here to declare that decision a mistake in every sense of the term. There is value in recording for posterity the fact that many Americans, and their political representatives, find Trump sufficiently horrible to warrant the ultimate indictment. If, decades from now, archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of American civilization, I’d like them to find evidence that its collapse didn’t catch us totally unawares; we knew an ominous presidency when we saw one.
But if you ask whether impeachment was a mistake in sheerly tactical terms, I think the answer is yes. Between the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings and the end of this week, Trump’s “underwater rating”—the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings—shrank by four points. This could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The tactical argument for impeachment had been that it would damage Trump politically, even if it didn’t lead to conviction.
So why didn’t Democrats in Congress see this coming? Why did they proceed on the premise that the evidence at hand would outrage enough Americans so that Trump would suffer politically for having subordinated American foreign policy to his own reelection prospects?
Regular NZN readers may at this point be divided into two camps: those who fear that this will turn into another sermon about “cognitive empathy”—about the value of understanding other people’s perspectives—and those who fear it will turn into another sermon about “mindfulness”—specifically, about being aware of our own motivations. Well, congratulations—you’re both right! But there’s a surprise ending, so stay tuned.
First the predictable part:
If congressional Democrats, back when they were pondering impeachment, had mindfully examined the sources of their own outrage about Trump’s behavior, they might have noticed that it got a boost from three things: (1) they intensely disliked Trump to begin with; (2) the person Trump’s Ukrainian machinations were designed to slime, Joe Biden, was a member of their political team (and a personal friend of many of them); (3) the policy Trump compromised in order to slime Biden—fighting Russian aggression in Ukraine—was one they strongly supported.
Here are three things that are true of many of the American voters that congressional Democrats had to win over if impeachment was going to work as a political tactic: (1) they don’t especially dislike Trump—at least, they don’t dislike him as intensely as the average congressional Democrat; (2) they don’t have strong feelings about Joe Biden or a strong sense of allegiance to his party; (3) they don’t have strong feelings about the policy that Trump compromised in order to slime Biden.
To have pondered this would have been to exercise cognitive empathy—perspective taking. And this exercise might have led Democrats to wonder whether impeachment would indeed move the needle of public opinion as they hoped.
A further impediment to getting many swing voters indignant about Trump’s behavior is that he wasn’t accused of committing an actual crime—in contrast to Bill Clinton, who was impeached after committing perjury. Don’t get me wrong; Trump’s various transgressions are a much graver threat to the country than Clinton’s, and for my money are worthy of impeachment. But precisely because Trump is such a clear and present danger, limiting him to a single term is job one. So whether his transgressions were worthy of impeachment is less important to me than whether impeachment made his reelection more likely or less likely. It’s because the answer seems (for now, at least) to be “more likely” that I think this post-mortem is worth the trouble.
I know, I know—this particular horse is out of the barn; it’s too late to decide not to impeach Trump after all. (And I admit that, though I had grave misgivings about the wisdom of impeachment, I wasn’t so confident of them that I flat-out opposed it.) But every day offers an opportunity to apply these basic lessons about mindfulness and cognitive empathy anew.
For example: Suppose you’re the Speaker of the House and you’re deciding whether to dramatically tear up a copy of the president’s State of the Union speech on national TV. Maybe you should ask yourself not only whether lots of people in your tribe will love that gesture, but how the people who aren’t in your tribe will perceive it. Will it, in the eyes of some lukewarm Trump supporters, lend credence to Trump’s narrative of persecution, making them more likely to go to the trouble of voting? Will it convince some potential Democratic voters that the average Democratic politician is no less petty then Trump, making them less likely to go to the trouble of voting?
Of course, that horse is out of the barn, too; Nancy Pelosi went with her gut. And, anyway, I could be wrong in my conjecture that her viscerally gratifying gesture was unwise. (Maybe swing voters like spunk!) But I do think that on balance this week has strengthened the argument for subjecting our political impulses, especially retributive ones, to critical reflection. And there will be lots of opportunities between now and November to do that—for Nancy Pelosi and other high-profile politicians, but also for all of us Trump opponents who frequent social media and so help shape, in however small a way, the public perception of the opposition.
At Wednesday’s National Prayer Breakfast, as it happened, there was a homily by conservative author Arthur Brooks about the importance of “loving your enemies.” And, Trump being Trump, he explicitly distanced himself from Brooks’s message and then proceeded to trash two of his political enemies (Pelosi and Mitt Romney) without mentioning their names.
That was pretty much his mode for the rest of the week, culminating in the White House’s firing on Friday not just of a National Security Council staffer who had testified against him in the House impeachment proceedings—but, for good measure, of the staffer’s twin brother!
I could be wrong, but I think that extra dollop of pettiness—the firing of the brother—is the kind of thing that actually hurts Trump in the eyes of some Americans whose opinions matter: the people whose shifting sentiments are the reason Trump’s approval rating continues to go up and down by increments big enough to swing an election. That’s why I say we should give Americans a clear view of Trump, and not cloud the picture with gifs of Nancy Pelosi tearing up speeches.
Or, to put it another way: sometimes loving your enemy, or at least not acting like you hate your enemy, can be an effective strategy. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, famously wrote, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Less famous is what Paul said next: “For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Here’s another old saying about enemies: Never get in the way of your enemy when he’s making a mistake. Trump makes a lot of mistakes. He does many things that many Americans find distasteful. That’s why his Gallup approval rating, even at its current apex, is one point below 50 percent. (And Gallup is an upside outlier; the Real Clear Politics average of polls has Trump’s favorable at 45.5.)
The challenge for Trump opponents is to continue to make their disapproval of Trump clear, without doing so in a way that’s politically counterproductive. That calls for a lot of good judgment and restraint—recognizing, for example, when your reaction to Trump supporters will strike them as condescending or contemptuous—or when your frankly contemptuous view of Trump can be read as contempt for his supporters.
Here you may find helpful a line from Arthur Brooks’s prayer breakfast homily: “Ask God to take political contempt from your heart. And sometimes, when it’s too hard, ask God to help you fake it.” And, if you’re not the praying kind, you can always fall back on the generic formula for judicious political engagement: mindfulness and cognitive empathy.
The other place mindfulness and cognitive empathy can help is in keeping intra-Democratic discourse at a reasonably civil level. However good a week Trump had, the fact remains that most Americans wish he weren’t president. If they stick together, and don’t get too upset with each other, the chances are that, a year from now, he won’t be.
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A few months ago NZN ran an excerpt from my conversation with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic. Well, one of Stoicism’s rival schools of philosophy in ancient Greece was Epicureanism, and one of Massimo’s colleagues, Catherine Wilson, has written a book called How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I interviewed Catherine on The Wright Show a few weeks ago, and below is part of our conversation. I went into her book knowing little about its subject, and I came away from it feeling a real affinity with Epicureanism—not just for its very reasonable approach to living, but also for its very congenial (to me, at least) political vibes.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Why don't we start out by talking about the role of pleasure in Epicureanism. One of the connotations of the term “Epicurean” today is of a kind of hedonism, self-indulgence. And I think, on the one hand, you're going to say that that’s … misleading. On the other hand, pleasure does play a central role in the logic of Epicureanism, as a value that … you can organize your life around. Do you want to talk about that?
CATHERINE WILSON: Yeah. Hedonism is pleasure taken to extremes, and no Epicurean ever recommended that. ... They saw that there are two limitations on that: first, you usually get yourself into trouble if you go too much into the pleasures of food, drink, sex, power domination; [and second,] there are ethical limits. So there's no way to go all out and stay within the limits of Epicureanism.
On the other hand, what they do is give you a permission to enjoy innocent pleasures, and they don't see an opposition between pleasure and virtue, which all the major moral philosophies and religions seem to do. There's a kind of core of asceticism in not only Western, but Eastern thinking, and Epicureans were completely opposed to it. …
Stoics aim to be able to preserve their equanimity and even happiness under even highly adverse conditions ... and that entails an ability to, to some extent, divorce yourself from the guidance of natural emotions, right? Is there a broader distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism in the way we think about our animal nature?
Oh, I think so. … Stoics will tell you that they only want to free you of the painful emotions. [But] really, the rhetoric suggests otherwise. Seneca thinks any little bit of emotion is bad, the emotions are diseases.
Epicureans think of the emotions as like perception, something that we’re outfitted with that is conducive to our survival and functioning.
So in the first place, they think you can't just suppress your emotions by thinking in certain ways—and secondly, why would you want to? If you could just take a pill that would make you completely numb against grief, against all forms of irritation, as well as against wanting things, liking things [and] being motivated to pursue things, life would seem incredibly numb and boring…
You can read the rest of this dialogue at nonzero.org.
In a Vox interview, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political guru, launches an entertaining broadside against the Democratic Party, the not-so-obscure subtext of which is that Bernie Sanders would be a disastrous nominee. Also in Vox, Matt Yglesias argues that Bernie’s performance in Friday’s New Hampshire debate shows him to be a more skillful tactician, and better at appealing to moderates, than is appreciated by some people who think he’d be a disastrous nominee. At Informed Comment, Juan Cole weighs in on Bernie’s political viability.
Turns out Michael Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. So far as Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby can tell, this is a first in American presidential campaigns.
In Aeon, scholars Alberto Acerbi and Charlotte Brand report that over the past half century “English-language popular songs have become more negative.” Positive-emotion words have dropped in frequency, negative-emotion words have risen. The good news: the word “love” has grown in frequency over the past 15 years. More bad news: so has the word “hate.”
In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins takes a very deep dive into “the billion dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president.”
The New York Times performs a public service by asking all Democratic presidential candidates the same set of foreign policy questions and then arranging the answers so you can peruse them either by candidate or by topic. The candidate who declined to answer the most questions: Pete Buttigieg (19 out of 35!). The only candidate who called for US compliance with international law: Elizabeth Warren.
In Tricycle, Matthew Gindin explores the intertwined roots of Buddhism and Hatha yoga.
In Arc Digital, Alex Muresianu makesthe case for a return to “smoke filled rooms.” This argument is a hardy perennial; every four years someone waxes nostalgic about the days, before the ascendancy of presidential primaries, when party elites chose presidential candidates. But coming now—four years after Republican elites were unable to keep Trump from winning the nomination, and as the Democratic race features no leading candidates who look like what you’d order up from central casting to beat Trump—the argument will presumably be getting more traction than usual. (Though four years ago a Democratic candidate who was favored by party elites did get the nomination and lost to a Republican candidate who wasn’t.)
In the Washington Examiner, Damir Marusic reviews historian John Connelly’s book From Peoples Into Nations, about the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century and its earlier roots. The book argues, among other things, that nationalist movements have tended to grow out of “a perceived threat to a group’s existence.”
If you want to know just how deeply anti-Palestinian Jared Kushner’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan” is, I recommend this American Prospect piece by Israeli Daniel Levy, who played a role in past Israel-Palestine negotiations.
Remember the killing of an American contractor in Iraq that triggered a spiral of escalation that led to America’s assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani? Alissa Rubin of The New York Times reports that US intelligence may well have been wrong to attribute the contractor’s death to an Iranian-backed militia. In fact, Sunni jihadists who are enemies of Iran may have done the killing. So, as for those several dozen Iranians and Iraqis we killed during the spiral of escalation: never mind.
Since the previous issue of NZN came out, I’ve posted an episode of The Wright Show featuring Daniel McCarthy, a Trump supporter who, as the former editor of the American Conservative, can claim to have been ahead of the curve on the whole Trump thing. I learned some new things from my conversation with Daniel, such as: there’s a real fear among some Trumpists, apparently, that if America is swamped by immigrants who weren’t brought up to revere the Bill of Rights, various liberties—notably the Second Amendment right to bear arms—could be imperiled.
The humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, is concisely assessed by the International Crisis Group, which is a reliably acute analyst of conflicts and crises around the world.
A survey by the American Enterprise Institute explores the connection between politics and dating on an issue-by-issue basis. For example: having different views on abortion is a dealbraker for more people than is disagreeing over immigration.
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