Trump’s nihilism of ideas

So, I just posted on what Trump “believes” about the economy (and, really, I’m pretty sure he believes these horribly misguided things), but this David Roberts piece on Trump’s lack of beliefs is simply amazing.  Honestly, one of the best explanations I’ve read for trying to understand the craziness that is the mind of Trump.  So deserves to be read in full.  But, since what I always do is excerpt my favorite parts after I say that…

What gets somewhat lost in the media coverage of this back and forth is that there is no answer to the question of whether Trump opposed the war in 2003. In fact, the question itself is a category error — one the media and political class cannot help making toward Trump.

The question presumes that Trump has beliefs, “views” that reflect his assessment of the facts, “positions” that remain stable over time, woven into some sort of coherent worldview. There is no evidence that Trump has such things. That is not how he uses language.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind… [italics in original; bold is mine]

It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed…

What he’s doing is trying to establish dominance — to win, in his words. That’s what he uses words for. That’s how he sees every interaction in which he is involved. He is attuned only to what the words are doing, whether they are winning or losing, not to what they mean…

This point helps explain why Trump cannot ever admit a mistake or an error. He can only process accusations — of dishonesty, of cruelty — as social gambits, not as factual claims. To him, the demand that he apologize or admit error is nothing more than a dominance play. Apologizing is losing.

It helps explain why Trump has focused so much on trade, and why he sounds so much stronger and more confident talking about it than on almost any other subject. It’s not that he knows anything about it. He doesn’t. It’s just that he sees all international relations — trade deals, climate deals, NATO, whatever — as zero-sum contests, negotiations in which the only relevant question is who will dominate, who will win. And he gets that. It’s his whole life!

You get the gist.  And let me know if you’ve actually seen a better explanation for Trump’s personality and beliefs.

Understanding Trump’s misunderstanding of the economy

Among the more damning indictments of public opinion and democracy (beyond the fact that Trump is polling over 30%) is the fact that Americans actually believe Trump would be better for the economy than Clinton.

Image result for trump economy

In truth, of course, Trump is an economic disaster.  Nothing could be more telling than the fact that not a single former member of the Council of Economic Advisers endorses him for president.

So, why is he so bad?  Lots of reasons, but I love this Bill Ayers post that absolutely cuts to the heart of it.  In Trump’s deal-making world, it’s always zero-sum.  In the real world, economies almost always perform better from mutually beneficial cooperation.  Ayers:

In her opening answer to the first [debate] question, Clinton talked about cooperation and sharing – investing in workers, sharing profits, working together. The how wasn’t there, but the basic idea was clear: economic progress comes from cooperation. Wealth is created by working together.

Trump’s answer to the same question was all about competition. He talked about losing, about winning, about fighting. He framed the economy as us (the United States) against them (Mexico, China). He talked about jobs being stolen. In his view, the economy is a zero-sum game: either we win or they win. Whatever they gain, we lose. Jobs are a fixed commodity. [emphases mine]

The thing about this contrast is that it isn’t just a matter of differing philosophies or differing ideologies. Economics may be derided as “the dismal science”, but a social science it is. Questions like, “what generates more wealth – cooperation or zero-sum competition?” are not philosophical quandaries, they are empirical puzzles with real-world answers.

In this case, in the broadest terms, the answer is clear. Zero-sum competition makes everybody poorer, both through lost opportunities (“opportunity costs”, to economists) and through wasted and inefficient efforts. Cooperation, by contrast, generates wealth…

Economists disagree on many things, but this isn’t one of them. There isn’t a single economist anywhere who thinks that an economy based on the competition of all against all is a good idea. Indeed, the very notion of economic growth belies the possibility of zero-sum economics. How can we create new jobs and new wealth if all we’re doing is passing the same jobs and the same wealth around?

On this issue, Trump is not merely misguided on policy, he’s fundamentally wrong. He’s like an astronomer trying to model the solar system with the earth at its center. The world just doesn’t work that way.

This is one dimension of the presidential campaign that has both policy and moral dimensions. Policy driven by zero-sum economics will make everybody poorer. Insisting that the world is a dog-eat-dog place will make us morally poorer as well. Small wonder the world’s markets regard a Trump presidency as a disaster of the first order.

Photo of the day

From recent Telegraph photos of the day:

A mother swan and two cygnets swim across the lake in Friday morning's bright sunshine at Golden Acre park in Leeds

A mother swan and two cygnets swim across the lake in Friday morning's bright sunshine at Golden Acre park in Leeds.

Andrew McCaren/LNP

It’s hard out there for conservative evangelicals

Interesting piece in the NYT profiling religious conservatives in Iowa.  I do have some sympathy, as the ground really has shifted amazingly fast under their feet:

The change in America seemed to happen so quickly that it felt like whiplash, the Odgaards said. One day they felt comfortably situated in the American majority, as Christians with shared beliefs in God, family and the Bible. They had never even imagined that two people of the same sex could marry.

Overnight, it seemed, they discovered that even in small-town Iowa they were outnumbered, isolated and unpopular. Everyone they knew seemed to have a gay relative or friend. Mr. Odgaard’s daughter from his first marriage disavowed her father’s actions on Facebook, and his gay second cousin will not speak to him. Even their own Mennonite congregation put out a statement saying that while their denomination opposes gay marriage, “not every congregation” or Mennonite does. Mrs. Odgaard, 64, the daughter of a Mennonite minister, was devastated.

“It all flipped, so fast,” said Mr. Odgaard, a patrician 70-year-old who favors khakis and boat shoes. “Suddenly, we were in the minority. That was kind of a scary feeling. It makes you wonder where the Christians went.”

Of course, there’s still plenty of Christians (though the number is declining).  Most of them are just more tolerant.  But, I can certainly see how it would be disorienting.  That said, stuff like this (although a paraphrase rather than a quote, just kills me):

While other Americans are anxious about the economy, jobs and terrorism, conservative Christians say they fear for the nation’s very soul. Some worry that the nation has strayed so far that God’s punishment is imminent.

Give me a break?  How about how a nation treats it’s poor, disadvantaged, and prisoners instead of how it treats it’s gay people??!!  I seem to recall the Jesus saying just a wee bit more about the former.  Have these people actually read the Gospels?  You know who treats the poor, disadvantaged, and prisoners really well?  Scandinavians.  And hardly any of them are actually practicing Christians. And God has not exactly wreaked vengeance upon Denmark.  Please, spare me your concern for “the nation’s soul.”

The most amazing book review ever

Michiko Kakutani has pulled off an amazing feat with her review of a new Hitler biography.  Not once does she even make the slightest reference or allusion to Trump.  And yet, he pervades the entire review.  Read it, you’ll be glad you did.  A sample:

Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”

Is Trump the next Hitler?  Nope.  Among other things, 2010’s America is very different from 1930’s Germany and Trump, while a race-baiter, is certainly no Hitler.  But, are there disturbing personality similarities that suggest a democracy might not want to elect a leader with these personal characteristics?  Hell yes.

Polls, “polls,” and amazing ignorance

Does Donald Trump actually believe his own BS?  Is he dumb enough to believe than an on-line poll anybody can opt into multiple times tells us more than a random sample?  I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that question.  Here’s Trump’s tweet:

And here’s the reality from polls that are conducted scientifically:

Honestly, we need another word for the type of “polls” that Trump is using.  But, he just knows they are right.  TPM:

“I’ll tell you what, we had the debate the other night, and every single online poll had me winning, by sometimes a landslide. And then you go on television, and these are Time Magazine, Drudge,” Trump said, referring to two websites which hosted online polls inviting readers to react to the debate. “And I’m winning by massive margins in many cases. One was 80 percent to 20 percent!”

Such polls don’t draw data from randomized phone numbers and internet users, as more trustworthy pollsters do, and are susceptible to “brigading,” or the concerted efforts by small groups of self-selected respondents to tilt them disproportionally in favor of one option.

“And I’m winning all these polls — how many were there, seven or eight or nine? Hundreds of thousands of votes,” Trump said, “and then I have to sit back, and you have to sit back, and hear about how those polls don’t mean anything, but when they poll 300 people, that means a lot, right?” [emphasis mine]

Do I think Trump really is dumb enough to not understand the difference between self-selection and random samples?  Yes.

We’re all liars; we’re not all racists

So, I had an amazing time speaking to the whole 5th grade at my son Evan’s elementary school yesterday.  And, yes, I did teach them all about the electoral college, the power of partisanship, and even motivated reasoning.  Evan’s class is roughly 75% minority, many of them immigrant families, so suffice it to say they were not exactly Trump fans.

They had so many good questions.  The most interesting, “is Donald Trump a racist.”  I said that we couldn’t say for sure, but that racists loved Donald Trump, he strongly appeals to “white ethnocentrism” (I told them they were getting a little bit of college for the day), and that even Republicans had criticized him for making “racist comments.”

Anyway, that said, a depressing comment came from a student who mentioned a family friend who was voting for “neither the liar nor the racist.”  Ugh.  How about not voting for the racist liar?  This is so frustrating, of course, because Donald Trump is surely the most dishonest presidential candidate in modern times, if not ever.  Dara Lind:

It takes a certain kind of stubbornness to lie about things that are easy to verify.

Donald Trump does it all the time.

On Monday night, during the first presidential debate, he interrupted Hillary Clinton to deny that he had once called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

He had. It was on Twitter. It was stupidly easy to track down the proof. But instead of letting Clinton make the claim, he felt the need to butt in and deny something that everyone with a computer and 15 seconds could find out was true.

This is the point. Donald Trump lies. All the time.

He doesn’t just stretch the truth in the way most politicians do: selectively citing facts that make them look good, deliberately omitting ones that make them look bad, overstating or understating the probable impact of the campaign promises they make.

No, he just says things that aren’t true. And he knows it. Sometimes it’s something big — a conspiracy theory to excuse his global-warming denialism. Sometimes it’s so minor that its unnecessariness makes it all the more infuriating…

It almost seems like it would be easier for Trump to tell the truth. But lying certainly hasn’t hurt him yet.

Even though factcheckers deploy their forces on Trump regularly, he never apologizes or retracts. Calling out his lies doesn’t make his supporters any less loyal to him. People consistently find him more “honest and trustworthy” than his opponent. He still has a reasonable chance of becoming the 45th president of the United States…

Donald Trump lies. It’s what he does. And it’s not hurting him at all.

His nonchalant dishonesty is horrifying. The fact that much of the American public simply doesn’t appear to care about his dishonesty — or that they don’t consider it a deal breaker for a potential president of the United States to tell several lies even on his most honest days — is more so…

We are looking at an existential threat to a key principle of democratic discourse: People can only debate and persuade each other if they agree on the basic facts of the world around them. They are entitled to their own opinions but not entitled to their own facts.

Every single time Donald Trump lies, that principle gets a little shakier and harder to maintain.

Politics isn’t poetry. A statement that is facially false but that hits at an emotional truth is still facially false. And it makes it all the harder for people who respond to the emotional truth to talk to those who don’t — they have no shared basis on which to discuss.

Shared facts should be the bedrock of democracy; Trump is turning it into a Jenga tower.

And, yet Hillary is the liar?!  Sorry, but cannot say anything but, “thanks liberal media” for that.  Of course Hillary has lied.  More than most long-time politicians?  Maybe, but not by more than a standard deviation.  Maybe less.  Meanwhile she is regularly portrayed as “the liar” against the most dishonest candidate ever?!

But, here’s what I said to the students… “raise your hand if you’ve ever lied.”  Of course, they all did.  We all lie.  Some more than others (ummm, Trump), but it’s part of the human condition.  Actually having automatically-activated racial stereotypes is part of the human condition, too.  But  being a racist definitely is not.  Even if this dichotomy were accurate, I would have to take the liar over the racist.  We’re all liars; we’re not all racists.

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