Explaining why American politics is broken and everything is terrible
|Will Wilkinson||Nov 29, 2020||1|
I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving and nothing’s stopping you from swooping on Doorbusters.
This week, I published two pieces that attempt to diagnose aspects of our long national nightmare. In the New York Times, I try to explain why Trump got the second highest presidential popular vote total in American history, the GOP gained seats in the House, and didn’t (yet) lose their Senate majority, despite wrecking the economy and getting a quarter of a million Americans killed by royally screwing the pooch on the Coronavirus and getting a quarter of a million Americans killed.
In a more-related-than-you-may-think essay at the Niskanen Center, I take a crack at resolving Francis Fukuyama’s befuddlement about why American politics is so screwed by the fact that “so many conservatives can see such an imperfect vessel as Trump as the object of cultlike worship, or fear the Democrats as the embodiment of Satan.” As he correctly points out, none of the many general theories of “the rise of Trump” can really account for this. Here’s my take, in a nutshell:
Insofar as there is anything that counts as an explanation, I think it mostly comes down to the fact that “Donald Trump” is a mythical fantasy persona with fake hair, a fake tan, a fake fortune, and a real girdle invented by the flesh-and-blood Donald Trump, a viciously narcissistic criminal sociopath. Don managed to turn his insatiable, infantile craving for validation into a legendary, larger-than-life cultural reality through an astonishing talent for manipulating mass perceptions of reality. But this puts him at permanent, scorched-Earth war with anyone who would tell the truth about him. And Trump wins more than he loses because he is, in fact, a grandmaster in the art of infowar. If he weren’t, “Donald Trump,” the combed-over Paul Bunyan of models, private jets, and branded luxury real estate would not exist, and the crook who invented him would not reside in the White House. But he does. He does.
When a guy like this becomes president, takes over an entire political party and continues to commit sensational crimes, standard political science theories about polarized negative partisanship, elite cue-taking and so forth do explain a lot about why our politics have been absolutely batshit. But if you don’t account for Trump’s pathological aberrance, propaganda mastery, and unprecedented hostility to truth, you won’t be able to make sense of it.
I’ll add that this is a nice illustration of the inherent limits of theory in social science. History isn’t the chronicle of a law-governed system that generates ironclad regularities. There are loose regularities, for sure, but they’re generally the consequence of social systems getting entrenched in relative stable equilibria, which are themselves set in motion by all sorts of whimsical one-off contingencies.
Sometimes a volcano goes off and blots out the sun. Sometimes somebody takes a drink of dirty water, dies of cholera, and doesn’t invent the steam engine, or whatever, delaying a transformative shift in the fundamental structure of economic, social, and political life. And sometimes Mark Burnett’s “Survivor” hits a cultural sweet-spot, TV writers go on strike, a relentlessly self-promoting organized crime boss gets a popular reality show that propagates the lies that constitutes his tall-tale culture persona, he becomes president, hijacks the Republican Party and then tries to destroy American democracy to stay out of jail.
Speaking of looking for law-like regularities where they almost certainly aren’t, check out Graeme Wood’s fascinating Atlantic profile of Peter Turchin and his crackpot cyclical theory of history (about which I’d like to say more at some point.)
On the subject of mass partisan delusion, check out David Brooks’ recent column on Republican detachment from reality, which cites my own big “Why Trump?” theory. As it happens, I agree with all of this:
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers.
This was a holiday hiatus week for Model Citizen, but last week’s episode with Laura Feild on reactionary conservativism is burning up my analytics.
Coming up next week, I’ll be talking about pandemic response, democracy and whether our Constitution is loveable with the brilliant Danielle Allen. Subscribe now so you don’t miss it!
Have a great Cyber Monday, because that’s totally not a made-up thing invented to make Jeff Bezos richer!