Monday, December 7, 2015

Trump and the Conspiracist Within: An Auto-Commentary

So was that Trump/database story that I repeat at the end of the last post all a huge canard? No, not exactly, though I admit now that it needs to be handled with somewhat more caution than I displayed at the time.

I saw the warning signs when it first broke and ought to have paid more attention. It had the mark of the "too-bad-by-which-I-mean-too-good-to-be-true" story that bears out one's own direst predictions so perfectly that any resulting feelings of justified outrage and disgust are muted by an inward glow of validated prophecy. I confess to feeling the same kind of moral Schadenfreude that a David Icke follower might experience on seeing a headline in a mainstream newspaper declare: "Obama acknowledges membership in reptoid race from Draco; supporters undeterred."

As that hypothetical suggests, one should distrust most and treat with the greatest skepticism precisely those stories that meet this kind of compensatory emotional need (to gloat over the appalling moral transgressions of others is, after all, not altogether different from glorying in their misfortunes-- hence the Schadenfreude). And then there was the fact that the first coverage I saw on the database story seemed to attribute a precision and coherence to Trump in the reporter's own narration that was at odds with the raving tone of the direct quotations. All of this touched off a few suspicions on my part, to which I should have listened. But then, the story seemed to have been picked up in enough reputable sources, from the NYT to the Jerusalem Post, that I figured I was on solid ground in repeating it.

Then I stopped following this particular story for a week or two. I might defend this neglect by saying that I try to find better things to do with my time than monitor Trumpisms, if it weren't for the fact that, in the meantime, I recycled this database story in more contexts than I care to admit, treating it (as many of the Left have done) as a sort of ultimate (if you'll pardon me) trump card in any conversation with friends and contemporaries who continue to doubt the unadulterated menace represented by the man's campaign.

I can see now it should have been yet another warning sign as to the story's veracity that I had stopped hearing about Trump and databases by the end of the first week, and the "Trump wants to register all Muslims" claim started being left off the usual (and still growing) lists of his various obscenities and atrocities (the rest of which are undisputed, but more on those later). Like all Cassandras crying doom, however, I took it as a perverse confirmation of my own truthfulness that no one else seemed to be harping as heavily on the database theme -- "Why do the fools not see?" is the refrain of the conspiracist, and of course, translated, it means just the opposite. What would actually upset the worldview of the conspiracist is if the fools did see.

I had the misfortune, however, of repeating the Trump database story last night to someone better informed than myself. I was politely corrected and then sent back down the rabbit hole of blog and counter-blog (for those who, like me, didn't take this journey through wonderland during the week when it was actually fresh news, you can begin it here and here among other places, and see how deep it goes).

The upshot of the chase, to save you the time, is that the reporter who initially got Trump to admit he was "open" to the idea of the database, special IDs, etc. did so in a fairly underhanded way, introducing the idea into the conversation himself, and in a loud room. It is not entirely clear Trump knew what he was signing on for. The coverage I and most of us saw on this subject in the first days after it broke was pretty sloppy-- and maybe even duplicitous -- and it appeared in venues that really ought to have known better. My and other people's later repetitions of this story then magnified the charge in an unfair way, so that the databases became Trump's own idea -- more than that, a policy blueprint for his four years in office.

This kind of lazy reporting is unfortunate in the general way in which any relaxation of journalistic standards sets a dangerous precedent. I find it particularly embarrassing and galling when employed against Trump, however, since he is himself such a spouter of ostentatious mendacity. After all, Trump really did make the comment about hundreds of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey "cheering" the collapse of the World Trade Center. A scrupulous attention to the truth is the only way to defeat someone who traffics in such deadly falsehoods.

Furthermore, slipshod treatment of Trump by the media risks adding fuel to the notion that he is a "truth-teller" and the victim of a conspiracy of distortion at the hands of the "mainstream media." Trump has already proven himself to be an adept in the "paranoid style" that thrives on such claims, and which has such a colorful history, let us say, in the annals of American demagoguery. May we never forget Trump's role in fostering "birtherism," his hate-mongering against the modern day Scottsboro boys who were charged in the Central Park jogger case and later found innocent, his cracked theories on immigration, and so forth. He is willing to tap into a deep wellspring of conspiracism on the extreme right, and as one of that tendency's leading contemporary students, Michael Barkun, has pointed out,  this subculture and milieu tends already to assume that any claims the reputable media holds as true must be false, and any pseudo-factual claims that the media uniformly rejects as mistaken must for that very reason be true.

This pattern is already manifesting itself in the Trump subculture, if it is not too early to speak of such a thing. The complete failure of anyone to adduce any evidence that Muslim Americans in New Jersey were celebrating the collapse of the twin towers is evidently being taken by Trump's votaries as only more proof of the magnitude of the cover-up, etc. Trump has been proudly averring that his acolytes have been writing in from all over the country to tell him that they too remember seeing news reports on TV about Muslim Americans dancing on streets and rooftops in New Jersey after 9/11-- and I don't doubt that they have been making just such claims.

A certain amount of this categorical reversal of truth and falsehood is inevitable in human cultures, due to the perennial emotional appeal of conspiracism, but it is a tendency that is perilously reinforced every time the media actually does fail to do its homework.

Moreover, so long as we resort to cheap-shot tactics of various kinds against demagogues-- and this is the final danger I wish to point out -- we become exponents of a kind of "paranoid style" ourselves. Those of us who swallowed too hastily the original version of the database story were also engaging in a kind of conspiracist pattern, as follows.

In Richard Hofstadter's essay that gave us our language of "the paranoid style," he suggests that believers in conspiracy theories, which typically pit a virtuous but marginalized caste of truth-seekers (themselves)  against an absolutely powerful and utterly remorseless elite of insiders, are practicing a kind of "self-projection" onto their imagined adversaries. They are opening a psychic safety valve, which allows them to remove themselves from their own libidinous desires and will to power by ascribing such feelings exclusively to the enemy, and never to their own imperfect natures.

If this is true, and I believe it is, it must also be said in fairness that those of us who condemn conspiracists often do so because we find in them-- albeit, in monstrously exaggerated forms-- some of our own intellectual failings and temptations-- and these are things we find far more psychologically tolerable to locate in someone else than to acknowledge in ourselves. Thus, in laughing over the preposterously outsized manifestations of such fallacies in the conspiracists, we are also engaging in a kind of self-projection. In my own use of the Trump/database story, did I not fail to scrutinize it thoroughly enough precisely because it fit so snugly into a viewpoint to which I was already committed? Did I not take the relative silence of the media weeks later as, again, a perverse confirmation of its validity? I have met the conspiracist, and he is me.


None of which is to say, though, that Trump actually does oppose the "database"!-- and this at last is the only really important point. It turns out that Trump actually does have the kind of perfect indifference to equal protection under the law and the feelings and civil rights of Muslim people that was attributed to him in the original article, and this too will become clear if you follow the rabbit warren linked above. Even if the database wasn't Trump's own idea, after all, he has since refused to actually repudiate it, despite being handed numerous opportunities to do so. In fact, every time since then that he's been asked pointblank whether he would endorse a federal database for all Muslim citizens,  he has repeated that he is open to the idea -- though each time he has then gone on to muddy his answer with a string of non-sequiturs, leading to the presumption by this point that he intends never to actually clarify whether he would flagrantly violate the civil rights of an entire group of citizens or not-- which is horrifying enough in itself, in a popular presidential candidate.

It appears that deep in the puerile cavity of his mind, Trump recognizes that a straight affirmative answer to these questions would be going too far, even for him. But he is also refusing to take his usual tack (as he did over the matter of his mockery of a reporter with a disability) of simply denying the recent past. It all seems to mean that the original headline on this story has proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump has now acknowledged that he is "open" to a database. The reporter may have first planted the idea in his mind and milieu, and shame on him for doing so, but apparently it has lodged. Atrocities have been sparked by more absurd borrowings and unintended consequences than that.

And then there's all the other statements from Trump, which none have denied. There is his grotesque fabrication about Muslim Americans celebrating 9/11 -- a claim that, as a friend pointed out to me, functions in American politics as a kind of ultimate malediction. It is a 21st century equivalent of blood libel, or the Protocols-- something garishly fraudulent and yet terrifyingly capable of taking root in certain imaginations. There is also Trump's suggestion that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies ought to have been "roughed up" by the crowd even more than he was. I was reminded of the British Union of Fascist's Olympia rally in 1934, where blackshirted goons attacked and forcibly removed a group of left-wing protesters. The difference there, however, is that Oswald Mosley's collusion in his underling's violent tactics cost him the support of establishment conservatives, who until then had played vaguely with the thought of supporting the BUF, whereas the Republican Party seems to be moving closer to making its peace with Trump, despite all he has said and done.

So the indictment that was first served against Trump still stands. He is indeed "open" to a database, or at least brutally indifferent to any claims that he should distance himself from such a view. He really has shown himself willing to toy with extravagantly dangerous ideas-- ones that do merit comparison with fascism (which is not the same as saying that Trump is the moral equivalent of Hitler). The downward cascade in our standards of public decency is a real one. There used to be some ethical boundaries in our range of debate that provided a modicum of assurance to religious and ethnic minorities that they would not be scapegoated, at least not so openly, routinely, and shamelessly-- Trump is transgressing them all. He has replaced the racist dog-whistle which has served the far right for the past forty years with a blaring fog horn.

Those of us who recycled, as if by a game of digital telephone, a story about him that was -- at least initially-- exaggerated, may have made fools of ourselves by doing so. But Trump's character has hardly been burnished by that fact. Our humiliation is not Trump's exaltation. We have, however, dealt an unfortunate blow to our own efforts to defeat the terrifying momentum of his campaign and the fatal escalation of his rhetoric.

And that's the thing about the fatal escalation of rhetoric-- it keeps on escalating.

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