an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

solving the world’s problems, one bastard at a time..

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Canto: Let’s talk about something more gripping for a while. Like, for example, the global political situation.

Jacinta: Mmmm, could you narrow that down a bit?

Canto: No, not really… Okay, let’s take the most politically gripping issue of the moment, the possibility of nuclear annihilation for thousands of South Koreans or Japanese – and then North Koreans – due to the somewhat irresponsible launchings and detonations of massively destructive weaponry by a guy who we can reasonably assume to be intoxicated with his own power – and I do believe power to be the most toxic and dangerous drug ever conceived. And then we can talk about all the other issues.

Jacinta: Well as for the Kim jong-un issue, I suspect I can speak for a lot of people when I say I oscillate between dwelling on it and dismissing it as something I can do nothing about. What else do you want me to say. To say I’m glad we’re not in the way of it all would seem inhumane…

Canto: Do you have any solutions? What should we do from here?

Jacinta: We? You mean ‘the west’? Okay, from here on in, I’d cease all direct communications with Kim – all threats, all comments, everything. That only seems to make him worse.

Canto: But it can hardly get worse. Don’t we need to act to remove his threats, which are a bit more than threats?

Jacinta: Well of course the best solution, out of a bad lot, would be to have him disappear, like magic. Just deleted. It’s impossible, but then I’ve heard some people do six impossible things before breakfast.

Canto: He’s only 33 apparently, and according to Wikipedia he’s married but childless…

Jacinta: I’m not saying deleting him would be a good option, it’d presumably cause chaos, a big power struggle, a probable military takeover, unpredictable action from China, and all the weaponry, such as it is, would still be there. And we have no idea how to do it anyway.

Canto: I’m sure they have some plan of that type. The CIA’s not dead yet.

Jacinta: Yeah I’m sure they have some back-drawer plan somewhere too, but I wouldn’t misunderestimate the incompetence of the CIA.

Canto: So what if we follow your do-and-say-nothing policy? Don’t aggravate the wounded bear. But maybe the bear isn’t wounded at all. NK just detonated something mighty powerful, though there’s some controversy over whether it was actually thermonuclear. Anyway it’s unlikely the country just developed this powerful weapon in the few months that Trump has been acting all faux-macho. Who knows, this may have taken place if Clinton or someone else was in power in the US.

Jacinta: Interesting point, but then why are so many people talking about tit-for-tat and brinkmanship? They may have had the weapon, and maybe a lot more, but Kim’s decision to detonate it now, to show it, seems to have been provoked. It’s classic male display before a rival. Think of the little mutt snapping at the mastiff’s heels. Fuck you, big boy, I’ve got teeth too.

Canto: Yeah, but this little mutt has teeth that can wipe out cities. In any case, now he’s been provoked, and it’s unlikely that Trump and his cronies are going to damp down the belligerent rhetoric, the rest of us seem to be just sitting tight and waiting for this mutt to do some damage inadvertently/on purpose, and then what will happen? Say a missile goes astray and lands on or near a Japanese city? Untold casualties…

Jacinta: I think China will be key here. Not that I have any faith in the Chinese thugocracy to act in any interest other than its own.

Canto: Or the Trumpocracy for that matter.

Jacinta: I suspect China might step in and do something if it came to the kind of disaster you’ve mentioned. Though whether they have a plan I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually if they’re having urgent closed-door talks right now on how best to take advantage of the crisis.

Canto: Well don’t worry, Trump and our illustrious leader are have a phone call today to sort it all out.

Jacinta: I’m really not sure what there is to talk about. An American first strike would have horrific cascading effects, and upping the tempo of military exercises in the neighbouring regions will just make Kim more reckless, to go by past experience. So if we don’t have any communication directed at him, he might continue with building bombs, but he would’ve done that anyway. So, though we’re not making matters any better, neither are we making them worse, which we are doing by goading him. Meanwhile we should be talking around NK. It’s like the elephant in the room. No sense talking to the elephant, he doesn’t speak our language (actually that’s a bad example, as intelligent mammals elephants have a lot in common with us…). Anyway we should be talking to significant others to try to build a team that can deal with the elephant.

Canto: Teamwork, that seems highly likely.

Jacinta: Yeah, I know everyone has a different agenda with regard to the elephant, but surely nobody wants to see anyone nuked. And the US shouldn’t be wasting its time talking to Australia, though I suspect Trump will be talking to Turnbull re troop commitments rather than any serious solution.

Canto: And by the way, we’re talking about Trump here, he’s never going to quit with the macho bluster. That’s a given.

Jacinta: All right so all we can do is hope – it’s out of our hands. But it seems to me that all his advisers are telling him a first strike isn’t an option, so maybe he will listen.

Canto: Maybe he’ll listen about the first strike, but he won’t stop the bluster and the goading. So Kim will continue to react by testing missiles and such, until something goes horribly wrong, and Trump will feel justified in delivering a second strike, and things’ll get very bloody and messy.

Jacinta: Okay, you’re getting me depressed, but if I can return to teamwork, the thing to do is get the team on board – the UN as well as the key players, China, Russia and of course South Korea and Japan. That means putting aside all the bad blood and really working as a team.

Canto: To do what? Get NK to stop producing nukes? Putin has already said that would be a no-goer, given their position.

Jacinta: Right, so that would be a starting point for discussion. Why does Putin think that, and what would be his solution, or his advice? And China’s? I’m assuming everybody’s uncomfortable about NK, though some are clearly more uncomfortable than others. So get a discussion going. What does Russia think the US should do about NK? What does China think Russia should do? Does anyone have good advice for South Korea?

Canto: You’re being hopelessly naive. I suspect Russia and China would approach this issue with complete cynicism.

Jacinta: Well let’s be well-meaning rather than naive. I think we’re inclined to be a co-operative species. I think cynicism can dissipate when confronted with a genuine desire to listen and co-operate. You know I’ve described all of the main actors here – Trump, Putin, Li Keqiang and his henchmen, and of course Kim Jong-un, as macho scumbags and the like, but maybe its time to appeal to the better angels of their natures, and ours, to find a peaceful resolution to this mess.

Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm

the little dictator and his acolyte

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Having seen how Russia acts within the framework of what we call hybrid warfare, I really don’t exclude anything when it comes to Russian operations in other countries.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General, NATO alliance, 2014

We’re living in interesting times, and I can’t help but be both enthralled and horrified them, so I’ll be dividing my time for a while between science and current international developments in politics and culture.

I wrote my recent post before I’d quite finished Masha Gesson’s 2012 biography of Putin, but I find that her epilogue, together with an afterword written in 2014, is by far the most important part of the book as regards the future for Putin’s ambitions, for Russia and for our response to his antics. And of course there’s also Trump’s love affair with the apoplectically anti-democratic dictator, which is no laughing matter.

Vladimir Putin’s rise to the leadership of Russia was unlikely, as the subtitle of Gessen’s book suggests. It seems that he was was plucked out of obscurity to be the saviour of Russia, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. But of course the story is far more complicated than that.

I want to compare (albeit briefly) Putin’s background, and even his appeal, with that of Adolf Hitler, partly because I’m challenged by recent claims that one should never invoke Hitler as a comparison (bullshit I say), but more importantly because the similarities are screamingly obvious. It seems to me that in many ways Putin is a Hitler constrained by the rapid rise of internationalism, which was itself largely a response to Hitler’s nationalistic adventurism. Certainly, the horrors of Nazism are behind us, but make no mistake, Putin’s attacks on homosexuality, which of course are in line with his own brutal, primitive instincts, are every bit as totalising as Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews in the thirties. Certainly there’s a greater cynicism in Putin’s approach, and there’s no doubt that international attention will parry his blows against gays, but I’ve no doubt that Putin’s attitude to homosexuality is sincere, and might be put down to his being picked on as a slight and effeminate-looking youth. This persecution clearly affected him profoundly, causing him to take up martial arts and body-building and such, but I’m not particularly interested in the psychology behind his bigotry. The Dunedin Studies have shown me that character formation occurs remarkably early, and those early years are lost to most analysts in Putin’s case. Anyway, I’m more interested in the effects of his bigotry on the Russian psyche.

While Putin isn’t as shallow as Trump, neither is he deep. He’s a product of a profoundly dysfunctional world, and he found solace and identity in the KGB, the western world’s laughing stock (its successor, the FSB, is entirely a tool of Putin). From what I can gather, he was a doted-on only child, who grew up in the ruins of Leningrad/Petrograd, Russia’s second city. Like Hitler, he seems to have been devastated by the loss of something, nationally, that once promised greatness, and he may have taken this personally. Of course international developments since Hitler’s time would have largely quashed imperialistic ambitions, which is why it seems more accurate to see Putin as a mafioso-style crime boss, extremely petty-minded, vengeful and gleeful about the suffering of his ‘enemies’ – and probably generous to a fault to those who are most complete in their sycophancy.

What we do know is that Putin, like Hitler, is largely impervious to basic human values, but much better than Hitler at hiding the fact. Don’t expect much from his assurance, more or less forced from him by the new French President Emmanuel Macron, that he would investigate gay persecution in Chechnya, a region he bombed into submission when first gaining power in 1999-2000. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was later described by the UN as ‘the most destroyed city on earth’, with tens of thousands of civilians killed. The state has been ruled for some time by Ramzan Kadyrov, not so much a Putin puppet as a fellow-traveller who has learned from the Russian’s mafioso methods. Apparently, he’s both more charismatic and more openly brutal, having murdered a vast number of his enemies. It’s unlikely that this macho thug would take or expect advice on the treatment of homosexuals by his thuggish Russian mentor. Yet while Kadyrov’s political independence is more a relief than a burden to Putin, some 85% of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow, and this is the ultimate measure of Putin’s power over the region.

The murder of enemies (just a name for those who act defiantly, or even independently, and who might have some influence), often in far-flung parts, is the most recognisable feature of Putin’s (and Kadyrov’s) dictatorship, but there are others, including threats to bordering countries, and endless attempts to interfere with democratic elections worldwide. Of course Putin went well beyond threats when he moved swiftly to annex Crimea in March 2014. The move seems not to have been for economic reasons, as it’s expected that large sums of money will be needed to prop up the region. It seems to have been a land grab in defiance of the pro-European overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It would also have been done for domestic reasons, to suggest to his long-suffering people the fantasy that Russia is still a great nation that can throw its weight around. It’s likely that the annexation greatly improved the petty dictator’s domestic stocks, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much room to manoeuvre today in terms of Russian expansionism – though the Baltic states are understandably anxious about Putin’s intentions there – so it’s not surprising that he’s turned his attention to his first love, espionage and the perversion of justice, in trying to manipulate the outcome of foreign elections in favour of their most anti-democratic candidates. He appears to have been partially successful in somehow fashioning more support for Marine Le Pen in France than she had a right to expect, but clearly his greatest coup was to infiltrate the recent US election to a degree that has – somewhat belatedly – alarmed many pundits.

The current US President has praised Putin more than any other democratically elected leader. He would certainly like to have the power over his nation that Putin has over Russia, but the fact is that he just doesn’t have the nous to use that power effectively, even for his own benefit. As David Frum and many others have pointed out, Trump isn’t a smart businessman, even in the field of real estate. He’s a big-noter and a bullshit artist who’s incapable of the strategic planning required even to be a semi-succssful mafioso boss. His ham-fistedness, however, has to be seen in some respects as a saving grace. The job of more responsible leaders and powerful figures in the USA now is to provide a convincing case to the public that the Trump administration’s ties and indebtedness to Putin and his henchmen are massively detrimental to the country they’ve been elected to administer, and to the western democracies in general. Many journalists and public intellectuals – I’ll mention David Frum, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Lilia Shevtsova, but I’m a complete novice in this field, so apologies for not mentioning others at this point – have been firm in arguing against any rapprochement with Russia under Putin, whose anti-western propaganda for domestic consumption has risen to bizarre proportions in recent years. It’s time for more western and particularly US leaders, on both side of the political fence, to argue strongly for isolating Russia under Putin. One way to do this is to go in hard on Russian political interference in the US and other prominent countries – the hybrid warfare that NATO’s Secretary-General spoke of. And this will surely have the added benefit of substantially weakening, and maybe even derailing, the Trump administration.

The little dictator will complete his first six-year term in office in 2018. Actually, this will complete 19 years of  effective dictatorship, and he has altered the Russian constitution to enable him to stand for office again. If successful, he may retire, at 71, after 25 years in power in Russia (the longest reign since the time of the Czars), having given up on modernisation and economic development and left behind a state characterised by cronyism, thuggery, stagnation and misery, and a fantasy that it is an alternative to the ‘decline of the west’, though hopefully few of Russia’s intellectuals are taken in by this.

But Putin’s success isn’t guaranteed. As Gessen and others have pointed out, he got a real scare in the lead-up to the last election, and was quite possibly only saved from defeat, or at least from ‘legitimate’ success, by his campaign against homosexuality and ‘decadence’. Recently there have been sizeable demonstrations against corruption in Russia, and no-one is more corrupt than Putin. The Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova is particularly critical of those pundits who appear to have given up on the possibility for a fairer, more open and democratic Russia. Her remarks here are passionate and timely:

This means that Russians are incorrigible, doomed to be manipulated, and ready to tolerate repressive rule. I don’t know what information the authors are privy to that makes them so sure that the Russians will continue clinging to Putin. Why are the experts so sure of that? Do they know something about us Russians that we are unaware of? This approach can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that respects international conventions. In other words, we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations, and we cannot rid ourselves of the serf’s mindset. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians; it is racist as well.

We should do everything in our power to support those in Russia who oppose Putin and his corrupt state, and to isolate him if he manages to wangle power for himself for six more years.

 

https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/03/how-the-west-misjudged-russia-part-4-mad-about-medvedev/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/08/putins-dragon

Gessen, Masha, The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin

See also these interviews from Sam Harris ‘s Waking Up podcast: Timothy Snyder, the road to tyranny; Anne Applebaum, the Russia connection; Gary Kasparov, the Putin question.

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2017 at 10:06 am