Well, if you’ve been a regular reader of The Declination, you are no doubt aware that I’m not exactly in the Tom Nichols fan club. Some folks might be under the impression that my disdain for him is rooted in his status as a NeverTrumper. But that isn’t the case. My good friend Nicki is a NeverTrumper, and I take no issue with that.
The difference between Tom and Nicki is instructive. Nicki merely disagrees with a political choice, which is part of a long tradition in America, whereas Tom actively disdains Trump voters, and views them as something akin to a teeming mass of idiots ruining his intellectual utopia. Consider this article:
Just the title of this article is sensationalist clickbait. Tom pulls no punches in his disdain for the Trumpist peasantry. But if you expect the article to take a more moderate tone, you’re about to be disappointed.
President Trump’s record in his first 100 days, by any standard of presidential first terms, is one of failure. Aside from the successful nomination of the eminently qualified Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, there are almost no accomplishments — and a fair number of mistakes.
Now, don’t add me to the “Trump is perfect” fan club either. I’m rather irritated at his handling of Syria at the moment. But Tom wants us to believe that by “any standard” (he really means by his standard), Trump’s record is terrible. Worse, probably, than any other President. Yet he admits right away that Trump nominated a qualified and decent candidate to the Supreme Court.
That, in itself, is an immense thing. Many of us viewed Trump as a lesser evil precisely for this reason, because we were very concerned about what another liberal justice would do to the Court. Irrespective of his other failures, this was a huge achievement, and Tom just brushes it aside as an afterthought.
The president’s first national security adviser had to quit after a record-setting tenure of only 24 days. The administration’s first major legislative initiative, on health care, crashed and burned in a spectacular political wreck. Foreign policy has lurched from alienating China to relying on China to help us with North Korea. A rain of cruise missiles on a Syrian air base led to a brief moment of hope for those who care about humanitarian intervention (and a moment of despair for Trump’s isolationist base); less than a month later it is all but forgotten by supporters and critics alike because no actual policy emerged from this stunning use of American force.
So he held his National Security Adviser to account when the man screwed up, and this is deemed as a failure. Tom is misunderstanding how a man like Trump thinks. Trump is not thinking of political image (indeed, the idea is laughable), he is thinking in business terms. If you don’t trust a subordinate, dismiss him. Tom’s experience as a former Senate aide may be clouding his view here. If one of Obama’s advisers screwed up, Obama’s first inclination would be to cover it up. When one of Trump’s advisers screws up, Trump’s first inclination is to fire the idiot.
As for China, this is partly a recognition of a geopolitical truth: China is a “frenemy.” In some situations, we must treat them as something akin to an enemy. In other situations, we are best advised to work with them. This isn’t rocket science.
Lastly, the idea that Trump’s supporters suddenly forgot about his attack on Syria is absolutely ludicrous. My feed absolutely exploded with Trump supporters who were angry at him for this and it hasn’t stopped. No, Trump’s supporters may still be largely behind him, but they were not happy with this.
Meanwhile, almost every day produces a cringe-worthy moment of messaging failure, from spokesman Sean Spicer’s bizarre comment about how Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his own people to Trump’s claim that his ratings on a television news program were bigger than 9/11.
A spokesman makes a messaging mistake. And Tom puts this on Trump. But this is a Catch-22, because if Trump fired Sean Spicer for doing something stupid, Tom would undoubtedly call that a failure, too. “Trump had to dismiss his press secretary, he’s such a failure!”
Not surprisingly, Trump is at this point the most unpopular new president in the history of modern polling. What is bewildering is that at the same time, 96% of Trump voters say they have no regrets about their choice. How can this be? Is it just partisanship, with Americans so divided that they will simply cheer on their own team and stay loyal beyond all rational thought?
You’d think people like Tom would have learned to take these polls with a huge grain of salt, at this point. I mean, it’s not like they were all wrong about the election in the first place, right?
Anyway, Tom again is misunderstanding what’s driving the support for Trump, what’s been driving it all along. People are sick of being lied to by Washington. They know they are being lied to. They know 2+2 is not 5. You can tell them that water is not wet until you’re blue in the face, but they know you are lying.
Now, they may not be geopolitical geniuses. If you asked them about the capital city of Zimbabwe, or something, they probably won’t know. But they are intelligent enough to realize that they don’t want to send millions of their taxpayer dollars there.
The wide disagreement among Americans on the president’s performance, however, is more than partisanship. It is a matter of political literacy. The fact of the matter is that too many Trump supporters do not hold the president responsible for his mistakes or erratic behavior because they are incapable of recognizing them as mistakes. They lack the foundational knowledge and basic political engagement required to know the difference between facts and errors, or even between truth and lies.
They don’t know the difference between truth and lies, facts and errors. They have no political foundation. So, perhaps, they ought to just let their betters run things, right? If other Senate aides have this much disdain for the American people, it would explain an awful lot about DC.
As the social psychologist David Dunning wrote during the campaign, “Some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes.” In other words, it’s not that they forgave Trump for being wrong, but rather that they failed “to recognize those gaffes as missteps” in the first place.
I’ve about as much confidence in the pronouncements of a social psychologist as I do in the local astrologist, delivering palm readings out of her trailer home.
This was most evident during the campaign itself, when candidate Trump’s audiences applauded one fantastic claim after another: that he saw Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks, that the United States pays for over 70% of NATO’s costs, that he knew more than the generals about strategy. When he became president, he continued the parade of strange assertions and obsessions.
Except Muslims did cheer the 9/11 attacks. I was just watching an excellent video put out by Prager U, wherein an apostate from Islam described his own family cheering the attacks. And as for NATO, even the Washington Post admits there is some truth to the 70% figure.
The relevant part:
NATO documents show that a majority of NATO members fail to meet NATO’s guideline, established in 2006, that defense expenditures should amount to 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product. The median spending in 2015 is just 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.7 percent for the United States, NATO says. Just four other countries currently exceed the 2 percent guideline.
“The volume of the US defense expenditure effectively represents 73 per cent of the defense spending of the Alliance as a whole,” NATO says in a discussion of indirect funding. “This does not mean that the United States covers 73 per cent of the costs involved in the operational running of NATO as an organization, including its headquarters in Brussels and its subordinate military commands, but it does mean that there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States for the provision of essential capabilities, including for instance, in regard to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refueling; ballistic missile defense; and airborne electronic warfare.”
NATO concedes this imbalance has been an issue since the start of the alliance: “The combined wealth of the non-US Allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. However, non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defense.”
It depends on whether one is discussing the direct contributions to NATO, or the overall share of military expense by members of the alliance. Of course, Tom knows this too. So I’m not sure why he’s being dishonest in this respect.
To be sure, some of Trump’s voters, like any others, are just cynical and expect the worst from every elected official. Others among them grasp Trump’s failings but fall back on the sour but understandable consolation that at least he is not Clinton. But many simply don’t see a problem. “I think I like him more now that he is the president,” Pennsylvania voter Rob Hughes told New York Post writer Salena Zito.
So Tom picks a single quote by a single voter to a single publication, and then sees this as some indication that Trump voters are somehow blind to his mistakes. Clearly, Tom travels in different circles than I do, where Trump supporters are angry about Syria, and very impatient for the Wall. It’s all over social media, easy for him to see if he even bothered to look. Ann Coulter even publicly chastised him for this, and she was among his most ardent supporters. No, Trump voters are watching him like a hawk. There are exceptions, of course. But does anyone really see Trump getting a second term if he doesn’t produce the requisite Wall? I sure don’t.
There is a more disturbing possibility here than pure ignorance: that voters not only do not understand these issues, but also that they simply do not care about them. As his supporters like to point out, Trump makes the right enemies, and that’s enough for them. Journalists, scientists, policy wonks — as long as “the elites” are upset, Trump’s voters assume that the administration is doing something right. “He makes them uncomfortable, which makes me happy,” Ohio Trump voter James Cassidy told the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. Syria? Korea? Health care reform? Foreign aid? Just so much mumbo-jumbo, the kind of Sunday morning talk-show stuff only coastal elitists care about.
The elites, the journalists and policy wonks have very strong disdain for the hoi polloi. It’s utterly obvious. I remember when GamerGate first became a thing, and gamers were shocked about the articles from game journalists explaining that gamers were racist, sexist, homophobic monsters. And then said journalists were surprised that the people they were insulting suddenly didn’t like them very much.
The American news media, policy wonks, some scientists (most notably involved in climate change research) and otherwise have been doing this for decades. And now Tom is surprised that some Americans who may not even like Trump very much are nonetheless not overly concerned when he attacks those people.
In my own circles, I’ve seen a number of people who didn’t even vote for Trump nonetheless sprouting “schadenboners” at seeing how the Left and the news media are collectively melting down over his election.
There is a serious danger to American democracy in all this. When voters choose ill-informed grudges and diffuse resentment over the public good, a republic becomes unsustainable. The temperance and prudent reasoning required of representative government gets pushed aside in favor of whatever ignorant idea has seized the public at that moment. The Washington Post recently changed its motto to “democracy dies in darkness,” a phrase that is not only pretentious but inaccurate. More likely, American democracy will die in dumbness.
Who defines the public good, Tom? That’s always the question. We haven’t had a representative government for as long as I’ve been alive. It’s been an oligarchical farce, masquerading as a democracy. Occasional exceptions like Ronald Reagan were never enough to right the ship.
Tom’s fascination with calling everybody who disagrees with him stupid may be a rather extreme form of projection.
Those of us who criticized Trump voters for their angry populism were often told during and after the election not to condescend to our fellow citizens, and to respect their choices. This is fair. In a democracy, every vote counts equally and the president won an impressive and legitimate electoral victory.
Even so, the unwillingness of so many of his supporters to hold him to even a minimal standard of accountability means that a certain amount of condescension from the rest of us is unavoidable.
In every election, we must respect the value of each vote. We are never required, however, to assume that each vote was cast with equal probity or intelligence.
So the conclusion of your whole rant is exactly nothing, Tom. All it serves to do is provide you with some rationalization for why you can act condescending to Trump voters, and call them stupid.
Look, I’m not exactly Trump’s number one fan, Tom. In fact, I said some months back that in better times, I’d want to keep a man like Trump as far from the levers of power as humanly possible.
But what you’ve been missing, while putzing around political circles, is that middle America is falling apart. And the whole time it’s been falling apart, the media, the policy wonks, the politicians, celebrities, and talking heads kept telling us: “you need to sacrifice more, you need to give up more.”
Stop driving cars so much, they said. Pay more taxes, they said. Give up your nice home and comfortable energy budget. Black Lives Matter and yours don’t. You’re racist, sexist, homophobic, hateful, and bigoted. You’re stupid, they said, and so we’re going to tell you how to live. We’re going to micromanage your life for you. Then, if we decide to get in a war in some third-world shithole, you need to go die for us. And if we feel like throwing away the victory bought with your blood, too bad, because we’re smart, and you’re stupid.
After decades of this mistreatment, men like Tom are surprised that the American electorate flipped them the bird and said “fine, fuck you, enjoy Donald Trump, assholes.”
Tom, you sit there talking about how American democracy will die in dumbness. You’re wrong. American democracy is already dead. It was dead when the Democrats cleared the field for Hillary Clinton’s anointment. It was dead when the GOP tried to force Jeb down our throats. It died as the GOP establishment gained all major levels of federal power and still surrendered to the Democrats on almost every point of contention they thought they could get away with. What the people want is irrelevant to Washington. There is no democracy here. Not much of a republic either.
What the layman in the street sees is a steady expansion of government power, and a steady erosion of his fortunes. He sees more of his liberty disappearing, and more of the politically-connected getting whatever their hearts desire.
He may not be learned in the way some of us are. He may be a regular Joe, scratching a living, who never had the time and money for college. But that doesn’t mean he’s stupid. That doesn’t mean he can’t see what’s going on right in front of him. He may not necessarily understand why this is all happening or be able to articulate the exact mechanisms behind it. But he can nonetheless see the effects.
You’re pissing down his back and telling him that it’s raining. And then you’re wondering why he doesn’t trust you anymore.