Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Trump Movement's Dark Reflective Equilibrium

All of us have certain broad principles of justice we claim to adhere to. All of us, equally, have a variety of individualized judgments we make on the particular moral cases and controversies we might consider on a daily basis. Needless to say, sometimes our broad principles and our particular judgments don't precisely line up. In such cases, we can either modify the principle to account for the particular judgment or modify our case-specific judgments so they match the principle. Neither move is inherently more or less legitimate than the other -- sometimes reference back to a broad principle can tell us that our assessment of an individual case is mistaken, other times the exigencies of a concrete scenario can illuminate a flaw or inadequacies in our principles. The process of moving back in forth between the general and the specific, trying to bring the two into alignment, is known as "reflective equilibrium".

The rise of Donald Trump -- openly racist, avowedly xenophobic, deeply misogynistic, contemptuous of the very idea of rule of law -- has made me rethink some very basic assumptions I had about the American polity. Most notably, it raised the question about whether racism really had just gone to ground -- people's views not so much changing from the 1960s as being covered up until the moment was right. Yet it remained difficult for me to accept the idea that nothing changed, that this was simply the people getting what they always wanted. Was it really the case that a good 45% or so of Americans had always been secretly thirsting for far-right autocracy, awaiting only the right standard-bearer? Did bedrock American values regarding rule of law, regarding basic temperament for office, regarding human rights and liberties, really have so little purchase?

As I've been thinking about it, I've wondered if we are witnessing folks go through the reflective equilibrium, darkly. Many Americans, it is clear, held some pretty brutal case-specific views regarding social outgroups -- including mass deportations of immigrants and religious tests on public office. And Trump stood before them and endorsed those views loud and clear, but also was unyielding in identifying the principles that such particularistic views were and were not compatible with. Even the time-worn platitudes about colorblindness wouldn't do. And people, as reflective equilibrium would predict, adjusted their principles accordingly. And in doing so, well, that made certain other, still more radical specific proposals seem a little less out-of-bounds. Maybe we should endorse violence against protesters. Maybe it's okay to lob Holocaust imagery at Jewish journalists. And back-and-forth we go, the boat rocking ever-steadily towards fascism.

When I fret about a Donald Trump presidency, the first thing that springs to my mind is not a particular policy -- as abhorrent as I'm sure I'd find most of them. It's a question of more fundamental principle: the very idea of "rule of law". If a court tells Donald Trump he can't do something, can anyone say with confidence he'll listen? Does he believe, in any meaningful sense, in limited authority when he's the authority? Does he believe he's constrained by the rules, orders, statutes, cases, precedents? This charge -- thrown with such reckless abandon at Hillary Clinton ("there’s no politician who has been at the center of so many scandals that have turned out to be worth so little") -- is a very real concern when it comes to Trump. This is not someone who will work the system in a way I'd cluck my tongue at. This is a guy who may well destroy the system if it doesn't bend to his every whim.

The scariest thing about the Trump movement, then, is not that its adherents don't see how their man flouts the conventions that keep America's constitutional system afloat. The scariest thing is the prospect that they do see it, and they're simply okay with it -- those values and principles aren't what guides them anymore. To support Trump and his specific policies would require tossing out significant swaths of what makes America recognizable as a constitutional democracy. And so, on reflection, they reached a new equilibrium.


Mark said...

Two posts for context (they are related by linkage), althouse and the linked post by scott adams.

You accuse Trump of racism, but as noted above, the persuasive point of Trumps is that America is a "team" .. not a divisive message like the Obama and the liberal side has been touting for decades.

Even the time-worn platitudes about colorblindness wouldn't do. Like MLK? I realize racists like yourself like to view people by the color of their skin (or their gender), but people who want to judge by the content of their character and ability are the "time worn" platitude uses and the "real" racist. Yeah, right. Logically that doesn't wash. When will your realize judging different people by different standards is divisive ... judging them by the same standards is not.

It's a question of more fundamental principle: the very idea of "rule of law". If a court tells Donald Trump he can't do something, can anyone say with confidence he'll listen? Seriously? This is your question. How about the ability of say a Ms Clinton to follow the law. This is a lady who was not indicted by the FBI because "she didn't intend", "wasn't aware" and "wasn't competent to understand" ... try that when you get arrested for anything ... (sorry officer, I wasn't aware that was against the law, I didn't intend to do that, I'm not competent to understand the consequences ... those are all apparently for the liberal crowd valid "get out of jail" cards.) Try it even when stopped for speeding. Won't work ... unless ... how exactly did that work? What was the Bill Clinton thing with the Attorney General all about anyhow? Hmmm? But Constitution ... that's safe. Riiight.

Seriously? Trump is the problem for the law? It is yet another "scandal that turned out to be so little". The Benghazi thing .. so little? Apparently sending a guy to jail for political gain is not a big thing ... if you're a progressive. How about subverting the trust of the IRS ... oh, wait. The Democrats have already done that.

Yes in a rational world the GOP wouldn't have such a clown for their candidate and the Democrats wouldn't have a felon as theirs. It's the choice: clown or felon? After reading Clinton Cash and watching security thing ... yikes. Clearly the clown might be better after all, we know Clinton will sell out the US for profit.

David Schraub said...

Mark, there really is an impressive amount of projection here. (1) Obama -- he who literally launched his national career on objecting to the "red states/blue states" divide -- is the divisive one. The idea that Obama has touted divisiveness -- particularly on racial lines -- is one of those things that is apparently so obvious it need not come with any examples of it actually happening.

(2) Anyone who's read more that one paragraph from MLK's oeuvre would know he was quite okay with race-conscious policies -- as he wrote in "Why We Can't Wait": “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.” But that's not the point -- the point is that Republicans have now abandoned even that platitude -- openly endorsing racial profiling and running a campaign that is not remotely shy in targeting outgroups on basis of race. At this point, even the platitude of colorblindness has been tossed out. We're back to simply openly agreeing that government should target racial outgroups for detrimental treatment. Even if you do claim to support "colorblindness", there is no feasible way you can attribute that position to team Trump.

(3) As any lawyer knows, many crimes do in fact come with an "intent" standard (whether found directly in the statute, or functionally the requirement for prosecution). This is hardly some made-up-nonsense only good for the Clintons. And more broadly, the pattern demonstrated here is disturbing. First, Republicans accuse Hillary of some wrongdoing. An investigation goes on for however long. Eventually, it fizzles out with no charges; which conservatives take not to be repudiation but proof that the Clintons have law enforcement in their pocket. Then it happens again, and the scandal leads nowhere again, and the conclusion drawn is that they really have law enforcement in their pocket. And round and round we go -- the possibility that maybe all these "scandals" really are ginned up nonsense never crossing anyone's mind.

If you think the choice is between a clown and a felon, well, Hillary Clinton is not a felon. Despite 30 years of incessant Republican efforts to smear here with anything and everything, she's never been convicted of anything (to my knowledge, never even charged). So we're left with a clown, and a smart, capable woman who's held several major national offices with distinction. That's only a hard choice if you want it to be one.

EW said...

I read Schraub’s commentary as a meditation on privilege—in particular, his.

1. Recall that people vote for the person they identify with, not necessarily the person they agree with. Most Americans favored a freeze in the building of nuclear weapons even as they voted for Ronald Reagan.

That said, for many people, the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is the least of their discomforts, so “reflective equilibrium” will be a long time in coming. A life of intellectual integrity is mostly a life of the privileged. The exigencies of life require most of us to make compromises.

EW said...

2. I’ve also wondered about the rise of overt appeals to racism. I’ve also been shocked to see how vociferously people respond to these appeals. And I’ve reflected on the idea that society has not in fact made progress in reducing racism, but rather has merely placed a veneer of civility over it.

And I now think this is accurate. The problem is not that the infection of racism has remained in certain dark corners and has now resurfaced. It’s worse than that. Rather, the problem is this: When times get bad, people look for new strategies. And some people will strike upon the strategy of forming alliances and hoarding resources for themselves at the expense of others. Race is merely one common basis for alliance. Thus, we could stamp out racism utterly—but as soon as times get bad, some people will revive this strategy if they think it will prove adaptive.

What happened during the Great Depression? In Europe, we saw the rise of race-based fascism. In the US, we heard FDR exhorting Americans to solidarity—but we saw policies that promoted the welfare of poor whites while excluding poor blacks. To his credit, FDR didn’t vilify blacks. But there was clearly an attitude that said that there was not enough to go around, and so blacks would be on the outside.

So here’s the privilege part: We imagine that we’ve proudly embraced new social norms that eschew racism in favor of meritocracy. Yet nepotism is alive and well among all segments of society that have any advantages to bestow—but everyone agrees to regard the practice as shameful. In short, we proudly embrace meritocracy only so long as it produces outcomes we like, and quietly abandon it when it doesn’t.

When the economy is growing at a good clip, meritocracy will generate sufficiently agreeable results for a sufficiently large segment of the population that the whole system will seem self-sustaining. But what about when the economy doesn’t grow as fast?

This is one of the ironies of contemporary US politics: Republicans are willing to sacrifice the welfare of the poor in order to promote economic growth—a growth which tends to favor progressive policies. Democrats are willing to compromise growth in order to adopt policies that care for the poor—even though the loss of growth will tend to strengthen reactionary forces.)

Trump speaks for those for whom meritocracy has no merit. In contrast to the cold rejection of meritocracy, the warm embrace of racial solidarity seems pretty good. And the argument they should surrender that embrace and sacrifice their own welfare for the benefit of a system that would discard them? People making that argument look pretty privileged indeed.

Fortunately, these people are not sufficiently numerous to turn an election—yet. So we will be able to maintain our meritocracy, such as it is, and will be able to continue to discard those who can’t cut it. Of course, every economy system does this. But in the days of racism, the discarded could at least find solidarity with each other. Today, the discarded can only feel shame. They’re bowling alone.

EW said...

3. As an aside, do we have cause to think that slower economic growth is systemic, rather than just a momentary thing?

I wonder. The law of diminishing marginal returns tells us that as you pursue any objective more and more, you are likely see diminishing returns. If you hire one person, you will hire the best person you can find. If you hire two, you will hire the best and the second best--who, by definition, will not be as good as the best. And so on.

Today’s world has more capital than ever before. More resources are pursuing opportunities than ever before. And this should lead to a result in which the return on investment grows ever smaller. Moreover, there are more opportunities to substitute capital for labor than ever before.

In other words, we should expect diminishing marginal returns pretty much forever. Oh, there will be occasional surges related to some innovation--real estate on the moon?—but the trend would seem to be downward.

I hope I'm wrong about this....

Mark said...

Re: #1 ... you are ducking the primary issue with this reply (the issue being how is dividing people, e.g., separate standards meant to unify) but I'll answer your Obama comments with an analogy. You have one guy, the captain of the blue team. He is trying to "unify" the Red and Blue team. His primary rhetorical method is to tout that his goal is unification (which satisfies his side) at the start of every speech, which is followed by the body of the speech where he castigates, scorns, mocks and pillories the blue team. This is by no means unifying ... unless you are blind.

Re: #3 .. intent is not part of statue 18 U.S. Code § 793 - Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information. Look it up. She was careless. She is liable. (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or (2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior office You realize the existence of a separate email server was made general public knowledge because a Polish taxi-driver and part-time hacker published contents from the email server? The FBI think is is highly likely that classified information was lost through her server. Did she report it? Seems to me she's explicitly lied every step of the way. Clearly Presidential material in the same mode as her husband who copped a plea and was disbarred to avoid perjury.

"Not a felon". Hmm. It's not obvious but it seems to me violating official secrets acts is a felony. Now, true, she isn't a convicted felon. But a bank robber or armed robber is a felon even if not convicted by the act of committing a felony. Conviction appends self-same the adjective.

Finally. You omitted the Benghazi mention ... her email cache released admits that the night of the attack she realized (as everyone with a brain knew all along) that contrary to the line that the Admin was pushing that this was spontaneous and spurred by a anti-Muslim Coptic video ... and had a guy jailed to support that lie. You are proud she jailed a man to support a lie? How does that fly with a right thinking liberal? After all the guy wasn't even white.

So we're left with a clown, and a smart, capable woman who's held several major national offices with distinction. Question: How many times do large donations to he Clinton Foundations coincidentally be closely timed alongside concessions and reversals by the state department when Ms Clinton was Sec. of State before you realize that by comparison Boss Tweed was a rank amateur. Capable? Smart? Perhaps. Evil and Criminal. Just as certainly. Nice combination.

David Schraub said...

#1 honestly reads like a word salad so I can't respond to it. I have no idea what you're saying other than "Barack Obama doesn't agree with Republicans on many issues", which, true, he doesn't. But the hallmark of Obama's rhetorical strategy has always been to emphasize commonality, not differences ("We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.").

#2 is a great example of why one needs to care about law qua law. The relevant statute was passed during the height of the WWI red scare. Subsequent Supreme Court opinions have considered challenges arguing, among other things, that the statute is too broad or unconstitutionally vague. The Supreme Court basically said "it's not unconstitutionally vague/overbroad so long as there is an intent requirement" -- reading out the negligence mens rea to avoid a constitutional problem (fyi, this practice is known as "the canon of constitutional avoidance" -- we read statutes in a manner such that they avoid potential constitutional pitfalls). More broadly, a really important part of "rule of law" is that we don't get to toss people in jail just because we feel really hard that they're bad guys. Hillary Clinton has never been indicted or convicted of anything. That hasn't deterred GOPers from calling for her to literally be put in front of a firing squad. That's what ignoring rule of law looks like. Part of rule of law is that we mete out punishment only in accordance with and flowing from certain procedural steps. When we let the subjective fury of political opponents trump those processes; when we object to following the steps because the outcome doesn't put our enemies behind bars like they "deserve" -- well, we don't care about rule of law anymore.

I don't mention Benghazi because the Benghazi probe, like all the other investigations that led nowhere, fizzled out into absolute nothing. I have no idea how it can be said in any meaningful sense that Clinton "had a guy jailed" in relation to Benghazi, given that (a) that's a DOJ call, not State and (b) he was jailed for probation violations (if the argument is that folks trumped up a seemingly unrelated charge that was only filed as retaliation for his political speech -- gosh, are you saying that sometimes something that might superficially look to flout a criminal statute might nonetheless be better thought of as a political witch-hunt? See #2!).

David Schraub said...

Reading all this, it's amazing the degree to which we've yet to get past The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Every data point supports the conspiracy. If the feds drop the case, it's because they're in on the game. If the media moves on, it's because they're part of the club. If other people support the Clintons, they're bought off. If dead body falls in a forest w/less than 8 degrees of separation to the Clinton family, Hillary personally ordered them killed. And if the people don't buy the picture being painted -- WAKE UP SHEEPLE!

I will finally say that even if I believed Clinton had committed a crime, it'd still be an easy call to support her against Trump (who certainly doesn't contain a legally spotless record). The logic would be simple: Hillary Clinton is a smart woman, I'm confident Hillary Clinton doesn't want the world to go to hell, and I have reasonable confidence in the ability of a smart woman like Hillary Clinton to act in ways that do not lead to the world going to hell. Donald Trump is an idiot who may or may not care about the world going to hell, but regardless I have no confidence in his ability to act in ways that would ward off that outcome. Even if we ignore the fact that all the purported negatives about Clinton wash out with Trump (who is likewise legally shady, greedy, narcisstic, etc.), the broader issue is that the world is too dangerous and scary a place right now to afford someone who's recognized as an incompetent buffoon even by his own camp. If that means voting for someone who's chief mark against is that she keeps on not being indicted -- that shouldn't be remotely hard call. It's only not obvious because you've painted yourself into an ideological corner where you see the conspiracy behind every tree.

Mark said...

"If the Feds drop the case, it'be because they're in on the game". Yet when the Feds drop the case, yet claim the reasons is "the's incompetent, didn't intend, and so on" which are not in the statute of the law, exactly how are we to interpret that. If you are careless with state secrets that doesn't get you off. In fact, if you google around a bit, there people are touting lots of examples of people less careful with states secrets who in fact did not get off. Part of the reason Mr Comey let her off was apparently that she was the Democratic nominee and decided the election would be a better trial. But alas, guys like you figure that should be interpreted as "she is innocent" not that candidates for President should be held to higher not lower standards.

I have no idea how it can be said in any meaningful sense that Clinton "had a guy jailed" in relation to Benghazi, . Hmm. You forget. She announced publicly that this guy and his video were the reason for the attack. The next day he was being indicted. No connection? Yah right. Pigs fly.

If you think she is so smart, btw, why did Comey say she one reason he wasn't indicting her was her incompetence? On what basis do you feel she is "smart". You have results of an IQ test? She is a member of Mensa? I'd offer the reason she might be smart is she is so good at getting away with illegal stuff.

I missed this, and it kinda bothered me a bit. "Anyone who's read more that one paragraph from MLK's oeuvre would know he was quite okay with race-conscious policies" So. MLK in effect is saying (according to you), "Don't judge me on the basis of my race, and the best way to do that is to judge me according to my race". And btw, few of us are 300 years old. I'll buy the "compensation" from the liberals as a good idea when you stop supporting policies which keep the Black person in their place.

Every data point supports the conspiracy. If the feds drop the case, it's because they're in on the game. I see. And OJ Simpson didn't kill anyone. Riiight.

Even if we ignore the fact that all the purported negatives about Clinton wash out with Trump (who is likewise legally shady, greedy, narcisstic, etc.), Trump hasn't sold out national interests for personal profit.

David Schraub said...

(1) I think what you're supposed to infer is that the relevant officials, after consulting the statutes and applicable precedents, determined that this was not an appropriate case to move forward -- a decision made all the time without quibble or controversy in the American justice system. Similarly, when the DOJ's OPR ultimately decided -- overturning a staff recommendation, no less -- that Bush admin attorneys involved in the "torture memos" did not engage in professional misconduct warranting sanction by the bar (concluding that while the work was "flawed", "contained errors more than minor", and exhibited "poor judgment", it did not qualify as sanctionable professional misconduct), my thought was that the relevant decisionmaker came to a conclusion that no action was warranted -- not that it was the product of some secret cabal to ensure that top admin officials were immunized from the wheels of justice. Again, if your confidence in rule of law falls to pieces every time prosecutors decline to indict someone you just know is a bad guy, maybe rule of law isn't your jam.

(2) DOJ is responsible for DOJ. State is responsible for State. There's no conspiracy. I understand the temptation to put pictures on bulletin boards and then furiously scribble red lines connecting them, but try to hold it in check.

(3) Are you seriously arguing that really smart people can't be careless with their email accounts? That doesn't even strike me as abnormal. I've probably violated my companies' email policies at various points in my life out of carelessness on multiple occasions, and I'm a pretty smart guy (who also grew up with email).

(4) It's almost like MLK's positions on the matter are nuanced and require more the bumper sticker recitations! Perhaps it's hard for you to imagine black leaders having such in-depth thoughts, but some of us read this stuff for a living. You're certainly entitled to think King is wrong or ridiculous or outrageous for suggesting compensatory measures (300 years is a weird measure; Jim Crow didn't end until after you were born, but whatever), but if that's your view don't go name-dropping him like he's your buddy on race matters. In any event, while Dr. King is conveniently dead and thus can't intercede directly, it does seem to me that living black people are best situated to identify who and is not acting in their interests and facilitating their inclusion as equals into American life today, and, well, scoreboard.

(5) THE SYSTEM IS RIGGED! CAN YOU NOT SEE IT! I'm impressed Vince Foster hasn't had his name dropped yet. Admirable restraint. Actually, I've heard the heart of contemporary racism (made with reference to OJ, since of course our system is predicated on 100 guilty persons going free lest 1 innocent go to jail) being "fury at the thought that somewhere, somehow, a black guy is getting away with something." The application of this same sense of grievance to Bill Clinton is part of why he was once described as "our first black president," and Hillary seems similarly situated.

(6) Trump does nothing but sell out that what's been entrusted to him for personal gain. That's basically his brand. Thankfully, nobody's been dumb enough to entrust Trump with national interests yet.