Professional Victims

Donald Trump wants you to know he is a victim. He also wants you to know that he is really, really rich; that he alone can fix it; that he has a very good brain. But above all he wants you to know that he is a victim, and that never in the history of the world been anyone more victimized. That is especially true now that he is — officially — what he most dreads being: not a victim, but a Loser.

True victims don’t bruit their victimhood about, don’t claim it as an excuse or use it as a lever: Job, for all his suffering, cursed only himself and the day he was born — never his tormentor; Christ accepted his fate, too, telling Pilate, in essence, “Do what you have to do.” Self-proclaimed victim status is a scam; Trump has been running this con in New York for at least forty years, where city regulations make it impossible — so he says — for any developer to make money. Never mind that successful developers profit hand over fist in Gotham: Trump is a victim! He has somehow thrived in spite of the regulations but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s a victim! The New York Attorney General investigates him for fraud (Trump University): he’s a victim! He purchased 400 acres of useless land in Westchester and Putnam counties for $2.75 million; when he could find no developer willing to build on it, he gave it to the State of New York and claimed a tax deduction — of $26 million. (Regarding this he’ll probably tell you he’s a genius.) His fake foundation is ordered dissolved for more fraud and self-dealing. He’s a victim! By a fluke of history he now occupies the Oval Office, where he presides over the smoking wreckage of our national government. He held the match and the Republican senate steadied his hand while he set the torch to all the guardrails of our democracy, while he tore children from their parents and put them in cages, while he teargassed peaceful demonstrators. But he is, absolutely, a victim. The rest of us? Suckers and losers.

One is tempted to marvel at the pathology of it. The mind of a sociopath is as fascinating as a high-speed train wreck: We can’t avert our gaze even as it lays waste to everything in its path. We should instead spend a few minutes analyzing how we got here — and then planning the long climb out, the years-long rebuilding of our national government, our national institutions, and our national pride.

Trump, after all, isn’t the only professional victim: the national GOP has been playing the victim card, too, and quite successfully. People of faith are victims of laws that apply equally to everyone; businesses are victims of workplace safety mandates, of environmental regulations, of antitrust laws, of minimum wage rules; people of great wealth are victims of estate taxes. Republicans are victims, of anyone who dares harbor a different vision of America.

That is not democracy, it is theocracy; and of a most twisted and degenerate sort.

Ockham’s Razor

Simple explanations — not implausible scenarios or convoluted conspiracies — are most likely to be correct. This well-known dictum is attributed to William of Ockham: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Pluralities — complexities in a theory — must not be asserted without necessity. Never suppose multiple, interlocking explanations when a single, simple reason is sufficient

It is a rule easily tested by common sense and everyday experience. Consider these two well-known, well-worn statements:

  1. The dog ate my homework.
  2. I didn’t do my homework.

Few people would choose (1) as the likeliest explanation: it is neither simple nor particularly credible. The addition of more details about the assignment’s encounter with domesticated animals (“My homework flew out the bus window and a cow ate it”) only serves to make the matter worse.

Donald Trump won’t admit he lost the election; more disturbing, many of his followers can’t accept the simple idea that although 74 million people voted for Trump, setting a record, over six million more voted for Mr. Biden. Having heard the phrase “rigged election” over and over, they conclude — without examining the premise — that it must be rigged; their guy lost, after all. Enter Sidney Powell, loudly proclaiming that Trump’s defeat could only be the result of fraud; and, moreover, a fraud so far-reaching that it was orchestrated by none other than Hugo Chavez — who died in 2013.

News flash for Messrs. Trump and Giuliani, and for Ms. Powell: That is how democracy works. “Your guy” doesn’t win every time; sometimes the other guy, the other party, the other philosophy of government, wins the day and has its chance.

Special attention should be paid, these days, to that phrase: Philosophy of government. For the Republican Party has ceased to have anything resembling an organizing principle; instead we have terse slogans (“Small government! Freedom!”) and a determination to use politics to remain in power, rather than to craft compromise legislation that will serve their constituents. The present spectacle — a legislature that cannot legislate, cannot provide financial relief for millions of people forced into unemployment during a pandemic — is more than just a case in point: it is a fitting finale to years of brinksmanship and gamesmanship instead of statesmanship, the logical conclusion to a decades-long showdown between a party that believes in government and compromise, and a party that believes only in its own ability to exercise raw power.

Nobody believes the kid who says, “The dog ate my homework.” Absent hard facts, the simpler solution is most likely true. Unlike the case of the wind blowing papers into the path of a grazing bovine — multiple credible witnesses swore they were on the bus and saw it happen — nobody has yet offered a single actual fact suggesting election fraud on any scale, let alone of a magnitude necessary to produce 81 million votes. The dog didn’t eat the homework, and Donald didn’t win the election. Both of them — and all of us — would be better off if they accepted reality.

Cognitive Dissonance (GOP Edition)

Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat and continues to contest the election results. Apparently the same ballots that kept his Republican enablers in control of the Senate — for now — and gained them (so far) six seats in the House — these same ballots were somehow fraudulent, but only on the top line, for the Presidential race. As Scooby Doo would say: Huh? If you are alleging ballot irregularities, fine. But a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. The burden of proof (and the bill for any recount) is on you.
  2. “Upon information and belief” in your complaint won’t cut it: you need actual evidence.
  3. Invalidating any individual vote means invalidating the entire ballot, including down-ballot races (yours).
  4. Hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballots, across multiple states, just aren’t there.  Ever.

The idea of “stealing” or “rigging” an election in this way is beyond risible. It defies both common sense and the entirety of human experience. Trump and his allies are pinning their hopes on proving a conspiracy — a concerted, coordinated effort — among many thousands of people. As this On the Media segment demonstrates, it’s an impossibility.

It all would be the basis for a good laugh if it weren’t so serious. Ballot fraud is extremely rare, impossible to carry off successfully (see above), and almost always detected. Nearly every such failed attempt has been the work of Republicans, most notoriously in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. (One wonders if they allege fraud because that’s what they’d do?) The accusations in this cycle are particularly galling when senior Republicans at every level speak piously of Trump’s precious rights to contest an election and demand a recount without a peep about the malign intent to undermine faith in the very system that sent them to office. If the integrity of our elections is in question, doesn’t that also undermine the legitimacy of every elected GOP official? In the latest twist, a postal worker in Pennsylvania has recanted his claim that ballots were backdated, a claim that has been relied upon by Lindsay Graham and the Trump campaign as evidence of fraud. Republican donors have raised over $130,000 on behalf of the USPS employee — $130,000 being, apparently, the going rate (see: Daniels, Stormy). According to the Erie postmaster this is not this postman’s first job-related offense.

Small-d democrats ignore this doublespeak at their peril. Sure, any candidate has a legal right to challenge election results; but that right — like all rights — also carries certain obligations: challenges are to be made in good faith and must be supported by actual facts. The claims here have been dismissed by every court that has heard them, because no actual facts are even alleged. Per The Washington Post:

By now, it’s well-established that most of the arguments put forward by President Trump’s reelection campaign in its challenge of the results of the 2020 election are baseless and highly speculative. Even Trump allies, as The Washington Post reported late Tuesday, acknowledge the apparent futility of the effort. Others have reasoned that there’s no harm in going through the motions, with one anonymous GOP official asking, “What’s the downside for humoring him” for a little while?

But as scenes in courtrooms nationwide in recent days have shown, there is indeed a downside for those tasked with pursuing these claims. Repeatedly now, they have been rebuked by judges for how thin their arguments have been.

The most famous scene came in Pennsylvania, where a Trump lawyer strained to avoid acknowledging that their people were, in fact, allowed to observe the vote-counting process in Philadelphia:

At the city’s federal courthouse on Thursday evening, attorneys for Trump asked a judge to issue an emergency order to stop the count, alleging that all Republican observers had been barred.

Under sharp questioning from Judge Paul S. Diamond, however, they conceded that Trump in fact had “a nonzero number of people in the room,” leaving Diamond audibly exasperated.

“I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?” asked Diamond, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.

The downside of humoring him should be self-evident: further public humiliation of the United States, if the last four years were not enough. It even more nakedly exposes Trump for what he is, a spoiled and unpredictable man-baby with his hands on the nuclear codes. Moreover it exposes the gaping flaws in our vaunted system of checks and balances, which are more fragile than anyone supposed. It turns out they are utterly dependent on all actors behaving in good faith.

Attorneys have an obligation to serve the law and the court, not just their clients. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b) states:

By presenting to the court a pleading, written motion, or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating it—an attorney or unrepresented party certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances:

(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation;

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law;

(3) the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on belief or a lack of information.

Trump and GOP attorneys find safe harbor in subsection (4) — “information and belief” — and ignore the more pertinent subsections (1) and (2). These cases are warrantless and frivolous, in violation of (2); and they are being brought — or so it appears — merely to delay the timely certification of votes and undermine public confidence in the electoral process. By any fair reading such motivation violates (1).

Under Rule 11(c) a court may sanction the attorney. law firm, or party that violates Rule 11(b). Perhaps it’s time more attorneys defending these frivolous and capricious suits filed more Rule 11(c) motions. It wouldn’t be pretty; but it might put a stop to the wasteful abuse of process. Republicans are forever running on platforms to reel in what they see as abuses of the courts; but when elections don’t go their way they are the snowflakes at the courthouse door. Another term for cognitive dissonance might be rank hypocrisy.

Hysteria

A friend writes that in her deep-red part of the country yet another conspiracy theory is taking root: The Biden-as-Trojan-horse gambit, the Far Left’s way of sneaking Kamala Harris into the Oval Office. In this fervid fever fantasy, a frail Biden will not fill out much of his term and Harris is a progressive darling who will enact Medicare for All, raise the minimum wage, and destroy the American Way Of Life by implementing the Green New Deal.

Hearing these fears I was at first dismissive: Harris is neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren, nor is she Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, or Ilhan Omar. And while I personally favor a more progressive agenda, I also recognize that politics is the art of the possible (see here and here): it does no good, and in the end considerable harm (in lost time, lost energy, and lost opportunity for compromise), to advocate — for example — universal government health insurance if the proposal will be met by unreasoned and unrestrained emotional resistance. “Medicare for all” isn’t socialism any more than automobile insurance or monthly condominium maintenance fees. It isn’t a terrible prospect and would likely save considerable lives and dollars. Opponents have been unable to articulate any real and substantive objection, ranting instead about keeping Government away from the doctor-patient relationship. (They seem to have no problem with insurance companies coming between you and your doctor, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

None of this analysis will help my friend convince her friends and neighbors that their fears are irrational and overwrought. Paraphrasing Jonathan Swift, you can’t reason a man out of a position he didn’t reason himself into. Or, as the Federalist congressman Fisher Ames, of Massachusetts, characterized such strongly held opinions:

They will not yield to argument; for, as they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. They are higher than a Chinese wall in truth’s way, and built of materials that are indestructible.

With all Trump’s palaver and frothing at the mouth about impenetrable walls, Fisher’s turn of phrase seems particularly apt today. Since 1980 the GOP has excelled at convincing people to vote against their own self-interest, often by screaming, “Socialism!” Democrats would do well to better understand the emotional buttons the GOP has mastered.

And Republicans: If your best path to electoral victory is through voter suppression, what does that say about your policies? This segment from NPR’s On the Media is as chilling as it is eye opening. Of course every “legal” ballot should be counted.  We should all — all — be worried about a political party that defines “legal” as “for us” and “illegal” as “for them.”  If you doubt that characterization — which I admit sounds outlandish — take a look at the situation in Georgia, whose two sitting United States senators are calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State (whose job includes election oversight). Why? Because this fellow Republican didn’t deliver the election to them. Instead, he did his job and counted the votes.

Fatigue (III)

It was a few months ago that Keegan-Michael Key, appearing on “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” said he was exhausted. It was early June, immediately after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and he was expressing frustration with the racial imbalances — what we have come to understand, since then, as systemic racism — and seemingly never-ending inequality in this, the Land of the Free, where it is self-evident that all men are created equal. Aren’t they?

We are all exhausted: By the unrest and inequality; by the ineptitude and incompetence; by the needlessly high death count; by the lies; by the scandals; by the grift and self-dealing. We are exhausted, simply exhausted, to the point where we are too fatigued to lift a finger let alone raise our voices in anger and cry out together, as one, “Enough!” But the truth is that fatigue is not simply a by-product of the never-ending insults to our national integrity; nor are we exhausted only because we lack the energy, at the end of each long day, to push back against a government and executive appointees who will help themselves but not the people they work for and serve. Corrupt officialdom gives “self service” a whole new meaning.)

As we have seen with the child-separation policy, where the cruelty is the point: The exhaustion and fatigue are the point. Benumb us with your outrages, your corruption, your inhumanity, your incompetence, your sheer stupidity, and we will lack the energy to rise up and strike back. We simply don’t know where to begin: With emoluments? Children deliberately orphaned? Corrupt cabinet secretaries? Incompetent senior advisers? The executive branch of our government has become a criminal enterprise, eagerly aided and abetted by a senate majority that clings to power for its own sake and not for what it can do to improve constituents’ lives. The entire theory and purpose of our representative government has been turned upside down and inside out.

Despite best efforts to convince us otherwise, we are not powerless. We are not voiceless. We are not insignificant. E pluribus unum isn’t just a fancy phrase on our coins. Out of many, one; in unity there is strength. A single vote is an inaudible  whisper, but 250 million together is a category 5 hurricane that cannot be ignored. We don’t have to agree on everything — and we shouldn’t. We won’t always agree on the meaning of the First Amendment, nor of the Second, nor of the Fifth; we won’t always agree about gun policy, welfare policy, education policy, or foreign policy, but we must be able and willing to discuss them, honestly and openly, without resort to name-calling and demonization. We all want a stronger, better, more equal United States. Our ideas about how to achieve those goals differ. We have to re-learn how to talk to each other, and how to compromise.

But despite our differences we should, at a minimum, be able to agree that deliberate cruelty is wrong; that foreign interference in an election is an affront to voters of every political persuasion; that bribery is a crime no matter what the circumstances or who the actors. We should be able to agree that health care and education are rights, not privileges, and that they should be guaranteed by a government for the people. And we should be able to agree that if government of the people ceases to be both by the people and, most of all, for the people, then it is no longer legitimate and must be replaced.

This Tuesday, vote. Vote like your life and your liberty depend on it — because they do. Vote to restore government by and for the people. Vote for humanity and basic decency. Vote to end the madness.

Fatigue (II)

Fatigue comes in many forms, and from multiple causes. The jingoists who have appropriated the flag and other national symbols as their own are fatigued, to be sure; but they misdiagnose the source. The rest of us — by which I mean the great majority of the American people — are also numb. Doubly-numb, in fact: for outrage fatigue settled in many months ago, probably early in 2018. As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post observes:

Trump has, for the past four years, used the sheer breadth of the scandals that surround him to numb the public. No one focused long enough on any single outrage for it to do the damage even one comparable disgrace would inflict on any other politician.

It’s something we’re all familiar with and yet have been too fatigued to analyze or articulate. With so many outrages weekly, and often daily, we have neither the time nor the patience nor the sheer force of will to do more than commiserate: offenses against custom and institutional practice; offenses against families; offenses against ordinary decency. Offenses, most often, against our laws and the rule of law. We have been watching a slow-motion train wreck and have felt powerless to stop it: the people in power, in coequal branches of government, are content to do nothing so long as they get their judges and their tax cuts.

The price to this nation, Senators, was far too high. And you have sold your souls far too cheaply.

Fatigue (I)

A graph published this week in The New York Times documents the unacceptable reality: in the United States, today, the number of new infections daily is double what it was at the end of March — not long after Trump declared that cases would “soon be down to zero.”

Graph from NY Times 10/19/2020 with link to article.
Click the image to open the article.

We — the public — are seven months into this pandemic. The White House, with its intelligence briefings as far back as late December, has had ten months: more than the full gestation of an infant human or a calf, and nearly enough time to birth a horse, a llama, an elk, a seal. Given where we are today I believe its fair to say we will be lucky to return to something like a pre-pandemic normal some time before an elephant conceived in January 2020 is born, which would be next September or October.

And yet: Movie theaters are reopening, restaurants are back to serving indoors, and there is no shortage of people who still believe that their rights are trampled if they are obliged to wear a mask to protect the health of others. Of course this begs the question: Why is your right to be a jackass superior to everyone else’s right to avoid infection? The selfishness (not to mention the ignorance) is astonishing. Let’s be clear: the fact that our lives are slowly, even cautiously, returning to normal is hardly good news. It is a sign, rather, that after seven or eight months people are becoming desperate for some reassurance that it will all soon be over. It will not — and the fatigue currently driving people into the streets, into stores and restaurants, into the cinemas and health clubs, is almost certain to prolong, not curtail, our national suffering. A second wave is coming.

And yet: The people evidently most chafed by stay-at-home orders and mask protocols (“Don’t tell me what to do!”) evidently take their marching orders from a would-be autocrat. These are the people who plotted to kidnap the governors of at least two states to “protest” public health initiatives. Put another way: the self-styled patriots who object loudly to state authorities protecting the public health (by issuing mask mandates and requiring social-distancing protocols) have no objection to their “strong” leader deciding, on his own, who is worthy of state protection, who can stay, who must go, and who should go to prison. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is without limit.

Trump himself called out the fatigue problem — as always, without a trace of irony or self-awareness — in a conference call with campaign staff: “People are tired of COVID. Yup, there’s going to be spikes, there’s going to be no spikes, there’s going to be vaccines. With or without vaccines, people are tired of COVID. I have the biggest rallies I have ever had and we have COVID. People are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They’re tired of it.” Of course people are tired of it: not the hearing, but the living. It has gone on for seven unnecessarily long months. Most other countries — including developing and third-world nations — have returned to a semblance of “normal” without the threat of spikes or the cloud of super spreader events. “But it came from China!” Aside from being factually suspect (the virus spread to the US from Europe, not China) it isn’t a reason for inaction. Blame-shifting might be effective to avoid responsibility among the more credulous; it never yet actually solved a problem.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

Trust (II)

Democracy cannot function without trust in government: people must know that their elected officials are working for the collective good, not for private gain nor for the limited benefit of (let us say) wealthy donors. This is the fundamental compact of democracy: Governments, Jefferson wrote, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The citizens of this nation live for this ideal and many have died for it; but too many people now believe themselves powerless in the face of a government that does not operate in their interest. Simply put, they do not trust their elected representatives.

And why should they? These same (“Trust me! I alone can fix it!”) elected officials, and their appointees, have failed the most fundamental tests. In a crisis — a worldwide pandemic, a health crisis that has claimed over 200,000 American lives and nearly a million around the globe — they have failed in every imaginable way: from literally throwing out the NSC manual on dealing with a pandemic; to pitting states against each other to acquire protective gear; to denying the seriousness of the problem; to pretending that it has already passed, even as the daily number of new cases outstrips the rate of March and April.

“We have serious problems in this country and we need serious people to solve them,” says President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie, “The American President.” We did, we do.  And we do need serious people to solve them: people dedicated to an ideal, people who will work for the greater good. These are not the people currently in the White House or the Senate majority. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a gang less serious about solving your problems — they would much rather line their own pockets or amass power simply for its own sake. It’s easier than working, and apparently more rewarding.

In the last six months we have seen our government yawn at those 200,000 unnecessary deaths; release tear gas on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights; vow to revoke the health insurance of 21 million Americans during a pandemic; and call into question the results of a future election. The chief executive has called soldiers fallen in battle “losers” while he hides from protesters in a bunker. 

Serious people to solve our problems? Hardly. The people nominally in charge are the serious problems we face. While the House of Representatives continues to do its work, as best it can, the United States Senate — the self-styled “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” — perfects its transformation from functioning legislature to legislative graveyard, where bills supported by a majority of voters go to die. The Senate majority leader can’t be bothered, in the face of a pandemic that is on track to kill over a quarter million before Election Day, to bring a relief bill passed by the House in May to the floor for debate and a vote; but he will rush through a Supreme Court nomination — a nomination which has yet to be announced. Just what are the priorities here? Doing the People’s business has taken a back seat to entrenching a jurisprudence rejected by a solid majority of those same People.

No wonder Americans have lost faith and do not trust their government. They believe their government does not operate in their interests and feel powerless, unable to issue any corrective. What power, after all, does a single vote have? They are not wrong, but neither are they right: we have seen how just a few votes in the right places can swing an election. (That this has much to do with the Electoral College, itself a vestige of America’s original sin, is a topic for another day. For now the point is simply: every vote matters as we know from the painful experiences of 2000 and 2016, not to mention 1888, 1876, and 1824.) That feeling of helplessness is encouraged by established power structures and the incumbents who support and benefit from them: a poll tax is not the only voter-suppression tool, nor is it necessarily the most effective.

In the long term, big structural reforms will be needed; in the short term, the best corrective is the simplest: Vote.

Trust (I)

Every once in a while an idea is presented so strikingly that it forces you to look at things in a wholly different way. Sometimes the insight comes from a teacher; sometimes a friend, or a parent, or a coach; sometimes a peer or coworker. Sometimes it’s a random encounter on the street, or even one of the clucking heads on Fox — everyone is allowed the occasional, if unintentional, flash of brilliance. Frequently the new insight becomes, in hindsight, obvious: how could I have missed that? And often the answer is: because earlier proponents were simply not as articulate, or perhaps so blinkered by their own perceived brilliance that they struggle to communicate their ideas.

So it was that I attended, about thirty years ago, a panel discussion on public key cryptography. One of the speakers — whose name is on one of the critical pieces of that now-critical infrastructure — began by explaining the principle of trust. Asymmetric encryption — in which there is a public key known to the world and a private key known only to the holder — is important to electronic commerce because it assures the parties to the transaction that they are who they say they are. It is a trust mechanism: not an enforcer, but a reliable conveyor of fact. A message encrypted with the recipient’s public key can only be deciphered by her private key — ensuring message integrity; a message encrypted with the sender’s private key can only be verified using her public key — proving identity.

Well, yes, I was thinking, even then. But so what? “Trust,” said my panelist, “is what makes the world work.” And there it was. Simple. Obvious. And rarely articulated so starkly or so clearly. Trust that you are who you say you are; trust that you own what you say you own; trust that you will deliver on your promises to pay or to perform. The public key infrastructure (PKI) assures the first of these (identity) and goes a long way to assuring the second (truthfulness). It does nothing to assure the third — the kind of trust that is earned (reputation).

I mention all this because the Trump era presents a particular problem of trust: trust in government, trust in institutions, trust in the mechanisms that protect our liberty and propel our national and individual success. Americans no longer trust their government to keep them safe, help them thrive, and ensure that their children grow into a better world than they received from their own parents. Ironically, the solution for a very vocal minority has been to repose trust in a man who is utterly untrustworthy, who never tells the truth (except perhaps inadvertently), whose appalling and bottomless need for validation is his only motivation. He is incapable of empathy — and for that reason alone he cannot be trusted: he will never act for the common good because his personal benefit is the only thing he is capable of seeing.

Trust — like its fraternal twin, Respect — is earned. Without that foundation a leap of faith is a headlong plunge into the abyss. And yet: “Trust me. Believe me. I alone can fix it.” These words ring hollow to most people, but strike a chord with just enough of our compatriots whose faith in government was already so broken and battered that they opted for the grinning autocratic mountebank rather than the charmless competent technocrat.

Popular culture is full of references to the notion that America is not a country, it is an idea: the American Experiment, we call ourselves. The foundational document of our republic speaks of “a more perfect union”: the experiment is always evolving, always changing, always growing. This is — quite literally — progress. There have always been those who want to arrest it, or at least slow it. This idea finds spectacularly clear expression in the penultimate scene of “The American President”:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

Decades have passed and this speech is stunning not just for its clarity, but for its prescience. “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid, and telling you who’s to blame.” This is the Trumpian tactic; this is McConnell at his cynical and dishonest worst. Replace “whore” with “anarchist socialist who wants to destroy America” and we are in the present. This is not the language of statesmen or problem solvers; it is the sentiment of men interested in power for its own sake, not for its use towards the common good and a common goal.

The question we all should be asking — and the press should be leading the way on this — is also simple: Why do you think that American citizens want to destroy America? What, exactly, is the reason for that? How do they benefit? And if you can’t answer that question, why are you saying such things? Why, in short, if you so claim to love America, do you so obviously hate your fellow Americans? Why do you not grant them the same courtesy, trust and respect you demand?

This is a nation of divergent and often opposing views. Democracy assumes that compromise will be reached in the back-and-forth of the legislative chambers. The winner-take-all view of today’s Republican Party does not acknowledge the possibility that theirs is not the only legitimate vision for America and its people; it takes instead the autocratic position that might makes right. “Trust us,” they say. “We know best.”

Trust and respect are earned every day; they are never given as of right. Electoral outcomes do not repose unfettered confidence; they are a signal that the winner should, instead, proceed to prove his case. That is the American way — and we stand on the precipice of forever losing it.