Cognitive Dissonance (Mental Health Edition)

“You will never take back our country with weakness,” says Trump, inciting his mob. Please remind me, because being weak and feeble-minded I have forgotten: who has been in charge of this country these last four very long years?

Cognitive Dissonance (GOP Encore Edition)

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has announced that come Wednesday (6 January 2021) he will object to the certification of the Electoral College result. Purportedly 140 Republican members of the House will do the same. This is not simply madness, it is shamelessly attempting a coup d’etat. Here. In the United States of America, where we fancy ourselves a beacon of liberty to the world, champions of democracy and justice. Does it get any worse than this? One wants to believe, desperately, that it does not. One is certain, after the egregious anti-democratic behavior and unabashed self-dealing of the last four years, that it does, it can, and it probably will. With just over a fortnight left in this worst of all possible administrations, the damage gets worse every day.

The immediate damage is deliberate, and seeks to hamper and hinder the incoming Biden administration even before it gets started (as described here by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). But the more lasting damage will be to our body politic generally, and — ironically, fittingly, and most deservedly — to the Republican Party specifically. The intellectual rot appears irreversible: when elected officials question not simply the legitimacy of an election, but the legitimacy of their own election, something is very wrong indeed. Apparently “democracy” and “free and fair election” are malleable terms. Fair elections are those in which “our guy wins” whereas any other result is ipso facto the result of unimaginable corruption and conspiracy.

But now come Hawley and with him Ted Cruz and ten more fully Trumpified senators who say they will not accept the outcome, as will 140 Republican members of the House. These people were elected on the very same ballots as Biden, and the inconsistency of their own twisted logic seems to bother them not one whit. We are forced to contemplate two, and only two, alternatives: that these elected officers are too stupid to realize the full implications of their false claims; or too craven to care. And which is worse in a public servant? Do we prefer them feeble-minded, or unscrupulous? Each of these dozen senators was invited to explain on television why they will not accept Biden’s clear victory; each and every one refused the invitation or declined to answer it. To dimwitted and unprincipled we evidently must now add rude. (That a sitting senator would refuse an invitation to appear on television is in itself another oddity.)

Forty years ago the GOP threw its principles overboard in order to win elections: in the place of conservative policy ideas that could be discussed, tested, and adopted (or discarded) as appropriate, the party adopted slogans and demonstrably false claims — the language of ad agencies and mountebanks. Tax cuts will increase revenue! Competition is a magical cure-all for all things political, economical, and educational! New immigrants — to this literal nation of immigrants — are coming to take your jobs! Politics became, in other words, a game. It was no longer about compromising to improve the lives of citizens and constituents; it was about winning elections and achieving, holding, and keeping power.

Decades of empirical evidence haven’t been enough to wipe away these failed ideas, emotional triggers masquerading as  public policy. Our society, our country, our world have all suffered needlessly as a result. We should all hope that the GOP’s most recent self-inflicted wounds prove at long last to be fatal.

Another Day, Another Rebuke

The election has been over for weeks. Any lingering doubts should be put to rest by the decision issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. This should be enough to send the red-hatted MAGA hangers-on packing, but it will not be.

The New York Times reports on the case:

In a strongly worded decision, Judge Brett H. Ludwig, a Trump appointee who took his post only three months ago, shot down one of the president’s last remaining attempts to alter the results of a statewide race. The decision came just one day after the Supreme Court denied an audacious move by the state of Texas to contest the election outcomes in Wisconsin and three other battleground states.

Judge Ludwig’s concluding paragraph is all the more scathing because it uses the dry and colorless language of legal technocrats:

This is an extraordinary case. A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred. This Court has allowed plaintiff the chance to make his case and he has lost on the merits. In his reply brief, plaintiff “asks that the Rule of Law be followed.” (Pl. Br., ECF No. 109.) It has been.

The full decision is here.

Friends and Countrymen

It is a great irony that social distancing, forced upon us by the pandemic, has in some ways brought people closer together. The other night I participated in a fascinating conversation among men of a certain age, the boys I grew up with. Our custom was to gather for dinner once or twice each year, those of us in New York, in the spring and again at Thanksgiving. But Covid put a stop to that and we adapted. We meet now every six or eight weeks, on Zoom: doctors and lawyers, CEOs and actors, journalists and teachers. Almost all of us are White and would consider ourselves, if asked, upper middle class. Our Black friends, so few in number, have been candid about their experiences on these calls. More candid, I would say, than when we met in person. The physical separation has, I think, freed us all to speak more plainly about the most urgent issue of the day. For this, in this season of Thanksgiving, I am grateful.

For years we were together eight or ten hours each day. We grew up together, had our minds and wits forged and sharpened in the same classrooms, by the same teachers and the same books. In this experience we are all the same, and yet — as the conversation illuminated — how we experience our lives, even today, is more dependent on the color of our skin than most (White) people in this country are comfortable even admitting to themselves, let alone discussing openly. And that difference in how we experience the very same things, at the very same time, in the very same room: that is the essence of White privilege. It has no place in a nation, in Lincoln’s immortal words, forged in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

J wryly scoffed at the complaint, common in some parts of these United States, that wearing a mask is somehow oppressive. “Black people have been wearing a mask their entire lives,” he said. Enrolled in a school with a coat-and-tie dress code, he returned home to a part of the city where coats and ties were, shall we say, not the norm. J had to fit in to two very different worlds. Wearing two different masks. “It could have been very different for me,” he said, “but I was embraced and accepted at school. That makes all the difference.”

G told us about running to catch a bus: every Black kid is told not to run, not to break stride, not to make sudden movements. Let that sink in: we live in a world where a kid endangers himself by breaking stride when he sees his bus half a block away. Now a teacher in a city high school, G reminds us that we all had to meet a high bar. “We have to expect more” in our schools. “It’s all about graduation rate, so kids get pushed through so the school isn’t financially penalized.” It doesn’t require a degree in education to see that puts the incentives in all the wrong places.

The school we attended is engaged, now, in a project that requires it to examine its past more openly than ever while it contemplates its future. It has for too long been an enclave of mostly White students; the question is how to be more inclusive in a city that is increasingly diverse, and increasingly unequal. It’s hard to be inclusive in Manhattan. High school kids can and do travel the subway on their own, but that’s putting a finger in the dike. The problems of income inequality and racial inequality, of social justice and racial justice, go hand in hand. We might wish to replay the past differently but we can’t turn back the clock; we can only use the rearward view of how we got here to inform a better path forward.

All men are created equal. No man, woman, or child is intrinsically better than any other, and no one should behave as if he is. We on the Zoom call are not a representative sample of America, but we are America. And we want a better America for everyone. Frank, open, honest talk shines a clearer light, for me, on some of the problems we face as a nation. Too many people are too eager to move on, paying lip service and mentally checking a box. But it’s that frank, open, honest talk that is critical to healing and moving on. Putting a name on something, as the cliché has it, removes its power. “Voldemort” isn’t nearly as terrifying as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” And “Tom Riddle” is less terrifying still.

Education is the single vaccine against racism, against inequality, against injustice. We have to expect more; our schools and teachers have to expect more. And we have to stop thinking that education begins and ends with formal schooling; we have to stop using euphemisms and trying to move on. Call systemic racism by its name; talk about it; internalize the conversation. And then, some day, we can all move on. We can all stop wearing masks.

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.