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The silence of the libs

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Thomas Edsall, whose analyses of the current state of American politics in general and the presidential race in particular are essential reading, has a new essay that is somewhere between sobering and panic-inducing, depending on one’s disposition. (Gift link).

A critical part of Trump’s support is made up of female and college-educated voters who dislike Trump’s personal style and/or his personal character, but still support him, if somewhat ambivalently, versus Biden. Why?

While these voters don’t like the way Trump behaves, Khanna pointed out, they still give him

very high marks on a series of descriptors, including “tough,” “effective,” “energetic,” “focused” and “competent” — each is selected by at least eight in 10, with “compassionate” being the only adjective we tested on which he’s underwater. And eight in 10 say he fights for people like them.

I mean what can you do with this kind of thing? Democracy is defensible to the extent that an electorate is at least minimally politically engaged and non-delusional. If elections are decided by swing voters, as essentially all national elections now are, and swing voters are this ignorant and irrational, that seems like a fundamental indictment of the entire system.

This is even more foreboding:

Trump’s strategy of openly declaring his intentions is “an age-old gambit from the authoritarian playbook,” according to Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic political strategist, writing in Los Angeles magazine this week.

In “Trump Is Conditioning Americans With Authoritarian Statements,” Parkhomenko described Trump’s underlying calculation:

Trump, like aspiring authoritarians before him, is fostering a national environment in which his self-first vision of governance can be achieved. He is conditioning and reconditioning Americans to tolerate central tenets of authoritarianism. Sadly, the sinister strategy is thus far working.

Each time he speaks of eroding the norms of American governance, our national and individual alarm bells ring a little quieter than the time before. Numbness permeates about the grave danger he represents.

How does this process of generating tolerance for authoritarianism work? Parkhomenko wrote:

Evil intentions are floated. Reactions are assessed. Weaknesses are exploited. Intentions are repeated. Wrongs become desensitized. Scapegoats are named. Opposition is divided and conquered. Power is grabbed. Distractions are created. Dissent is squashed. Then, with the groundwork complete, what was once considered unthinkable becomes reality.

As Trump’s repeated authoritarian statements wear out moderate voters’ emotions, they also provide tantalizing red meat to his base. MAGA die-hards are thrilled by Trump’s every suggestion of upending norms in America because they wish to live in a country in which Trump is their all-powerful leader. They want Donald Trump as their Vladimir Putin or their Kim Jong-un.

Trump, Parkhomenko continued,

has told America who he admires, who he is and how he intends to destroy the foundations of our Republic. After years of conditioning, many voters will dismiss the former president’s statements as hyperbole and nothing more than “Trump being Trump.” Others will wrongly believe that sweeping changes could never come to pass in America, even if he is elected.

In a chilling analogy, Parkhomenko described Trump’s efforts to desensitize his audience:

Horror movies become less scary each time they are watched, and Americans have viewed the Donald Trump horror show on repeat for nearly a decade. The villain does not change, but the viewer’s response calms dramatically. No matter what Trump says or does, Americans have seen this movie before, and we’ve seen it so many times that what once shook us at our core is now just background noise.

In this sense, the 2024 election will be a test: Can the Democratic Party, with Biden at the top of the ticket, somehow reanimate and reawaken those voters who have become inured to Trump’s insatiable venality, his relentless obsession with personal enrichment, his unquenchable thirst for wealth and power, his profound lack of moral principle or ethical boundaries, his divisive and chaotic indifference, his inability to feel guilt or remorse and his manipulative and unscrupulous focus on his own advantage, to the exclusion of all others and the public good?

The desensitization point seems increasingly correct to me. It’s been more than two weeks since Trump was convicted of 34 felonies, and this fact seems to have swayed almost no voters. Joe Biden’s approval rating is now the worst of his presidency. People who say none of this means anything because polls are meaningless because no one has a landline or answers unknown numbers are in denial: A huge assortment of polls using a variety of methodologies all show the same thing: The presidential race is essentially a tossup, because it’s going to come down to turnout in a handful of swing states.

That is just an astounding statement, that ought to shock and dismay any liberal in the very broadest 19th century meaning of that word (i.e. anyone opposed to authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy, as opposed to “liberal” in its much narrower contemporary sense).

And you may ask yourself . . . well, how did I get here?

(1) Rampant desensitization and political exhaustion, referenced above.

(2) Relatedly, I have a long-time acquaintance, a student of mine 30+ years ago now, who is an upper class white guy whose personal life is kind of a mess right now. He’s certainly going to vote for Biden, but basically he thinks everybody sounding the alarm on a second Trump term is being hysterical. He doesn’t think anything much will change if Trump is re-elected, and he may even be sort of right . . . for people like him, at least for awhile. This attitude is endemic among a certain species of upper class center left voters/pundits. Again, it’s both a cause and a consequence of (1).

(3) I think it’s difficult to overestimate the extent to which social media have corrupted political discourse in the contemporary world. I’m currently reading Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and this quote from that 75-year-old book has become uncannily prophetic in a way that goes far beyond the Nazi and Stalinist regimes she was analyzing:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. […] under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

That is the Trumpist base in a nutshell, and it makes up 40% of the electorate. Whether Trump returns to power depends on the whims of the fundamentally delusional swing voters described above.

I think I understand the psychology of anti-Trumpers who think the problem would just go away if Joe Biden would step aside for Johnny or Janie Unbeatable (Bret Stephens has a column making that exact claim this morning). These people at bottom think there are no monsters — no real ones — but there are.

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