Quote of the week:
“The easiest thing of all is to deceive oneself; for we believe whatever we believe.”
How did half of my beloved country get swept up by Donald Trump? How did a reality-based Democratic Party with sensible five point plans lose almost complete touch with so much of the vast heartland? Here we are, all three branches of government in the sway of a Republican Party that has lost its moorings and is consumed with Trump’s fever dance of mean-spiritedness. How did infotainment and computer-generated graphics, reality-distorting reality-TV, and a me-based social culture produce a P.T. Barnumesque President?
I’m trying to understand this, so I’ve read Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire and Scott Adams’ Win Bigly. Both books make me feel deeply uncomfortable, especially Adams’s trifle which uses the first person singular in just about every paragraph and has a strange blind spot about Trump’s moral hazards. Andersen, by contrast, is a serious read. His diagnosis can’t be dodged.
As far as I can tell, the truth of the matter appears to be that Democratic realists have lost their ability to persuade those who disagree with them. America is too divided for its separate halves to respect each other. We tolerate each other, barely. Instead, it’s way cooler for Democrats to binge off the Rachel Maddow/MSNBC smugness meter.
What makes Trump so appealing to his followers is that he’s deeply grounded in his half of America. He’s a truly authentic charade. He’s as real a fake as can be. The other Big Thing is that, as Scott Adams sees clearly, “Trump is what I call a Master Persuader. That means he has weapons-grade persuasion skills… To put it in simple terms, the only way Trump could win was if everything his critics understood about the true nature of reality was wrong.”
Trump pulled this off. He could beat Hillary in the key demographics in the key swing states because her powers of persuasion were tepid, unlike his. Adams gained perverse reknown for predicting on August 13, 2015, that Trump had a 98 percent chance of winning the presidency based on his persuasion skills. This was one week after Nate Silver put Trump’s odds of winning at two percent on his FiveThirtyEight.com blog. Adams played Silver and countless assured bloviators on cable news for chumps because he understood that the race wasn’t about facts; it was about persuasion. “Facts,” in Adams’s view, are weak persuasion.” Damn.
This from Andersen: “People tend to regard the Trump movement – this post-truth, alternate facts moment – as some implacable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and expressions that have made America exceptional…”
How quickly we forget that Trump, our most extravagant, off-the-wall President yet, was preceded by Reagan, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. Reagan was a Major League fantasist before we even got a whiff of the Master. JFK was a wild man. Nixon and Kissinger were strange, paranoid, and dangerous. LBJ was a man of astounding appetites. The outlier here is Obama who was not a member of the fantasy industrial complex of the U.S. presidential line of succession. No Drama Obama was presented to us on the half shell because George W. Bush & Co. screwed up so badly.
Otherwise, would there have been a Mr. Cool Reality President — the guy who could even mimic Al Green to perfection? We rejoiced over the thoughtful, meaningful, soulful man with an impeccable array of skills who drove more than half the country nuts because he was so exceptional in a completely different and strange way. And while some of us were swooning over Obama, we failed to notice the whirlwind rising.
The United States is a conservative country far more than a progressive one, certainly between the coasts. And when the Conservatives got stronger, they got bolder. Here’s Andersen’s take:
[S]tarting in the 1990s, the farthest-right half of our right half, roughly a quarter of Americans, couldn’t and wouldn’t adjust their beliefs to comport with their side’s victories… They’d made a god out of Reagan, but they ignored or didn’t register that he was practical and reasonable, that he didn’t completely buy his own antigovernment bullshit. After Reagan, his hopped-up true believer faction began insisting on total victory. In a democracy, total victory by any faction is a fantasy…
[A]s the post-Reagan Republican mothership maintained extreme and accelerating antigovernment fervor acquiring escape velocity during the 2000s, leaving Earth orbit in the 2010s… Keeping those people angry and scared won them elections… What had been its fantastical fringe became the GOP center.
So here we are. Andersen asserts, and I believe correctly, that “Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis.” As for the start-up date for take off, Andersen picks 2000, the first year a majority of Americans were online, as “the unequivocal first year of full Fantasyland.” Harder times could well be ahead: reality-based politics will have a hard time gaining ground as virtual reality crowds out computer graphics.
This suggests another national election of overwhelming importance in 2020 between Democratic Realists and Republican Fantasists. The stakes cannot be greater because the Oval Office – the Inner Sanctum itself – has succumbed to national security fantasies.
Remember not so long ago, when George H.W. Bush presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union with temperance and care? Bush the Elder could draw on the Last of the Sensibles – Scowcroft, James Baker, Larry Eagleburger, a level-headed Dick Cheney. Tossing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait without setting up a U.S. protectorate in Iraq or trying to democratize the Greater Middle East. Taking advantage of the Soviet Union’s demise to secure deep, deep cuts in excess strategic and non-strategic forces. Negotiating a Chemical Weapons Convention. Steady as she goes.
But then all Hell broke loose on 9/11. Osama bin Laden’s – not George W. Bush’s — mission was accomplished. Bin Laden’s mission was to enrage Bush 43, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et. al., into straying far off Bush the Elder’s manicured reservation. Then came the permanent war, the open-ended tours of duty, NATO expansion, and democracy building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite terrible errors in judgment, Bush 43 & Co. still managed to keep fantasy away from the Inner Sanctum. Now these ramparts have been breached under Trump. We can walk away from Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership without Beijing eating our breakfast, lunch and dinner. We can do better with America First than with hoary alliances. We can negotiate a better Iran deal by shunning it. If Putin said it didn’t happen, who am I to argue? What do we need a State Department for, anyway? So what if I refuse a mutual deterrence relationship Kim Jong Un?
With Trump, la deluge. Fantasyland has now made itself at home in the Oval Office, giving tours to Kid Rock and Sarah Palin. This scares the living bejeesus out of me. And you, too, because you are reading this.
No vote will ever be more meaningful than in 2020.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on December 11, 2017.