Joe Rogan and Jimmy Dore talk about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump.
The pandemic has put psychological theories of politics to a very interesting test.
Over the past two decades, as conservatives and liberals have drifted ever farther from each other, an influential body of literature has attempted to psychologize the partisan divide — to identify conservative and liberal personality types, right-wing or left-wing minds or brains, and to vindicate the claim of the noted political scientists Gilbert and Sullivan, That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive. / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.
In its crudest form this literature just amounts to liberal self-congratulation, with survey questions and regression analyses deployed to “prove” with “science” that liberals are broad-minded freethinkers and conservatives are cramped authoritarians. But there have been more sophisticated and sympathetic efforts, too, like the influential work of New York University’s Jonathan Haidt on the “moral foundations” of politics: Haidt argues that conservatives actually have more diverse moral intuitions than liberals, encompassing categories like purity and loyalty as well as care and fairness, and that the right-wing mind therefore sometimes understands the left-wing mind better than vice versa.
Both the crude and sophisticated efforts tended to agree, though, that the supposed conservative mind is more attuned to external threat and internal contamination, more inclined to support authority and hierarchy, and fear subversion and dissent. And so the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.
In the coronavirus, America confronts a contaminating force (a deadly disease) that originated in our leading geopolitical rival (an external threat) and that plainly requires a strong, even authoritarian government response. If there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger.
So what has happened? Well, several different things. From the Wuhan outbreak through somewhere in mid-February, the responses to the coronavirus did seem to correspond — very roughly — to theories of conservative and liberal psychology. Along with infectious-disease specialists, the people who seemed most alarmed by the virus included the inhabitants of Weird Right-Wing Twitter (a collection of mordant, mostly anonymous accounts interested in civilizational decline), various Silicon Valley eccentrics, plus original-MAGA figures like Mike Cernovich and Steve Bannon. (The radio host Michael Savage, often considered the most extreme of the right’s talkers, was also an early alarmist.)
Meanwhile, liberal officialdom and its media appendages were more likely to play down the threat, out of fear of giving aid and comfort to sinophobia or populism. This period was the high-water mark of “it’s just the flu” reassurances in liberal outlets, of pious critiques of Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, of deceptive public-health propaganda about how masks don’t work, of lectures from the head of the World Health Organization about how “the greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
But then, somewhere in February, the dynamic shifted. As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. Where figures like Bannon and Cernovich manifested a conservatism attuned to external perils, figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat.
Now we are in a third phase, where Trump is (more or less, depending on the day) on board with a robust response and most conservatives have joined most liberals in alarm. Polls show a minimal partisan divide in support for social distancing and lockdowns, and some of that minimal divide is explained by the fact that rural areas are thus far less likely to face outbreaks. (You don’t need a complicated theory of the ideological mind to explain why New Yorkers are more freaked out than Nebraskans.)
But even now, there remains a current of conservative opinion that wants to believe that
- all of this is overblown, that
- the experts are wrong about the likely death toll, that
- Trump should reopen everything as soon as possible, that
- the liberal media just wants to crash the American economy to take his presidency down.
Where does this leave the theories of conservative and liberal minds? It’s too much to say that they don’t describe anything real. A certain kind of conservative personality (a kind that includes more than a few of my own friends) really did seem particularly well attuned to this crisis and ended up out ahead of the conventional wisdom in exactly the way that you would expect a mind-set attuned to risk and danger, shot through with pessimism and inclined to in-group loyalty to be.
At the same time, the behavior of what you might call “normie” Republicans — not Very Online right-wingers or MAGA populists but longtime Fox News and talk-radio consumers — suggests that any such conservative mind-set is easily confounded by other factors, partisanship chief among them. The fact that the virus seemed poised to help Democrats and hurt the Trump administration, the fact that it was being hyped by CNN and played down by Hannity, the fact that Trump himself declined to take it seriously — all of this mattered more to many Republicans than the fear of foreign contamination that the virus theoretically should have activated or the ways in which its progress seemed to confirm certain right-wing priors.
So one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees, and as zealous about purity and contamination when it’s their own neighborhood that’s threatened.)
But the right’s varying responses to the pandemic also illustrate two further points. The first point is that what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. In particular, it includes an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism — which comes in both highbrow and middlebrow forms, encompassing both famous legal scholars predicting minimal fatalities from their armchairs and “you can’t stop the American economy … for anything” tough guys attacking social distancing on Twitter.
This mentality, with its reflexive Ayn Randism and its Panglossian hyper-individualism, is definitely essential to understanding part of the American right. But it’s very much an American thing unto itself, and I’m doubtful that it corresponds to any universal set of psychological tendencies that we could reasonably call conservative.
The second point is that on the fringes of the right, among QAnon devotees and believers in the satanic depravity of liberalism, the only psychology that matters is paranoia, not conservatism. And their minimizing response to the coronavirus illustrates the unwillingness of the conspiratorial mind to ever take yes for an answer — meaning that even true events that seem to vindicate a somewhat paranoid worldview will be dismissed as not true enough, not the deepest truth, not the Grandest of All Grand Conspiracies that will someday (someday) be unraveled.
In his novel “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a sendup of crackpot esotericism that anticipated “The Da Vinci Code” years before its publication, Umberto Eco captured this spirit by describing the way that self-conscious seekers after hermetic wisdom and gnostic mysteries approached the rise of Christianity:
… someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle?
… And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp — do-it-yourself salvation — turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
This is where the pandemic-minimizing sort of conservative has ended up. They are confronted with a world crisis tailor-made for an anti-globalization, anti-deep-state worldview — a crisis in which China lit the fuse, the World Health Organization ran interference for Beijing, the American public health bureaucracy botched its one essential job, pious anti-racism inhibited an early public-health response, and outsourcing and offshoring left our economy exposed.
And their response? Too simple: Just a feint, a false flag, another deep state plot or power grab, another hoax to take down Trump. It can’t be real unless Hillary Clinton is somehow at the bottom of it.
WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday unleashed an extended assault on the F.B.I. and the special counsel’s investigation, knitting together a comprehensive alternative story in which he had been framed by disgraced “losers” at the bureau’s highest levels.
In a two-hour span starting at 7 a.m., the president made a series of false claims on Twitter about his adversaries and the events surrounding the inquiry. He was responding to a report in The New York Times that, after he fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director in 2017, the bureau began investigating whether the president had acted on behalf of Russia.
In his tweets,
- the president accused Hillary Clinton, without evidence, of breaking the law by lying to the F.B.I. He claimed that
- Mr. Comey was corrupt and best friends with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
- He said Mr. Mueller was employing a team of Democrats — another misleading assertion — bent on taking him down.
Individually, the president’s claims were familiar. But as the special counsel’s inquiry edges ever closer to him, Democrats vow a blizzard of investigations of their own and the government shutdown reaches record lengths, Mr. Trump compiled all the threads of the conspiracy theory he has pushed for many months in an effort to discredit the investigation.
Mr. Trump accused the F.B.I. of opening “for no reason” and “with no proof” an investigation in 2017 into whether he had been working against American interests on behalf of Russia, painting his own actions toward Russia as actually “FAR tougher” than those of his predecessors.
The Times article, published Friday evening, reported that law enforcement officials became so alarmed by Mr. Trump’s behavior surrounding his firing of Mr. Comey that they took the explosive step of opening a counterintelligence investigation against him.
Naming several of the bureau’s now-departed top officials, including Mr. Comey and his deputy, Andrew G. McCabe, Mr. Trump said the F.B.I. had “tried to do a number on your President,” accusing the “losers” of essentially fabricating a case. “Part of the Witch Hunt,” he wrote — referring dismissively to the investigation now being overseen by Mr. Mueller.
At the time he was fired in May 2017, Mr. Comey had been leading the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and the officials believed that his removal, in hindering the inquiry, posed a possible threat to national security. Their decision to open the case was informed, in part, by two instances in which Mr. Trump tied the firing to the Russia investigation.
The inquiry they opened had two aspects, including both the newly disclosed counterintelligence element and a criminal element that has long been publicly known: whether the firing constituted obstruction of justice.
When Mr. Mueller was appointed days later, he took over the joint inquiry as part of his larger investigation of Russia’s action in 2016 and whether anyone on the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow. It is not clear whether he is still pursuing the counterintelligence matter, and no public evidence has emerged that Mr. Trump himself secretly conspired with the Russian government or took directions from it.
Mr. Trump indicated on Saturday that he had not known of the existence of the counterintelligence investigation before the Times article, and he did not dispute the newspaper’s reporting.
But he made clear that he viewed any such inquiry as illegitimate from the start. He presented it, without evidence, as part of a vast, yearslong conspiracy to undo his presidency.
In the tweets, Mr. Trump defended his decision to fire Mr. Comey — “a total sleaze!” — at length, accusing the former director of overseeing a “rigged & botched” investigation of Mrs. Clinton, and leading the agency into “complete turmoil.” Democrats and Republicans alike wanted Mr. Comey removed, he said.
“My firing of James Comey was a great day for America,” Mr. Trump wrote. “He was a Crooked Cop.”
Democrats are targeting the “20% of Trump’s voters [who] told exit pollsters they didn’t like him” hoping these reluctant Trump voters will help power a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms and defeat President Trump in 2020.
One problem with that theory: The left’s nonstop, over-the-top attacks on Trump are not peeling those voters away from him; they are pushing them further into the president’s camp.
In recent weeks, Trump derangement syndrome on the left has reached critical mass.
- First, there was Robert De Niro’s “f— Trump” tirade at the Tony awards, followed by
- Samantha Bee’s calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—” on her TV show. Then the owners of the
- Red Hen restaurant threw out White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders because she works for the president, while chanting
- protesters heckled Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant.
- Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) added fuel to the fire by openly calling on mobs of left-wing activists to “absolutely harass” Trump officials. Then, there were the countless Trump opponents in the media, Congress and on Twitter who
- compared family separations at the southern border with Nazi Germany, and the
- Time magazine cover depicting Trump staring down heartlessly at a crying migrant girl and implying she was separated from her mother (until it emerged that she had not in fact been separated from her mother). And now come the
- threats to block Trump’s Supreme Court nominee before he has even nominated one.
.. How do liberals think that 20 percent of reluctant Trump voters respond to these displays of unbridled contempt? They are outraged not at Trump but at his critics. The unhinged hatred for the president makes these voters almost reflexively defend him.
.. “He’s not a perfect guy; he does some stupid stuff,” he tells the Times. “But when they’re hounding him all the time it just gets old.”
.. Democrats are deluding themselves if they think they lost because of “#NeverHillary” voters who will come home when she is not on the ballot. They lost because they have become a party of coastal liberal elites who have lost touch with millions of ordinary citizens in Middle America — working-class voters who are struggling with factories closing, jobs leaving and an opioid epidemic that is destroying their families. These voters concluded in 2016 that Democrats no longer care about their problems and that Trump does.
.. Spasms of anti-Trump outrage are not going to win them back. If anything, they are confirming these voters’ conclusions that Democrats still don’t get it — and don’t get them. The left’s miasma of contempt may feel cathartic, but it is the best thing that ever happened to Trump. Indeed, it may very well get him reelected.