Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.
To understand the corruption, chaos, and general insanity that is continuing to engulf the Trump campaign and much of the Republican Party right now, it helps to understand the predicate embraced by many Trump supporters: If Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, America dies.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker insisted that life under a Biden presidency would be dystopian. Charlie Kirk, the young Trump acolyte who opened the proceedings, declared, “I am here tonight to tell you—to warn you—that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” President Trump, who closed the proceedings, said, “Your vote will decide
- whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide
- whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” And in between Americans were told that
- Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” and that
- they “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.”
“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether,” a St. Louis couple who had brandished weapons against demonstrators outside their home, told viewers. “Make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”One does not have to be a champion of the Democratic Party to know this chthonic portrait is absurd. But it is also essential, because it allows Trump and his followers to tolerate and justify pretty much anything in order to win. And “anything” turns out to be quite a lot.
In just the past two weeks, the president has praised supporters of the right-wing conspiracy theory
- QAnon, which contends, as The Guardian recently summarized it, that “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.” Trump touted a conspiracy theory that
- the national death toll from COVID-19 is about 9,000, a fraction of the official figure of nearly 185,000; promoted a program on the One America News Network accusing demonstrators of secretly plotting Trump’s downfall; encouraged his own supporters to commit voter fraud; and claimed Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” who are wearing “dark uniforms.”
- Trump believes his own government is conspiring to delay a COVID-19 vaccine until after the election. He retweeted a message from the actor James Woods saying
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “should be in jail” and another from an account
- accusing the Portland, Oregon, mayor of “committing war crimes.”
- The president is “inciting violence,” in the words of Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.
- Trump defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who is charged with first-degree homicide; and stated that
- if he loses the election in November it would be because it was “rigged.” At the same time,
- the second-ranking House Republican, among other of the president’s supporters, has shared several manipulated videos in an effort to damage Biden.
This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.
This phenomenon has no shortage of explanations, but perhaps the most convincing is the terror the president’s backers feel. Time and again, I’ve had conversations with Trump supporters who believe the president is all that stands between them and cultural revolution. Trump and his advisers know it, which is why the through line of the RNC was portraying Joe Biden as a Jacobin.
Republicans chose that theme despite the fact that during his almost 50 years in politics, Biden hasn’t left any discernible ideological imprint on either the nation or his own party. Indeed, Biden is notable for his success over the course of his political career in forging alliances with many Republicans. I worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the early 1990s when William Bennett was its director and George H. W. Bush was president. Biden was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he and his staff were supportive of our work, and not in the least ideological. There will be no remaking of the calendar if Joe Biden becomes president.Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.
A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.
The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious. And so in this case, Trump supporters will tolerate everything he does, from
- making hush-money payments to porn stars and
- engaging in sexually predatory behavior, to
- inviting America’s adversaries to intervene in our elections, to
- pressuring American allies to dig up dirt on the president’s opponent, to
- cozying up to some of the worst dictators in the world, to
- peddling crazed conspiracy theories, to
- mishandling a pandemic at the cost of untold lives, to
- countless other ethical and governing transgressions.
Trump is given carte blanche by his supporters because they perceive him as their protector, transforming his ruthlessness from a vice into a virtue.
In my experience, if Trump supporters are asked to turn their gaze away from their perceived opponents, and instead to focus and reflect on him and on his failures, they respond in a couple of consistent ways. Many shift the topic immediately back to Democrats, because offering a vigorous moral defense of Donald Trump isn’t an easy task. It’s like asking people to stare directly into the sun; they might do it for an instant, but then they look away. But if you do succeed in keeping the topic on Trump, they often twist themselves into knots in order to defend him, and in some cases they simply deny reality.
“Motivation conditions cognition,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wisely told me. Very few Trump supporters I know are able to offer an honest appraisal of the man. To do so creates too much cognitive dissonance.That they are defending a person who is fundamentally malicious, even if he makes judicial appointments of which they approve, is too painful for them to admit. They are similarly unable to admit they are defending an ethic that is at odds with what they have long championed. They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means. In important respects, this is antithetical to a virtue ethic. So once again, it’s easier for them to look away or engage in self-deception; to convince themselves that Donald Trump is not who he so clearly is.
These reactions aren’t confined to Trump supporters; people across the political spectrum struggle with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, in giving too much benefit of the doubt to those with whom we agree and judging too harshly and unfairly those with whom we disagree. That is part of the human condition. The degree to which Democrats, including feminists, overlooked or accepted Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior—including his campaign’s effort to smear his accusers and its use of a private investigator to destroy Gennifer Flowers’s reputation “beyond all recognition”—is an illustration of this. So Flowers was branded a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar,” even though Clinton later, under oath, admitted to having an affair with her.
“If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville said in response to Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton sexually harassed her. In defending President Clinton against the charges of sexual harassment made by Kathleen Willey, who accused Clinton of groping her without her consent, Gloria Steinem wrote, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” And Nina Burleigh, who covered the White House for Time magazine, said, “I’d be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” So Democrats should be careful about looking down at others for accommodating themselves to unsavory and even repulsive characters for the sake of partisanship.
But what’s different in this case is that Trump, because of the corruption that seems to pervade every area of his life and his damaged psychological and emotional state, has shown us just how much people will accept in their leaders as a result of “negative partisanship,” the force that binds parties together less in common purpose than in opposition to a shared opponent. As the conservative writer David French has put it, with Donald Trump and his supporters we are seeing “negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party.” His ideology is almost entirely beside the point, according to French: “His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe.”
I know plenty of Trump supporters, and I know many of them to be people of integrity in important areas of their lives. Indeed, some are friends I cherish. But if there is a line Donald Trump could cross that would forfeit the loyalty of his core supporters—including, and in some respects especially, white evangelical Christians—I can’t imagine what it would be. And that is a rather depressing thing to admit.
Polarization and political tribalism are not new to America; fear and hatred for our fellow citizens have been increasing for decades. We’ve had plenty of presidents who have failed us, in ways large and small. But this moment is different because Donald Trump is different, and because Donald Trump is president. His relentless assault on truth and the institutions of democracy—his provocations and abuse of power, his psychological instability and his emotional volatility, his delusions and his incompetence—are unlike anything we’ve seen before. He needs to be stopped. And his supporters can’t say, as they did in 2016, that they just didn’t know. Now we know. It’s not too late—it’s never too late—to do the right thing.
The anti-bullying advocate tells John Oliver that no one asked the former president if he’d consider a new identity
Monica Lewinsky wonders why people don’t ask her the same questions as Bill Clinton.
John Oliver, host of HBO’s T, +0.36% “Last Week Tonight,” asked Lewinsky on Sunday evening about the difficulty getting a job after completing her Master of Science degree at the London School of Economics in 2006, and asked her if she ever considered changing her name.
.. She also said it was a matter of principle, given that no one asked Clinton that question. “I think that’s an important statement,” she said. “I’m not proud of all the choices I’ve made in my life, but I’m proud of the person I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am.”
Lewinsky said it was sexist that the scandal was named after her rather than Clinton. “As hard as it has been to have that last name sometimes, and the pain that I have felt that what it’s meant for the other people in my family who have that last name, I am glad I didn’t change it,” she added.
.. But Lewinsky also said there may have been an upside to Facebook FB, -3.55% and Twitter existing in 1998 when her relationship with Clinton became public. “I might have heard some support from some people,” she said. “It would have been more balanced.”
.. Still, she told Oliver that the media representation of her became more and more detached from her real persona. She described it as a form of identity theft. “It was a shit storm,” she said. “It was an avalanche of pain and humiliation.”
“Not to say I wasn’t flawed, or make terrible mistakes or do stupid things, or say stupid things, because of course I did,” she added. Lewinsky said the scandal is referenced somewhere on a daily basis. “Because the scandal has my name,” she added, “I’m forever attached to it.”
Twice in just a few hours Saturday, President Trump and his representatives offered textbook examples of the fog-making rhetorical response known as the non-denial denial.
Asked during a Fox News interview whether he was a Russian agent (as the FBI suspected, according to a blockbuster New York Timesstory), Trump harrumphed, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.” (Trump gave a more direct denial on Monday.)
.. Like all non-denial denials, both responses were forceful, even emotional in tone. But neither really answered the question.
That’s exactly how a non-denial denial (or NDD, if you will) is supposed to work. It suggests the speaker is responding forthrightly, without really confirming or rejecting the claim.
NDDs aren’t technically lies, but they are evasive and obfuscating. By seeming to dispute a statement without actually doing so, an NDD can raise doubts about the veracity of a damning statement. They have the added benefit of letting the non-denial denier off the hook if and when more facts emerge that confirm the original report. The denier, after all, never actually said the initial report was wrong, so he or she can’t be called on a blatant lie later.
.. In addition to their many inaccurate, misleading and baseless statements, Trump and his representatives have been frequent practitioners of the NDD:
●Following news reports that Trump intended to replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton in March, Sanders tweeted, “Just spoke to Potus and Gen. H.R. McMaster. Contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship. There are no changes at the NSC.” There weren’t then; Bolton replaced McMasterfour days later.
●McMaster himself provided non-denial cover for the White House after The Post reported last year that Trump had leaked details of a classified operation against the Islamic State during an Oval Office meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false,” he said, adding, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” But the story never said Trump disclosed nonpublic military operations or discussed “intelligence sources or methods.”
McMaster’s statement never cited anything specific in the story that was false.
The “non-denial denial” phrase itself appears to have entered the lexicon during the Watergate era of the mid-1970s.
Several sources credit the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee with coining it in reaction to statements made by President Nixon and his spokesman about The Post’s reporting.
“As best as I can recall, Bradlee was the first to use the ‘non-denial denial’ language,” said Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein reported those stories.
At one point, Woodward said, the White House said The Post’s sources were a “fountain of misinformation,” but did not specifically challenge the reported facts. “I recall when I first heard [the phrase], I thought, ‘Ah, Bradlee was giving language to precisely what was happening.’ ”
Woodward said the most artful NDDs are issued with “such force, language and outrage that it sounds like a real denial.” What’s more, as with Trump, the Nixon White House mixed non-denials with outright denials, creating the impression that his administration was actually denying everything.
.. The Trump White House pushed back on Woodward’s most recent book, “Fear,” with its own nonspecific NDD regarding the book’s many anecdotes about infighting and chaos among Trump’s top officials. In a statement upon the book’s release in September, Sanders said, “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad.” (Trump and former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly did, however, issue more specific denials).
As a rhetorical device, NDDs are an updated version of the “red herring” fallacy, the notion that an irrelevant topic is introduced in an argument to divert attention from the original issue, said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In other words, he said, “it’s just another in a long line of strategies of evasion.”
Trump isn’t unique in this, said Dana L. Cloud, a communication and rhetorical studies professor at Syracuse University. “One need only think of Bill Clinton’s reductionist use of a definitional argument when claiming that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky,” she said.
“It is not a set of tactics unique to Trump or any particular political party.”
.. But Trump’s NDD’s tend to fit a pattern, said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in American political discourse. His strategy typically involves a combination of
- denying knowledge of an accusation;
- denying associating with the people allegedly involved;
- asking what the victim did to deserve his or her fate; and
- accusing his accusers, “which is an appeal to hypocrisy.”
As such, Trump’s non-denial denials are different in kind and manner than earlier presidents, according to Rosa A. Eberly, a rhetoric professor at Penn State, because they assert “de facto negative evaluations” of most democratic institutions. “I don’t see [rhetoric of this kind] as an effective strategy for the long game of democracy,” she said.
Trump, Woodward said, “has taken the old Nixon strategy of making the issue the conduct of the press, not the conduct of the president, to new strategic heights. And some of it is working.”
They eventually allowed her to make a call, but she still hadn’t decided whether she would help the FBI. Then the agents threatened to go after her family.
“He said, ‘Well, you should know, we’re also thinking about prosecuting your mum for the things you said she did on the tape,'” she said, crying.
“In order to cooperate and avoid charges, I would have to make monitored phone calls which they would listen in to and record and I might have to wear a wire and go see people in person.
“I was mortified and afraid of what this would do to my family. I was still in love with Bill at the time so I felt really responsible.”
Two decades on from the outbreak of the scandal, the now public figure and writer said she still doesn’t “feel comfortable talking about it”, but the one thing that she’s adamant about is that despite the moral and ethical implications, it was a consensual relationship.
“It’s not as if it didn’t register with me that he was the president. Obviously it did,” she said.
“‘But I think in one way the moment we were actually in the back office for the first time the truth is I think it meant more to me the someone who other people desired, desired me.
“However wrong it was, however misguided, for who I was at that time, at 22 years old, it was how I felt.”
Rudy Giuliani tells Axios that his client, President Trump, is currently willing to speak to Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the condition that he not be asked about two subjects: why Trump fired FBI director James Comey, and what Trump said to Comey about the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
You might wonder if the specificity of this demand sounds just a wee bit suspicious, as if Trump’s lawyers are pointing frantically at a locked door at a crime scene and shouting “Don’t go in there!” You would be right.
.. The Russia scandal has followed an eerily similar fact pattern to Watergate. Both cases feature as the central underlying crime the burglary of private files from the Democratic National Committee in order to give Republicans an advantage in a presidential campaign. Both cases also feature the president leaning on the FBI to quash an investigation that might connect the burglary to the president and his inner circle.
.. We are accustomed — not only by Watergate but by every criminal or detective drama — to expect evidence to mount to a crescendo over time. Nobody knows quite how to respond to the spectacle of a president committing high crimes and misdemeanors in his first few weeks in office, and then simply confessing to them casually in a subsequent television interview.
.. A perjury trap is a real thing. The term describes when prosecutors lure a witness into giving false testimony, usually for reasons other than covering up a crime, knowing they can prove the claim was false, and then nail them for perjury.
.. The impeachment of President Clinton was a classic perjury trap. Special Prosecutor Ken Starr asked the president about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, knowing Clinton — like most people who have affairs, especially politicians — would lie about it.
.. Asking Trump about his attempt to manipulate his FBI director is not a perjury trap. The question is not extraneous to a crime, it is a crime. He was very consciously attempting to stop an investigation into his administration. The mere fact that his lawyers are discussing it well in advance indicates that the subject matter is not a perjury trap, because the “trap” aspect involves the witness not knowing beforehand that the question is designed to produce a lie.
Trump’s lawyers have presumably concluded that they have no defense of his obstruction of justice. Faced with a choice between admitting to obstruction of justice, or denying it and risking perjury, Trump’s choice is to avoid the question altogether.
.. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
.. Once she was at a hotel in Little Rock, she claims Clinton told her that he wasn’t going to the campaign headquarters and offered to meet her in her hotel lobby coffee shop instead. Once he arrived, she says he called her room and suggested that they have coffee there, since the lobby had too many reporters.
.. Clinton called her nursing home a half-dozen times that year, getting through once and asking when she was going to be back in Little Roc
.. in 1991, she says she saw Clinton outside a meeting on nursing home standards in Little Rock, and that he said he wanted to apologize to her, and asked what he could do to make things right. She recalls saying “nothing,” and walking away.
.. She caught me and took my hand and said ‘I am so happy to meet you. I want you to know that we appreciate everything you do for Bill.’ I started to turn away and she held onto my hand and reiterated her phrase — looking less friendly and repeated her statement — ‘Everything you do for Bill’. I said nothing. She wasn’t letting me get away until she made her point. She talked low, the smile faded on the second thank you. I just released her hand from mine and left the gathering.”
.. She only came forward after she was interviewed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s office and her allegation leaked.
.. Blumenthal argues, she “had no standing as a reliable witness.” That’s one interpretation. But it often takes a while for rape accusers to come forward, so Broaddrick’s initial unwillingness to relay the allegation is hardly airtight proof she’s lying.
.. This assertion, that a “true” rape victim would cut off all contact with their rapist, is rather misleading and pernicious, and maintaining contact with an alleged assailant is hardly proof that a victim is lying. “It is common for victims to maintain contact with their abusers because they may still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse,”
.. “It is also common for some victims to maintain contact in an attempt to regain control over their assault. Others may maintain contact in an attempt to regain a feeling of normalcy.”
.. “Privately, Clinton’s lawyers have conceded that Clinton may have had consensual sex with Broaddrick but insist that he would have never forced himself upon an unwilling participant.”
.. she says she was traumatized and blamed herself for what happened. “I felt responsible. I don’t know if you know the mentality of women and men at that time. But me letting him come to my room? I accepted full blame.”
But time after time, Clinton has spun the Lewinsky thing into a story about how he was treated unfairly during this thing that simply occurred while he was president.
This is how he put it in his “do-over” interview with Stephen Colbert: “But the important thing is, that was a very painful thing that happened 20 years ago, and I apologized to my family, to Monica Lewinsky and her family, and to the American people.”
He uses a version of this locution all of the time. The scandal was a thing that “happened” as if he was not the author of it. It reminds of that scene in Diner where Steve Guttenberg (“What an actor!” — The Stonecutters) makes his fiancée take a football-trivia test to prove she’s worthy of marriage. If she fails, Gutenberg explains, “it’s out of my hands.”
..For Clinton — both of them — all of his or her misdeeds were scandals because other people, nefarious forces, Comstocks and prudes, vast right-wing conspiracies, talk-radio critics, et al., unfairly turned them into scandals. For Clinton, the real story of the impeachment drama was that he did nothing wrong. “I did the right thing,” he said. “I defended the Constitution.”
.. I particularly enjoyed when Bill snapped, “You think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?”
This is precisely the argument Clinton used on Donna Shalala and the rest of his cabinet the day after he publicly admitted he’d been lying — and had forced his cabinet to lie
.. When Bill Clinton had to “apologize” to his cabinet for playing baron-and-the-milkmaid with an intern and lying about it, he asked if anybody had a problem with it. Donna Shalala foolishly assumed he was being sincere. She chimed in and said she had a problem. He berated her for her effrontery, explaining that her prudish standards would have prevented JFK from being president. And while those of us not ensorcelled by the cult of that charismatic mediocrity might respond, “Yeah, so?” this was a debate-settling argument for many liberals.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the whole premise — right or wrong (I think right) — of the Me Too movement is that being powerful or even doing good things professionally is no excuse for piggish, exploitative, or abusive behavior. Clinton’s rhetorical question about Kennedy and Johnson proves that he doesn’t actually agree with the Me Too movement. Or, to be more accurate, he agrees with it — so long as it doesn’t apply to him. Which is just about the purest distillation of Clintonism — in both its Bill and its Hillary strains — you could come up with.
.. If we are to take Me Too seriously, then surely, say, Juanita Broaddrick deserves a hearing, no?
.. focusing entirely on the Lewinsky stuff was a great favor to Clinton, because it allowed him to cite polls and offer his bovine-turd-taco claim that he was “defending the Constitution.”
.. I think Bill Clinton is partly correct when he says the press is “frustrated because they’ve got all these serious accusations against the current occupant of the Oval Office, and his voters don’t seem to care.” It’s not just the current occupant of the Oval Office — but it seems obvious to me that the liberal punditocracy would not be turning on Clinton so much if he weren’t inconvenient to the anti-Trump narrative.
.. Turning the Miss America Pageant into a contest to find the most confident, woke, and earnest young woman regardless of her looks strikes me as a silly idea, along the lines of Burrito Brothers getting into the heating and insulation business.
.. More to the point, the charge that Miss America “objectified” women never bothered me much. The point of beauty pageants is to judge beauty. That’s how they started. Judging people on their earnest wokeness is why we have Oberlin.
.. it seems that a lot of the people who like to mock and belittle “science deniers” and “creationists” are the very same people who insist (hetero)sexual desire, beauty, etc. are entirely socially constructed.
.. If there is a single industry in all of Christendom that does more to treat women as sexual objects without meaningful agency or dignity, it’s the porn industry and, relatedly, strip clubs. Yeah, yeah, I get that Stormy Daniels is an assertive, independent businesswoman. And, as I am not a close student of Stormy Daniels’s particular contributions to this oeuvre, it may be the case that Dripping Wet Sex IV is full of empowering messages for women, but I’ll remain skeptical until I review the evidence.