The Unwisdom of Crowds

I’m not a big fan of enthusiasm, particularly among large numbers of people. When large numbers of people get really into something, I tend to go the opposite direction.

.. I’ve never much liked events where spectators get too into anything. I like music, but I find concerts where everyone is all agog vaguely creepy. I sometimes feel like everyone else has been hypnotized and I’m expected to play along. Or sort of like I’m the only stoned one in the crowd (when it’s actually closer to the other way around).

.. It’s certainly a huge part of why I’ve never liked youth politics and think so little of young people who take so much pride in being young: a) You didn’t do anything, everyone who has ever lived past, say, 21 accomplished “being young,” too; b) there is no ideological content to youth politics; c) if the best thing you’ve got going for you is that you can boast you were born later than other people, you’ve really got nothing going for you;

.. I guess my point is that I don’t like crowds. I don’t trust them. Good things rarely come from them. Not all crowds are mobs, but all mobs start as crowds

.. The heroic unit in the American political tradition is the individual, not the mob. The crowd is what makes the cult of personality a thing. Without the crowd, it’s just a person.

.. Eugene Peterson.

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence — religious meaning — apart from God as revealed through the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but at least, in America, almost never against the crowds.

.. That feeling I don’t like at concerts is, I think, related to this quest for transcendence by the crowd. I didn’t like it in Obama’s new-age revivalism and I didn’t like it in Trump’s old-timey revivalism.

.. Elias Canetti notes in his book Crowds and Power that inside the crowd, “distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.”

.. Barack Obama nearly destroyed the Democratic party by thinking he could translate the transcendence of the crowd into a governing style. Donald Trump would do well to learn from Obama’s mistake.

.. I kind of think of civil society as coastal wetlands. For years, people overlooked wetlands as the kind of ugly, swampy places that served no great purpose. It turned out that wetlands are hugely important. They absorb bad runoff from reaching the ocean, they buffer the coast from soil and beach erosion, and they offer a diverse ecosystem a habitat they can’t find anywhere else. If you think of the government — particularly the administrative state — as an ocean, civil society is the wetlands that keep the ocean from eroding everything. They’re a buffer that blunts the impact of the state.

Trump, The Man in the Crowd

Evan Osnos has pointed out that one element to look for in Trump’s decision-making is exploitation—how he is influenced by those around him who want things like taxpayer money, or contracts, or time with the President, for themselves or their clients.

.. All of this love seems, for Trump, to demand enemies. He told the crowd that he was not against all immigrants, but “they are going to come in legally!”

.. “We have no idea who they are, where they come from, do they love us?” Trump said. “In a lot of cases, nooooo, they don’t love us.” This is the rhetoric that he has used in the past to argue for bans on Muslims or on people from certain parts of the world. It would be a mistake to believe that he has put aside those goals.

.. He walked out, with a smile, and thanked them and Trump “for the confidence you have shown in me.” Then he said, “I look forward to being the civilian leader, so long as Congress gives me the waiver and the Senate votes to consent.” He was referring to the need to work around a law that normally keeps generals from leading the Department of Defense until they have been retired for seven years. (Mattis has been out for three.) Then Mattis left the stage, as Trump returned, nodding approvingly. “Oh, if he didn’t get that waiver there’d be a lot of angry people,” he said. “Such a popular choice.”

.. Trump did not explore one of the reasons that the choice has been popular: the idea that Mattis will be someone he will listen to, and will guard him from the recklessness that others around him, such as retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s designee for national-security adviser and an in-Tower conspiracy theorist, might encourage.

.. Trump went on to say that torture might not yield the information people expected, but, “if it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.” This was a remarkable admission: that torture might be something worth doing just for the emotionally satisfying spectacle of it.

.. And that is why the rallies are likely to endure: to serve as calibrators of or infomercials for what Trump believes that “the public” wants. One can waste a lot of time delving into the question of Trump’s psychological need for affirmation. What is politically more important is how he might use the set piece of a cheering crowd to brush aside other considerations, particularly those involving the checks on the Presidency, and the willingness of those in other areas of the government, or in the White House itself, to exercise them. Should courts worry about “a lot of angry people”?