The decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber.
Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.
But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.
For example, there’s a complex policy problem at the heart of this week’s Iran episode. Iran is not powerful because it has a strong economy or military. It is powerful because it sponsors militias across the Middle East, destabilizing regimes and spreading genocide and sectarian cleansing. Over the past few years those militias, orchestrated by Qassim Suleimani, have felt free to operate more in the open with greater destructive effect.
We’re not going to go in and destroy the militias. So how can we keep them in check so they don’t destabilize the region? That’s the hard problem — one that stymied past administrations.
In the Middle East, and wherever there are protracted conflicts, nations have a way to address this problem. They use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.”
The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
These sorts of operations have risks and rewards. A risk is that it won’t cease the escalation, just accelerate it. The radicals on the other side will get enraged and take to the streets. Their leaders will have to appease that rage.
A reward is that maybe you do halt the escalation. The other side implicitly says: “Message received. We’ll do some face-saving things to appease the streets, but we don’t want this to get out of hand, either.” Another reward is that you’ve managed to eliminate an effective terrorist like Soleimani. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.
The decision to undertake this sort of operation is a matter of weighing risk and reward. And after the Soleimani killing, you saw American security professionals talk in the language of balancing risk and reward. Stanley McChrystal, a retired general, and Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, thought it was worth the risk. Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, thought it wasn’t.
But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?
A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”
This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors —
- the Mueller report!
- The Steele dossier!
— that lead ultimately nowhere.
Most of this week’s argument about the Middle East wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was all narcissistically about ourselves! Democrats defend terrorists! Republicans are warmongers! Actual Iranians are just bit players in our imperialistic soap opera, the passive recipients of our greatness or perfidy.
The world is more complicated than this cartoon. Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not like recent Republicans. He is, as my colleague Ross Douthat put it, a Jacksonian figure, wanting to get America out of foreign entanglements while lobbing a few long-distance attacks to ensure the crazy foreigners stick to killing one another and not us.
And this is the final paradox. For all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds Trump, populist Republicans and Democrats are gravitating toward the same foreign policy: We’re in the middle of a clash of civilizations; the Middle East is so screwed up, we should just get out; we’re too stupid/ineffective/racist/imperialistic to do any good there anyway.
We fight viciously about Trump, but underneath, a populist left-right curtain is descending around America, separating us from the Mideast, China, even Europe. The real high-risk move is the one both parties are making together: that if we ignore the world it will ignore us. (It won’t.)
Maybe once the Inflammatory One is finally gone from the scene we can have an intelligent conversation about that.
And not for the reasons you think.
Those of us in journalism primarily do one thing: cover events. We report and opine about events like election campaigns, wars and crimes. A lot of the events we cover are decisions — a decision to reform health care or write a tweet — so we tend to congregate in the cities where decision makers live. The internet has sped up the news cycle. Now we put more emphasis on covering the last event that just happened. But it’s still mostly events.
But a funny thing has happened to events in this era. They have ceased to drive politics the way they used to. We’ve seen gigantic events like impeachment, the Kavanaugh hearings, the Mueller investigation and the “Access Hollywood” tapes. They come and go and barely leave a trace on the polls, the political landscape or evaluations of Donald Trump.
Events don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.
Do you want to predict how a certain region is going to vote in the 2020 presidential race? Discover who settled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. If the settlers were from the East Anglia section of Britain, then that region is probably going Democratic. If the settlers were from the north of Britain, that region is very likely to vote for Donald Trump.
Do you want to predict how a state is going to vote? Find out how that state voted in the 1896 presidential election. As Washington University political scientists Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have observed, 22 out of the 23 states that voted Democratic in 1896 had turned Republican by 2000. Similarly, 17 of the 22 states that voted Republican in 1896 had turned Democratic by 2000. The parties have flipped regions.
Do you want to predict how an individual is going to vote? Ask a simple question: Is she urban or rural?
Geographic and psycho-sociological patterns now overshadow events in driving political loyalties and national electoral outcomes. Demography is destiny.
There’s a more precise way to put this. An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
When a whole country sees events through a similar lens, then you don’t have to think a lot about the process people use to make meaning. It’s similar across the land. But when people in different regions and subcultures have nonoverlapping lenses, the process by which people make sense of events is more important than the event itself.
For reasons I don’t understand, we’ve had an epistemic explosion over the past few decades. Different American regions and subcultures now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psycho-social categories have hardened.
We in the media will continue to cover events, which, of course, is absolutely necessary. But with some noble exceptions (I’m thinking of Thomas Edsall of The Times and Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic), we underreport on how meaning is made in different subcultures. You can’t make sense of reality without that. Often we throw up our hands: “Can’t these people see the facts?!?” I’m as guilty as anyone.
In this new context, I’m curious to know how lenses get crafted. For example, intersectionality is a lens that was created by theorists decades ago and is now a way of seeing that many people use to organize their view of reality. How did that happen?
I’m curious to know how a man in rural Idaho who has lost a son to suicide and a brother to fentanyl sees the impeachment hearing. How does he make meaning of that event in real time?
I’m curious to know how you can change another person’s lens. Can you do it by writing and talking or do you have to move her to a different place and immerse her in a different reality?
I’m curious to know how power inequality shapes people’s lenses. As Jonathan Rauch suggests in the current issue of National Affairs, ideological polarization is not on the rise, emotional polarization is on the rise. We don’t necessarily disagree more. We perceive our opponents to be more menacing. We see more fearfully.
The big difference for those of us in media is that the main story is not only where the decision makers are creating events. It’s also and maybe more so in the eyes of those doing the perceiving.
Obviously, in this era it’s even more important to have a news organization that is ideologically, culturally and geographically diverse, so you can surface and explore the different unconscious ways groups see
It’s also important to ask different questions. It’s not enough to simply ask people’s opinions through polls and interviews. Epistemology is deeper than opinions. It’s found through deeper probing.
This is a wonderful opportunity for us to think about our jobs in more profound ways. The core insight is that in a hyper-pluralistic society you can’t know people in other groups until you know how they know you.
And not for the reasons you think.
You are not just thinking with your brain.
This has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities. But this emphasis on the brain has subtly fed the illusion that thinking happens only from the neck up. It’s fed the illusion that the advanced parts of our thinking are the “rational” parts up top that try to control the more “primitive” parts down below.
So it’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the “autonomic state” you are in.
Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down.
According to Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” the concept of safety is fundamental to our mental state. People who have experienced trauma have bodies that are highly reactive to perceived threat. They don’t like public places with loud noises. They live in fight-or-flight mode, stressed and anxious. Or, if they feel trapped and constrained, they go numb. Their voice and tone go flat. Physical reactions shape our way of seeing and being.
“You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,” Barrett writes in “How Emotions Are Made.”
When we’re really young we know few emotion concepts. Young children say, “Mommy, I hate you!” when they mean “I don’t like this” because they haven’t learned their culture’s concepts for hatred vs. badness. But as we get older we learn more emotional granularity. The emotionally wise person can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite, resentment, grouchiness and aggravation, whereas for a less emotionally wise person those are all synonyms for “I feel bad.”
A wise person may know the foreign words that express emotions we can’t name in English: tocka (Russian, roughly, for spiritual anguish) or litost (Czech, roughly, for misery combined with the hunger for revenge). People with high emotional granularity respond flexibly to life, have better mental health outcomes and drink less.
If bodily reactions can drive people apart they can also heal. Martha G. Welch of Columbia University points to the importance of loving physical touch, especially in the first 1,000 minutes of life, to lay down markers of emotional stability.
Under the old brain-only paradigm, Welch argues, we told people to self-regulate their emotions through conscious self-talk. But real emotional help comes through co-regulation. When a mother and a child physically hold each other, their bodily autonomic states harmonize, connecting on a metabolic level. Together they move from separate distress to mutual calm.
Welch has created something called the Welch Emotional Connection Screen, which measures the emotional connection between mothers and pre-term babies. By encouraging this kind of deep visceral connection through 18 months, her therapy can mitigate the effects of autism.
When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.
You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.
You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.