What a conspiracy theorist president means Part 2 – Amanda Marcotte interviews me for Salon

Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve enjoyed reading since her days at Pandagon, was curious about what having a CT president might mean. For some crazy reason, she thought she should ask me about it. Briefly, I tried to summarize the patterns of thought conspiracy theorists engage in, their willingness to accept any belief if confirmatory of their guiding ideology, and their tendency to project their own darkest behaviors onto others. Overall, I thought she provided a great summary of the problem. My only critique would be it’s not all doom and gloom.
One thing we talked about that didn’t make it to the article but is worth mentioning is that America has had really, really bad leadership in the past. For those of you who may want a deeper history of stupid, incompetent, small-minded, bigoted and conspiratorial American political, religious and social movements, I recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer for non-fiction, it is an illuminating history of our stupid politics and stupid politicians over the preceding 200 years.
Ultimately, the book is reassuring, our system has sustained significant stresses before (don’t take that to suggest I endorse testing it like this monster surely will). Despite decades of small-minded, ignorant bigots dominating the discourse of our country, the Republic survives; almost as if our founders were clever people who could predict the dangers of demagoguery and illiberal democracy. The history we learn in school is one viewed through rose-tinted glasses, glossing over not just the endless injustices, but also the rank cupidity of our leadership. Most people have the sense that most, if not all of our presidents have been wise, or at least qualified men, with a couple of glaring exceptions. In fact one point Hofstadter makes is that since the founders, our country’s leadership has been in steep intellectual decline, and even the founders themselves were susceptible to attacks of controversy, conspiracy and demagogy. It sounds unbelievable, but even in 1796, people attacked Jefferson for being a wishy-washy intellectual. Hoffstadter quotes a pamphlet released by William Loughton Smith against Jefferson:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician are timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, things and circumstances; an intertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

You heard it right. Jefferson was “low energy”. If not for the presence of grammar and coherence, this could have been written by our president elect. Hofstadter describes how shortly after the founding of the country, we fell into the politics all of us recognize and love today:

The shabby campaign against Jefferson, and the the Alien and Sedition Acts, manifested the treason of many wealthy and educated Federalists against the cultural values of tolerance and freedom. Unfortunately, it did not follow that more popular parties under Jeffersonian or Jacksonian leadership could be counted on to espouse these values. The popular parties themselves eventually became the vehicles of a kind of primitivist and anti-intellectualist populism hostile to the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar.

The ensuing chapters, a history of political movements and their incessant hostility to intellectualism, education, experience, expertise, and liberal values of equality and tolerance, show that if anything, the president-elect is a more typical of American presidents than he is not. The story is of an endless cycle of smart, forward thinking intellectuals and movements of all political persuasions, being torn down, routinely and predictably, by populists espousing bigotry, hatred of elites, and suspicion of education and intelligence.
My personal belief is that the last 60 or so years were the aberration; what little respect we’ve shown for knowledge, scientific progress and expertise was kickstarted by the national fear of Sputnik, and the sudden implication of national survival being dependent on having a thriving educated and technological class. With the end of the cold-war, and our current greatest enemy an anti-modern movement of antediluvian religious fanatics, the pressure to maintain an intellectual elite has waned.
The anti-intellectual populists are back to their same old games – demonizing experience in government, attacking our universities as dens of liberals feminizing our good young men, and electing to power the bigoted dregs of our business class. Despite the technical nature of our current greatest challenge – that of global climate change – the perceived need for technically-competent, scientifically-literate and intellectually sound governance has disappeared. Partly this is due to the anti-intellectual climate denialist movement, which has convinced our morbidly-incurious president elect that climate science is little more than a political game being played by socialist nerds, possibly at the behest of China. But this is also due to the fact that Democrats failed to make the case the climate change, or really that any science was important during this election, and the media happily ignored such real issues to chase meaningless scandal. One question was asked about climate change during the debates and we spent the next week jubilant because the questioner was wearing a red sweater. We don’t have good science debate because we allow ourselves to be distracted from the issues. The Office of Technology Assessment is no more, meanwhile Al Gore invented the internet, John Kerry is an effete wimp, and misuse of email is the only disqualifying sin for a presidential candidate.
In all the finger-pointing after the election no single reason is satisfactory to explain why we have once again devolved into the populist bigotry which was for so long our normal. It is clear though, the electorate no longer feels the expert class shares their values or their interests. While electing a kakistocracy is not a rational solution to that problem, they felt they had no other choice, they weren’t being listened to, a significant portion of the population is not satisfied with government by a competent, professional intellectual like Obama or the obstinate, do-nothing Republican opposition. This is the most important lesson for those who wish for a government by thoughtful experts to return. We can not make the coming political struggle about the man, the personality, the corruption, or the bigotry. Clearly, these were not obstacles to the president-elect’s success. There is no reason to think that in four years this will be any different. The electorate clearly likes or at least tolerates these personality flaws because they perceive the president elect cares about them. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant.
Luigi Zingales wrote a compelling piece in the NYT laying out the best shot for a successful strategy and it’s based on the long series of failures in stopping Trump’s Italian analogue, Silvio Berlusconi. Repeatedly his opponents tried to make it about the man, and failed, because they couldn’t get past that his supporters just did not care that he was a terrible, terrible person. They still liked him.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.

Instead Zingales emphasizes Berlusconi’s only electoral losses came from opponents who made elections about the issues, not the man:

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

We should not forget that the president-elect’s nomination was a rejection of Republicans and their strategy of obstinance just as his election was a rejection of Democrats, and their supposed identity politics. That this election represents rejection of reason, science, tolerance and decency is now moot, Democrats failed to convince enough of the electorate their policies would actually be superior for them personally. They failed to make the case for science, for climate realism, or that solutions to these problems can be of benefit to ordinary people. This should not have been hard. It should not be difficult to convince people their underpaid jobs for dangerous, polluting industries can be replaced with something better, nor should it be challenging to explain why protecting wages, workers, environments and communities is a bad thing, but the Democrats barely tried to make this election a case for economic progress, technological advancement and environmental protection.
The solution will be candidates who effectively make the case that government by the competent, the learned, and the experienced can be of palpable benefit to ordinary voters – not just an expression of right and moral thinking. And should that be so much to ask?

So, you've elected a conspiracy theorist

I’ve not written about this election believing the flaws of the Republican candidate were pretty obvious; further litigating his failures as a candidate is now moot, he is now the president-elect of the United States. However, it is worth discussing what this administration will now bring given what we know about how conspiracy theorists behave and I believe our experience with conspiracy theorists and denialists gives some insight into what we can expect from a conspiracy theorist (CT) politician. There are some questions that may be answered and may help the scientific community develop strategies to respond to unique challenges of the leadership of our country now being dominated by those who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth. So, what can we expect from a CT administration? Have there been previous examples that can guide us on what to expect? What type of impact will this have on funding for various agencies, both scientific and regulatory, that study and implement such policies? How will they operate their administration? What types of mistakes will they make? How can we mitigate, and possibly litigate for the advantage of the sciences and scientific progress?
The most important thing to realize about CTs is that they project their worst impulses onto others. Over the years studying denialists and CTs the pattern that emerges over and over is that they routinely commit the wrongs do what they accuse others of doing. The way the CT believes the world works, and how power is wielded, is how they would wield power if they were in control. Take, for example, Mike Adams, regarded by some skeptics as the internet’s number one crank for his work at Natural News. Adams routinely accuses medical doctors and scientists of crimes against humanity, selling medications which do not work and only make us sicker etc. However, a brief foray into his activities show that he is the one who recommends obviously useless medical therapies for profit and incites violence. After studying CTs for years, one sees this behavior replicated again and again, the projection of the CTs own worst behaviors onto others. Need more examples? Look no further than Mike’s competition for number one internet crank Alex Jones, who shouts to the heavens over unending lying by politicians and the media while peddling in an unending torrent of false stories and lies, including Sandy Hook truthism, 9/11 truth, chemtrails, and whatever other conspiratorial nonsense he can find. No national tragedy can occur without Alex Jones instantly inventing a CT narrative from whole cloth, with no evidence, yet everyone else is the liar. His list of beliefs reads like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and there is ample evidence our president-elect goes to him for news.
So far the empirical evidence assembled by journalists like Kurt Eichenwald suggest the president-elect is no different. Almost every single thing he has claimed about his opponent more accurately described how he ran his business and his life, including crooked business deals, a self-enriching charity, mass deletion of emails in violation of court orders, and an astounding record assembled by fact checkers this year of unending lies for political gain. His opponent’s crimes were actually his crimes. We should not be surprised. The fact that he is conspiracy theorist told us everything we needed to know. It told us he would be promiscuous in his beliefs, unskilled or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, and willing to believe and promote any falsehood if consistent with his ideological bent. That his prevailing ideology seems to only be “I am great” makes me wonder if the secret to his support is just to stroke his ego, and he’ll promote whatever nonsense you like.
What will this mean for the incoming administration? Like most CTs he will be unwilling to tolerate dissent, yet will tolerate almost any kind of madness from those individuals that agree with him. This will be no “Team of Rivals”, this will be a true basket of deplorables. What will be assembled is an administration of similarly factually-deranged crank sycophants who will harbor any number of absurd beliefs consistent with crank magnetism, but who will otherwise be tolerated by their boss no matter what they do, as long as they maintain loyalty to, and stroke the ego of, the president. Evidence suggests this is already happening as he has named a climate denialist to head his EPA transition team from the ideologically deranged Conservative Enterprise Institute – CEI being a bogus “think tank” that presents ideological anti-science as some kind of academic endeavor. These people are the classic example of the fake expert – an agent who has no actual expertise in science or policy but who does share your ideology and a semblance of academic legitimacy with which they can give your BS a patina of truthiness.
Is there any upside to this? Or is this all bad news? What is the upside to hiring criminally-incompetent non-scientists into positions of power? Well for one thing, the spoils system does not change the fundamental institutional structure of these agencies, the hard-working people and scientists who work for the EPA or NIH or NSF will not simply turn around on a dime and accept this nonsense, they will buck against incompetent leadership and still try to accomplish their mission. The bureaucracy is not so easy to replace and only a minority of positions at the top of agencies tend to be political appointments. Second, the people he appoints will truly be criminally-incompetent. I have little doubt that we will find his administration immediately trying to abuse power, criminally, almost the instant they take over. If we are vigilant, and anticipate the type of abuses which will be typical to such actors we should be able to use the institutions of government designed to prevent abuse to limit their damage. I fully expect the same type of self-dealing, self-enriching and fraudulent behavior that have typified his business career to extend directly into the white house. This is the hysterical error that those that want people with “business experience” to run government make. You doom yourself to incompetent leadership because government is not a business and it can’t realistically be turned into one. It is a fool’s errand, and all they will do is run afoul of the built-in protections of our institutions that are designed to prevent people from behaving like petty tyrants.
After all we do have one example in our history of a CT-lead government and that was Richard Nixon. He, however, lived in a time where the loud proclamation of his anti-Semitic conspiratorial beliefs about Jews and the media would actually result in some kind of backlash, while the current candidate ended his campaign with an ad directly alluding to a Jewish banking conspiracy. Instead we know about Nixons behavior from recordings at the time which captured his paranoia and despicable beliefs. Similarly Nixon surrounded himself with loyalists who adhered to the same ideology, and whatever other foibles they had were then forgiven. It was Nixon, after all, who in recordings could be heard suggesting “why don’t we just use the bomb on north Vietnam” and had to be talked down by then secretary of state Kissinger. Conspiracy theorists are not the type of people you want running government. They are quite mad, and dangerous. But they also tend to commit the very crimes they are always accusing others of committing, and indeed, Nixon was ultimately caught in a criminal conspiracy (there’s a difference!) to undermine his political opponents.
So, a piece of advice from another Mark so long ago applies, and we should enter the next 4 years with it in mind at all times. Follow the money.
P.S. It looks like its time for me to start writing more consistently. More to come.