This is an incisive editorial from today’s NYT, on President’s Trump’s Twitter attack on the “so-called judge” who blocked his immigration ban. The piece argues that the role of courts, as upholders of rationality, has, in the age of Trump, become more important than ever, particularly as other key institutions, including Congress and significant swaths of the media, cannot be counted on to play their necessary roles in maintaining a civil, safe society.
No question that’s true, and the quick response of the courts to a ban that even I, a non-lawyerly observer, immediately viewed as unconstitutional, is extremely good to see (later today, a federal appeals court will hear the government’s argument to restore the ban).
But I saw something else in Trump’s attacks on the judiciary. Our president has always and highly effectively used fear and divisiveness as political tactics, and the possibility that these tactics could be taken from him represents a fundamental threat to his and Bannon’s strategy.
The refugee ban is a great example of this phenomenon, because most people have two opposing impulses. One is to welcome strangers. I was elated to see pictures in the paper the other day of joyous African refugees arriving at their new home in the snow-filled Hudson Valley (they even seemed happy to see the snow!). But we also instinctively fear strangers, something fake populists and demagogues have exploited forever. A core strategy of Trump’s campaign was to set his voters against others, and himself as the strongman that can protect us from the marauding intruders, many of whom are already within our midst, while others are aggressively trying to get here to kill us.
As far as the ban itself is concerned, this last part is of course an alternative fact of the vilest type. In decades, there’s no evidence of refugees killing Americans and this (actual) fact has been particularly underscored re the seven nations in the ban. (The Times points out that “[T]here was, in fact, a terrorist attack shortly after Mr. Trump issued his immigration order: a white supremacist, officials say, armed himself with an assault rifle and stormed a mosque in Quebec City, slaughtering six Muslims during their prayers.”)
Look at his tweet (my bold): “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The last bit—“Bad!”—is especially primal and revealing (it’s also what I just said to my cat for jumping up on the table). By threatening to take away the ability of the president to promulgate fear, the courts are going after his essential playbook. And once you take away a bully’s key psychological weapon, what has he got left? Well, in this case, he has an army, a nuclear arsenal, and a compliant Congress.
In other words, the institution of the judiciary is unimaginably important.
I yield to no one in my disdain for alternative facts. I’ve been doing what I can from my own little fiefdom to chart a path back to Factville, most recently devoting the debut episode of our new podcast (On the Economy Podcast, co-chaired with Ben Spielberg) to that theme. So consider that bit of street cred as I raise a question stimulated by this interesting, smart read in today’s NYT.
The title—Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying—is obviously hyperbole, and the piece focuses on the interaction of the Trump administration with their hard-right supporters and the alt-right media that closes this dangerous circle. No question, that’s a real problem and the motivation for the work I noted above.
But it is not clear to me how far down this rabbit hole we’ve fallen. The oped talks of a “new, post-factual political culture,” but is this not ultimately a question of numbers? Really, how many people actually don’t care about facts anymore? Did not a majority of jaws drop along with Chuck Todd’s when Kellyanne Conway defended the administration’s alternative facts? What share of the those paying attention believe Trump’s nonsense about the crowds at his inauguration or millions of fraudulent ballots cast against him?
I assure you, I’m not downplaying this problem at all. But attacking the problem requires us to think clearly about its actual nature. Though I don’t have the numbers to answer those questions above, my strong suspicion is that our biggest problem when it comes to facts-on-the-run is not that we—meaning most people—live in a post-factual culture. It’s that our president lives, flourishes, and has a symbiotic relationship with that minority culture.
Obviously, history brims with examples of how a violent, oppressive minority, can take control and cause terrible, even murderous, damage. And history also reveals that this process is facilitated by a feckless, apathetic opposition, a lazy press, an academic and research community too ensconced in their comfortable sinecures to recognize that the game has changed.
Those are the potentially threatening institution failings that allow for the rise of the oppressor. In this regard, there’s hope in what looks like the rise of an extremely energized and nimble opposition, some early evidence that legal checks and balances appear to still be operative, and some clear media willingness to call out lies.
No question, some of us live in a post-fact culture fed by falsehoods designed to keep us fighting among ourselves while empowering a non-representative government. But as the actual popular vote showed, most of us do not. I will continue to try to draw the map back to Factville, but I do not for a moment believe that this is a lonely endeavor. There are way more of us than there are of them.
True, most of my musical interludes involve crisp, hard bop jazz, the most elevated and celestial classical music, and the occasional funk or reggae jam. But I can still be moved by the rock music of my youth, as occurred when I stumbled on this great, live performance by Neil Young of his classic Cinnamon Girl. Not for everyone, I’m sure, but among the best in this genre.
Trigger warning: I do a pretty good job at demographic diversity in my in interludes. But this is not that.