Cry, the beloved country

The posting I had drafted on the assumption of a Trump loss began, “We have dodged a bullet.”   Instead, the bullet hit its mark, fired by one-half of our almost perfectly divided country.

This series of blogs was motivated by my strong sense that a Brexit-like revolt was in the making, invisible to the polls, unseen by the pundits, and condescendingly dismissed by the establishment. I wrote that only complacency could open the door for a demagogue in 21st century America, and that is exactly what happened. Millions of Americans of all stripes dithered about whether they trusted Hillary Clinton instead of mobilizing to stop a dangerous demagogue from assuming power.

My basic argument was that Trump’s unprecedented combination of unpreparedness and demagogic populism was a threat that should transcend our normal partisan divisions. It should have, but it didn’t. Instead, the country doubled down on its recent politics where the animating force is angry antipathy directed toward the other team rather than positive ideological conviction or a rational consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates.   It turned out, among other surprises, that Christian “values voters” are prepared to overlook values and character; that “movement conservative” voters, who previously had professed dedication to ideological purity, were prepared to support a candidate totally lacking in political ideology; and that white men with well-paying union jobs would embrace a union-busting, “right to work” billionaire. It turned out that what mattered more were the lies and half-truths that reverberate around the Internet, viruses that infected many good Americans with an unreasoning furious conviction that the other team must be defeated.

George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” America suffers from problems of historic proportions.   Even before Trump, our political culture had collapsed into a hyper-partisanship not seen since the Civil War. The percentage of the population that has lost faith in our government and public institutions is at an all-time high. We are not educating our citizens to the minimum level required to sustain a democracy. The vigorous press we have enjoyed since our founding has withered and the very notion of professional journalism has been undermined, replaced by faith in the un-intermediated drivel bouncing around the web. We have a popular culture that is clueless about history, obsessed with celebrity, addicted to the superficial, bereft of critical thinking, disdainful of learning and expertise, and ignorant of basic civics. And Americans are now segregated, both geographically and in the virtual world, into echo-chambers of shared belief, where falsehoods and pernicious narratives spread at the speed of the web, making us vulnerable to manipulation by advertisers and demagogues alike. We cannot expect better in our politics and government until and unless these underlying conditions are addressed.

The lurid outrageousness of Trump’s campaign fed the media’s appetite for politics as entertainment, and gave him a free platform from which to instill a poisonous sense of angry victimhood in those fearful of demographic change and globalization. It was a campaign that gave voice to the nativism, prejudice, and misogyny that remain in the hearts of some of our fellow citizens, and that shamefully legitimized the conspiracies and stupidities that have long been confined to the fringes of our political life. The question now is whether the themes of his campaign also will be the themes of his government. We can hope they won’t, and Republicans in the administration and Congress will have a special responsibility to ensure that the worst of his ideas are abandoned (banning Muslims, killing terrorist families, mass deportation, etc.). But precedent does not provide cause for optimism. Populists usually try to do the things they said they would do.

I recommend to all of you the recent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, titled What is Populism? Professor Müller’s study of historical and contemporary populist regimes around the world suggests that we can expect the following when any populist attains power:

·      The populist demagogue in power continues to polarize the population and escalates his rhetoric to suggest that every political debate is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation between “the people” and their opponents.

·      The populist remains in permanent campaign mode, attempting to maintain almost constant direct communication with “the people.”

·      The populist claims moral authority derived from “the people” which justifies the muzzling of the press and the erosion of civil liberties, a type of “discriminatory legalism” which Professor Müller describes as “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

·      Populists in government are unable to actually implement many of their absurd promises, so they blame their failures on vast conspiracies by their opponents. 

·      Eventually and inevitably, even their most ardent supporters understand that they have been betrayed by a con man. 

Taken together, the populist gives us an “illiberal democracy,” meaning a condition just short of full-on authoritarianism. “Illiberal democracy” is characterized by a gradual usurpation of state institutions by the populist and his “movement,” on the basis that the institutions are corrupt tools of the establishment, and that constitutional limits on his power are fundamentally undemocratic because they oppose the will of the people. All of us have two choices:  we can understand the risk to constitutional democracy now or we can face it later once the damage has been done. We can battle to contain its earliest outbreaks; or we can come to our senses years from now and join the much harder fight then. The transition from a constitutional democracy to an “illiberal democracy” is gradual. Many will be inclined to overlook or forgive the first steps taken by Mr. Trump. Republicans have a special moral obligation to oppose their man when he attempts to transcend the limits of the law and the constitution, not to mention the bounds of decency.

As tempting as it is, I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress does not repeat Mitch McConnell’s immoral and un-American error of announcing, when President Obama first assumed the presidency, that the entire GOP would be mobilized to oppose everything that emerged from the White House. Instead, Democrats should take their clue from Secretary Clinton, who graciously told the country – including the man who unforgivably said he would accept the election results only if he won -- that the people had spoken, we must all respect the result, and moreover, that we owe him “an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would be saying if, like Hillary, he had won the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College? Resisting the urge to descend to Mr. Trump’s level will be the hardest but most important thing for the half of of the country that is appalled and terrified by his election.

This blog made the case against Mr. Trump based not on policy or ideology, but solely on the basis of his narcissistic personality disorder and the lessons that history teaches us about demagogic populism. Nonetheless, I cannot end the series without acknowledging my despair at what we face with Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, even if his proposals that are plainly illegal or impractical are blocked. Among other things, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be revoked, and the Paris Agreement on climate will collapse. Environmental regulation will be gutted. Cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers. With a doctrinaire conservative majority on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, civil rights, and separation of church and state all will be eroded with drastic consequences for those living in red states. Read my novel Christian Nation if you want to know what that will look like. State gerrymandering, voter suppression, and campaign finance laws will be approved by the Supreme Court, ensuring another generation of GOP competitiveness without the party having to move to the center. I won’t go on.

I would like to close by saying that American democracy is strong and will survive Mr. Trump. I cannot. It is frayed and very much still an experiment that could fail. I would like to say that civilization is enduring, but we have been reminded again that the forces of darkness churn just below the surface. All I can ask is that you not take refuge in despair, or allow yourselves the luxury of disengagement. History provides few clear lessons, but one of them is that individual conviction and action is what changes the world. We all must do what we can.

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It is now time to resume work on my next book, a novel that explores the moral challenges of the most disruptive technology humanity has yet encountered, genetic engineering, which, by giving us the power to create and edit DNA, will allow us to hack evolution and shape the future of all living things on the planet. The book explores whether humanity is ready to wield this power.



It's personal

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who immigrated (legally) with his family from a mainly Muslim nation many years ago. To protect his privacy I will say only this: He is a learned man, a global leader in his field who has risen to the top of his profession, where he makes huge contributions to his adopted country. He has a wide circle of admiring acquaintances in both the public and private sectors. 

I was astonished therefore when he shared with me his concern that bringing his family to the United States decades ago may have been the biggest mistake of his life. I was astonished to learn that this prominent man was scared: scared for the physical safety of his family, scared that he might not be able to freely practice the religion of his birth, scared that because of his religion he might have to leave America, and -- even worse -- scared that he might wait too long before leaving. I could not believe that I was hearing these things in a restaurant in lower Manhattan in the second decade of the 21st century. It shocked me profoundly.

In the days following that lunch, I realized that I had made a fundamental omission in my consideration of Trumpism. I was writing about it in terms of history, law, politics, and morality.   But I had failed to understand that it also has a profoundly personal dimension. I had failed to consider Trump from the perspective of millions of Muslim citizens, and from the perspective of hard-working immigrants of all national origins. For them, the fact that a bigoted nativist had received the nomination of a major party already has betrayed their belief in the promise of America. Many moved their families to America to escape fear, and now they find themselves in fear’s acidic grip. All the things that we observe as merely political, they experience as personal. 

These people are our neighbors and friends. They are the people who mow your lawn, clean your house and look after your children. They are the people who are researching the medical breakthrough that might save your life. Let’s remember on November 8 that for these people, it’s personal. Defeating Mr. Trump is only the first thing we need to do to restore faith with those who came here seeking to redeem the great promise of America. 

What is narcissism?

I thought it would be useful to share with you some of what I have learned about narcissism while researching my next novel, which happens to feature a deeply narcissistic protagonist (a scientist, not a politician). I am not going to assert any conclusion or opinion about Donald Trump’s personality or mental health. Instead, I simply ask you, based on reports of his behavior that you find credible, to consider whether the concept of narcissism helps to explain his past behavior and to predict how he might behave if elected.  

First, we need to distinguish between personality traits and personality disorders. We all, thank goodness, have widely differing personalities, and many of us are characterized by behaviors and attitudes that are unusual or eccentric.  Many politicians, for example, have an inflated sense of self-esteem and behave in an unusually self-aggrandizing and obnoxious manner. This may make them jerks, but it doesn’t mean they suffer from a personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, a personality trait crosses over to become a personality disorder when it is deeply ingrained, particularly inflexible, and causes distress or impaired functioning.

So what is the mental disorder known as “narcissistic personality disorder”? The Mayo Clinic describes it as follows:

"Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

Behind this rather dry definition lies a long and rich literature that fills out the picture of a typical narcissist, and explores the consequences of being in a personal relationship with one, or giving the narcissist power. The profile of the typical narcissist that follows is drawn from my review of that literature over the past three years.

The most distinctive characteristic of the narcissist is a dangerously inflated ego, revealed by arrogant grandiosity. The narcissist fears most of all being ordinary. Whether or not the narcissist has any actual achievements, he insists on a self-created narrative in which the hero is a kind of avatar self, whose distinctiveness is illustrated by exaggerated or invented episodes and accomplishments.   

Part of the narcissist’s narrative often involves having a special destiny. Closely associated with this conviction that he is “special” is a tendency toward magical thinking (that is, a conviction that a falsehood must be true because it fits that narrative or otherwise advances the narcissist's desires).  In almost all cases, it leads to a belief that the narcissist deserves to be surrounded by other special or high status people.  He is an inveterate name-dropper, and in his personal life seeks out “trophy partners” who make him look good. Another manifestation of the conviction that he is “special” is the belief that he should be exempted from ordinary rules of behavior and law. This conviction also makes the narcissist comfortable with subterfuge and deception; any means is justified by the higher goal of preserving the illusion of the narcissist’s heroic narrative, or satisfying the narcissist’s desires. Thus the narcissist almost always is a comfortable and accomplished liar.

The narcissist’s lack of empathy colors everything about him. In some extreme cases he lacks the ordinary understanding of what it is like to be someone else, but in all cases he simply does not care. He has no real interest in other people and fails to see that they have any intrinsic value. Instead, their only value is as a means to fulfillment of the narcissist’s own needs and desires. He often treats people as objects to be manipulated. He is quite talented in finding and exploiting weakness in others. His ability to manipulate those closest to him is enhanced by surrounding himself with people who crave his approval and are otherwise dependent. The narcissist is often quite charming, but it is a false charm, always deployed tactically to get what he wants.  

The narcissist’s life is generally characterized by shallow and unsuccessful relationships, most marked by splashy exaggerated starts and disastrous finishes. The marriage partner of a narcissist generally experiences exploitation instead of caring; and any commitment to the relationship is conditional on the marriage continuing to benefit the narcissist. He is usually incapable of true love.

The narcissist is marked by an extreme sense of entitlement. He believes he deserves all he wants, and thus genuinely feels he is being cheated or treated unfairly if he does not get what he wants. The narcissist has unusually low tolerance for interference or denial, and generally manifests extreme frustration when he is denied something he wants. Interestingly, the narcissist generally desires money, status, and power not so much as ends in themselves, but to boost his image and how others perceive him.

The narcissist has a pathological need for attention. He is keenly envious of others who distract from a focus on him, and is often willing to sabotage others most cruelly, and to take actions that appear to be against his interest, to achieve the all-important return of the spotlight to him.

The narcissist is constantly seeking approval. He revels in kudos, accolades, and praise, and is often a braggart. The narcissist can almost never accept blame or responsibility, or feel shame; he is superbly talented at shifting blame to others. He views all criticism as either attack or betrayal. Thus, upon receiving the slightest criticism or perceived slight, he flips into a hyper defensive mode and feels justified in attacking his critic.

The narcissist seeks to dominate conversations. He frequently interrupts others, and his speech is marked by the frequent use of the words “I,” “me” and “my.” He often refers to himself in the third person. On the other hand, the narcissist does not like to be asked about, or to talk about, his inner life.

In most cases, the narcissist’s personality is formed early and remains static over the course of his life. Some say that the narcissistic personality is fundamentally immature, or even infantile, characterized as it is by the desire to create and control a world with him at its center. Another mark of immaturity is the tendency to ignore his problems instead of confronting them.  Many believe that the narcissist is, fundamentally, deeply insecure.  Appearance is important to the narcissist, and primping and fastidiousness in appearance are common.  

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So there it is. The portrait of a narcissist. Sound like anyone you know?