Epistemic Sunk Costs and the Extraordinary, Populist Delusions of Crowds?

by John Holbo on June 13, 2018

Here’s a thought about the Trudeau incident. (Remember that?) Possibly an obvious thought. Or obviously wrong. (You tell me.)

The first rule of persuasion is: make your audience want to believe. Trump has a talent for that. But I think it’s fair to say that he has often lived his business life by a different maxim: if you owe the bank $100 it’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million it’s the bank’s problem. There is a sense in which that works at the persuasion level, as epistemology. In the Trudeau case there are two options as to things you might believe.

1) Justin Trudeau is a weak, nefarious dairy extortionist.

2) 1 is just fucking ridiculous.

If 2 is true, Trump voters ought to be ashamed of themselves. Anyone can make mistakes. But the President of the United States should not be ridiculous.

If you have to choose between being being ashamed of yourself or thinking Justin Trudeau is going to hell for dairy-related reasons, the latter option is far superior on grounds of psychic comfort. (Exception: you yourself are Justin Trudeau.)

But it adds up. I don’t just mean: you get wronger and wronger. It gets harder and harder to doubt the next ridiculous thing – since admitting Trump said or did one thing that was not just wrong but ridiculous would make it highly credible that he has done or said other ridiculous things. But that would raise the likelihood that you, a Trump supporter, have already believed or praised not just mistaken but flat-out ridiculous things, which would be an annoying thing to have to admit. So the comfortable option is to buy it all – the more so, the more ridiculous it threatens to be.

There is nothing uniquely Trumpian about epistemic over-investment. But Trump does seem to have a Too Big To Fail talent for locking folks in, by deliberately getting them deeper and deeper in epistemic hock.

Do you think it’s deliberate? Trump knows he gets his base to buy huge, ridiculous lies – things that don’t even matter – just so, when he says the next ridiculous thing, they have to buy that, too? Is it a deliberate group-bonding strategy?

It might seem that this point is pretty basic and obvious and I’m just belaboring it. Namely, people don’t like to be told they are wrong; they are, generally, loss-averse. And that goes for political arguments, too. But it’s a bit more specific: people don’t like to be made to look ridiculous. The media is constantly getting blamed for disrespecting voters in Trump Country. But Trump himself makes it the case that there are really only two options. Either Trump is the greatest US President – the only one with the genius to penetrate the Matrix of Canadian lies – or else he is, at best, totally ridiculous. There really isn’t a third way, so take your pick. And tomorrow it will be some other damn thing. As a result, there is no way to conceptualize the red-blue divide except as a red pill-blue pill divide, so to speak. The reason Trump talks constant lies is, in part, to ensure the debate frame can only be: which side is constantly lying? He can’t grow his base that way, but he can lock it in.

Am I just saying there is polarization? (If so, I should take a number: only about 1 million books and articles and blog posts about increasing partisan polarization have been written in the last couple years.) Again, it’s more specific. It’s impressive that partisanship maintains its high level on the right while ‘conservativism’ – which is now Trump – is, on the surface, ideologically exploded. I buy Corey Robin’s basic model. On that model, Trump isn’t such a surprise. Nevertheless, I am impressed with the rapidity of the change in rhetorical tone on the right. It isn’t just that Trump is saying the soft parts out loud. He isn’t saying what used to be the loud parts even softly. The philosophical veneer is just … gone. That’s the thing about a veneer. You can strip it away. But I’m surprised it is happening so fast. As Henry wrote a while back, it’s hard to see what conservative intellectuals are for these days.

In Orwell’s 1984 there are two things that are impressively awful about the future. One, the degree to which ideology rules everything, and there is no room for dissent or free thought. The party is everything, and the party is, largely, an idea. The other awful thing is sort of the opposite. The sheer, reversible capriciousness of it. The way Big Brother can say any damn thing he wants and everyone has to believe. This feels like a wise paradox: only an ideology – a para-consistent system of ideas strategically sealed off from reality-checks – can afford that sort of sheer arbitrariness. What impresses me about Trump is not so much that he can take over the tribe so completely, or that being a member of a tribe means believing what everyone else believes, but that a modern political tribe can be so groupthink lockstep without being more pseudo-coherent, ideologically. You would think a ‘we have always been at trade war with Canada/North Korea is our friend’ switcheroo would take some serious philosophical spin-doctoring to pull off. But, apparently, not. Tribalism plus charisma, invested in the leader. Very old school. I’ve been lied to by dystopian literature about how much our sucky future needs a Matrix to make it suck, in a red pill/blue pill kind of way. All it takes is the right person speaking weirdly random-seeming falsehoods about Canada.

Someone’s going to say: but here’s a false thing some progressive has said about Trump! (Don’t be that guy. The time you spend writing that comment, and waiting for it to clear moderation, you could have spent growing a seedling sense of proportion.)

Someone else is going to say: FOX News. Ah, fair point.

UPDATE: I also don’t mean to bad-mouth research into paraconsistent logic.



Murali 06.13.18 at 8:08 am

You might do to make a distinction between two different contributing factors.

1. Loss aversion and the psychic costs of being made to believe you were wrong.

2. Ridiculous beliefs as a signal for group affiliation*

You focus mostly on 1, but you also nod at 2. 1 and 2 might be feeding into each other in different ways, but it is useful, analytically, to distinguish them.

*The idea here is that a group might want (for a variety of good reasons) to distinguish between people who are in the group only for instrumental reasons and people who are really committed to the group. The way to do that is by making the acceptance of a ridiculous belief a precondition for membership in the tribe. If you could believe some really ridiculous and counterproductive thing, that shows that you are really loyal. To be clear, this need not be deliberate. Suppose loyalty has really good practical upshots (e.g. forming a permanent and electorally successful political coalition), groups with low loyalty do not do as well or last as long as those with high loyalty.


SusanC 06.13.18 at 8:13 am

Plato didn’t have the experience of video games that we do, so the cave in the Republic is presumably an allegory, about how we’re taken in by lies told by politicians.

The idea that you could really build a technology that keeps everyone deceived is more of a modern SF thing. One lesson of the Internet is that it doesn’t need to be full imersive VR. Step 1: replace face-to-face communication with text, so you no longer know if the “person” you’re talking to is a Foreign agent, or even an AI. Step 2: add lots of people who are being paid to lie, or even lots of AIs. The usual social psychology processes do the rest.


casmilus 06.13.18 at 10:30 am

I find it easy to imagine future historians praising decisions made by the Trump Administration. I don’t just mean “revisionists” (there are always those), I mean considered judgements of serious scholars.

However, these scenarios don’t involve much credit to Trump himself, who would probably be unaware of what he was supposed to have got right, if he lives long enough to hear the appraisal.


MisterMr 06.13.18 at 11:27 am

IMHO, it’s just that modern day right leaning populism needs to be logically inconsistent AND to have every week a new scapegoat, be it North Korea or Canada.

Because the purpose of right leaning populism is to screw workers even more, but while pretending that they are fighting the “real” enemies of the working class, no they can’t be all that consistent, they need a new enemy every 2 weeks, but they can look very “authentic”.

Why do people believe in such transparent bull? The only explanation is that people want to believe. Why do people want to believe? Because other explanations of reality are offensive, or don’t offer better solutions, or the solutions are too difficult and far in the future, or the solutions would work for other people but not for me, etc.

Will this end well? I doubt it.


cervantes 06.13.18 at 1:27 pm

Murali: This was of course noted by Orwell in 1984, when Smith is made to concede that 2+2=5. And of course the party really didn’t have any coherent ideology other than worship of Big Brother.


Russell Arben Fox 06.13.18 at 1:34 pm

You’re not saying anything here that many people haven’t already said, John, but you’re saying it from an angle that I haven’t seen before. Really excellent. Kudos!


Murali 06.13.18 at 2:01 pm

cervantes @5

I’ve always found Orwell’s presentation of the idea exaggerated and unrealistic. It’s not that “I’m going to say this obviously false thing in order to convince you that I’m loyal” the mechanism is more insidious. The threat of being cut off from your social group makes certain beliefs more plausible than is warranted by the evidence.


yastreblyansky 06.13.18 at 2:37 pm

Murali @1: that’s a great insight into “credo quia absurdum” in early Christianity. There had to be an absurdity in it for social reasons.


Theophylact 06.13.18 at 2:58 pm

Not a new problem. Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.


Jim Harrison 06.13.18 at 3:10 pm

From the Origins of Totalitarianism:

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”


William Timberman 06.13.18 at 3:19 pm

Trumpism has a long way to go before it can equal the record of the Roman Catholic Church in successfully willing the suspension of disbelief. Then again, the Church had something for everybody, and not all of it either insubstantial or evil. So…to make this the third comment in a row with a Latin tagline, if you’re short of panem, it stands to reason that the circenses have got to be pretty spectacular. Fake news and gold vestments can apparently do the trick, if only there’s enough of them.


William Timberman 06.13.18 at 3:27 pm

Trumpism has a long way to go to equal the record of the Roman Catholic Church in successfully willing the suspension of disbelief. Then again the Church had something for everyone, and not all of it either insubstantial or evil. With apologies for making this the third comment in a row with a Latin tagline, when you’re short of panem, it stands to reason that the circenses have got to be pretty spectacular. Fake news and gold vestments will do the trick, it seems, at least for a while.


F 06.13.18 at 3:38 pm

1 bears some resemblance to the supposed reason that 529 scams are so blatantly transparent: that they want only the most gullible of people to respond to maximize their chance of success.


Adam Roberts 06.13.18 at 4:15 pm

This really makes a whole lot of sense to me, although I’m not sure it explains one element of Trump’s hard-core base: the evangelical Christians. Which is to say: I’m sure there are evangelical Christians, just as there are people in all walks of life, who have the epistemic flexibility to believe 2+2=5 the way you argue in this post. But surely by and large adherence to the truth is an important cornerstone of being evangelical Christian. I mean: their truth isn’t my truth, but neither is it the sort of endlessly flexible whatever-the-fuhrer-says quantity you talking about in this post. Maybe Pence is a massive hypocrite, but say he’s not, say he genuinely in-his-heart believes that he has a God-ordered duty to pay witness to the truth even unto death (along with the way and the light): how does he serve a leader like Trump without simply shredding his religious conscience?

I daresay I’m being naïve even asking this.


bob mcmanus 06.13.18 at 4:30 pm

murali at number one is very good, but his 2) is I think just a major subset of what I call complicity, the willing trangressions that create solidarity. In this case, it is the offense to reason of believing a ridiculous thing as loyalty that to me has the same form if not obviously import as how mafia guys become made men or lynching parties or Wannsee.
I also think entire nations can partake in complicity say in wars of aggression in Iraq, tolerated and perpetuated, or the acceptance of a permanent racialized underclass, or a grotesquely unequal political economy.

The propaganda, lies, justifications and trangressive consensus come after the facts on the ground are set, although they interact dialectically in ways that even create escape performances (Not my fault) and the social languages to shift guilt and responsibility onto other factions and aliens.


b9n10nt 06.13.18 at 4:42 pm

Please re-title this post “Epistemic Ratchets”!


Dr. Hilarius 06.13.18 at 4:43 pm

In order to see something as ridiculous you need to have some basic understanding of the facts. Trump supporters don’t believe any facts which contradict Trump’s statements and are thus immune to any sense of ridiculousness. Facts have become partisan.


William Timberman 06.13.18 at 5:29 pm

Sorry for the double post. For some reason my browser has stopped confirming a successful post by showing it immediately, albeit with the usual your comment is awaiting moderation. caption. After hitting the Submit button, my comment simply vanished.

Chalk it up to the curse of software updates with unintended consequences, Internet gremlins, who knows what? The differences in the two versions do show, though, the subtle landslides of memory, the sudden swerves of intention, the arbitrariness of editing decisions, etc., so maybe the outcome wasn’t so bad after all. Unanticipated, like so many of the aftereffects of our Internet discourse are, but perhaps not as horrifying as some.


Anarcissie 06.13.18 at 5:46 pm

Human brains, indeed, maybe all larger animal brains, seem to be so constituted as to be able to simultaneously entertain two or more mutually inconsistent views of the world — doublethink in Orwellian terms, or more accurately multithink. The trick is probably highly conducive to the survival of imperfectly informed beings, for whom attention to logic dependent on poor axioms would be fatal. This is on the conceptual level. On the verbal level, where concepts are imperfectly turned into language, yet other inconsistencies and contradictions are likely to appear. At one time, I imagine people simply shrugged them off, quia absurdum. However, in an increasingly mechanized, bureaucratized, automated world, language and logic begin to overshadow physical reality; one’s livelihood may be linguistically at stake in a way which wouldn’t have affected root-grubbers and mastodon hunters.

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

— the mathematician Dodgson


Peter Hovde 06.13.18 at 7:28 pm

I think you are ascribing a model of presidential conduct to Trump supporters that many of them do not adhere to, in a strong sense, namely that “The President should not be ridiculous.” I have heard Trump supporters respond to this or that bit of zaniness not by saying specifically that it is right, but that “he’s keeping his promise to be a different kind of president.” Carrying himself like a pro wrestler is, I think, something admirable to some supporters. The “like it is” that he tells it could be more meta, attitudinal rather than factual.


Stephen 06.13.18 at 8:29 pm

Re comments by the unique President Trump. Vulgar lout and not a cultured and educated liberal gentleman, indisputably, but what might be the CT response to
by the very cultivated, educated and liberal George Monbiot?


RH Fabian 06.13.18 at 9:48 pm

It’s not necessary to believe anything Trump says to appreciate that he’s trying to get a better trade deal.

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.


Nia Psaka 06.13.18 at 9:50 pm

“Anyone can make mistakes. But the President of the United States should not be ridiculous.”

Americans ridiculed the previous four presidents (Poppy Bush somewhat less I suppose) for their foibles so much that I don’t think that’s a gripping heuristic. It might be for someone who was fed an idealised version of Eisenhower and Kennedy as normative.


John Holbo 06.13.18 at 10:51 pm

“Americans ridiculed the previous four presidents (Poppy Bush somewhat less I suppose) for their foibles so much that I don’t think that’s a gripping heuristic.”

There’s no pain in thinking that the other guys’ guy is ridiculous. There IS pain in admitting your guy has not just made a mistake but is, in some basic way, behaving ridiculously.


John Holbo 06.13.18 at 10:54 pm

“It’s not necessary to believe anything Trump says to appreciate that he’s trying to get a better trade deal.

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.”

It is necessary to believe SOMETHING Trump says to appreciate he’s trying to get a better trade deal. Namely, he says he’s trying to get a better trade deal.

As to all Trump supporters being mind-numbed cultists: look, politics ain’t exactly honest but Trump’s pattern of lies is highly distinctive. The question is: does the very fact that he seemingly deliberately lies constantly, in large and small ways, act as social glue?


Matt 06.14.18 at 12:22 am

Stephen @ 19 – I’d say that Monboit is confused both as to how democracy works and how treaties work. The US, Canada, and Mexico could each pull out of NAFTA the same way they entered – by normal democratic legislation. This is the same for all normal laws. There’s no need for laws to “sunset” to be democratic – the new generation is able to change them just like the old did. The idea that democracy requires starting over all the time is just a confusion. (I think it’s also a bad idea, but that’s beside the point that it’s a confusion about the nature of democracy.) Now, maybe you say that, say, Canada wants the benefit of part of NAFTA, but not all of it, and there’s no good way to easily change part of it. That’s right! But in the case of any complex agreement with others, why should one party get to choose the parts it wants to comply with? And, in fact, it’s possible for a country to decide it won’t comply with part of the agreement – it just has to be willing to pay for it. That seems reasonable – why should it get the benefit but not have the burden?

The US (and Canada, and Mexico…) has done just this several times. NAFTA required the US to give access to Mexican truckers. The US didn’t want to – perhaps for protectionist reasons, but there are legitimate ones, too (safety and inspection standards on trucks are different.) An arbitration tribunal, rightly, found the US in violation. This allowed Mexico to put in place countervailing tariffs, which it did. The US wanted a certain right, and had to pay for it. That’s just how bargains work, and there’s nothing undemocratic about that. Monboit is just fundamentally confused. And Trump is, of course, even worse.


Matthew Moppett 06.14.18 at 12:31 am


As someone with similar viewpoints to CT contributors, I suppose I can venture an answer. I think Monbiot is absolutely right about trade treaties: they shouldn’t be perpetual. So Trump’s demand for a sunset clause is a good thing. But inasmuch as Trump is right about this one issue, he’s right for all the wrong reasons (his absurd belief that America is being fleeced). That doesn’t make Trump any less ridiculous.


Glen Tomkins 06.14.18 at 12:38 am

Almost everybody interested in US politics has a huge sunk interest in believing that Trump knows what he’s doing. This is true whether you are in the camp that believes he is right in the things he says, or you are in the camp that sees him as some sort of criminal mastermind. Nobody can afford losing the sunk cost entailed by admitting that he’s just demented.

Or at least they can’t keep that admission in focus long enough to act on it. It’s perfectly obvious that he’s an idiot. Take this case as an example. Whatever else is going on here with casting Trudeau as a dairy products rustler or foister or whatever, it’s hard to see how it serves Trump any purpose. In that it joins the inaugural crowd size thing, and the Comey firing, etc, etc. Trump pulls off these quadruple back flips of ridiculous all the time, and yes, one question is how he gets away with them. But isn’t the deeper question, why does he bother? The obvious answer is that it’s no bother at all. He really is disconnected from reality.

The rest of us fall in line, or rather, behind either the pro-Trump or the anti-Trump line, because the US presidency is about the most coveted prize in the known universe. Battalions of relentless strivers spend decades in pursuit of it, fighting their endless polemic campaigns over ideological ground so fought over that only completely dead and artificial concepts remain standing to fight over, idealets like The Western Alliance, or Free Trade, or Securing the Border. or a Pathway to Citizenship. Only people of unusual work ethic and resolve and at least animal cunning could possible come even close to the brass ring they all fight over. That Trump actually won has to mean that he knows what he’s doing even more than everyone else in this highly motivated and talented field.

You and I may think that his mastery is satanic, a knowledge of the dark arts of manipulation, and folks on the other side may imagine that he has succeeded because of his singular insight and ability to cut through the BS to see the real issues underneath.

I actually think his followers are closer to the truth, though fatally only half right. It’s not that he cuts through the BS because he sees any underlying realities. He just doesn’t care about any of the usual pieties and fake issues we’ve let US politics devolve into arguing over, and calls BS on all of it. Why should he prep for a meeting with Rocketman? His briefers would just repeat conventional drivel nonsense about non-issues. Enough of the electorate is similarly disgusted with the usual relentless strivers that they decided to try something novel at the last election, someone who is as dismissive as they are of the whole lot of BS the relentless strivers excel only at disputing.

Trump won because he is demented, and doesn’t live in a world in which the Western Alliance, or NAFTA, or any of the rest of it, has any point of contact.


LFC 06.14.18 at 1:06 am

Worth noting that while attention is diverted by Trump’s more visible antics, the U.S. is tacitly supporting a Saudi/Emirati assault on the Yemeni port through which most of the aid flows to a population in which 8 million people face starvation and a million have cholera. File under Indefensible Ways to Make a Bad Situation Worse, episode [fill in a number].


J-D 06.14.18 at 1:16 am

RH Fabian

It’s possible that medieval alchemists were sincerely trying to transmute base metals into gold; but what they were doing could not possibly work whether they were sincere or not.

So even if Trump is sincerely trying to get a better trade deal, well …

Nia Psaka

People ridiculed Eisenhower and Kennedy as well. Americans have been ridiculing their Presidents all the way back to Washington.

Just not enough, that’s all.

William Timberman

The change is not browser-specific.


bianca steele 06.14.18 at 2:18 am

I think in part the relentless lying lets his followers feel superior because they’re sure they know the truth he isn’t saying. It’s the old “irony” story. The reader is in on the secret with the writer and the other “good” readers, against the “bad” readers the text constructs by presenting an obvious meaning that the “good” readers know to be a sham.


William Timberman 06.14.18 at 2:38 am

J-D @ 30 (06.14.18 at 1:16 am)

Nice to know, thanks. As probably seems obvious, I haven’t commented for a while. (I think I liked the oldfunctionality better, though, unless it screwed up the comment numbering sequence or something.) Ah, well, none of my concern, really, now that I’ve been clued as to what’s what. Thanks again.


bad Jim 06.14.18 at 4:08 am

Adam Roberts @ 14: Evangelical Christians have a more flexible relationship with the truth than you might think. The example used by the excellent Fred Clark of Slacktivist is their position on abortion and contraception. Until the late 1970’s they were largely indifferent to it; indeed, there are no scriptural proscriptions. Afterwards it became the most significant issue of all.


faustusnotes 06.14.18 at 4:46 am

I was struck by the inversion of Orwell’s basic story in the recent accounts of the two staff who tape Trump’s documents back together. In 1984 Winston’s job is getting documentary evidence of contradictory facts and destroying it irrevocably, to make Big Brother’s propaganda task easier. In 2018, these two people’s job was restoring documentary evidence that Big Brother had destroyed, in order to make (I guess) everyone else’s job of seeing through propaganda easier. And they still failed, and still got sacked. We’re so far lost in the Upside Down that even 1984 isn’t a useful guide.

I think Monbiot’s trade article was deeply wrong. As others say, you can pull out by normal democratic means so you don’t need to sunset it. Also he cites a bunch of examples of some trade courts being used to override national laws and/or get compensation, but all his examples are of American companies abusing the law to frustrate Canadian or Mexican rules. Presumably if Canada and Mexico think that’s so bad, they can withdraw from the treaty; they don’t, so presumably they see bigger benefits to it. Furthermore, we should all by now be so comfortable with the idea that American capitalist entities are uniquely nasty, that we should be thinking there is no trade deal we could negotiate with the US that wouldn’t end up with the same abusive behavior. Canada and Mexico obviously can’t reform US politics, so it doesn’t seem like an anti-trade agenda is really going to help them. They’ll just lose the trade, but American companies will still behave badly in Canadian and Mexican markets.

The problem is simply that in every major international political issue facing the world right now, America is the problem. We have no solution to that problem until Americans grow up.


Chris 06.14.18 at 4:51 am

There’s also a mechanism noted by No More Mr. Nice Blog (http://nomoremister.blogspot.com/).
(1) Trump does something cretinous or foul enough for even his voters to notice.
(2) His supporters reason “In voting for Trump against Hilary I made the correct decision: Trump is worse than I thought: therefore Hilary must be even worse than I thought possible.”
(3) A new level of depravity having been established for Hilary, anything less cretinous or less foul than the last incident makes Trump shine out as a virtual demigod by comparison.


nastywoman 06.14.18 at 5:18 am

”Enough of the electorate is similarly disgusted with the usual relentless strivers that they decided to try something novel at the last election, someone who is as dismissive as they are of the whole lot of BS the relentless strivers excel only at disputing”

but that still is not a good enough reason that the ”something novel” has to be a ”a-hole”?

”Something novel” could be ”a better solution”?

And why do – we – lately – always pick the most self-destructive – self-defeating and utmost suicidal solution for our (political) problems?

It’s not funny jumping off the cliff.
-(and otherwise what De Niro said!)


bad Jim 06.14.18 at 8:09 am

The vicissitudes of automated moderation on this site have been the source of amusement for years. I think the first time a comment of mine was greeted with the dread warning Your comment is undergoing moderation it was because I’d made a light-hearted comment about socialist hellholes, and it turned out that a substring of “socialist” is the trade name for a heavily marketed erectile dysfunction medication. It took a while for this to be sorted out.

More recently any comment was graced with this warning, and as an aging paleoliberal I was peeved. Wasn’t my comment pretty moderate already? Moderation is arguably the last thing my threadbare arguments need.


Neville Morley 06.14.18 at 8:59 am

I keep returning to Adorno on this theme: for example, “Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning.” That is to say, the truth content of most of these statements is entirely besides the point, and potential ridicule is nothing to be scared of.


Fake Dave 06.14.18 at 11:05 am

You can some up the right-wing pathology in a single sentence: “all’s fair in war.” Culture war, holy war, cold war, border war, drug war, war on terror — it’s all about dualities. Good versus evil. When you’re fighting against pure evil, all tactics are appropriate and anything less than victory is intolerable. Lie, cheat, steal, torture, murder. The stakes are too high for half-measures and your enemies deserve nothing less.

Nostrums about the dangers of gazing into the abyss, fighting monsters, and becoming what you hate are for cowards and fools. Liberals believe them because liberals are wishy-washy by nature. Their world-view is built on self-doubt and moral relativism. They pretend to be better than the righteous warrior because they lack the will to fight themselves and have mistaken this weakness for a strength. They would rather pull everyone down into the mire of dishonor and faithlessness than see their moral betters triumph without them. They weaken our people and embolden our enemies, so they too are fair game.

You can trace this pattern of thought back through the whole course of American history — the Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering Loyalists and Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts are two early examples — but, in the modern context, I think the Cold War and the rise of the religious right deserve a lot of credit for breaking people’s brains. You can draw a direct line from the red scare and McCarthyism to the myth of liberal “betrayal” in Vietnam (if only we’d used more napalm…) to the people who supported Nixon after Watergate, thought arming the Contras was a good thing, or still think Saddam had WMDs. By and large, they’re the same demographic who love Trump now.

They don’t think his lies and grandstanding make him ridiculous or abnormal (their parents voted for Nixon, after all), it means he’s strong. The president has to be strong because he’s the bullwark against our enemies. A president who isn’t aggressive and bullying and completely assured of his own righteousness is weak and a weak president is a dangerous president. The president’s paramount duty isn’t to inform the public but rather to project strength and weaken our enemies. His “tough talk” is a weapon like any other to be used however he deems appropriate. It would be naive to think people that had no problem with using cluster bombs, tear gas, predator drones, and car batteries against their enemies would suddenly have a pang of conscience about a simple lie.


Glen Tomkins 06.14.18 at 2:35 pm


Well, a-hole is exactly what people disgusted with messaging want. They want someone who gaffes left and right, offends people, because what has them disgusted is politicians afraid to offend anybody.

Ds, for example, no matter how much they may incline towards helping the undocumented, after they finish talking about a pathway to citizenship, always throw in that they are also for “securing our borders”. That’s just standard in the completely artificial world we’ve let political discourse become. As a D, you always throw in the “securing our borders” thing because there may be some voters out there not paying enough attention to know that if they’re Hispanophobes they should be voting R, and maybe they’ll vote for us if we throw them that line about securing the border. Also, of course, “securing our borders” is in there as a sop to people worried that immigrants will steal their jobs. Elections are often decided by <0.5%, so you can't afford clarity when obfuscation might bring in 2 or 3 votes from people who think that it's the Ds who are the racists on immigration, or that you can have your cake and eat it too (not face greater competition for jobs because those Ds managed to secure the borders even as they let the undocumented already here have citizenship) and you end up winning by 2 or 3 votes.

Most voters have their own row to hoe, engagement in making a living, in family, etc., that keeps them from paying enough attention to public policy to be able to sort out these always complex matters. But we're all quite familiar with being lied to and BSed at. The very voters least able to afford the time to understand public policy are disproportionally likely to be the victims of the system now in place, and so both the most motivated to anger at that system, and the most likely to have experienced in their own lives getting screwed by relentless striver BS spewers much like those conventional politicians. It's hard to understand the nuances and ramifications of immigration policy, but easy to see that someone who tells you they are for both a pathway to citizenship and securing our borders, is BSing you, is treating you like an idiot.

These people want to destroy the system, but they are only able to judge novelty in terms of style, because our political discourse systematically obfuscates substance. Anti-politicians like Trump and Palin draw on populist rage at a corrupt system, and voters who agree that the system is corrupt see that voting for these people will bring down the system. But these anti-politicians aren't actual populists who have any sort of novel system they plan to build in place of the system they are destroying. No novelty in public policy from Trump, no novelty in ends, just novelty in means, someone who will destroy the old system rather than behave in office as just another BSer continuing the status quo.

Maybe this sawed-off populism will fizzle, and we'll go back to the status quo of conventional politicians of the two artificial parties facing off in their fake struggle with each other, a struggle from which nothing ever issues except perpetuation of the status quo. But maybe the ancien regime is doomed, and the wreckers will bring it down. But, sure, these wreckers, Trump and Palin and the Rs in general, have not the first clue what to build in place of the old system. Novelty of means, but they have no idea what ends to aim for.


politicalfootball 06.14.18 at 3:08 pm

I’ve always found Orwell’s presentation of the idea exaggerated and unrealistic.

This is what I used to think.


Larry Lennhoff 06.14.18 at 3:49 pm

I think Glen Tomkins is correct that there are three possible choices to make with respect to Trump. Trump is either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.


stephen 06.14.18 at 3:56 pm

FakeDave @39: “You can some up the right-wing pathology … When you’re fighting against pure evil, all tactics are appropriate and anything less than victory is intolerable. Lie, cheat, steal, torture, murder. The stakes are too high for half-measures and your enemies deserve nothing less.”

Are you really certain that this is a description only of right-wing pathology? Or have some unsuccessful anticapitalist revolutionaries been posthumously reclassified as right-wing?

And when fighting, say, the Nazis, which tactics do you think were not appropriate?


dax 06.14.18 at 4:23 pm

I don’t know, but I’d suggest that Trump voters take all of Trump’s statements on a meta level. That is the statements may be true, they may (more likely) be false, but their truth value is unimportant. Trump is saying these things not because he believes them, or wants you to believe them, but because he thinks that saying them improves his bargaining position.

I think Trump’s speech is a *perfect* counterexample to the theory that the meaning of a statement is what you make other people believe when they hear it.


politicalfootball 06.14.18 at 4:39 pm

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.

Those are your words, not John’s. John is pointing out that the Trumpist relationship with the truth is different from that of, say, a scholar or a scientist. He is trying to suss out the nature of that difference.

What is your theory about the Trumpist lack of regard for truth? If I’m reading you correctly, you regard Trump’s lie in this case as being part of a bargaining effort. Taken in isolation, I don’t find that entirely implausible. But what about the blizzard of falsehood that he spews forth on a daily basis?

Or do you disagree with the premise? Do you think that Trump does not, as a matter of routine, make absurdly false statements in a way that is distinct from other politicians?


Hidari 06.14.18 at 8:35 pm


Z 06.14.18 at 9:43 pm

As a result, there is no way to conceptualize the red-blue divide except as a red pill-blue pill divide, so to speak. The reason Trump talks constant lies is, in part, to ensure the debate frame can only be: which side is constantly lying? He can’t grow his base that way, but he can lock it in.

Sure, I wouldn’t attribute this property to Trump himself as I believe what remains of Trump’s mind is entirely devoted to blustering his own grandeur, but if Trump is a synecdoche for the Trumpist ecosystem, sure. But I think it would be a conceit to absolve the Democratic party and the liberal establishment media of such an approach. In particular, it seems to me that following is more or less true of the Clinton’s campaign of 2016:

Either the US in 2016 is the greatest country in the world – America is already great! – or else it is, at best, a totally ridiculously unequal country, at worse one where mortality is on the rise, where maternal mortality rate is above that of Kazakhstan and where under five mortality is twice as high as that of the Czech Republic. There really isn’t a third way, so take your pick. As a result, there is no way to conceptualize the red-blue divide except as a red pill-blue pill divide, so to speak.

Not that people who refused to join the America is already great! bandwagon voted for Trump necessarily, but probably enough of them stayed at home on election day to facilitate his victory in several states.


Anarcissie 06.14.18 at 10:14 pm

Fake Dave 06.14.18 at 11:05 am @ 39 —
Plus, as I said, there’s doublethink. All this fulminating about Trump’s inconsistencies and illogic — it’s not beating a dead horse, it’s beating a fake horse. Meanwhile Trump remains the person who is Doing Something.


Z 06.14.18 at 10:22 pm

I mean, the whole paragraph starting with “I don’t just mean: you get wronger and wronger. It gets harder and harder to doubt the next ridiculous thing” and ending with “But Trump does seem to have a Too Big To Fail talent for locking folks in, by deliberately getting them deeper and deeper in epistemic hock” seems true to me about many beliefs central to the political view of large segments of the liberal élite (and possibly of many if not most people here at CT).

Among them, the fact that large bilateral or multilateral “free trade” agreements like NAFTA, TIPP, CETA… are beneficent for the majority of the population, or the idea that the American educative system aims at educating people (if it is not the best in the world), or the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations will attract investments, stimulate growth and raise standards of living for everyone, or the idea that the EU is ruled democratically etc.

It’s not a tu quoque aimed at defending Trump and the ecosystem he operates in. Just a testimony that seen from my perspective, interacting with one’s base through a ridiculous pile of egregious falsehoods that gets touted more and more hysterically as their falsity becomes more and more transparent is far from being an exclusive property of the xenophobic far-right. I realize of course that people either from that camp or from the liberal one evaluate in exactly the same way many of the core beliefs of the political forces I happen to support (they express it often here).

So according to people from the other camps, we are all deep in epistemic hock, bound by our current ridiculous beliefs to believe even more deluded things. A simple argument from non-exceptionality suggests that all of us are right about the others (and so wrong about ourselves).


Lee A. Arnold 06.15.18 at 12:22 am

There’s a great deal to be analysed on Trump, his angry supporters, and his cowardly Congressional enablers, but putting it aside for one specific point: both his supporters and his detractors do not understand trade. Trump himself does not appear to understand it. The conversation at the G7 meeting probably went something like this: Trump says, “Canada, why do you have such big dairy tariffs?” and Trudeau says, “You protect US dairy even more than we protect ours — almost every country protects their dairy industry, and for good reasons too — only the US protects dairy by trade quotas, not tariffs.” So then Trump is caught not knowing anything (once again), and he blurts out, “Um, duh, so let’s get rid of all tariffs and protections” with that typical blank look on his face. So then the rest of them all stand around the table, staring back at the ridiculous fool.  See the instantly epochal photo. Because the US and its allies have been reducing tariffs for decades slowly without suddenly disrupting domestic arrangements and supply chains and Trump is the only one at that meeting who doesn’t know this. But then, neither do his supporters (nor his detractors).


floopmeister 06.15.18 at 12:31 am

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.

“Want us all to believe…”? Nah, that’s Trump’s schtick. I see plenty of disagreement here about how and why Trump’s followers are motivated to swallow his BS.

Don’t apply the same ‘tribal’ frame to the ‘Never Trumpers’ – they include oldtime socialists; centrist establishment Dems; confirmed SJW; feminists of any stripe; a large proportion of US Christians; ‘deify the Constitution’ paleo-Repubs; freemarket Wall Street libertarians…

Diversity is the rule with regard to those who dislike the Orange One.


politicalfootball 06.15.18 at 12:49 am

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.

Looking at his bloggy oevre over a period of years, Professor Holbo appears to be working on a taxonomy of the epistemically impaired. I’d bet money that at some point, he has dealt with the rhetorical advantages that some derive from inventing persecution where none exists, as Fabian does here. It’s a common enough maneuver.

But, in the interest of fully developing that taxonomy, I wonder if the professor has noted that this advantage is obtained even when the perceived insult is obviously accurate.

Charles Murray is, definitionally, a racist. (He claims black people are intrinsically intellectually inferior to white people. He literally got caught burning a cross.) But he is a master of rhetorical jiu jitsu, and has emerged victorious by turning this accurate description against his attacker. “How dare you say such a horrible thing about me.”

Trump does the same thing, as do many of his supporters.


christian h. 06.15.18 at 1:05 am

Z @ 49: It is of course true that falsehoods, or assertions that are questionable at least, can congeal into a common sense, and this happens in many social and political spheres, not just Trumpism. Still that seems to me to be different from what John discusses in this post, which is Trump’s way of constantly saying things that are clearly wrong or ridiculous, meaning they are not just wrong, but recognisably so – they do not conform to the common sense out there.

To demonstrate with a couple examples, “immigrants are criminals” is a vile and wrong statement, but it has long been common sense in large parts of the polity. So while it is vile and wrong, I wouldn’t call it “ridiculous”. His tweets about Trudeau and Canada on the other hand aren’t just wrong, they go against the common sense that we have this neighbour we never think about but largely get along with fine.


J-D 06.15.18 at 2:36 am

Glen Tomkins

Well, a-hole is exactly what people disgusted with messaging want. They want someone who gaffes left and right, offends people, because what has them disgusted is politicians afraid to offend anybody.

So you’re telling us that what they’re looking for is somebody who is not afraid to offend people by describing them as, oh, let’s say, for example, ‘deplorables’? Hold on just a minute …


nastywoman 06.15.18 at 4:40 am

”Well, a-hole is exactly what people disgusted with messaging want”.

Not really – as somebody else on this thread had proven how few of ”the people” actually voted for the a-hole – and so when the a-hole will be gone – there will be all these people writing… what Susan Sarandon said…

We might had to get it out of our system – that – a-holery?


faustusnotes 06.15.18 at 8:04 am

Z, it is trivially obvious that the supposedly false statement “NAFTA is good for the majority of people” is different to the definitely false statement “that was not me on the Hollywood Access tape.” It is trivially obvious that the supposedly false statement “the EU is ruled democratically” is different to the definitely false statement “we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.” When you pretend that these kinds of debatable political positions are the same, you don’t help yourself at all, and you don’t help the working class people you want to help. They’re categorically different kinds of bullshit, and treating them the same renders you helpless to understand what is happening.

It’s also bullshit that people voted for trump because they were sick of political insiders. They voted for Trump because he’s a racist arsehole. Until you get that through your skull, you’re analyzing the wrong voters and the wrong problem.


Lee A. Arnold 06.15.18 at 9:56 am

Most Trump voters are NOT racist.


Z 06.15.18 at 12:53 pm

christian h they are not just wrong, but recognisably so – they do not conform to the common sense out there

My point is, I think, that this statement relies on a well-defined notion of common sense, and perhaps a subject to the verb recognize (“recognizably” by whom?). In a left/right (or R/D) spectrum, this common sense is somewhat well-defined in practice as the intellectual space carved around the wide center (and in particularly tends to be closely related to élite concerns). But in a tripartite political system, common sense may not really exist or (which is the same) be group-dependent. If I remember correctly your political positions here these last years, you and I might recognize as absurd many things which are common sense for the editorial page of the NYT, people there might recognize as absurd typical Trumpist concerns or the statement that he won the popular vote and typical faithful Trump voters surely find absurd our core beliefs. In all likelihood, we are all correct in these evaluations.

To take your concrete example, I don’t think you can count as common sense the idea that the US gets along well with Canada among the Trump electorate, an electorate which was electrified by Trump’s speech on how the US was humiliated by everyone and was getting “bad deal” everywhere, or the simple idea that a G7 summit should involve a minimal measure of diplomacy among those who rallied around Put America First.

In a sense, I could be more receptive to John’s argument with respect to consistency (that is Trump voters were praising Trump when he threatened North Korea with annihilation then praised him when he gave it unprecedented international recognition), but even there, I think my puzzlement simply stems from my misunderstanding of the priorities of these people. Probably, there are issues I don’t care about and about which my favorite political parties could probably flip-flop all they want with me not minding too much. It’s probably the same for them with North Korea, as long as Trump kicks out immigrants and insults liberal elite (someone like Ann Coulter, for instance, bitterly criticizes the Trump administration for caring too much about international affairs).


SamChevre 06.15.18 at 1:34 pm


Charles Murray is, definitionally, a racist. (He claims black people are intrinsically intellectually inferior to white people

That really depends on how you define racism. I will maintain that I’m not sexist, but I would claim that women are shorter than men. (While noting that my mother is taller than my father-in-law.)


politicalfootball 06.15.18 at 4:21 pm

Further to my 52, I want to propose that making a truthful accusation is often correctly regarded as unwise and offensive, whereas it is less of a problem if the same accusation is false — and no problem at all if your accusation is irrelevant and/or absurd.

Here’s how it works: When we say “Trump is a racist,” we are typically informed by the media and by Trump supporters — with considerable justification — that this is a grievous insult to Trump voters, who will be alienated from our point of view. But when it was said that “Obama is a racist,” literally nobody thought this was an important insult to Obama voters.

Let’s take it a step further into outright lunacy. Let’s say “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was born in Kenya.” No Obama supporter said: “I am offended at your implicit accusation that I would vote for someone who is lying about his religion or birthplace.”

(And of course, this accusation has the benefit of being irrelevant, too. There’s actually nothing wrong with being a Muslim or a Kenyan. So no harm, no foul.)

Let’s look at Fabian @22 again:

Meanwhile, you apparently want us to believe that all Trump supporters are mind numbed cultists.

This accusation was made about Obama voters frequently (Obama voters were mocked for considering him to be the Messiah, or “The One.” Remember that?). I was an Obama voter. There are probably others here. Was anybody personally offended by that? Me, I thought it was just silly.

And yet, we all understand that Fabian was presenting this as a powerful insult. I leave it as an exercise for the reader why Trump voters are offended in a way that Obama voters were not.


Raven Onthill 06.15.18 at 4:26 pm

Me back in 2009, severely edited for current relevance: “The past week has seen various sillinesses involving Rush Limbaugh, with the Republican Party chairman having apologized to him. The Republicans have nothing left. They’ve blown their political credibility completely. They’ve lost a war. The economy is in a shambles. So, what to do? Become even more extreme!

“I don’t believe these people are in any meaningful sense reachable. It’s just possible that Obama will persuade them to try something different but more likely that change will only come after disaster on the national scale. Remember that nothing has dented the conservative coalition in the Senate: not losing a war, not the collapse of the economy, not the dismal failure of response to Katrina. [And nothing has to this day.] They are convinced that their personal power trumps reality, and their social circle supports them in this belief.

“What, therefore, is the role of intelligent and informed people – intellectuals – in this time?”


Orange Watch 06.15.18 at 5:37 pm

So you’re telling us that what they’re looking for is somebody who is not afraid to offend people by describing them as, oh, let’s say, for example, ‘deplorables’? Hold on just a minute …

But of course that’s looking at things wrong. Weak-willed, thin-skinned, navel-gazing snowflakes get offended. Tough-minded realists who believe in truth and justice feel righteous and deserving outrage at despicable, cowardly lies and slanders.


Whirrlaway 06.16.18 at 12:33 am

You may be overthinking this: out here in the wild I find that humans are mostly honest with their friends & neighbors but feel no special need to be truthful. My correspondents keep up with the latest Trumpian fantasies same as following Game of Thrones or the Marvel Universe, for the thrill of knowing the plot twists and today’s identity badges. Restricting belief to true things … or rather, since that isn’t possible, actively striving to eliminate belief in false things … is what you Academy types are attempting to instill, isn’t it? An attitude attained at great effort by few, as far as I can tell.

The basic technique of a bite of progressively less nourishing stuff with breakfast every day was given in some detail in _A Course In Miracles_ (1976), with Jesus rather than Trump as personal savior. So yeah, but I think it’s a case of a natural sociogenative function focused on a specific target.


Lobsterman 06.16.18 at 12:36 am

At this point in the game, the basic tenets of American conservatism — white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia — are deeply, profoundly stupid. There are just too many successful counterexamples constantly being given.

There’s only one way to stay conservative, and that’s to embrace being stupid. And so Trump is the man for the time.


politicalfootball 06.16.18 at 12:23 pm

That really depends on how you define racism. I will maintain that I’m not sexist, but I would claim that women are shorter than men. (While noting that my mother is taller than my father-in-law.)

If you consider height to be an essential trait to measure of human standing — as Murray considers intelligence — then you are sexist. And not just a sexist, but a giraffe supremacist. Takes all kinds, I guess.

Really, this whole “depends on how you define racism” is a silly dodge, and quite common in various forms among racists. “You can’t call me ‘anti-semite,’ because I like Arabs, and Arabs are a semitic people!” Score!

I define racism the way human beings and their dictionaries define racism. If you giraffes have a different dictionary, then you’ll want to be careful when talking to humans, lest confusion ensue.


Hidari 06.16.18 at 5:04 pm


What’s stupid, per se, about white supremacy, assuming you happen to be white?

Actually, what’s ‘stupid’ about patriarchy and homophobia, assuming you happen to be male and straight?

It’s like people here seem to be arguing ‘An ideology which implies one should prioritise one’s own interests over those of others is irrational’. Eh?

The idea that Trudeau, who actually looks profoundly stupid (I mean…..just look at those big vapid eyes and that stupid grin of his. There’s nothing going on behind there) is some kind of economic wizard who has some profound insight into the nature of trade denied to the rest of us (or even denied to Trump) is beyond risible, incidentally.


Lobsterman 06.16.18 at 10:28 pm

What’s stupid is that you spend all your time hurting people who could be making your life better, and this is thoroughly proven in a way that wasn’t true in, say, 1940. There’s a reason the straight white men in Mississippi are doing worse than the straight white men in, say, Seattle.* It’s because the white folks in Mississippi are both spending their energy on hurting their neighbors and being underbid by a violently-suppressed underclass on their wages.

As a straight white guy, it’s fine to be homophobic and misogynist as long as you don’t, you know, love your wife or kids. But making yourself into someone who doesn’t love their wife or kids seems like a desperately terrible cost. Or you could be an incel. They seem happy.

Life isn’t a status game where the highest-status person “wins.” People need status. But they also need intimacy, jobs, and safety.

*Yes, there is racism, sexism, and homophobia in Seattle. Orders of magnitude.

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