Trump and Co Are Post Partisan

In the worst possible way

So you’ve probably heard by now that the Trump took a meeting with former general David Petraeus for a possible gig as Secretary of State. If you only have fond memories of Petraeus from the surge in Iraq and Afghanistan and his incredibly brief time as head of the CIA (under Obama, y’all), it’s worth remembering why Petraeus is out of any office right now. David Petraeus slept with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who he was not married to, while leaking sensitive, classified material to her. He pled guilty to the unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, a misdemeanor, though the FBI originally proposed more serious felony charges. It is an open question as to whether he can even re-obtain a security clearance as a result of his plea. Twitter was ablaze with the tasty morsel that, according to the terms of his 2015 plea deal, Petraeus needed to inform his probation officer of his travel out of state to meet Trump and he would need to inform his probation officer within 72 hours of getting a new job should he be confirmed as Secretary of State. If you want to let the full weight of that idea settle on your brain, I don’t blame you. In fact, you take all the time you need to contemplate how #2016 it is that a possible Cabinet appointment has a probation officer. I’ll even start a new paragraph for you, so you can let it linger.

David Petraeus will not be Secretary of State (Rand Paul, as it turns out, has quite a lot of say in the matter). But it was really great to be outraged about it for that hot second, right? Fans of objective reality will have immediately noted the dramatic difference between Petraeus’ treatment, hey be SecState, while demanding that Clinton be locked up for considerably less. It’s tempting to write Trump and the GOP off as practitioners of brazen hypocrisy and be done with Trump and the Republican party (still not quite the same thing, despite what some people say). Far more disturbing than the notion that some Republicans are engaging in rank hypocrisy is that more than a few of those Republican lawmakers and millions of voters don’t consider the vast difference between how they treat Republicans and Democrats to be a result of hypocrisy at all. The chants of “Lock her up” were never really about Clinton’s emails or the Clinton rules: they were completely and totally about the fact that she is a Democrat, or that she was Donald Trump’s opponent at the moment. The people creating this new administration shattered the hyper-partisan barrier, burned many Republicans repeatedly in the process, employing misinformation and outright emotional manipulation at every turn without so much as a blush. We live in a frightening post-truth world, where the perceptions of millions of Americans are shaped by propaganda created by ideologues.

I don’t want to pretend to be an academic or a researcher who has a firm grasp on the line between partisans and ideologues based on empirical evidence and such. But I was in academia once upon a time, so I feel compelled to explain my terms and I hope this section doesn’t bore the snot out of people.

Jean-Francois Lyotard described the defining feature of our postmodern world as incredulity about metanarratives, which is to say, there isn’t one set of universal truths that most people share (or are coerced into pretending to share) about the world and where it should be headed. Instead of one master metanarrative (like the Enlightenment), people participate in much smaller metanarratives which are often not even remotely shared. We don’t have to use fancy words like metanarrative all the time around here (though it feels good to bust out “metanarrative” again, back in the lecture hall, y’all). We can also call them frames of reference. I want to distinguish between a frame of reference and an ideology as well, because an ideology is organized around the shared facts of a frame of reference, which is one step deeper in the psyche. A single frame of reference can sustain multiple ideologies. Adam Smith and Karl Marx come from the same frame of reference, for example (humanism, believe it or not). People think systematically about ideologies, but generally forget the existence of frames of reference. This is how white Americans who cry foul about “identity politics” elide the existence of a white identity. Post-structuralists like Paul de Man, worked with this notion of mystification: you can either be aware that a frame of reference exists or not. Demystification is the work of making people aware of the frame of reference(s) at work in some text or another, with a very generous definition of “text” (read Michel Foucault for that). The notion being that while frames of reference are unavoidable (implicit bias), they don’t have to be inescapable. This is my academic-lite massive oversimplification of the last forty years of critical theory, mea culpa.

Why does all of this matter? Because political consensus depends on shared values and overlapping frames of reference. In a more normal environment, we would say that a partisan is someone who prefers the metanarrative of one group over another and consistently acts in the interests of that preference (often to the detriment to the body politic as a whole, but ostensibly for the good of that larger body). That is to say, they operate ideologically and not totally objectively. Competing ideologies battle for majority consensus based on a shared set of facts, while arguing primarily about what to do with those facts (this was Obama’s feeling about what misinformation has done to the debate about climate change). The last 8 years have been a spectacular demonstration of parties retreating to their corners, so we should all be familiar with how closely partisan adherents to an ideology come to the barrier between accepting and denying the existence of objective facts. But even hardened partisans on opposite sides of an issue are aware of their preferences and its limits, and they implicitly acknowledge the validity of the overlap in their frames of reference and basic facts (#RIPFacts). Russ Feingold and John McCain agreed on very little, but together they tried to do something about the rotten state of campaign finance (and failed miserably, but still). People can have preferences, even extreme ones, while still conceding that other ideologies have a legitimate right to exist at all.

Ideologues are a completely different story. For ideologues, the frame of reference is completely buried and no other reality is legitimate. Every opponent is evil or unhinged, not worth listening to, let alone debating, at any rate. The only semantic moves that matter exist within an ideological world and there is no questioning the assumptions beneath the ideology. If you want to see this in action just listen to any of the Trump campaign staffers or surrogates. The language and reasoning of ideologues appears to be completely unhinged from the objective reality that you experience (to the extent that you can process objective reality, this blog post is already 2000 words, get off my back, thesis adviser). Hey, that sounds an awful lot like what’s happening right now, doesn’t it?

Using the broadest taxonomy possible, there are two types of ideologues: system oriented ideologues and group oriented ideologues (I made that up, so no citations for you). Marxism, especially as practiced by the Soviets, (which is technically Marxist-Leninism, it me), was a system organized around the works of Karl Marx or whatever set of interpreters of those works that wouldn’t get you thrown in prison or killed. It might be arbitrary and momentary, but an ideological standard existed. The in group is defined by that standard and the out group has some ability to understand the messaging and semantic maneuvers of the group (again, only some, outsiders never completely get it, something is always lost in translation). Group oriented ideologues are much scarier because there is no coherent philosophical framework. A key feature of this floating ideology is that facts in and of themselves have no meaning. Objective facts do not exist at all. There is no attachment to history, there are no promises to be measured against, there is only the current emotional level (Umberto Eco wrote a more generic description of this eternal fascism and it is well worth your time - like basically everything that Eco wrote). All that matters is membership and loyalty. That describes Trump and Trump supporters to a T.

Within group oriented ideological systems, the content of a policy proposal is almost wholly irrelevant: it just has to come from an acceptable source. This is why Romneycare is ok, but Obamacare is a totalitarian power play that all true Americans must oppose (strong reminder that ideologue type behavior has infected the GOP for a long while). This is how Donald Trump can rail against Goldman Sachs and then appoint the president of Goldman Sachs to the Office of Management and Budget with barely a shrug (though plenty of folk did take Trump literally and seriously and they have a bad case of #Trumpgrets). Hillary Clinton proposes and/or does something and it is, axiomatically, evil and unacceptable. David Petraeus does something that, outside of the hermetic seal, is far worse than what Clinton did (and has the criminal record to prove it), but Trump is interested, so within the seal, sure, Petraeus would make a fine Secretary of State. There are no absolutes except for the maintenance of the ideological group (and not necessarily for the welfare of the people who think they belong). For appearance’s sake, some attempts are made for justifications, but to those outside of the ideological bubble, the explanations and justifications are warped beyond all reason and the bearers of these arguments are completely discredited. As of the writing of this blog post there are tens of millions of people who are plenty happy inside of Trump’s particular bubble. For now.

This matters a lot because it is possible to shame or motivate a hypocrite; no one wants to be seen as a hypocrite. Deep down there is a shared frame of reference and a large pool of common facts. The need to appeal to a self-professed standard can, eventually, create enough pressure for them to change their behavior, or more importantly, demonstrate to voters why that person should not have a job in politics. Appeals to reason that are based on evidence which are then evaluated with reference to a set of well-defined principles are going to be completely ignored by (too) many in the Republican party and all of Trump’s closest staff or indeed many Trump voters because of their shared adherence to . . . Whatever Trump/Bannon are pushing today, this minute. I have absolutely no idea what to do in the face of propaganda supported ideologues governing not for the 335 million people who live in the U.S. but for their millions of supporters (and not really even for them). This here blog post is about diagnosis, not treatment. When the truth and expertise and rational argument won’t even be heard, let alone processed, I am at a loss. It’s like attempting to de-program one million cult members who haven’t left the cult and kinda don’t want to. I have no idea what to do. Right now, the most urgent thing is to keep talking about objective reality like it matters and resist the outward pressures of their awful ideological bubble with every fiber of my being. On a lot of days, it’s not going to feel like enough, but that’s all I got. For now.