Fighting “learned helplessness” and the march to monarchy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.”  Today people are afraid of the direction that Donald Trump is taking our nation, and I think that’s good.  It means they take the threat seriously.  My concern is that we do not fall into the state that psychologists call “learned helplessness.”

As I watched last night’s newscasts of the James Comey firing, I no doubt joined millions of others who were galvanized, outraged, activated, and afraid.  Part of me said, “so this is what it feels like to live in an authoritarian society.”  You see so many unethical practices, so many activities that turn your stomach.  But the moment you think about objecting, publicly objecting, you swallow any thoughts of opposition—and you swallow your pride—for fear of reprisals.  You learn to be docile.

There is a research literature on learned helplessness, initiated by psychologist Martin Seligman.  Seligman applied the research to both dogs and people.  He demonstrated that learned helplessness is produced by aversive and painful stimuli that we are unable to escape or avoid.  Like shocks and torture.  Once learned, we fail to even try escaping new situations where the punishment. In effect, both animals and people feel that they have lost control of the situation and give up.  As time goes by, the original stimulus isn’t required—only a hint of it is enough—to keep the experimental dog or the oppressed populous in order.

I have been predicting for some time that Trump might well move towards autocratic government—running it, as he said, like a business, in which one man rules.  I have said that he would find an excuse to limit, maybe banish, democratic forms in order to fight an enemy—any enemy that he could find or create. The most likely enemies to require “wartime readiness” for example, seemed to be Syria, ISIS, North Korea, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan or any number of “threats” to our national security.  Along with others, I call this the Reichstag moment.  Hitler used the (mysterious) burning of the German Parliament to essentially institute martial law.  Dictators throughout the world and throughout time have created many similar excuses to take control.

But I can also imagine Trump just wearing down and maybe eliminating the domestic checks and balances to Executive Branch control.  He has been attacking judicial opposition.  He disregards House and Senate calls for information.  He ignores all criticism about conflicts of interest, creating what looks like the gigantic Banana Republic of America.  Now he has fired the person who is conducting an investigation into his likely collusion with Russian hackers to undermine American elections, and into his probable indebtedness to Russian businessmen who exert control over his foreign business investments. Both Comey and former NSA Director, James Clapper, have hinted at this.

As the former Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has made clear, Trump and his associates  are compromised, open to bribery because of shady business practice.  By doing so, they have placed the American nation in compromising positions.  Yates has been fired.  Preet Bharara, who seemed to be investigating Trump’s foreign business interests is gone.  So, too, all of the United States Attorneys.  Michael Flynn is gone.  Devin Nunes is gone.  Anyone and everyone who have information that threatens the Trump regime is being eliminated.  The approach does not measure up to Putin’s style of simply killing the opposition but the effect of Trump’s efforts to get rid of anyone who is more loyal to the truth than to him is chilling enough.

As he eliminates the opposition, Trump amplifies the power of the loyalists.  Look at the increasing and increasingly public place of The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has supposedly recused himself from both the Russian investigation and the Comey-Clinton-letters investigation.   Sessions is the one who recommended that Comey, who has led the investigations, be fired.  Watch closely and you will see Sessions’ increasingly strong support for police departments and the increased incarceration of both immigrants and homegrown criminals.  Then there is the deregulation of the web, eliminating the principle that everyone should have equal access.  I don’t think that it requires conspiratorial thinking to see Trump exercising more and more control over the levers of power in the United States.

Look at the impotence of a greedy, Republican Congress, hoping that they can use the value-free, winner-take-all Trump to their own ends—the repeal of the ACA and tax breaks for the wealthy, for example—even as he tries to break the power and the will of its investigative committees.  They will soon learn that they have made a pact with the devil.  Even so, it seems likely that, with McConnell and Ryan in leadership, they will become increasingly afraid to oppose Trump.  His motto—“Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit ten times harder”—will be more frequently the order of the day.

Since Donald Trump was elected, opposition has run high among Democrats and progressives.  There is tremendous activity at state and local levels.  The internet is brimming with calls to action and for financial contributions to sustain the resistance.  Since the House repeal of the ACA, the cry for action has increased further. We have seen the 2018 elections as the great divide, the moment to put in a Democratic Congress able to finally stop both Trump and the right wing Republican agenda in their tracks.  I can only hope the Resistance continues to build and then succeeds before Trump tightens his grip and before learned helplessness sets in.

Seligman’s experiments suggest that there is only one cure for helplessness.  His dogs do not even try to escape because they have learned that nothing they do will stop the shock that taught them to be helpless in the first place.  To change the expectations of the experimental animals, Seligman’s assistants literally picked the dogs up and moved their legs for them.  They replicated what the dogs would need to do to escape the electrified grid that had tortured them.  “This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start willfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.[4][5] We do not want to reach this point.

We are not dogs and unlike the inhabitants of long-lasting tyrannies like Cuba and Russia, we have not yet become helpless.  But we must be quick before lethargy sets in.  We need to lift up our legs now and fight for self determination.  Trump may think this is his Reichstag moment.  I believe it is our moment.  As Chuck Schumer said yesterday, the Comey firing is a cover up of Nixonian proportions.  There is a good chance that it is covering sins that far exceed any committed by Richard Nixon.  Like Archibald Cox and Elliot Richardson did then, we must rise to this occasion.  They had a Democratic Congress to support them.  We don’t.  Our call for action, then, needs to be all the greater.

Advertisements

Democracy: “A device that ensures people will be governed no better than they deserve.”

How many articles have you read insisting that we don’t really understand the poor, disenfranchised White people who voted for Donald Trump.  According to their protectors, the White guys have lost and have been belittled so much that their rage and resentment follow almost inevitably.  The primary enemy?  Not the super rich, who this angry, misogynistic cohort actually aspires to be, but the eastern elite: the professionals, the intellectuals, the more modestly rich.  That huge voting block located in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York.  Well, maybe the enemy includes people of color, because, as Arlie Hochschild records, these jonny-come-lately Americans have cut in line, taking a place in American society that they don’t deserve.

During the campaign, Trump promised his aroused base anything they might desire, whether he believed in it or not.  Long ago, H.L. Mencken advised described the Trump strategy: “If a politician found that he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”  It wasn’t that Trump conducted surveys to discover what the people needed or wanted.  The process may have been in reverse.  It was the people “Choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  He certainly fed them the red meat of anger, and they were buying.

And by the way, the working White guys had some help in their march to victory.  How about all those Black and Latino people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, who would rather join the whining class, claiming that voting won’t help, that the establishment isn’t interested in them, that their lives have no value to the establishment.  Never mind that people of color are rapidly becoming the majority, which could lead to their being the establishment, if only they would organize well enough. What about all those millennials who also whine: it’s just so much harder for us than for other generations.

You have to wonder if the great majority, the people, even want to govern themselves.  I wonder whether the “elite” has grown a little sentimental and unrealistic about the capacity of the majority to govern.  Again, let’s listen to Mencken: democracy, he says, stems from  “A recurrent yet incorrect suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.”  But the most damning skeptic is Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It seems to me that we mouth our belief in democracy without thinking too much about what it means.  Even those—and there are many—who concede that it is a flawed system but the best we have and the best hedge against tyranny.  There have always been doubters, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who did whatever they could to limit the potential damage of untrammeled democracy.  They created balances of power.  They created the Electoral College.  And they created powerful voter restrictions—no women of Blacks need apply.  In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, there was always the threat of mob rule and the need to protect against it.

Let’s face it, democratic institutions have not always provided a barrier against either tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of dictators.  Didn’t the French Revolution lead to The Terror?  Weren’t Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini elected to their positions?  Hasn’t Donald Trump been elected?  And don’t many of us believe that, with the help of an angry citizenry, he may well move our government in an authoritarian direction? Considering his attachment to his hotels, golf courses, neckties, and military men, we may become the largest banana republic the world has ever seen.

Again Mencken enhances our understanding when he says that democracy is “Election by the incompetent many for the appointment by the corrupt few.”  I wonder if the Trump base will even raise an eyebrow to the many ways that Trump financial empire benefits from their newfound power.

Mencken tells us that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  It seems that Prince Donald’s proposed Cabinet of Deplorables portends just that.  Just look at this group:

  • Ben Carson, who thinks that public housing is a Communist plot, will try to dismantle as much affordable housing and neighborhood diversity as he can.
  • Betsy DeVos will do her best to destroy the very educational system that gives the people their best chance to rise above their parents
  • Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions will try to roll back civil rights to the days of the Dixiecrats.
  • Andrew Pudzer, the fast-food exec will be the first Secretary of Labor who advocates fewer jobs and lower pay for the people.
  • Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, will do his best to support the fossil fuel industry and get us out of treaties and policies aimed at preserving our environment.
  • Tom Price, HHS, will do his best to take health care from twenty million Americans—children included.

I began this article with some skepticism about the disenfranchised Trump voters, but it’s the “eastern elite’s” acceptance of this perspective that galls me almost as much.  Mea culpa, mea molto culpa, they intone.  Really?  I think we ought to throw the accusations back at the people.  If you don’t like what’s going on, get off your rear ends and work to change it.  Don’t just vent your anger on the establishment, organize, vote, rally.  Get the working man’s and the working women’s issues on the ballot.  And put people into office who will work your will.

I do believe that there is a good chance that the United States is inching closer to the rest of the world’s authoritarian governments.  If this election campaign is a good test, then we are taking that direction not just with the consent but with the urging of the governed, who would rather complain or vent their anger than work together towards strategic solutions for a more just and equitable future.  Unless, of course, you think the Cabinet of Deplorables will take you there.