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.

Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.