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.

How to Change Relationships

Sometimes I marvel at how little I let what I know interfere with what I want to achieve.  There are two small areas where the gap is most pronounced: relationships and politics.  For instance, I know that you can’t convince people to do what they don’t want to do, no matter how ‘right’ you are; but I have spent over forty years trying to convince my wife of certain obvious truths about her nature and mine with absolutely no noticeable effect—and no let up in my efforts.  If only the liberal world would put me in charge of persuading coal miners that their interests really rest in voting for progressive Democrats, I’m sure that my much ballyhooed run would continue unabated.

I spent my entire adult life laboring in the change business.  I worked with individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  Not always, but often, I helped them succeed. Emboldened by my success, I gathered students and taught them about the mysteries of change, then garnished my hubris by writing books and articles on the subject.  That did not in the slightest alter my approach to political conversation: announcing the right approach, developing convincing arguments to prove I was right, and trying to pound opponents into submission.

At the ripe old age of (almost) seventy-five, I would like to offer a mea culpa and try to articulate some of the lessons I learned as a therapist.  Normally, I hate when psychotherapists grossly oversimplify the challenges of political change, but like the fool who goes where angels fear to tread, I’m going to try to defy the odds. Hence, Seven Principles to improve your chances of changing others.  If you follow them faithfully, you may well succeed.

(In the following, I will focus on changing individuals and trust my readers to apply the principles to families, organizations, and politics.)

Principle one: Meet people where they are.  Begin an encounter by understanding how the other person thinks and feels.  If people don’t feel understood—in a respectful way—they will close off any attempt you have to share new, no less uncomfortable information and ideas.  If they do feel understood, the sharing of ideas can begin.

By way of example, the only two people who really met working class White constituents where they were during the recent presidential campaign were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They met anger with anger.  Candidates and constituents were hurt and furious at what they felt—not just thought—were the snobby, dismissive, and corrupt people who were running the country.  Because of this initial meeting of minds, Sanders and Trump gained credibility and had room to articulate their visions.

Principle two: Do not repeat the same old, failed solution.  We all do this.  When we are unsuccessful in solving a problem, we try again in pretty much the same way.  We may try a slightly new angle, use new words, but the “new” approaches are variations on the same damn theme we began with.  The people we’re trying to “help” or to change know what we’re doing.  By the fourth or fifth time, they have developed powerful defenses against any brilliant new variations we might try.  We are closed out.

At that point, the solution becomes the problem.  You say “here’s a better way to look at things” and they hear “you’re a dope” or “you’re bad” or “I want to control you.”  They don’t hear the actual words you say.  They hear the subtext—what they take to be your real intentions.  Now your ability to change them activates strong opposition—what we experience as closed minds.

Ask yourself: is your solution working.  If your honest answer is no, then get off that train.  Even when you feel yourself tempted to try another variation on a theme, like an addict yearning for a fix, don’t do it.  That leads to the next, radical principle.

Principle three: Give up.  Stop trying to change the other.  Once you have entered a control struggle of the sort that usually emerges when one person tries to change another, the only way out is to give up—really give up.  This will confuse your “opponent,” make him suspicious.  He will respond as if you had continued your normal argument, which generally brings you back into the fray.  Don’t take the bait.

Say the truth aloud: it’s clear that I can’t convince you.  You will have to say this a few times.  Then: “May I try to say what I think you believe?  Just to see if I understand you?”  If the answer is yes, then you articulate the other’s point of view and—here’s the key—ask the person to elaborate, so that you really understand, and so the other person feels in control of herself.  After his first tentative beginning, literally say “Say more.”  “I’m not sure I understand.”  “What do you mean by…”  Learning more and ending the control struggle is essential.

Inevitably, you will find inconsistencies and confusion in the other person’s perspective.  Have the good grace not to point them out.  Just ask about them.  Sincerely ask how he works out his confusion, because, lord knows, you have your own.  If he does explain, you know that you have met him at his home base and a real conversation can begin.

Principle four:  Identify the other person’s own efforts to change.  Every one of us tries to change all of the time.  Smokers swear off cigarettes almost every day.  Husbands and wives promise themselves to be kinder, more attentive, or more patient and try for a while—until they fail.  It is a truth of nature that all beings must adapt to changes in their environment—often in the service of staying the same.  Even though these change efforts are frequently unsuccessful, they do represent genuine purpose.  They do represent an internal imperative, every bit as much as a response to outside pressure.

Trying to change a person who hasn’t agreed to it is like trying to push over a sumo wrestler who set in his stance.  When people lack an expected stimulus, something new must replace it.  Joining the new thought or action in a person’s repertoire gives it greater weight.  Now you are encouraging change.

Principle five: Support the other person’s change efforts.  Once you have learned to identify a persons own, authentic efforts to change, support them. Say things like: I see; that’s great; may I elaborate your point.  Here’s an example:  some people almost always says no to suggestions but rarely (not never) offer alternatives.  We think of them as oppositional.   Suppose that person happens to say “Let’s go to the movies” or “Let’s talk.”  Such initiatives are out of character in the relationship.  Your job is to say yes.  Not “yes but”.  There should be no attempt to “improve” the proposal.

Just support what is new and see where it goes.  This is partly a matter of letting go, not being in charge each moment.  It may not improve your relationship right away but it will get you out of the rut, out of your ritual fights.  It will be different. Now, you are on the way to genuine change.

Principle six: Build on the change.  Once you are on your way, you need to be alert: don’t return to old behavior; carefully observe differences in the other—and in yourself; continue to support both.  Each new behavior is likely to give rise to yet another.  The reactive person who awakens to initiating, for example, might become bolder, more outgoing.  The person who is seemingly addicted to controlling the action, might grow more vulnerable.  In each case, it is up to you to recognize and embrace these changes.

Principle seven: Change yourself.  Here’s the irony: the only way to really change others is to change yourself.  As new behaviors multiply, and as you keep pace by changing yourself in response, you will find that a very new relationship has emerged.  Still not perfect but at least free from the struggle that had limited your ability to come together. Your are still the same people but with other parts of yourself in the foreground; and that transforms the relationship.  As the Vietnamese people like to say, “Same, same, but different,” and it’s the difference that counts.

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.

Courage

I have been thinking about courage lately.  The upcoming period may demand a great deal from us, each in his or her own way.  Opposition to Donald Trump and the Tea Party Republicans’ assault on freedom has required us to bring our resistance into the open, and there may be a price to pay.  Then, too, I am almost seventy five; and the challenge of aging with dignity and self respect will demand stamina and courage.  For me, the two challenges are intimately connected.

As a boy, I would wonder if I had the courage to jump into a lake to save a drowning friend, my sister, my brother, or my parents.  By the age of five or six, my buddies, David and Freddy and I would throw out challenges to one another: would you run in front of a car to save your mother? A stranger?  How far would your courage reach?  I still ask myself these questions, though I now know some of the answers.  My life for my child or grandchild?  Of course.  But some questions about my courage remain opaque.  I can hope that I’ll come through but I’ll only know about when tested.

At nine or ten, World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh and dominant in mind.  I would dream and daydream about being parachuted behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis.  So many people had already died;  and carrying on the fight might be left to us, the children.  It seemed a daunting prospect but I assured myself that I could overcome my fears because the danger was so present and the cause so strong. Here, the roots of courage were clear.

While I have lived a mostly privileged life, there have been moments that frightened me. When I was young, my parents canvassed for the American Labor Party, and FBI men in trench coats came twice to our apartment door in the Bronx.  “Where is your father,” they barked.  As a young teenager during the McCarthy era, there were plenty of bullies who took it upon themselves to watch over our national conscience.  I learned to watch what I said but I also girded my loins for a fight.

I’m no child now but these early images are still vivid and defining for me.  So, too, the images of courage from that period.  Most of all there was Joseph Welsh challenging Joe McCarthy on TV. The McCarthy-inspired Red Scare, had intimidated a nation, its people and its press.  McCarthy’s unrestrained efforts to uproot the Communist enemy in our midst represented the greatest witch hunt in American history.  During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast for hours every day on TV, McCarthy threatened to release a list of 130 “Communists or subversives in defense plants.”

Actually it was his eager assistant, Roy Cohn—yes, the same Roy Cohn who Donald Trump counts as his greatest mentor—who was on stage at first.  Then McCarthy, himself, interceded. If Welsh was so concerned about people aiding the Communist Party, McCarthy taunted, he should check Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welsh’s law firm.  Fisher was a progressive but hardly a Communist and certainly no danger to the nation.

“Until this moment, Senator,” said Welsh, “I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… . If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

At that moment, people were terrified of McCarthy, as they might soon be terrified by a rampaging, fact-free Donald Trump, contemptuous of the press and the judiciary and of anyone who stands in his way.  Those who defied McCarthy lost jobs, friends, freedoms.  Some were deported.  Welsh didn’t flinch.

I would like to believe that I would respond as Welsh responded.  I am surely not important enough to matter as Welsh, who represented the United States Army, mattered.  But I can imagine that there will be small moments that will call on me—and on many of us—to stand firm, as he did.  The image of his doing so will be with me as I do.  I hope to live to his standard.

Here’s the key point: having clear standards of morality and personal conduct, as Welsh did, makes it simpler to know when a line has been crossed and where you must take your stand.  Each of us need to determine for ourselves what that line is.

Anne Frank took a different kind of stand, one of profound psychological valor. This is another kind of courage: a refusal to let your life be defined by what you don’t have and to keep a disciplined focus on what you do have. In the face of the relentless Nazi onslaught and almost certain death, she wrote:

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching       thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Her heroism stands as a beacon to me.  I dearly hope that her ability to find grace and beauty in the ugliest of circumstances will guide me as I confront the lesser challenges of my life.

If I’m lucky enough to live another five, ten, even fifteen years, these challenges will touch almost every aspect of my being.  There will be pain and illness—and the inevitable fear of dying.  I see it every day among my older friends.  The stiffness when we walk, the waves of indeterminate, maybe undiagnosed feelings in our bellies and our limbs, the anxious anticipation of what almost seems like weekly reports from doctors, the suffering and loss of friends, the increasing uncertainty about so many things.

These pains and these uncertainties are not just my own.  There are others who care about me and whose lives are intertwined with mine.  I need to consider them when I chart my course.  There is my wife, above all, because our lives are inextricably joined.  There are my children, whom I have loved for thirty-eight and forty-six years.  They will suffer with my infirmity.  They won’t want to experience my weakness and decline.  They will ache when my time comes near, especially if my mind fades and I can’t share my grief with them.  There are my brother and my sister and my friends.  As they are for me, I am a pillar for them.  When one pillar falls, the world seems a much more precarious place.

Will we be brave as we face these days ahead?  How will I talk with them?  Will I be candid or stoic?  Will I permit myself to lean on them or will I hold to this foolish independence and pride of mine? Will we hold one another? Will I bemoan my fate or will I, with Anne Frank, see the beautiful blue sky above—I have had such an extraordinary life.  Much as I hope to stand firm with Joseph Welsh, I want to be my best when facing my own bodily and psychological assaults.  I want to be at my best, my courageous best, right up to the end.

Much as Joseph Welsh leaned on a set of standards to chart his political course, so I will need them to meet the physical and psychological challenges ahead.  Without these standards, I will flounder.  I will react to each problem as if it is unique.  And this would amplify whatever indecision and shakiness that ordinarily accompany crises.  I don’t want to live in constant crisis.  It would take me far from the dignity and self respect I aspire to.

I am inclined to see the world as a complex place and generally not given to right and wrong or good and bad answers to moral dilemmas.  But complexity is no great friend in during times of great struggle, and that is what is ahead.  So I have been winnowing my standards in search of the few that matter most.  Some stand as aspirations and may be beyond me.  I will live with that imperfection. For now, this is the best I can say. I will work to be clear eyed and realistic about the life I have.  I will try to accept that there is no other life.  And I will embrace whatever love and beauty I can find within the “approaching thunder.”

With 1984 Approaching, What Must We Do?

Not so long ago, I was more frightened by Ted Cruz than by Donald Trump.  I saw Trump as completely erratic and without strong beliefs in anything but himself, whereas I knew the threat of Cruz’ reactionary vision.  After Trump was elected, I worried that the real Republican strategy was to help Trump be elected, then to impeach him and install Mike Pence in his place.  Pence seemed like another version of Cruz but more in keeping with the Tea Party and the current Congress, which would make him more dangerous. Together they would tear down civil rights, health care, climate advances, and so many other hard-fought progressive victories.  But Pence is also preferable to Trump.

There is a good chance that Trump is rapidly moving this country towards authoritarian government.  Lest you think I’m being hysterical, that there are too Constitutional and cultural restraints on this kind of move, wouldn’t you wager that, under Trump, authoritarian governance has 10% potential?  If so, we need to prepare ourselves.

Almost all modern images of an authoritarian future begin with 1984, which is now the best selling book at Amazon.com.  At core, Orwell’s vision targets information control (through “Newspeak”) leading to mind control (through “Thought Police”).  Big Brother speaks and the population must believe him—or else.  In a parody of Nazi and Communist propaganda, 1984 tells us that “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” In other words, you can invent any version of the truth and impose it on an intimidated populous.  Trump means to intimidate us.

Trump’s talking head, Kellyanne Conway, offers a contemporary application of this logic by framing lies as “alternative facts.”  Trump’s investigation of voter fraud, which would lead to voter suppression might represent a concrete intervention by the ‘thought police.’  And he’s pushing the investigation in the face of virtually everyone, including the most right wing Republicans, like Jason Chaffetz.  Trump, the bully, will try to push past all opposition.

Trump’s binge of executive orders, without the consultation of Congress, or attorneys to check their legalities, or the cooperation of the people who would be charged with implementing them—without any effort to build consensus—speaks eloquently to his disregard for democratic process.  The use of a private security  service may auger the development of a personal militia.  So, too, the threat to bring federal troops to Chicago.  Bringing the Voice of America onto American soil may enable direct propaganda. I could go on but I think we can agree that the seeds of tyranny are being sown and the need for a massive response from all those who believe in democracy is urgent.

What, then, is to be done.  An opposition movement is already emerging, led by Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution,” by the organizers of the Women’s Marches, by MoveOn.org, by the ACLU, and by People for the American Way.  There are news organizations, like Politico, Think Progress, Slate, The New York Times, and the Washington Post that are gearing up for the opposition.

Almost everyone agrees that the long game requires organizing at the local and state level.  There is no other way to reverse the impact of gerrymandered districts on equal rights and protections under the law.

We need to organize to build a sense of solidarity, strength, and forward motion—and to gain confidence through numbers.  We need to turn ourselves on the way we did during the twin fights for civil rights and the end to the Vietnam War. Just marching together with so many thousands this last weekend furthered the sense that we are a movement.  Opposition to Trump and right-wing Republicans may unite progressive forces far more powerfully than the fight for specific issues like equal educational opportunity and climate repair.

We need to build rapidly and intentionally—before Trump’s authoritarian potential is entrenched. To do so, we need to know ahead of time, how and when to act, and we need to act in the most leveraged ways.  Here are a few suggestions.

First, we need to draw some clear lines in the sand so that we won’t have to figure out how to respond each time Trump transgresses democratic process and principles.  Crossing those lines will indicate that Trump has gone too far, and we must act.

Second, we must oppose every transgression. I read today that the Democratic Party is contemplating a “scorched earth” approach, which means opposing almost everything that Trump proposes.  It means refusing to normalize him.  It means giving up the folly of trying to negotiate with him—or with the Congress.  It means every bit the same kind of cross-the-board opposition as we saw from Senator McConnell and the Tea Party.  We need to act in this way for its own sake and in order to buy time for the Progressive opposition to gain strength.

Third, we need to utilize every possible way to oppose conflicts of interest that are already rife in the Trump administration.  His world-wide holdings make the United States incredibly vulnerable.  How much money and how many troops will we have to dedicate to protect them.  We need to have Trump in court every day, every day.

Fourth, we need to speak truth to power.  We need to say what we see.  We need to deny the Trump-Bannon-Conway lies and disable the disinformation machine that they have been building.  Bannon tells us to “shut up.” We have powerful communication tools.  We must speak up.

Fifth, we need to paint the picture of Trump as Big Brother.  He has survived all of the other portraits—sexist, narcissist, liar—you name it.  But not Big Brother, which should frighten both left and right.  Neither want their rights of free speech and free action abridged as much as he intends.  Or maybe, in order to challenge his narcissism, Trump should be portrayed as Little Brother.

The most important strategic aim is to keep Trump off balance. Any serious challenge to his fragile ego (his TV ratings or finger length) throws him.  We saw that when Hillary Clinton defeated him in debates and beat him in the poplar vote.  We see that now when he is confronted with the far greater size of the Women’s March.  He and his Inauguration organizers were “losers.”  Trump can’t stand to be a loser.  When he is threatened in this way, he lashes out, he blusters and blunders.  He makes mistakes.  He will make mistakes that lead even Republicans to call for impeachment.

Impeachment must be our short term goal.  It will not lead immediately to the realization of progressive goals but it will buy time.  And it will fire up a united Progressive movement.  That seems to me the best we can aim for right now.

When Bullies Become Tyrants

Ever since the he  swept into view last year, I have known the bully in Trump.  Only gradually have I realized how central it is to his persona and to his success.   I didn’t want to know that bullying could be so effective.

I’ve always hated bullying but haven’t fully credited its potential for power.  I’m an Alpha male myself, and always figured I could show up any bully who came my way.  I haven’t suffered the pain and indignities that women and my gentler friends have at the hands of such internally weak and injured buffoons.  For the most part, I haven’t suffered the tyranny that comes when bullies achieve institutional power.

That’s not entirely true.  I was a boy during the McCarthy period.  The FBI would occasionally come to the door of our apartment in the Bronx, asking after my father, who was always at work.  It was day time, after all.  In retrospect, I can see the visits as harassment, indirect bullying.  At the time, I was only mildly afraid.  Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover liked that, no doubt.  They wanted to create an air of anxiety in our culture, and they succeeded.

Now I see that there is no Trump without bullying. It is at the core of his “leadership.” His method is clear:  He enters the scene, any scene, with an air of implied threat, and feigned welcome.  He begins conversation with a criticism or an insult.  When he doesn’t get his way, he pushes.  When pushing fails, he manipulates.  When manipulation fails, he insults.  If the insults aren’t strong enough, he ups the ante through hyperbole and scandalous lies.  He is relentless.  He won’t stop until he has won…until he has backed people down, frightened them, worn them out, hurt them.

Trump fits well within our understanding of bullies.  Here are a couple of definitions that do him credit:  First: “Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are in some way smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully.” Second: “…bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by the following three minimum criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.[11] Bullying may thus be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Trump is not the first bully to gain political advantage.  His is a company of thousands, including McCarthy, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators.  Dictators are bullies by definition.  They almost always gain power by bullying, though the centrality of bullying is not always obvious to followers at first.

Here’s the tyrant’s profile, written long before the current president-elect came to power.  You decide who it calls to mind.  First:

  • Continual claims for attention and admiration
  • Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
  • Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
  • Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance.

You may object to my grouping Trump with tyrants.  So far he only has the potential to join the club, but he does have that potential.  The likelihood of potential turning into reality most likely depends on the conditions in the larger culture.  Following World War II, social scientists labored endlessly to identify the conditions that readied German for Hitler.  They focused on the anguish and anger of the nation following the humiliating peace treaty for World War I,  the country’s social dislocation and economic depression, the availability of ready made scapegoats, and the tendency towards  “authoritarian personalities” among the populous. These are people ready to surrender their own power in favor of a strongman, who could tell them what to do.  Many Trump supporters fit that same profile.  They did not vote for his policies—what policies?  They voted mostly for the promise of a fix, the highlighting of a bogeyman (immigrants) and the promise that he alone could make things right.

You might ask: why am I writing this essay when we already disapprove of Trump’s approach to leadership?  The reason is simple: I want to put words to what we all know.  I want to say it out loud.  I want to be clear about the direction the Trump bullying might take.  Bullying women is one thing.  Slanderous reactions to John Lewis and his terrible Congressional district (he means the Black areas of Atlanta) is another.  Bullying the press takes it a step further. . Imposing private security teams with the potential to be small armies take the trend too far. And trying to bully other countries, those who cannot and those who might retaliate, may speak mainly to the grandiosity that often goes with the bully.

You might say that people like Trump are “just” bullies, not tyrants, and it’s not fair to place Trump in their ranks.  But don’t forget that these tyrants didn’t begin that way.  Hitler, for example, portrayed himself as a “little man,” much aggrieved and neglected.  Mao, Fidel, even Hugo Chavez were said to be men of the people.  Dictatorships that don’t begin in coups, begin as populist rebellions that draw on the people’s yearning for change.  These populist leaders, once they have gained institutional position, turn rapidly into dictators.

Their initial campaigns seek out enemies—often an oppressed ethnic group, like the Jewish people, or a callous elite, like the money-lenders (read financiers or read Shylock).  Often enough, they are elected to office.  Then the transformation from democratic to dictatorial leadership happens quickly and decisively.  Here is how “leaders” move from bullying to tyranny:

Control of public information and opinion Use of the law for competition suppression
Vote fraud used to prevent the election of reformers Creation of a class of officials who are above the law
Undue official influence on trials and juries Subversion of internal checks and balances
Usurpation of undelegated powers Conversion of rights into privileges
Seeking a government monopoly on the capability and use of armed force Increasing public ignorance of their civic duties and reluctance to perform them
Militarization of law enforcement Political correctness
Infiltration and subversion of citizen groups that could be forces for reform Increasing dependency of the people on government
Suppression of investigators and whistle blowers Use of staged events to produce popular support

I could go into much greater detail about the transition from bullying populists to outright dictatorship, but I hope you’ve got the general idea.

The next and probably more important subject is: what to do.  That will take some deep thinking and concerted action.  Remember, bullies and tyrants do not yield to reason, to compassion, to ethical standards.  In other words, they do not respond to the most cherished tools that are used by a non-violent opposition.   For them, it is not just power itself, the ability to achieve what you want.  It is the power over others.  The pleasure, the thrill is in humbling enemies and doubters; it is the thrill of domination.  What’s more, wielding power distracts bullies from personal insecurities, minimizing what can  otherwise be incapacitating anxiety for bullies.

We know that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  We have a thousand small, often personal, examples of standing strong.  Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Walsh, who helped to dislodge Joe McCarthy from his perch, are shining examples of this approach.  They are heroes.  But it will take more than the courageous acts of individuals to keep Trump from tyranny.  It will take organized opposition.  Thank goodness, the opposition has begun.

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.