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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The cult of American defiance

It's tricky for liberal coastal people to understand America, no matter what generation of immigrants we are. We really don't know firsthand how nuts a lot of this country is.

Something like a quarter of all Americans say that the devil is literally real. Jesus wins when Americans are asked who the greatest American was. And it's not just a Christian thing. Huge numbers of people believe in witchcraft and aliens.

In contrast with Japan and Europe, where sacrifice for the common good is held up as the highest value, we celebrate heroes primarily for their defiance. The most highly popular president of the last two generations was literally an actor who played cowboys, who funneled military support to Saddam Hussein, Iran, and death squads that murdered nuns and priests, and who bragged every chance he could about his willingness to spend so much on the military that the country would become insolvent.

The perception of defiance trumps everything. It makes Donald Trump's suspicious credentials as a conservative not matter to many people who would otherwise say they feel strongly about, say, abortion. I believe it's a big part of why there is nearly universal political support in this country for unconditional military aid to a country in the Middle East that has used its military for decades to enforce the seizing of land from Christians because of their ethnicity and religion. Look at the language over here that politicians use to describe Israel: it stands alone, it is a beacon, it won't back down.

It's the certainty and the defiance that's constant here, not the principles and behavior of the parties. If the Soviet Union had backed Israel's military and the US had backed the PLO, Americans would have had no trouble lining up just as firmly on the side of the displaced Christians, told at gunpoint that they weren't welcome back in their holy homeland; a missile fired at a building populated by Israeli military reservists would get criticized here no more than we currently criticize a missile that hits the homes of suspected Hamas members. All members of the Senate would line up to sign declarations of the Palestinian right to self-defense; their constituents' fundamental sense of loyalty and dignity and strength, their hatred of weakness and betrayal and impurity, would demand no less.

In American political life, "I will never apologize for" are the only parts of the sentence that matter.

Which cause is the recipient of that pure fidelity is beside the point.

The fertilized babies must not fall prey to the impurity and gray area of reproductive choice; never mind that the leading killer of fertilized eggs, failure to implant, goes curiously without funding and without a champion. (I would even guess that most vehement opponents of abortion couldn't tell you what is, by far, the leading cause of death of unborn children.) It is the certainty that matters, not the details.

Gay sex is the impure enemy today. Wait, it's no longer the impure enemy? Standing against it no longer signals brave defiance, and instead awkwardly excludes friends and Ellen? No matter--just don't mention our old hardline position on it anymore, and pick something else. How about trans people?

Oh, and let our justices, who interpret original textual meaning through the lens of their worldview just like everyone does, be hailed as having pure and unwavering originalist principles. Heroic, defiant principles.

This current has always been here, but it hasn't always had such a good way of commanding mainstream attention and power.

Clay Shirky had a compelling analysis recently that basically made the case that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in this country that doesn't fit neatly into party categories. Parties have traditionally had consolidated access to marketing and fundraising and get out the vote, so the progressive 20% and the totally nuts 30% had to content themselves with the Democratic and Republican nominees respectively. That used to be as good as it got for both sets of radicals. In both parties you've had candidates become president who were good at speaking the language of the more radical parts of their parties but when in office really governed from the center and displayed mainstream pragmatism.

But the internet and the data science revolution has made it so that a grassroots effort from the radical wings are way more possible. As evidenced by Howard Dean's campaign, Obama's surprisingly effective campaign against the more established Clinton, Rick "what's next, bestiality?" Santorum spending 5% as much per voter as Romney in Iowa and South Carolina and doing quite well, Sanders's campaign, and somewhat Trump's campaign.

Obviously Trump's campaign isn't quite the same from a funding perspective and he doesn't have a very sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation, but in another sense, he has a very sophisticated communications operation.

Look at Trump's unique use of internet and television to communicate to voters. I think he has a BuzzFeed-quality level of understanding of how communication works today. He doesn't bother to speak in paragraphs; he just says the same five things over and over in entertaining ways. When coverage slows, he crosses a line in a way that is impossible not to cover; he both alienates people and wins fans, while John Kasich and Jeb Bush weep alone. I have literally heard Trump say the words "America" "great" and "again" 30 times just passing by TVs in airports, versus never for anyone else.

Obviously I don't think Sanders is anywhere near the manipulative scumbag that Trump is, but in some ways I think his campaign success is similar. He's all about braggadocious easy answers that play well as sound bites. Maybe we do need more of that to advance a progressive agenda, but I don't perceive anywhere near the same amount of sophisticated analysis and management ability behind the front like I did with Obama. And I think he doesn't understand at all the ways that government regulatory offices and laws are designed to conserve the existing power structure as often or more than they are designed to subvert it.

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Blogger Shawn on Tue Mar 08, 01:20:00 PM:
I really like your framing here, Ben. You've isolated something that often eludes me when I am most baffled by my fellow Americans, and that clearly eludes most of the MSM folks covering Trump and his supporters 24/7. How well/poorly do you think your "defiance" premise dovetails with Matthew MacWilliams's de rigueur analysis/polling regarding what he calls "authoritarianism" (see, e.g., Do you see a meaningful difference between the two frames? Is defiance just one of many masks an authoritarian leader can wear as needed? Does fear drive us to defiant leaders the same way it does to authoritarianism in MacWilliams's telling?
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 08, 02:01:00 PM:
Great link, thanks for that.

I think I'd dispute calling what MacWilliams is describing "authoritarianism". He writes that "People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies."

I would argue that 1) Trump's supporters in many ways actually admire his violation of social norms, and 2) that big government power, a core aspect of actual totalitarianism, isn't what Trump supporters are really after. I think Trumpism has way more in common with Italian fascism, from Mussolini to Berlusconi: personal bullyishness with military bravado and promises of no compromise. But in the American lens, I think it is the wild and breathtaking refusal to capitulate to the needs of others that is the core attraction, not the power of the state to enforce things.

But I'm not sure if my distinction holds for Trump's racism. Maybe that really is about authoritarian enforcement of norms, more than defiance of perceived PC.