“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, July 26 1920
If you want to understand how it is that Donald Trump has managed to rise to political prominence then you need to read three books, two written more than 50 years ago and one in 2005.
The first is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. In Jim Crow Woodward tells the story of the emergence of the increasingly severe laws enforcing segregation in the South following the end of Reconstruction. (In the North we were more De Facto than De Jure about segregation.) They grew harsher as the economic status of the Whites and Blacks narrowed; the Whites seeking to hold on to privilege even as their economic status worsened. In the US today wages have been at best stagnant for the last 40 years. In the wake of Financial Crisis and the Great Non-Recovery Americans again find their economic status diminishing at the same time that groups of people – Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc. etc. – are demanding and sometimes even receiving equal treatment under the law. White Americans feel their privileged position slipping away and they are lashing out, this time without the legal mechanisms of Jim Crow. This is one of the reasons behind the rise to the Tea Party and other extreme Rightist movements.
The second is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a collection of essays and the title essay has understandably received a lot of attention in the last eight years. However I think it is the second essay in the collection, The Pseudo Conservative Revolt – 1954, which truly captures what Charlie Pierce calls “the prion disease afflicting the Republican party.” Here is a relevant quote:
The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of pseudo-conservative mentality. … The general who spoke to the [Freedom Congress] demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business fighting communism in Korea and that the war should immediately be extended to an all-Asia crusade against communism.
A perfect example of this today is the reaction to Operation Jade Helm, a military training exercise that had been held many times prior to this year in various Southern and Western states. This year however a number of citizens came to believe that this was either a precursor to the Federal government taking over or the actual take over. In Texas “a survey of registered Republicans by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that 32% thought that “the Government is trying to take over Texas”, and that half of all Tea Party supporters are concerned with an imminent Texas invasion.” The governor of Texas, a human paper weight named Greg Abbott, met with representatives of these people and ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation, declaring, “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” This trend of course has reached its apogee and perfect mouthpiece in Trump. However, had Trump not run this insanity would have had no trouble with any other of this year’s crop of GOP contenders for the Presidential nomination.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Trump’s followers is their devotion to him no matter what he says or does. They so thoroughly identify with him that it does not matter if he says something that is an easily proven lie. (Go here or here for collections of those lies.)
It does not matter that he has offered no policy or course for how he intends to “make America great again.” It does not matter that he has at various times rejected some or all of the Conservative ideas his followers appear to hold. Conservative evangelicals, who used to require candidates be able to answer a lengthy catechism, now do not care that Trump is entirely uninterested in religion. He has made himself immune to the charge of flip-flopping, which used to be able to derail entire campaigns. Indeed his followers appear to assume anything he says comes with a wink-and-a-nudge. They all “know what he really means” so anything he says is in automatic agreement with whatever that particular person believes. His ability to get people to support things that are against their own self-interest is without parallel in American history.
How is this possible? Consider this:
“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides…is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. … The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”
That is from Harry G. Frankfurter’s remarkable book On Bullshit, a philisophical examination of why facts are of less and less importance in public discourse. (Don’t let the phrase “philisophical examination” scare you, it is both readable and short.)
Trump’s campaign only makes sense once you apply Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit: It was never supposed to have any connection to reality. It exists soley to aggrandize Trump himself and nothing else.
There is quite a bit of the sociopath about Trump. Publicly he shows little empathy and absolutely no remorse for anything. People appear to be of interest to him only to the extent that they can get him something. He shows no loyalty — if you once were useful but now dare to offer even the mildest criticism you are cast off and attacked with the same vengeance used for his bitterest enemies. Should he be elected president he will easily eclipse Woodrow Wilson and Nixon, the current benchmarks for presedential vindictiveness. He will also make Nero and the most recent President Bush look like amateurs when it comes to destroying their own nations.
It’s somehow fitting that the best description of Trump I have found was written 91 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his blistering essay In Memoriam: W.J.B.
“A vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He is ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. … A poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He is a peasant come home to the dung-pile.”
This isn’t a vague philosophical question whose answer is inevitably “End war now.” I, along with every soldier I’ve ever met, would love to live in a world without war. Unfortunately we don’t. The question of why we have a military is actually a very important real-world question which the Pentagon itself asks and then answers every four years in its Quadrennial Defense Review.
In order to figure out how many of those tanks, sailors, nuclear war heads, fighters etc., we have to answer one very simple and complex question: What do we want the military to do?
The answer at first seems obvious. Nations have militaries in order to protect themselves, right? That’s part of it, but what is it protecting us from? In some cases this is easy to determine. Israel, for example, needs protecting from neighboring states which would like it cease existing. India wants its military to protect it from its neighbors to the north, Pakistan and China, as well as rebellious groups which pop-up from time to time.
Defining protection can be quite complex and India is a perfect example of this. India has at different times fought with both Pakistan and over control of some or all of India’s northern province of Kashmir, which borders the other two nations. What’s odd about that is there is little there to fight over. Kashmir consists mostly of a part of the Himalayan Mountains. It is a beautiful, inhospitable area. It’s barely populated and so far few, if any, valuable resources have been discovered there. Not only is there little if any reason to fight over Kashmir, it is also a terrible place for military operations. It is distant from everywhere, making resupply difficult even for the nations bordering it. With the possible exceptions of the South Pole and Siberia in mid-winter, it is likely the most difficult place on the planet to conduct a war. Not that has stopped any of the three nations from trying. To this day, the armies of India and Pakistan occasionally fire artillery shells at each other just to see if anyone is paying attention.
You get the feeling that the nations themselves know this. Consider the war between India and China in 1962. It lasted about a month and resulted in about 2,000 deaths. The cause both sides claimed to be fighting for was territory, a resource both nations have in abundance.
In which case, why did they fight? At the time of the war both nations were relatively young as independent, unified political entities. India had become a free nation in 1947 when the British, who had ruled India as a colony for more than a century, handed control of the government to the indigenous people. China had become a nation united under a government of its own people at roughly the same time, after the Communists kicked out the Japanese, the Nationalists and the various colonial powers which had controlled the nation for the past century. In 1962, China was perceived as having an expansionist foreign policy because it had conquered Tibet a few years earlier. Just before the conflict the Indian government set up some border posts on parts of the land no one really wanted but which the Chinese considered to be on their side of the border. So China attacked in order to push them back to the correct part of the land no one really wanted. In other words, two young nations/governments wanted to prove that they couldn’t just be pushed around and so 2,000 people died., 
So we can see from this example that militaries are not just used for protection.
Certainly directly protecting the borders of the nation isn’t why the United States has such an enormous military. The U.S. is ideally situated defensively. In the east and west two oceans separate it from the rest of the world. Its two other borders are with Canada and Mexico, neither one of which have ever posed even a nominal military threat to the nation. It has been 200 years since a foreign power directly invaded the U.S. The only real direct threat to the nation’s existence was 150 years ago and that came from other Americans. It is this splendid geographic position that has allowed the U.S. to develop almost entirely unmolested by nations which were much more powerful than we were for the first 150 years or so of our history as a nation.
Although national security is frequently cited when justifying the huge amount we spend on the military all it would take to defend our borders is our nuclear submarine fleet to deter anyone from launching a nuclear strike against us, a few warships to help protect our import and export capabilities or attacking us at sea, some fighters and bombers and a land force perhaps the size of the Marine Corps. Except for the nuclear weapons the military would then be reduced to size and role it had prior to both World Wars I and II.
The other reason that nations in general – and our nation in particular – have militaries is to prevent other nations from telling us what to do and get them to do what we want. To understand how this works it’s necessary to look a little deeper at what war is and what it is that nations get from it.
We will begin with a book called On War by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Clausewitz lived during the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement which hoped to wean society from irrational beliefs and superstitions. This movement came about as part of the great scientific revolution which happened at the same time. The Enlightenment was, among many other things, an attempt to apply the scientific method to how people thought and acted and especially to their philosophies. In On War, Clausewitz tried to examine and define the theory of war; to look at the why of it and determine what, if any, universal rules and laws it operates under.
Quiz time: Facebook is worth how many billions of dollars?
Different people have given all of the above answers and a lot of other places have published them as fact, even though these numbers are are self-serving and cannot be verified. The first two are by Facebook itself, in February and November of last year. The third is from Forbes and the last one is from the Financial Times – and all of them are totally, completely untrustworthy. Why? Well, let’s look at how Forbes’ Steve Bertoni put it: “Recent private equity investments in Facebook valued the firm at around $23 billion–more than triple its 2009 value of $7 billion.” Now why would anyone who had invested in a company possibly say that company is worth far more than previously reported? Hmmmmm.
Facebook is a private company, so no one outside of a select few really know how much money – if any – Facebook is making. But even it’s self-reported numbers don’t sustain valuations that give it a market cap of between $23B and $33B. By way of comparison, eBay’s market cap is $32B. As Mashable so ably puts it
Facebook is still a private company that hasn’t completely figured out the profit equation. While it should surpass $1 billion in revenue this year, its infrastructure costs are also high. eBay, while not as sexy, brought in $2.215 billion in revenue during just the second quarter of this year.
What is appalling is that how many business publications are willing collaborators in this absurd deception. I am glad to see that the Wall Street Journal seems to have learned its lesson about this (see Twitter valued at $1 Billion say people with a vested interest in Twitter). H.L. Mencken had a simple rule of thumb for reporting a story like this: “It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.”
“We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury.” — Edward M. Liddy, government-appointed chairman of A.I.G.
Congrats to Mr. Liddy for calling the people in question “the best and the brightest” – a description famously applied to the folks who got us into Vietnam.
And what would these folks be talented at? While getting someone else to pay for bankrupting a company is quite a talent it’s not one to reward.
Lawyers at both the Treasury Department and AIG have concluded that the firm would risk a lawsuit if it scrapped the retention payments at the AIG Financial Products subsidiary, whose troublesome derivative trading nearly sank AIG. The company promised before the government started bailing out the firm in September that employees would be awarded more than $400 million in retention pay this year and next.
Which is worse – losing a lawsuit or needing around-the-clock security for all your senior executives? I’m pretty sure the phrase “hanging is too good for them” is echoing around a lot of people’s minds right now.
BTW, the $165M in bonuses is in addition to a previously scheduled $121M:
The payments to A.I.G.’s financial products unit are in addition to $121 million in previously scheduled bonuses for the company’s senior executives and 6,400 employees across the sprawling corporation. Mr. Geithner last week pressured A.I.G. to cut the $9.6 million going to the top 50 executives in half and tie the rest to performance.
Yep, more than a quarter of a billion bucks being paid to the folks who put the I in incompetent.
To quote Mr. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
It may be impossible to speak too poorly of the late and unlamented bigot. The only one who can do him justice is Mencken. His obituary for William Jennings Bryan is a thing of venomous beauty and nails Helms and his ilk for all time.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. … In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton*, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
In the obituaries much was made of Helms’ late-life conversion on several issues. Further proof, “the issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice.”
*Bryan testified against evolution and against the idea that man was a mammal at the famed Scopes Monkey Trial held in Dayton. Mencken’s coverage of the trial is some of the best reporting/commentary ever written and can be found in several of the collections of his writing.