One of the essential tools of political philosophy, I believe, is the technique of modeling how someone else would react if you traded positions with them. I.e.: imagine you do to me what I was about to do to you.
Kant famously tried to construct a system of ethics around that idea – you ask yourself “if everyone did this thing that I am about to do, if it was completely normalized, is that the kind of world I want to live in?” After all, as Kant observed, our actions do create the world we have to live in, and if we are creating a world we wouldn’t like, then maybe it’s best to reconsider what we’re about to do.
I’m very sympathetic to that approach, but I think it demands too much rationality. Basic reciprocity does not make sense to someone who is so selfish, narcissistic, or unimaginative that they can’t see things from another’s perspective. I would argue that being able to model actions from another’s point of view is a fundamental component of intelligence and creativity and that it is what civilization and society depend upon; empathy not legislation. Laws and rules are what we put up in order to guide those who lack the ability to reflect on themselves as an actor. I have tremendous respect for the handful of people I’ve met who do lack empathy, yet struggle hard to understand what society expects of them, so they can live relatively stress-free lives – because, as we all know, there are those who lack empathy and never really learn to see others as anything except impediments, tools, or stepping-stones to whatever it is they want to do.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I consider myself to be a moral nihilist, in that I maintain a strong skeptical stance that I am unconvinced that the moral and ethical systems I’ve encountered, work. It appears to me that it’s mostly a useful way of post-hoc rationalization that serves to elevate one’s opinion. As you can imagine, watching Donald Trump is fascinating from that perspective: does he actually have any beliefs at all? Is he anything more than a robot that lurches about trying to inflict his opinion on everything around him? I know that it’s popular to call Trump “sociopathic” but, if we do that, I slam right into one of the big problems I have with psychological terminology; the psychologists say (variously) that sociopaths show an extreme lack of concern for truth or show no remorse or shame – the implication is that the sociopath does not understand how to function in society as a cooperating member of it, and simply does what they want to do, ignoring all social constraints. But they don’t ignore them; they understand them enough to bypass them. They lie because they know that there is a truth, it’s just not the truth they want so they make stuff up. They don’t care about other people enough to hesitate about using and discarding them, but they obviously do care enough about other people to realize that they are useful in the first place.
I know that some of you who read this blog have had dealings with malignant narcissists; you are probably reading this and thinking “yes, Trump is not a sociopath; he’s a narcissist.” What is that? It seems to me to be someone who is pathologically self-absorbed and selfish. They understand that other people have feelings (they aren’t psychopaths) and they understand that society has governing controls and expectations (they are not sociopaths) they’re just too busy looking out for #1 because they are pretty much the only person in the world who matters. I imagine that inside the mind of a narcissist, there are fairly few classifications for others: useful, friend, enemy, unknown. People can move quickly from useful to enemy, or unknown – even a family member can become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless meat the minute they transgress or don’t comply. My suspicion is that a narcissist like Trump has to be fairly stupid and unimaginative – the limit of his imagination was to create himself a world where he’s a super genius and he’s right about everything. Worrying about what can go wrong takes creativity and imagination. When someone with that is born with access to a lot of money (money being a portable form of power) they don’t need to develop any skills other than steamrollering over people, which is perhaps their one natural ability – because they don’t give a shit who they steamroller over.
I’m mostly thinking out loud, here. Perhaps you have also wondered, as I have, why Trump does not care that the media point out his lies. It’s because of exactly that: he does not care. They are wasting their time. He would have to care about the truth for any of that to matter, and he is his own truth – his only concern is expressing his truth to everyone else, so that they can bask in it, accept it, or be his enemy. There is no point in engaging with him at all, he’s a robot – if you can imagine a meat robot programmed with a particularly stupid and unimaginative version of Nietzsche’s Will To Power.
That probably also goes some way toward explaining why “conservatives” accept and understand Trump: he’s just a more refined less complicated version of them. They’re also utterly selfish, and largely stupid and unimaginative, or they are so dishonest that they adopt the pose of stupidity and selfishness because it’s convenient. Take a look at Rick Perry or Mitch McConnell: you really can’t tell if they’re stupid bastards, selfish bastards or lying bastards – but either way, you can be pretty sure they’re looking out for #1 and any morals or beliefs they profess are largely convenient self-justifying smoke screen. That’s why the media, and people with empathy, have trouble with them: they keep expecting them to behave consistently, or to show some kind of concern before they lie or screw someone – but they don’t. That’s because: they won’t. I’ve had deep discussions with “conservatives” and it doesn’t take long to realize that they’re not even engaged with their own ideas; they’re just making mouth-noises. I feel like I am surrounded by meat robots.
All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I think that engaging with Trump and his followers is going to be a futile exercise. They have been pushed (they maneuvered themselves, actually, but they feel that they’ve been “forced”) to operate in the land of pure power; they’re not going to bother pretending any more. A lot of that is because they are led by an unimaginative fool who is terrible at pretending, so it’s best to just stop. If I have a prediction it’s this: the mask has slipped and in the run up to the election it’s going to fall on the ground and completely shatter.
So, how I got here is because I was trying to think about the whole “election interference” thing rationally. I imagined:
The Democrat candidate waved to the cheering crowd, smiled broadly, and said, “Hey, China? If you’re listening – and I know you are – if you drop Trump’s tax returns to wikileaks, I’ll lift all the trade tariffs as soon as I’m in office. Because, apparently, that’s how the game is played these days.” The crowd laughed and cheered loudly.
I was thinking that talking heads like Tucker Carlson on Fox would freak out at that, but I don’t think they would. They’d just see it as another irrelevant thing to complain about. They don’t actually care about any of this stuff, except:
- Our guy is in power
- Keep our guy in power
We seem to be concerned with figuring out the point at which our government is no longer functioning. I hate to say this, but that was passed shortly after the revolution (ask any black person or indigenous person!) – but if the question is: “at what point do we transition from a pseudo-democratic oligarchy into a dictatorship?” the answer is this: when the arm of the law is used to proscribe the opposition. We’re close to that, but it’s something the US has flirted with and backed away from several times before. Après ça, c’est la déluge.
The only strategic advantage decent people have against power-mad meat robots is that they are creative and imaginative. We can envision a better world, and communicate about it and how it is an alternative to what the establishment has in store for them. That is why I find it so dreadful that the Democrats’ vision appears to end with “Biden is good enough.”
It’s functioning exactly as intended.
Andrew Molitor says
It has occurred to me in the past, and I have maybe mentioned it here before, that the single major saving grace of the USA is that the military seems to be profoundly unwilling to line up behind any particular politician. Their loyalties may be fucked up and misaligned in a bunch of ways, but they don’t seem to be the sort of operation that will back from Presidential play to become President For Life.
Without the military, the play does not work. Game. Set. Match.
So you wind up with a rotating cast of various tin-pots with varying ideas, which is rather better than a singleminded long-term kleptocrat.
If we take the military / military budget to be a means to spend vast amounts of money and line a few pockets, that would be the best way to go about. it. It’s easy to excuse shifitng priorities and the wasted money that comes with it if the decision-makers are swapped out so quickly that no project can ever finish before someone else comes along and says, “We’re not doing that” or, “It’s a good start but I’d like to tweak a few things, so we’ll have to start over.’
Actually you can see this happening with other big-budget items too, probably most notably with NASA. One moment they’re building moonrockets Mark II, then asteroid missions are the big priorty, then it’s universal cuts before it’s back to the moon – again, but maybe differenty – or something else entirely. Though things are never quite cancelled, the huge budgets needed to realise anything in a timely fahion vanish and everything slows down while continuing to eat money. Or bleeding it all over contractors.
As for the lying in general: Trump’s indifference to his lies being called out (excepting the tantrums, which amount to nothing much in the grand scheme of things) has been obvious and is probably the only thing from him or his administration that can be taken at face value.
And it’ll only get worse. Just wait until the (campaign) promise of not starting another war turns into another lie. Once the election is done I think it’s pretty much inevitable Trump’ll go back on his word. And his beloved fans, who are cheering for him for not starting any wars will cheer just the same. It’s not like Trump would be affected: He won’t have to run in another election. He won’t have to risk anything personally. He will get to feel like the big man who pointed the US military at some country or other, clobbered it with overwhelming force and then left another multi-decade insurgency brewing that’ll make his successors look bad. That should pretty much tick all the columns needed to get Trump’s approval.
I think our president is intellectually stunted. He’s spent his entire adult life surrounded by cloying sycophants, catering to his wishes and doing his “work” for him.
Up until recently, he’s never had someone tell him he’s wrong, or say “no” to him, or tell him that’s not how things work.
Whereas a lot of us tend to learn from our mistakes, from his point of view, he’s never made any.
I’ve had close dealings with narcissists all my life. From my experience, they create their inner realities, believe their lies, make their own rules, and, if challenged, they go straight to biting with no warning growl. They are emotionally stunted and are incapable of empathy or love. They believe that they are more important than you and live accordingly. Even mild criticism will set them off. Their friends are useful until they’re not and then they stop being friends. Image is always more important than substance. They are empty inside and require the energy and emotions of others to fill themselves. This need is constant and drains the people around them. They have a particular taste for schadenfreude, and negative emotions are just as good as positive ones. They like to be in charge, and I think that the vast number of ordinary people allow this because we don’t understand these things about them until we’re too old and it’s too late. Also, the world is full of stupid people who are easily led and don’t know how to think clearly.
Or maybe I’m just having an especially cynical day.
I’m not sure which philosopher of ethics it was – maybe John Rawls? – that noted that in that situation some people would still gamble on not being in the worst and most vulnerable, miserable position in that society and that the “veil of ignorance” should be rejected in favour of
what ifassume you / I was in the position of the very worst off in hypothetical X society; would I still be happy with / accept it as reasonable / good?
Have you read Anrew Spitznas article on the clinical diagnosis of Trump :
By someone who is apparently pretty well qualified to make that diagnosis?
FWIW, I think both terms – sociopath and narcissist – apply.