The Trump lover: How a dangerous political emotion undermines democracy

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Why do Republicans stick with Donald Trump?

The rational thing would be for Republicans to find another champion of their ideas who is not tainted by overwhelming character flaws and indictments. Perhaps the Party leaders are making a rational calculation about the need to appease the Trumpian base. But that calculus is inextricably linked to the strange devotion of the Trump lovers. And Trump love, like other political love affairs, is a danger to democracy.

Love is a dangerous political emotion. Love is not subject to rational calculation. Rather, it is about identity, devotion, and faith. There were Obama lovers, and Clinton lovers. But today it is Trump love that is the problem. Trump love exposes a quasi-religious aspect of political life, related to hero worship and idolatry. Human beings love heroes who personify our values. This often involves wishful thinking, as we project our desires onto our beloved. This process of projection can become a kind of idolatry, as the beloved hero becomes a symbol of identity, value, hope, and dreams. And it does not matter whether the hero actually loves us or embodies our values. Rather, we see what we want to see, reflected in our image of the beloved idol.

This is a dangerous process in democracies, as it runs counter the idea that voters should be focused on policies and ideas. It also makes compromise, negotiation, and rational deliberation difficult. When people base their political allegiances on love and identity, electoral loses are harder to stomach, and the opposition looks like an enemy.

Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate

Idolatry is a common occurrence in religion, and in politics. Sometimes this is a benign kind of hero worship. But the Western religious tradition is full of warnings against worshiping false gods. The tendency toward the love of idols is related to a theory of religion that is associated with Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach suggested that we see in God our own image, a projection of our love for ourselves.

And therein lies the danger: self-love is a powerful and destructive force. Idol worship is often emotional and irrational. This can become dogmatic, as true believers go to great lengths to prop up their cherished idols. We all do this from time to time. Abused wives stick with their abusive husbands. Faithful fans worship celebrities, even when those pop icons prove to be jerks.

We get defensive about those we love. When others attack our idols exposing their flaws, we may turn against the truth-tellers and call it fake news. Idolatry becomes dangerous when those who attack our idols are viewed as enemies of everything we hold dear.

The danger of love is well-known in Greek tragedy. Euripides’ Medea comes to mind, which is a play about love, jealousy, and violent revenge. At one point the chorus says, “Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate.” And Medea’s revenge is gruesome, for as she explains, “hate is a bottomless cup.”

Sycophancy as prelude to idolatry

The Trump story is also about calculating sycophancy. One of the interesting characters in this drama is Senator Lindsey Graham, whose role in the drama is that of a sycophant. Back in 2015, Senator Graham called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” But Graham later became one of Trump’s faithful sycophants. And even though Graham suggested he was done with Trump after the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Graham has more recently sucked back up to Trump.

As Trump was indicted in New York last week, Graham said in a TV interview: “This is going to destroy America. We’re going to fight back at the ballot box. We’re not going to give in.” Senator Graham moves from the man to the collective here, saying “we” are going to fight and refuse to give in. And here he appeals to the Trump lovers who seem to think that Trump is the party and that attacks on Trump are attacks on them.

Senator Graham’s sycophancy is clever and strategic. He sucks up and ingratiates himself, hoping to obtain a little power and glory for himself. But Graham’s flip-flops on Trump show some part of him knows better. As I explained in much more detail in my book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump, sycophants are blameworthy because they know they are selling out.

Sycophancy is a common human failure. There are brown-nosers in the Democratic party, in our businesses, and in our families. Power is alluring. And it is easy to be seduced into holding your nose, and sucking up.

The ‘indisputable champion’ of the true believers

But the suck-up is not a true lover. Sycophancy remains a step away from idolatry. Senator Graham does not appear to be one of the true Trump lovers. But there are those who are.

Consider The Young Republican Club of New York, who offered a statement following Trump’s indictment that made the love of Trump very clear. They said, “President Trump embodies the American people—our psyche from id to super-ego—as does no other figure; his soul is totally bonded with our core values and emotions, and he is our total and indisputable champion.”

Referring to Trump’s indictment these Young Republicans said “Let anyone who celebrates this downfall of our republic be forever branded a traitor to our nation. No one who mocks the people’s will can claim the title of an American.” And: “President Trump assured us that he was our retribution. Now we must return the rejoinder: our victory will be the joint vindication that our great President Donald J. Trump and our American people both deserve. This is Total War.”

This is not the sycophantic flattery of those who need to hold their noses. Rather, the Trump lovers think the smell of their champion is pure and true. They blame the taint on the enemies of their beloved. This can quickly become dangerous: as a “total war” against the “traitors to our nation.” Love transforms the idol who is worshipped into a focal point of identity, who must be defended against all enemies. And with Medea in mind, one wonders about the ferocity of the lover’s desire for retribution.

Democracy without enemies

Greek tragedies usually end badly. But there are lessons to be learned. The key is enlightenment, including wisdom about love and its misbegotten role in political life. Democratic deliberation should be about policies and ideas. It should include compromise and negotiation. But love makes this difficult, if not impossible.

Mistaken love can sometimes be cured by turning on the light. As the facts emerge, rational beings can be persuaded by the truth. But love, faith, and idolatry are often recalcitrant. When dogmatists are pushed, they harden the armor of their belief, constructing ad hoc hypotheses to prop up their idol. One of these props is the claim that those who attack their beloved are evil enemies.

There may be no way to persuade the most dogmatic of the Trump lovers that Trump love is a danger to democracy. But one strategy is to re-affirm the idea that democratic deliberation is not a battle of idols, who require love and devotion. We should also assure the true believers that an attack on their idol is not an attack on them. The Trump lovers are not evil enemies. They are fellow human beings, struggling to make sense of a world that includes love, hate, and delusion.

The crisis of hopelessness and the hope mindset

Fresno Bee, April 2, 2023

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. April is a month of hope. So let’s think carefully about this crisis of hopelessness.

Hope is essential for human agency. Creative, energetic people live in a space of imagination oriented toward future goods. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel linked hope to his idea of “man, the voyager.” Life is an adventure, driven by hope. Marcel says that hope is for the soul what breathing is for the body.

Hope sees life from a larger perspective that extends beyond the present. Hope is supported by communities that remind us of this larger sense of self. One practical solution is to look up and look around. The cramped and narrow world of small screens and instant gratification is destructive of hope. We are part of a larger process. We can each contribute in our own way to the development of that larger story.

It helps to know that hopefulness can be cultivated. Hopefulness is not merely an emotional state, beyond our control. Hopefulness is, rather, a virtue that controls our emotions. And we can learn to be hopeful.

It is possible to develop a “hopeful mindset” that is similar to “the growth mindset” popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck. Human beings are not born with fixed personalities, virtues and habits. Rather, we develop over time. And believing you can grow helps you grow.

A hopeful orientation motivates you to get actively involved in the adventure of life. The American philosopher William James gave practical advice in his short book, “Is Life Worth Living?” He said, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

James illustrated this idea with a story. Imagine that you are climbing a mountain and must jump across a chasm. If you believe you can make the leap, you’ll be more likely to succeed. The hopeless person will give a half-hearted and timid effort, and “roll into the abyss.” The hopeful person will leap with all their being. There are no guarantees, of course. But without hope, you are more likely to fail.

In response, some religious folks will object that something is missing if we only talk about human power and creative energy. Without hope as a “theological virtue,” religious people worry that hope will be weak, fickle, and selfish. Others will object to the idea that we can “bootstrap” our way into hopefulness. The critics of bootstrapping claim that hope is insufficient in the face of a world that involves oppression, violence, and other social ills.

These kinds of criticism link hope to a religious revival or to a political revolution. But if you expect a revival or a revolution, you will likely be disappointed. The pragmatic idea is more modest. We evolve incrementally. Revolutions and revivals are rare and unpredictable. But human beings are always growing at the edges. Seeing life as a process of growth, as a journey and adventure, can help support the growth of hopefulness.

A key part of this process is to train your “hope muscle.” A hope journal can clarify what you hope for, and what you have achieved. It also helps to see role models of hopefulness. The journey of hope starts small. But over time hope grows. The example of the mountain climber comes to mind again. It is unrealistic to hope that you can leap over Mount Everest tomorrow. But you can make smaller gains and test your bootstraps until you really learn how to fly.

Another practical suggestion is to develop other virtues associated with hope. These virtues include courage, persistence and resourcefulness. We might also add gratitude and compassion. Hopefulness grows from tenacious and courageous activity. It also emerges from a sense of self that is enlarged by love.

We are not born knowing how to hope. We learn to be hopeful with support and education. We can help the hopeless by reminding them that hopelessness is not a fixed anchor. We can develop hope. And we can orient ourselves toward a future that is, in part, our own creation.

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Do we need the opiate of religion?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

These are hopeless times. A widely-cited study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Rates of sadness and hopelessness have increased steadily since 2011 when only 28% of high schoolers reported the same.

A variety of explanations have been offered for this alarming problem. Some argue for a return to traditional religion. But could it be that hopelessness is an appropriate response to a world afflicted by violence, sexism, racism, and injustice? And rather than prescribing the opiate of religion, might the solution be to reform systems built on alienation, exploitation, and hypocrisy?

The causes of alienation

Young people are not unwise to see the world as hopeless. The adults have messed things up. Rather than pretending things are all right, young people see looming threats. Political polarization, racial tension, gun violence, and rising authoritarianism fill the headlines. And climate change has added “climate anxiety” and “eco-grief” to the list of modern maladies.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also suggested that social media plays a role in the growth of depression and anxiety among adolescents. Twitter and TikTok seem to exploit anxiety (for example in “the fear of missing out”). Social media also makes it possible to disseminate fake news and unrealistic expectations about friendship, body image, and happiness. And of course, unscrupulous actors take advantage and profit from this new frontier in exploitation and alienation.

As all of this is going on, some worry that the decline of traditional religion is part of the problem. One recent study by economists Giles, Hungerman, and Oostrom suggests a link between hopelessness and the well-documented decline in religious affiliation. Under the provocative title “Opiates of the Masses?”, the study argues that an increase in “deaths of despair” (caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides) is correlated with the decline of religiosity in the United States.

The argument against atheism

It’s a correlation worth considering. Defenders of traditional religion often suggest that loss of religion is the primary cause of modern hopelessness.

Consider this passage from evangelical preacher Ravi Zacharias:

Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave. Significantly, the absence of future hope has an amazing capacity to reach into the present and eat away at the structure of life… There is a complete sense of alienation in in the world one hundred years after Nietzsche. It is this utterly morbid and hopeless philosophy that has sent many of our youth into a search for other realities. Those who do not have hope, in an effort to drown their despair, turn to drugs and alcohol.

Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism

I quote this at length because there is tremendous irony in Zacharias’ work. Zacharias, who died in 2020, has been accused of sexual crimes and using funds donated to his ministry to cover up his sexual misdeeds. But at his funeral, then Vice-President Mike Pence called him one of the greats of Christian apologetics.

Others have claimed that atheism causes hopelessness. In a book that quotes Zacharias at length, Anthony DeStefano put the worry this way: “Human beings simply cannot survive without hope, and atheism is the philosophy of hopelessness.” Another Christian author, Steven Cook, says: “The biblical worldview offers value, purpose, and hope. The atheistic worldview—when followed to its logical conclusion—leads to a meaningless and purposeless life that eventuates in despair.”

But is our present sense of hopelessness really about the lack of faith in eternal life? Or does it come from a more mundane sense that the adults on earth have screwed things up?

The opiate of the people?

Now let’s return to the Giles study and its provocative title, “Opiates of the Masses?” The study notes that “nonreligious organizations often fail to successfully duplicate the sense of community, social services, and cohesion provided by participation in a religious tradition.” There is some truth here. Human beings need a sense of community. But again, the problem is not about hope for eternal life. Rather, it is about the human need for genuine connection, friendship, and belonging. And much of this is lacking in the world of TikTok, Trumpian polarization, and Zacharian hypocrisy. 

This study also suggests that alcoholism and other syndromes have increased as religiously based “blue laws” have been repealed. For example, alcohol is more freely available. And the 24/7 economy no longer includes a mandatory rest day on the Sabbath.

But is the decline of religion to blame for increasing alcoholism, anxiety, and stress? The problem is, rather, that unrestrained capitalism is fraying our nerves, while selling us booze, gambling, pornography, and prescription drugs as placebos. The eradication of blue laws is not about the loss of hope for eternity. It is, rather, about opening the door for exploitation by the addiction-industrial complex. And while religious communities can provide a source of comfort and hope, religious communities also involve exploitation and hypocrisy.

The provocative title of the Giles study is unexplained by the authors. But the phrase “opium of the people” comes from Karl Marx. Marx suggested that the oppressed masses turn to religion as a kind of anesthetizing illusion. In explaining the idea, Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

On this view, religion covers up social problems and defuses the revolutionary spirit of people who feel alienated and exploited. This alienation occurs under soulless capitalism. It happens when decent people watch political and corporate elites fiddle as Rome burns. It also occurs when hypocritical religious leaders exploit the faithful for their own corrupt and selfish purposes.

Beyond the opiate of the masses

If the pale hope provided by religion fades away without fixing the underlying human problem of alienation, despair may in fact result. If we are forced to confront the alienating world in which we live without the solace of religion, hopelessness is not unreasonable. This does not mean, however, that religion is the solution.

Beyond using opiates to mask our pain, we need to solve the underlying disease. The problem is exploitation and alienation. The preachers of hope prey upon their flocks. And corporations cash in on human anxiety. To fix that, we need to critique the alienation, corruption, and injustice that are the source of so much human grief. Solutions for hopelessness include a more humane economy, a reform of the political system, and a critique of religious exploitation. But those are human solutions to human problems that do not require a return to the opiate of the masses.

Crimes, Misdemeanors, and Legitimacy Crises

Fresno Bee, March 25, 2023

Trump and Putin cases put justice systems under stress tests

The law is a human creation. It works best when we all believe it is fair. But the legal system is a limited and imperfect tool for achieving justice. This past week, stories involving Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump remind us that “the rule of law” is limited by political power. In both cases, we’ve heard the phrase “no one is above the law.” But that is an aspiration, not a fact.

Consider the indictment of Russian president Vladimir Putin for war crimes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague claims that Putin is responsible for the crime of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. Putin is likely responsible for a variety of other war crimes. The United Nations has accused Russian forces of war crimes including killing noncombatants, rape, and torture. The U.S. has made similar accusations.

But the ICC cannot go to Russia and arrest Putin, bring him to The Hague, and put him on trial. The jurisdiction of the ICC is not recognized by Russia. Nor is it recognized by the United States, China, or Ukraine. The court is basically powerless to bring to justice any war criminal from those countries. This shows us how far away we are from a global system of criminal justice that would promote world peace.

As the Ukrainian tragedy unfolds, a comedy plays out in the U.S. starring Donald Trump. Trump warned he would be indicted in New York this last Tuesday for paying porn star Stormy Daniels to stop claiming she had an affair with him. The GOP candidate for president called for his supporters to protest and “take our nation back.” In his all-caps rants on Truth Social, Trump claims that the justice system is run by “animals and thugs” and “racists” who let “murderers, rapists, and drug dealers walk free” and who are “purposefully destroying our country.”

In response, barricades were set up around the Manhattan courthouse, the D.A.’s office, and around Trump Tower. And then, nothing happened on Tuesday. Perhaps the D.A. flinched. But the fact remains that Trump’s strategy is to discredit the entire legal apparatus.

And yet, there is the risk of this American comedy devolving into tragedy, if Trump is indicted. What if Trump refuses to appear in the Manhattan court — a court whose legitimacy he rejects? What if his supporters surrounded Mar-a-Lago trying to prevent him from being arrested and extradited? And what if Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, joined Trump at Mar-a-Lago? McCarthy has also accused the Manhattan district attorney of “an outrageous abuse of power” in the porn-star case. What then would Florida governor Ron DeSantis do? Would he refuse to extradite Trump?

These what-ifs may seem unlikely. But after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, these things are not unimaginable. And it’s not only Jan. 6 that exposes the fragility of our system. Many Americans seem to agree with Trump’s basic complaint that the American justice system is unjust.

On the left, critics complain about police brutality, racial profiling, racial disparities in sentencing, and white supremacy in the criminal justice system. On the right, critics complain of a “weaponized” FBI, maintaining that the U.S. Department of Justice has tyrannized the “patriots” of Jan. 6. Trump has also claimed that the Manhattan D.A. — who is Black — is racist against him, while suggesting that the Federal DOJ is a “Department of Injustice.”

Our domestic distrust and polarization runs parallel to the problem with Putin and the ICC. Russia and the U.S. refuse to recognize the ICC. And in the U.S., leftists and Trumpians each question the legitimacy of the American system. But systems of justice do not work if there is no agreement about the impartiality and jurisdiction of the courts.

This crisis of legitimacy is dispiriting if we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” Of course, the law has never been perfect. The legal system is a human creation, built out of crooked timber. It depends on the good will of legislators, judges, lawyers, cops and citizens.

History reminds us that when good will is lacking, these systems fail and collapse. These are cynical times. But it’s still up to “we, the people” to fix what is broken and imagine how we might create fairer, and more universal systems of justice.

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Deep fakes, AI, and the need for ethical supervision

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2023

In the era of deep-fake videos, tech companies must not dismantle their ethics teams

Someone forwarded me a story about Microsoft laying off its ethics team. My first thought was “fake news.” It’s surprising to learn that Microsoft even had an ethics department. It’s even stranger to hear that the group has been disbanded at a time when technological innovation is getting wild.

These are the days of deep-fake videos, internet trolls, and artificial intelligence (AI). And so, in chasing down this story, I used my best internet skills. I checked multiple sources. I refused to believe websites I had never heard of. Eventually I found a report on Popular Science. A reporter there named Andrew Paul explained, “This month saw the surprise dissolution of Microsoft’s entire Ethics & Society team — the latest casualty in the company’s ongoing layoffs affecting 10,000 employees.”

The article explains that the Ethics and Society team once had 30 members. It was reduced to seven people in 2022. And now it is gone. The article notes that Microsoft still has a department of “Responsible AI.” That led me to search Microsoft’s website for the Responsible AI department. There I discovered a number of documents and reports based on the following six principles: fairness, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, transparency, and accountability. It’s reassuring to see that Microsoft has this guidance in place. But one wonders how humans are administering this, as personnel are being cut.

Anyway, I recount how I tracked down this story as an example of online critical literacy. You need to actively search for information, rather than letting it flow into your feed. You should check multiple sources, rather than relying on the first click. Double check URLs to make sure they’re not phony. Seek legitimate sources in mainstream or legacy media. Corporate documents, policy statements, and legal filings are also useful. And legitimate sources of information typically include an author’s name.

Of course, it requires effort and experience to sort things out. It helps to understand that the internet, in all of its tainted glory, is as much about making dollars as it is about making sense. Websites want clicks. They entice with spicy stories and sexy pictures. Algorithms force-feed us stories and images. Search engines profit when we click.

There is money and mayhem to be made online. So, you should enter that space with a suspicious mind. Don’t take anything at face value.

This is especially true as AI and deep fakes become better. I discussed the challenge of AI in a previous column. Here, let’s consider deep fakes.

Two recent deep-fake stories are worth considering. In one, students made a deep-fake video of a school principal uttering a racist rant that included threats of violence. In another, actress Emma Watson’s face was turned into a sexualized ad for an app that could be used to, you guessed it, make deep fakes.

In the first case, it is easy to see how deep fakes could be weaponized, as a fake video could be used to discredit an enemy. In the second case, the goal appears to be to allow for customized pornography, where any face could be “swapped” into a porn video. In the first case, yikes. In the second case, yuck.

One solution to this problem takes us back to the ethics teams at big tech corporations. Now is the time to build these teams up — not tear them down. These groups should be monitoring content and establishing norms and guidelines for the use of technology. Beyond that, we need a full-fledged movement for better education about media literacy, critical internet usage, and respectful community standards for the online world. And lawyers and legislators need to regulate and litigate.

Someone said recently that the internet broke our democracy. It is also possible to imagine how deep-fake technology can break people’s hearts. But this kind of damage can be prevented with ethical guidance, wise legislation, and human ingenuity.

I look forward to reading future stories about the expansion of ethics teams at tech companies. Maybe someday there will be college majors and high school classes in critical thinking and the internet. Of course, when I run across these stories, I’ll double and triple check them to make sure they are not fake news.

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