Monday, July 10, 2017

Compassion For Conservatives

On Friday we published an article detailing what we know so far about Russian interference in the 2016 elections (if you haven't read the article yet -- obviously a glaring omission on your part -- it can be found here). We made every effort to avoid editorializing. We cited multiple sources from both left and right, as well as citing the original source document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. We confined ourselves to answering the following questions to the best of our ability: who, what, where, when, and how. We made no attempt at answering the "why" of anything; the only exceptions were when we quoted an assessment as to motive from another. Our hope was that by being rigidly neutral and objective, there might be a small chance that Republicans coming across the article might actually accept the validity of the idea that Russia interfered with the election.

Holy crap, were we ever dumb. The article was published around 5:30 PM on Friday afternoon. Within an hour we got comments making the following points:

  • We were wrong because we were claiming that the Russians made John Podesta choose "password" as his email password.
  • The Russians forced three million more people to vote for Hillary, and that's just a nonsense idea, so therefore everything we put out there was false.
  • The article was full of lies because the FBI never directly accessed the DNC server.
  • CrowdStrike -- the cyber security firm that was hired by the DNC to conduct a security investigation into their servers -- was run by a guy who was so pro-Ukraine that this made it impossible for the company to be objective, and they paid off the two competing firms that corroborated the evidence.
  • The Russians forced Hillary Clinton to use Lena Dunham as her social media manager.
  • What about the uranium deal? Huh? Huh? What about that?
  • You want to talk corruption, howzabout the Clinton Foundation?

... and there were plenty more where those came from.

The thing that was interesting about all this was the common thread that was running throughout the comments: demands that we show proof. Forget for the moment that we had cited six major, reputable media outlets (two of which -- the Hill and the National Review -- are know to the be friendlier to Republican viewpoints while still maintaining objectivity), four intelligence agencies, three cyber security firms, the Director of National Intelligence -- in short, pretty much the entire leadership team of the You Betcher Ass We Know What We're Talking About Club. Forget that the article was simply a recounting of what had happened to date, with no inferences made or conclusions drawn. Ignore for now that we made it as easy as possible for anyone reading the article to go look at the source material to independently verify our data.

None of this was good enough. According to one poster we had made all that stuff up -- including the original report released by the DNI -- and unless we could point to hard evidence ...

This got us to thinking about the psychology of this sort of behavior, and after doing a little bit of digging, we reached the conclusion that while it is pretty much a universal condition, trumpsters seem to be much more susceptible to this sort of thing by virtue of a rigidity of thought.

It is a universal maxim that people do not like to be wrong. Republican or Democrat, white or black, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, well-adjusted or Yankee fan ... people will go to incredible lengths to protect their sense of correctness. Not in the sense of political correctness, but in the sense of "I am stating this thing to be true, and woe be unto him who states otherwise." We will see this on the left occasionally -- for example, the way liberals tried to pass off any mistakes made by Presidents Clinton or Obama as not really mistakes but the result of Republican shenanigans (in a not-insignificant percentage of cases, however, they were correct in this assessment) -- but instances of this behavior are higher on the right, and almost universal among trump supporters.

So why do we see this behavior? A few reasons:

They are members of the majority in all three branches of government, giving them a much higher profile and exposing their statements to more criticism.

This is sort of a variation on the "infinite-monkeys-producing-Hamlet" concept1. trump supporters are viewed as more intransigent simply because more of their statements make it into the public arena. While the percentage of trump supporters who exhibit this behavior may not be vastly different than the population as a whole (to be fair, we could find no evidence either way), the absolute number are larger simply by virtue of a higher public profile.

This does not excuse the dumbassery, though. Take the inauguration. Photographs taken from the top of the Washington Monument show a drastically fewer number of people present for trump's inauguration than Obama's, yet trumpsters routinely denied this by saying things like:
  • Because the pictures were taken at different times of day, they are not a true depiction of the enormity of the trump-loving throngs. The photos, while eight years apart, were actually separated by about ten minutes in terms of times of day, and dagnabit that ten minutes makes all the difference. I mean, sure, it's physically impossible to move 400,000 people into the limited space of the National Mall in ten minutes without having them all lined up at the fences beforehand, but why let that stop you from making the argument?.
  • The National Mall had white sheeting on the grass for trump's inauguration, which showed the gaps in the crowds much more clearly than the dun-colored ground would. This is true in that the sheeting, used for the first time in 2016, did show gaps more clearly. However, this theory is yet to be tested, due to the almost complete lack of gaps in Obama's inauguration crowds in both 2008 and 2012.
  • Pictures taken from the area of the podium do not show the gaps, therefore the photos from the Monument were faked. This is just utterly absurd, as foreshortening creates the impression of much bigger crowds than were actually there. This is a common trick used by anyone who wants to give the impression that the crowds are bigger than they actually are: put the cameras at ground level and let perspective handle the rest.
Even after the idea that trump's inauguration crowds numbered in the millions has been discredited by virtually every sentient being on the planet (with the exception of trump himself, but one could argue that he is not, technically, a sentient being), there are still those who believe that the stories of his small insuguration crowds are lies from fake news outlets, and that KellyAnne Conway's "alternative facts" (aka bullshit) are the truer representations of reality.

Far-right conservatism, as it is practiced today, is less concerned with compromise and more about ideological purity.

One of the foremost tenets of this belief is that the admission of error is anathema. The entire construct revolves around the rickety scaffolding built on the inherent wrongness of others, and the willingness to be absolutely merciless when legitimate errors are made by your opponents. For example, the New York Times had originally reported that all seventeen American intelligence agenies agreed that Russia interfered with the election. Not long ago they issued a correction, saying that in fact it had only been the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security, and that it wasn't until the report from the Director of National Intelligence was declassified that this became clear. A legitimate error, a legitimate correction, and the trump crowd jumped on this as proof positive that everything rhe New York Times had ever published in its entire history, including yesterday's baseball scores, was pure bunk.

This is also evidenced by Republican reactions to lack of presidential experience2. In 2008, Barack Obama, who had been serving in the United States Senate for four years by this point, was loudly and publicly shamed by the GOP as being "inexperienced," "an amateur,"and "naive." Yet trump, with absolutely zero governmental experience and a sketchy (at best) business background, was given a pass because, as Paul Ryan said, "he's new at this." Of course, the GOP couldn't care less about experience; their focus is on "which guy is going to sign our stuff into law?" Barack Obama was not very sympathetic to Republican proposals. trump is viewed as a rubber stamp of sorts. Kinda like Mel Brooks' governor in "Blazing Saddles" who spent his time ogling his secretary while Hedy (that's Hedley) -- Lamar used the governor's hand to sign a bill into law.

Yeah. This.

Given that trump has virtually no clue what the hell he's doing, this makes him the perfect foil for the GOP in that he will sign pretty much anything that's put in front of him. An executive order banning Muslim immigration? Sure thing. A health care bill that is about neither health nor care, but instead of about giving an $800 million gift to the richest 400 familes in the country? You betcha. A proclamation that any woman entering the U. S. Capitol is not allowed to wear a sleeveless dress? No problem. Designating the Grand Canyon as a uranium mining site? Absolutely.

Some would argue this doesn't make trump corrupt or hypocritical, it makes him a moron. We submit that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Believe it or not, simple pride and fear of ridicule.

This is not unique to conservatives. Virtually every human being on the planet, when faced with the prospect of being called out as mistaken on any given issue, will have an initial urge to defend their position, no matter how absurd it may be. The difference between left and right in this area ies in the inherent flexibility of thought (or lack thereof) in these positions. Conservatives tend to identify as very religious, even fundamentalist, in their beliefs, and this belief system places a high value of obedience to dogma and less of a priority is given to independent thought. Some argue that this means liberals are less certain in their convictions. This may be true, it may not, but the idea that liberals are more willing to hear disagreeing viewpoints is not a new one.

Ya gotta give conservatives a break on this, though. For many, there is a large personal investment in backing trump. Many of them were very public with their views, and some have openly mocked liberals for backing either Bernie of Hillary. Asking them to perform a complete 180 on their views is unrealistic. The best one can hope for is an incremental shift in outlook that leads them to come around on their own, gradually, and on their own terms.

So what can we do about this?

Well, the one thing that definitely will not work is to constantly berate conservatives for their views, or to try to get them to see "the error of their ways." And for many of them, there will be no change in their outlook regardless of any facts that come to light. During the campaign, trump famously said that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and start shooting people, and he wouldn't lose any votes. And he wasn't wrong. The reason for this is that his supporters identify themselves as a tribe, just as people identify as football fans, or Catholics, or vegetarians, or gun owners. It is a natural human desire to belong to a group, to be a part of something bigger, and trump filled that bill for millions. He hit the right populist notes to make these people feel wanted and included, people who had been marginalized by a government that is increasingly about big donors and large corporations, and even though his supporters openly acknowledge his tendency to only have a nodding acquaintance with the truth -- "Take him seriously, not literally" -- they lined up en masse to say "yep. He's our guy." And they will not back off that position easily or without fighting it.

About the only thing we can do is to be patient, and wait for trump to screw up so big that they have no choice but to re-evaluate their position. That day will come, sooner, rather than later, and when it does it is vitally important that we acknowledge how difficult it was for them to come around without being patronizing or condescending.

During the 2016 Democratic convention, Michelle Obama said "when they go low, we go high." Many are now mocking this notion and indicating that perhaps liberals should get down in the mud with conservatives and really mix it up. We instead urge people to stay on the high road and gently coax our conservative brethren to join us. Not that we are saying they have to become liberal, far from it -- a diverse mix of opinions is what makes us great, after all -- but by demonstrating the failures of absolutism quietly we give them the avenue by which they can emerge from the trumpian shadows and into the light of rational beings while simultaneously saving face.

I gotta lie down.

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1For those who are unfamiliar with the analogy, the infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In reality the chances of this happening are infinitesimal, but the Wikipedia article we read on the subject contains the phrase "atomic monkeys," which is just too awesome to not pass on. In this case it is used to illustrate the idea that, given enough trump supporters, one of them will turn out to be a reality-denying schmuck.

2Not for nothing, but everybody that is elected to the Presidency is new at the gig unless they have been thrust into the role via unforseen circumstances, such as death or incapacity of the President.

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