Issue #16: Nov 19-Nov 25, 2017

HOLIDAY EDITION

This is a holiday edition of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter—which is a euphemistic way of saying that the first third of the newsletter is missing. Since it’s Thanksgiving week, I wanted to give our hardworking MRN staff (including me!) Thursday and Friday off, and those are the days when The Week In Trump (the missing third) is usually assembled. But rest assured that the third of the newsletter—the background links—can be found below. And as for the second third—the part where I typically reflect on something or other: well, that starts right here.

This week I’m reflecting on an email we received in response to my recurring appeals for reader feedback. (Bring it on! feedback@mindfulresistance.net.) This particular email isn’t my favorite kind. It’s from someone explaining why he has unsubscribed from the newsletter. But since this is Thanksgiving, I’ll express gratitude for it and see the glass as half full: this is an opportunity to further explore what “mindful resistance” involves.

The email, from a reader named Lawrence, begins by quoting the book of Ecclesiastes: “there is a time to speak and a time to listen, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to fight and a time for peace.” The email ends by declaring that “responsible, mindful adults” will realize that now—with Donald Trump and his supporters causing so much harm to so many people—is a time to “refrain from embracing” and indeed is a time “to gather stones, to hate, and to fight.”

In between the beginning of the email and the end—and as a kind of bridge between them—is a certain amount of frustration, on Lawrence’s part, with what I wrote in this space last week. As usual, I favored trying to understand what motivates Trump supporters. Specifically, I embraced the thesis of a Politico Magazine piece by Michael Kruse: many Trump supporters are motivated by their belief that Trump is fighting the people they think need fighting, ranging from NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to coastal elites who view Middle Americans with disdain. Lawrence says that, in embracing the Kruse diagnosis, I’m “making up excuses” for Trump supporters.

My disagreement with this email involves some conflations that I consider false—cases where Lawrence seems to see two things as fitting together so naturally as to be almost inextricable, when in fact they can, and I think should, be separated.

1) Here’s the first conflation: He says this is a time “to hate, and to fight”. I maintain that it’s possible to fight without hating. It may be easier to fight when you hate; it may be hard to summon the energy to fight when you don’t hate. But I submit that it’s often harder to fight skillfully when you hate—especially when, as with the fight against Trumpism, it’s not a physical fight.

2) Here’s the second conflation: Lawrence seems to think that to explain why Trump supporters support Trump is to make “excuses” for them. This is a common view, and it’s grounded in a deep and probably natural human intuition: that to explain bad behavior—to find its “root causes”—is to absolve people of responsibility for the behavior. (“To know all is to forgive all,” as the old saying goes.) It seems to me we shouldn’t let this intuition go unexamined—and that, whatever its merits, we can’t let it stifle discourse. If every attempt to explain behavior we consider bad is stopped dead in its tracks by the “making excuses” charge, then, obviously, we’ll have trouble understanding the causes of such behavior.

These two conflations are related. Because the intuition that explanation equals absolution is so widely held and so deeply felt, explaining why people do bad things can make it harder to hate them. Which is all the more reason to learn to fight without hating. Because, after all, we have to fight bad behavior, and its consequences, even after we understand its roots.

Lawrence’s email had one feature that I found odd. Though he rejects the Kruse diagnosis, he has his own diagnosis; he says the “primary motivations” of Trump supporters are “right-wing media-fueled fear and greed.” And (here’s the odd part) he seems to think that this explanation for the behavior of Trump supporters doesn’t amount to “making excuses” for them—even though he says that both the fear and the greed are stoked by manipulative right-wing media (which would seem to make the Trump supporters unwitting victims), and even though many people think of fear as being one of the more excusable motivations for doing bad things.

Well, in any event, I want to emphasize that Lawrence’s diagnosis isn’t necessarily an alternative to the Kruse diagnosis. It’s possible that Trump supporters are bonded to Trump by a sense of shared enmity and that they’re motivated by fear or greed or any number of other things. In fact, I agree with Lawrence that fear is a big part of the equation—that right-wing media systematically exacerbate certain fears and that Trump systematically exploits those fears. Indeed, Trump is good at exploiting dangerous parts of human nature in general, including xenophobia and bigotry. This is what’s so scary about him: He combines an insatiable quest for status, wealth, and power with a willingness to pursue that quest by appealing to the worst parts of human nature, a willingness that seems unconstrained by moral consideration.

He’s not the first politician to fit this description, even if very few have fit it so robustly. And he won’t be the last. Which is why the cause of mindful resistance will have to outlive Trump. There will always be unscrupulous people appealing to the worst parts of human nature, and they’ll always be dangerous. And mindful resistance will always involve fighting those people without, in the process, succumbing to those parts of human nature. It will involve fighting fear and hate without being paralyzed by fear or blinded by hate. Mindful resistance is resistance against the worst parts of human nature, and it resists them doubly—in others and in ourselves.

All this said, one theme of Lawrence’s email—that mindful resistance ultimately needs to be pro-active—is a point well taken. This is a theme we’ll take up in future newsletters. Meanwhile: Happy Thanksgiving Weekend.
Robert Wright

[And, for the record, here is Lawrence’s email in its entirety:

I just unsubscribed from the newsletter and I want to let you know why.

I don’t know that there is ever a time not to be mindful. But as the passage in Ecclesiastes would have it, there is a time to speak and a time to listen, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to fight and a time for peace. Children can’t discern between such times. They don’t have experiences which would enable them to draw such distinctions, they can’t see down the road because they can’t often anticipate the likely outcome of their actions. Adults though… while our predictions about where things might be headed are only sometimes (occasionally? rarely?) correct, we have no choice but to pull from our experience in order to try to see where our current course might lead. Sometimes things look okay up ahead and so, on we go. Other times slow, small course corrections are necessary. And at still other times, sharp, fast action is needed to avert disaster.

If we’ve learned anything in the last fifty years about how Republicans fight, we know that they are not afraid to fashion narratives which manipulate the basest human emotions in pursuit of power and riches. These emotions, fear and greed specifically, are among the most potent forces we know. To counter them, an even more powerful approach is required. Mindfulness, love, generosity, etc. are more powerful and so must be a part of any such approach. A part. The long-term part. At the moment, it might feel as though the long-term part is the best we can do, but the problem of course is that in the meantime, real people, real animals, real places are being severely harmed, and so a concurrent, short-term approach is required. To use the tragically handy analogy of a mass shooting, our first goal must be to stop the shooter. Only then can we afford to examine how and why the shooter was able to gain access to his weapons and his firing position.

One might argue though, that the way to stop shooter Trump is through the ballot box, so we do have to understand now how and why Trump was able to gain access to the weapons and the position from which he is raining down destruction on all of us, on all of life. In that sense, I agree with you and with Michael Kruse that we need to set out a positive vision of the future, one which understands and addresses the legitimate concerns of Trump voters. But what I don’t hear you saying is that many, if not most of the concerns of Trump voters are illegitimate. You’ve let Trump voters convince you that their right-wing media-fueled fear and greed are not their primary motivations. I don’t know why you’ve let them convince you of that. As Kruse outlines, Trump voters themselves haven’t really even tried to convince you or anyone else that they were and are motivated by anything other than fear and greed. They don’t need to try, you and many others are doing a fine job making up excuses for them all on your own.

Which brings us back to Ecclesiastes. There is a time for everything under the heavens. As responsible, mindful adults who have the experience of history as our guide, it seems clear to me that it’s time to refrain from embracing, to speak, to gather stones, to hate, and to fight.

Best, Lawrence Xxxxxxxx ]

 

BACKGROUND

Congress’s staff analysts found that, in the Senate version of tax reform, most taxpayers who earn less than $75,000 would face a tax hike by 2027. That’s in part because of tax breaks that would be lost via the repeal of Obamacare’s “individual mandate” (which  Republicans say isn’t, strictly speaking, a tax increase). It’s also because, while tax cuts for businesses would be permanent, cuts for individuals would expire in 2025.

In the House version of tax reform, four states, all blue (California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York), will see their tax burden grow, as these proceeds are used to fund net tax cuts in all other states, according to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Florida and Texas would do especially well, together receiving more than a third of all tax cuts. A big reason for this disparity is that the House bill would curtail the deductibility of state and local taxes. A Washington Post piece explored the implications of this for local funding of things like infrastructure, education, and low-income housing.

Jonathan Chait flips the Roy Moore situation in a thought experiment about whether Democrats would tolerate electing a child molester if their Senate majority depended on it.

Conservative Matt Lewis warns Democrats that the abortion issue may prevent Roy Moore’s Republican critics from crossing party lines and supporting Doug Jones.

DEEP BACKGROUND

Timothy Garten Ash explores one manifestation of Germany’s version of Trumpism, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.

Buzzfeed reports on how Facebook split its users into distinct and narrow political groups to allow them to be targeted by advertisers—a technique which would seem likely to increase both Facebook’s revenue and America’s political polarization.

In the Washington Post, Ronald Klain explains a conservative plan to radically increase the fraction of federal judges appointed by Trump. “Almost overnight, the judicial branch would come to consist of almost equal parts judges picked by nine presidents combined — Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama — and judges picked by one: Donald J. Trump.”

—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade

 

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