- I voted for Warren last Thursday, a few days before both Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out. If they’d already dropped out and moved their support to Biden, I might have voted for Bernie instead to prevent Biden from being nominated. When I voted, though, there were multiple choices for progressive and moderate candidates. I live in Massachusetts, where the primary was actually competitive.
- I think all the major candidates have flaws that have prevented them from consolidating the entirety of the Democratic base. Biden is…Biden. Sanders had difficulty attracting older Black voters. Warren failed to respond adequately to the issues surrounding her claims of Indigenous heritage. Older Black voters tend to vote strategically and went for Biden thinking he was the most electable. Younger voters went for Sanders. While Warren’s plans would have benefited people of all social backgrounds, the media’s erasure of her candidacy, Sanders’s stronger name recognition and Biden’s connections made it more difficult for her to make inroads with constituencies beyond her urban, highly educated base. While Obama was less progressive in practice than he was in theory, he was remarkable in his appeal to the majority of the Democratic base in ways that Warren, Clinton and Sanders lack.
- While Biden is a lacklustre candidate, he is still less likely to appoint hard-right Supreme Court justices, pick actively destructive Cabinet members, or stoke the ire of racist domestic terrorists who act in his name. I’m not excited about voting for him if he becomes the nominee, but I will vote for him to stop Trump’s rapacious attacks on democracy, civil rights and inclusion. I will not vote third party, since I would rather hold Biden accountable than continue to scramble to protect our basic needs under an emboldened Trump. Blunting Trump’s influence can in turn blunt the influence of the alt-right. I felt similarly about Hillary Clinton; while a Clinton presidency wouldn’t make the widespread systemic change that American society needs, she would have still been preferable to Trump or any of the other Republican candidates.
- Neither Biden nor Sanders should have run this cycle. I voted for Sanders in 2016, but the circumstances in which he ran in 2016 are different from those of 2020. Biden’s time has passed, and Sanders’s campaigning style makes more sense when we’re talking about building on the progress a Democratic president has already made. He’s running after Trump now, not Obama. Also, Biden and Sanders are the oldest candidates in the race, surpassing even their fellow septuagenarians Warren and Trump. Bernie and Biden are pushing 80 years old.
- I think a combination of factors hurt both Sanders and Warren in the primaries. Misogyny undoubtedly hurt Warren. Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropping out allowed the moderate vote to be consolidated. Bloomberg made sure everyone knew who he was by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars in to the race. Though he only won American Samoa, he was still able to scoop up delegates who would have otherwise gone to other candidates (probably Biden, Buttigieg or Klobuchar). And as I mentioned before, both Sanders and Warren struggled to reach some important demographics, despite their policies being more favourable to them than Biden’s or Bloomberg’s.
- I think Trump can be defeated, but only if the nominee takes active steps to reconcile with the other factions of the Democratic Party that didn’t back their candidacy. Obama did this by choosing Biden as a VP and nominating Clinton. Biden himself can do something similar by choosing Warren, Stacey Abrams or another progressive as his VP, and appointing other progressives like Bernie as advisers or cabinet members.
- Whatever you might think about Warren, I think she was instrumental in neutralising the threat of a Bloomberg presidency. Bloomberg would have only been marginally better than Trump. Even Biden is better than he is.
On the face of it, the United States Supreme Court rulings defending Masterpiece Cakeshop’s right to refuse service to a gay couple and the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban seem to be based on contradictory interpretations of free religious expression. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that conservative Christians had the right to free exercise and expression of their religion; in Trump v Hawai‘i, the Court ruled that Trump was entitled to exclude people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States because of a different religious tradition. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the seeming contradiction between the Court’s defence of Masterpiece Cakeshop and Trump’s Muslim ban. While I agree with her that it makes no sense to favour one form of religious expression over another, I also believe that the argument she put forward will have little to no effect on the Trump devotees and Christian fundamentalists for whom these rulings are manna from heaven. Conservatives do see these seemingly contradictory rulings as consistent, but this consistency is not based on freedom of expression in and of itself. Rather, it is an ideological consistency: these rulings uphold the primacy of a certain brand of authoritarian American conservatism that is steeped in white, Christian, heteronormative supremacy. It is an illiberal ideology that establishes a clear hierarchy of values within American society. Within this school of thought, the material consequences of the rulings don’t matter; rather, it is the position these people hold within their ideological framework that matters. Like Sotomayor, I agree that the consequences should matter, but this is not how people like Neil Gorsuch or Clarence Thomas think. Understanding this kind of thinking and how it informs conservative jurisprudence is particularly important given that Trump will have another chance to appoint a Supreme Court justice following Anthony Kennedy’s recently announced retirement.
When the free market of ideas is anything but
Let’s talk a little more about what it means for a society to be illiberal. Illiberal societies restrict, or try to restrict, the beliefs, thoughts and behaviour of their subjects. In short, illiberal societies are authoritarian. This is independent of left- and right-wing social and economic ideologies; traditionalist conservative societies and leftist people’s republics can all exhibit authoritarian tendencies. They can be superficially egalitarian or intensely anti-egalitarian. They can have planned economies or loosely regulated capitalist ones. American conservatism—first associated with the Democrats before the ideological shifts of the 20th century that turned the Republicans into the party of naked white supremacy—has a strong illiberal strain that dates back to the era of Jim Crow segregation and ‘separate but equal’. The same applies to Russia and the other former Soviet states, China, Nazi Germany, North Korea, Turkey under Erdogan and Orbán’s Hungary, though the levels of severity vary by country and by time period. That said, however, I will focus primarily on the American Republican Party for expediency’s sake.
Despite these superficial differences, authoritarian societies and the ideologies that drive them share some common features. In authoritarian schools of thought, concepts of morality and right action are fixed entities existing outside the confines of space and time, unaffected by the vagaries of shifting social roles or political realities. People, too, belong to fixed classes: bourgeois or proletarians, men or women, the elect and the damned. This fixity can go by many names depending on the specific ideology to which an authoritarian adheres—Platonic ideals, God’s plan, the divine right of kings, Allah’s will, proletarian identity, revolutionary spirit—but the principle can apply to all of them. Many of these ideologies draw directly from Plato’s ideas about reality. Plato hypothesised that everything that existed was based on immutable, perfect forms that existed independently from the reality that we perceive with our senses.
We must conceive three kinds of things: first, those which undergo generation; secondly, those in which generation takes place, and thirdly, the model in whose likeness the generated things are born. And we may compare the receiving principle to a mother, and the model to a father, and their product to a child. […] There is first the unchanging Form, uncreated and indestructible, […] invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and which can be contemplated only by pure thought. (Plato, in Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 21.)
Though these forms are independent of what we can perceive empirically, they also define our reality. Furthermore, Plato thought that anything that deviated from this ideal was a corrupted version of these transcendent, perfect forms. When strict Platonism or ideas based on it are used to create a political philosophy, the consequences are unfree, closed societies that ostracise and punish those who hold dissenting views. In Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper eviscerates Platonism and its intellectual contributions to illiberal ideologies. Popper says the following about Plato and his views on the ideal state and its relationship to the eternal world of forms, which went on to influence Christian doctrine and other Western philosophies that tend towards authoritarianism or absolutism:
Plato believed in the possibility of arresting all political change. […] He tries to realize it by establishing a state that is free from the evils of all other states, because it does not change. It is the best, the arrested state (p. 16).
The things in flux, the degenerate and decaying things, are (like the state) the offspring, the children, as it were, of perfect things. And like children, they are copies of their original progenitors. The father or original of a thing in flux is what Plato calls its ‘Form’ or its ‘Pattern’ or its ‘Idea’. As before, we must insist that the Form or Idea, in spite of its name, is no ‘idea in our mind’; it is not a phantasm, nor a dream, but a real thing. It is, indeed, more real than all the ordinary things which are in flux, and which, in spite of their apparent solidity, are doomed to decay; for the Form or Idea is a thing that is perfect, and does not perish (p. 20).
Modern-day authoritarians, especially right-wing authoritarians, believe that society should either remain the way it was during an idealised period in time, or should return to the status quo ante if society has changed significantly since that period. People whose thoughts or actions stray from those Platonic ideals are excluded from these societies through social exclusion or government fiat. There is no such thing as legitimate dissent. Dissenters are not merely wrong; they are agents of Satan and the united forces of Hell, bourgeois counterrevolutionaries, the Jews, or immoral degenerates who wish to vitiate the Aryan purity of a given western fascist state. Under authoritarian ideologies, people are granted unequal levels of agency and social participation; people who can reasonably adhere to a given unfree society’s dictates or can go through the motions are accorded more status than those who cannot or will not. For example, in Christian fundamentalism, there is no such thing as a legitimate LGBTQ person. Everyone is really straight or gender-normative; they’ve simply chosen to be different, or have been deceived by Satan to believe that they are different. Either way, they are violating God’s ideal template for heteronormative relationships or gender-conforming self-concepts. A conservative philosophy professor and writer, Kelley Ross, refers directly to Platonism as a rationale for his political beliefs. Other authoritarians and conservatives may not refer directly to Plato, but they still share in his intellectual heritage every time they refer to ‘God’s divine plan’ or anything similar. Authoritarian ideologies are therefore closed systems that do not admit alternative points of view. If there is already a fixed view of what moral or ethical behaviour constitutes, then anything that strays outside that view is intrinsically immoral or unethical, regardless of its actual effects on other people. I am not a hard consequentialist and consider intent important when weighing others’ actions, but that is different from the idea that concepts of moral behaviour are hermetically sealed and should not be subject to dissent or argument.
Ignore what the ‘intellectual dark web’ and its loosely organised members say about the marketplace of ideas. They’re being disingenuous. The conservative ideologies they promote or appease seal themselves off from debate, because the very premise of these schools of thought is that co-existence with others is fundamentally impossible unless they change their behaviour and beliefs to match those of the dominant group or groups, because any deviation from the standard is a corruption of their preferred Platonic ideal of what society should look like. Co-existence with the ruling class in an authoritarian state requires that those people unfortunate enough to be considered subalterns within that society genuflect to those rulers. For example, in a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, everyone would have the ‘right’ to express devotion to Jesus or risk being imprisoned, socially ostracised, beheaded or burnt as a witch. There is no such thing as equal co-existence under authoritarian rule. When I speak in favour of marriage equality, trans inclusion or other policies that authoritarian conservatives deplore, this does not mean that I am also arguing for their own establishments to adhere to my own ideology. I am not asking for conservative churches to marry queer couples, change their teachings on LGBTQ people, or ordain transgender clergy. I am not telling them to change their beliefs. Christian theocrats, in contrast, believe that there should be no civil recognition of any relationship that does not adhere strictly to their interpretation of what true Christianity looks like. They do want me to change my beliefs. My participation in civil society as myself is anathema to them; for me to be acceptable, I have to change the way I behave and think. For them, God’s divine authority supersedes civil rights or pluralism. This is the difference between liberalism and authoritarianism. I am not being authoritarian for advocating for my full inclusion in society.
The Republican Party has declared its fealty to Donald Trump, no matter what he says or does. This is in part because Trump is a means to an end. Trump may not actually share any of the actual values that conservative ideologues espouse, but he is a tool they can use to re-fashion society in their own image. As long as he is useful, they will continue to appease him. As Trump himself has said, ‘I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’ The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is focused on one thing: power. He doesn’t care about the consequences his actions have on individual people; his goal is to ensure that the Republican party maintains total control over all three branches of the United States federal government. The tendency towards Platonism within the Republican party is enough of a motivator to ensure that they will try to keep power at all costs. After all, allowing the Democrats to have any influence will corrupt American society and cause it to drift further from what they have determined it should be. McConnell, along with Trump and the various personages of the Religious Right, exemplifies the stranglehold authoritarian ideology has on his party.
To fight extremist Republicans like Trump, Pence, Sessions and McConnell, it is vital for policy analysts and researchers to understand precisely why they seem so intransigent, even when the actual policies that Republican politicians promote are often out of step with the preferences of American voters, regardless of registered political party. Authoritarian Platonists will not be moved by appeals to rationality, progress, decency or logic. They should be voted out of office. Removing them from power is the only way to stop them.
- Popper, K. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato.
There is a pervasive misconception, especially on the right, that using blunt, politically incorrect or offensive language means that an argument is intrinsically valid. Part of Trump’s appeal, for example, is his ability to ‘tell it like it is’, even though nearly everything he says or tweets is a half-truth or an outright lie. It’s less about Trump’s actual honesty than it is the appearance of honesty through his bluntness. If Trump had expressed the same sentiments using more academic language, then he would not have become the Republican nominee two years ago: even with the same ideas, Trump wouldn’t have earned the same reputation he has for being a ‘straight shooter’. I’ve seen other right-wing writers and activists doing the same thing. If they can word something simply enough, people will believe it even if it’s factually wrong or extremely biased. If you’re being politically incorrect, you’re being brave and sticking it to the Establishment, even if the ideas you’re expressing are representative of the status quo or status quo ante, before white male supremacy was seriously challenged in western society.
Of course, using simple language does not make you right, any more than using more complex language makes you wrong. It should be the substantive content of your argument that matters, rather than the delivery, but that isn’t how rhetoric works. This discrepancy between delivery and substance allows people like Trump to tell blatant falsehoods because they ostensibly ‘tell it like it is’.
Relatedly, I think that liberal and leftist activists should strive for clarity when conveying ideas. It’s important to distil complex interpretations of policy and advocacy into digestible chunks for the general public to understand. Public policy is indeed full of subtle interpretations, tangled histories and intricate relationships, but that doesn’t mean that explanations of these complexities must necessarily be convoluted, abstruse disquisitions on the nature of policymaking processes or political theories. In fact, it may take more skill for some political scientists, policy analysts and policy researchers to take complex ideas and make them accessible to a wider audience than it does to avoid code-switching and write solely for their fellow wonks in public-policy and political-science academic journals and websites. That said, however, I’ve seen countless liberal and leftist advocates, including disability activists, routinely framing their arguments in strictly theoretical terms that assume background knowledge that their listeners or readers may not already have.
This entry is not a defence of anti-intellectualism or the wholesale dismissal of expertise. I usually think in theoretical and conceptual frameworks when considering the nature of different public policies and the implementation of those policies. My default thinking tends towards abstractions, words, concepts and metaphors. There’s a difference, though, between the way you may see your field as an expert and the way the general public will interpret it. Unless the people you’re talking to also have a policy, political-science or related background, it’s unlikely that they’ll know about specific ideological frameworks like neo-Marxism, Keynesianism, paleoconservatism or utilitarianism, but they will know about how a policy will affect their ability to breathe clean air, send their children to a good school, protect them and their family from police violence, or work at a job that pays them a fair wage. You can base your explanations on deeper theoretical frameworks, but express them to the public in ways that are more immediately accessible.
Beat the far-right at its own game. Be clear. Provide solutions that are easy to understand. You don’t have to insult people’s intelligence and condescend to them, but it is important to make sure that the people you’re talking to don’t require a degree in public policy or political science to understand what you’re advocating for.
It seems it’s time for me to address claims about Donald Trump’s sanity again. On 6 January 2018, Trump wrote this series of tweets defending his intelligence and mental stability against perceived Democratic and media attacks on his fitness as president:
Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 6 January 2018
….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 6 January 2018
….to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 6 January 2018
The thrust of Trump’s argument, if you can call it that, is ‘I am intelligent! I am sane! Therefore I am qualified to be president and should be above criticism by either the “fake-news mainstream media” or the Democratic Party.’ This post is not about speculating about Trump’s sanity or intelligence–I am not qualified to make such a judgement and feel that it would be counterproductive anyway. I think he is wilfully ignorant, supremely arrogant, and consumed with hate for people he considers beneath him, but these qualities are not related to the constructs of sanity or intelligence. It is, however, a criticism of the idea that being considered sane or intelligent makes you an intrinsically better person. (No, it does not, by the way.)
If mental health and intelligence were conceptualised as value-neutral aspects of people’s neurotypes, then Trump would not defend himself by claiming to be sane or intelligent. He would instead defend his fitness for the office by citing specific actions he has taken that demonstrate that he is worthy to be president. Being perceived as intelligent (that is, having a constellation of abilities that correlate in many people to a markedly high degree) or sane (exhibiting no behaviours that seem distinctly out of place within a given society, and that cannot be explained by cross-cultural explanations) are viewed as more valuable forms of existence, while being considered unintelligent or insane renders a person a leper, an outcast, a debased kind of human less worthy of existence. I think that differences in neurotype exist, but that those differences do not imply that one neurotype is better than the other. This notion is disablist and harmful to people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disabilities.
As I have said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, nobody is worth more or less than anyone else because of how their mind works. People’s value is inherent in their humanity. There are ways to defend one’s ability to hold office without clinging to the notion that having an intellectual or psychatric disability reduces people’s worth.
Focussing on Trump’s mental faculties presents the risk of disablist interpretations of his mentation and furthermore serves as a distraction from his real faults. His policies and those of his lackeys and worshippers are oppressive. He is mendacious in the extreme; he lies as surely as he breathes and lacks a concept of objective truth, only ‘truths’ that are convenient for him. He is corrupt and uses his office as a means to enrich himself further. Trump’s asinine tweets reveal that he is a man entirely lacking in scruples or common sense. He engages in morally reprehensible behaviour.
Trump is a terrible man, but that need not be attributed to his apparent sanity, intelligence, or lack thereof. Our criticisms of him must be predicated on his directly observable actions, not hypothetical conditions that we cannot objectively evaluate. We cannot determine from his tweets how sane or intelligent he is, but we can more clearly determine his incompetence from the effects that his atrocious presidency has exerted upon the US and the world at large.
…Or why Trump’s budget, DACA repeal, trans military service ban and ‘health care’ plan come from the same ethos
CW: Trump, eugenics, Nazism/Hitler, classism, disablism, racism, anti-trans discrimination
Over the past nine months of his illegitimate presidency, Donald Trump has systematically targeted marginalised people under the classist, disablist, eugenicist principle that certain people cost too much. The idea that disabled and chronically ill people’s healthcare costs too much spawned the numerous failed Congressional Trumpcare bills and Trump’s executive order gutting the Affordable Care Act. Trump justified banning transgender people from serving in the US military through the claim that the cost of trans people’s care was a ‘tremendous burden’. When the Trump regime attempted to rescind DACA, the implication was the lives of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age cost too much. The proposed Republican budget, which Trump has touted repeatedly on Twitter and elsewhere, implies that the lives of rich people are more valuable than those of poor, working-class or middle-class people. We’re all nutzlose Fresser, useless eaters.
Trump’s policies recall those of repressive governments whose entire goal is to inflict harm on vulnerable people. The Nazis come to mind, though I’m speaking of the early Nazi years, not the more recognisable late regime that fell in 1945. Remember that the Nazis didn’t start off with death camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. They started off by instituting policies that ostensibly allowed people they thought inferior to live, but that restricted their ability to participate in public life. When they did start killing people, again, they didn’t start with Auschwitz. Hitler’s first killing campaign was Aktion T-4, the ‘euthanasia’ programme that targeted people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hitler targeted ‘degenerate’ art and research like Magnus Hirschfeld’s transgender studies. The Nazis slowly stripped Jews of their civil rights before Hitler sent them to death camps.
In turn, the Nazis picked up many of their ideas about eugenics from precedents set in the United States. There’s a long American tradition of persecuting disabled people. American eugenicists used IQ tests to segregate, sterilise and marginalise people considered disabled according to their test results. Lengthy genealogies of ‘degenerate’ families like the Jukes and Kallikaks connected disability to crime and poverty. Pro-eugenics posters claimed that disabled people cost too much to keep alive. Sterilisation of people deemed intellectually disabled was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v Bell.
Trump may not think of things in strictly ideological terms, but he has surrounded himself by people who certainly do.
- Trump has affiliated himself with white nationalists, some of whom I’ll list here – Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and others. He has also associated with Religious Right ideologues like Jerry Falwell Jr, Paula White and James Dobson. These right-wing Christians come from a variety of theological positions. Some are classic hard-line fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, whereas others are prosperity preachers. All of them, however, advocate against the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people. Many of Trump’s anti-trans policies are drawn straight from the playbook laid out by the Family Research Council, a Religious Right lobbying organisation and hate group.
- Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller, all current or former official White House advisers, are ideological fascists. Fascism exists in ideological contraposition to disability rights. Fascism values the strong and disparages those they consider weak.
- Mike Pence is an extremist evangelical Christian. Right-wing evangelicals like Pence believe that people who do not follow their religion’s strictures deserve to suffer. Pence may not be as shouty as Trump or as blatant as Bannon, but he is dangerous and needs to be watched. When listing out the dangerous people who increase the danger the Trumpocalypse presents, never forget Mike Pence.
- Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is an Ayn Rand devotee who would prop up Hitler himself if he could still slash benefits for poor and disabled people. Ayn Rand’s philosophy valued strength over weakness, and thought that people she found weak didn’t deserve to live. Though Rand wouldn’t have called herself a Nazi, many of her thoughts on poverty and disability are compatible with fascist ideology. Ryan’s transatlantic analogue is Iain Duncan Smith, the UK Member of Parliament and former Secretary for Work and Pensions who oversaw draconian budget cuts that caused the death and suffering of many British disabled people. Like Pence, Ryan knows how to couch his hatred of vulnerable people in socially acceptable rhetoric, but he’s just as dangerous as Trump is.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on record as claiming that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a burdensome imposition on teachers. He has also scaled back disability rights enforcement in comparison to Barack Obama’s Attorneys General, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. He has also pushed Trump to withdraw Obama-era guidance on trans protections in schools. As a Republican senator he consistently supported the needs of the rich, white and powerful over the needs of vulnerable people. Sessions is a predator. He’s more affable than Trump, but Sessions’ zeal in reversing the strides made under the Obama administration reveals the danger he presents.
- Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – a Trump appointee – also has a record of minimising and restricting the rights of marginalised people, including disabled people and LGBTQ+ people.
- The House Freedom Caucus is full of Tea Party Republicans. Like Ryan, Freedom Caucus members are fixated on tax cuts and benefit cuts.
- Kit Mead’s Paginated Thoughts blog often discusses the history of disability, eugenics and bioethics.
- At Shakesville, Melissa McEwan has written extensively about Mike Pence’s toxic history as a governor, congressman and vice president.
- @EbThen on Twitter has tweeted quite a bit about the Nazis’ T4 programme and the American inspiration for many Nazi atrocities.