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Sunday, May 16, 2021


The retirement community in which Susie and I live has three entrances, all of them on a country road named Whippoorwill Lane. When you exit our community, if you turn right on Whippoorwill you very quickly come to Mount Carmel Church Road which in turn will take you to state road 15/501 and from there by a short drive to the UNC medical complex. If you turn left coming out of our community, Whippoorwill takes you to Old Farrington Point Road and then, in another 10 minutes or so to I – 40. At first I had to think about it to remember which way to turn on my errands but now I have done it so often that it is routine.


Our retirement community is blessed by what seems to be a virtually total absence of Trump supporters, although if there are a few they may just be hiding. But even if we were a majority Republican retirement community like the one in which my sister lives in Carlsbad, California I am quite confident that I would have no bitter political arguments with fellow residents about the best way to get to I-40. We would no doubt argue about everything else, from the outcome of the 2020 election to the efficacy of wearing masks. But not even the most crazed Trump supporter would claim that turning right on Whippoorwill is the best way to get to I – 40, even if urged by Tucker Carlson to think so.


Why not?  The correct answer is the obvious one. Trump supporters are not certifiably crazy – most of the scores of millions who support him are functionally sane in the ordinary everyday sense – and like me and anybody else they learn from personal experience such things as to turn left when going to I – 40 and right when going to the UNC medical complex. They also learn how to use their telephones to call their children, where to buy groceries or flowers or home appliances, how the elevators work in their buildings, and everything else they need to know to get through the day in a comfortable manner.


For most of the 200,000 years or so that human beings have been on earth, this is the way in which they have dealt with the world. For most human beings for most of recorded history, which is to say the last 10,000 years or so, the only things of any importance that they believed that were not based on direct sensory experience and interpersonal interactions were their religious beliefs, and not surprisingly it was these that repeatedly led them into murderous and irresoluble conflicts.


But these days all of us know an innumerable number of things not grounded in this sort of direct observation and experience and even the best educated among us or the most curious cannot possibly provide genuine evidentiary confirmation for more than a tiny handful of our beliefs. Who among us can give a factually grounded account, right down to the solid-state transistors and the imprinted circuits, of how a computer actually works? And can the handful of those who can provide such an account give a similarly well-grounded explanation of how the car that they drive in to get to work actually operates?


Let me be clear. I am not at all a devotee of those modern philosophers of science who try to argue that scientific knowledge is no better than concensus gentium all the way down. But it is obvious that all of us rely upon the authoritative judgments of experts in most of what we think we know about the world. To be sure, the more thoughtful among us are perpetually questioning, raising doubts, insisting on corroboration, looking for alternative accounts, especially in areas like politics and economics where we have learned long since to recognize the role of ideology and simple self-interest in the corruption of information. But let us be honest. Those of us who refused to believe the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction would, for the most part, not have been able to identify a weapon of mass destruction if it were delivered by to our doorstep.


These remarks are by way of an explanation for my enormous anxiety about the political future of this country. Scores of millions of Americans believe, or at least claim they believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. Their belief is absurd. But the same people who believe this would not think of doubting the countless beliefs on which they rely in going about their daily business. If Trump called for another assault on Congress and one of my neighbors set out to join this holy crusade, she would turn left on Whippoorwill to get to I – 40 and from there to RDU airport for the flight to Washington, even if the sainted Trump himself were to say “and do not forget to turn right as you leave the retirement community.”


Suppose, as seems likely, that the Democrats lose control of the House in 2022. Suppose, also, that Trump runs again in 2024 and loses once more to Biden by a landslide in the popular vote but rather narrowly in a number of states controlled by Republican legislatures. Does anybody doubt that those Republican legislatures would negate the results of the election and declare Trump the winner of their electoral votes? Does anybody doubt that the Republican majority in the House would confirm those false reports? Does anybody imagine that California and New York and Washington State and Connecticut and Virginia what accept such a travesty?


I think we are one bad election outcome from a crisis in this country the resolution of which could come down to the question of which way the Armed Forces would go.


That is what keeps me up at night.


T.J. said...

The thought that worries me isn't so much about which way the armed forces go. The military brass were pretty united in opposition to Trump. The current set of military officers have been so thoroughly drilled in the ideology of civilian control of the military that I don't worry about genuine coups of that sort. The worrying thought about the military is what happens 40 years from now when the joint chiefs of staff were all attending Trump rallies when they were 16 years old. It seems to me that the clock is ticking on civilian control of the military, but it's not up yet.

Howie said...

This argues against the jury duty system- Trump voters sit on juries and Trump supporters are judges- they are a loud and invisible army and they are not clinically insane or certifiably stupid and they are an immoral and vocal minority and they conduct civil war and rebellion by rowdy yet peaceful means

Anonymous said...

edit suggestion:

from "Does anybody imagine that California and New York and Washington State and Connecticut and Virginia what accept such a travesty?"

to "Does anybody imagine that California and New York and Washington State and Connecticut and Virginia would accept such a travesty?"

james wilson said...

I appreciate the large scale perspective with which you begin to explore and explain your apprehensions, but it seems to me you go too abruptly from the global to the parochial. By that I mean that you—for understandable but not necessarily acceptable reasons—focus too quickly and narrowly upon the USA.

I come at this from my primary interest in British politics, particularly British Labour politics, where again and again the analysis of their possibly terminal condition ignores the fact that Europe and the larger world are in turmoil, where, e.g., social democracy is virtually dead as an organised force (something I happen to deplore).

It seems to me it might be worth while trying to contemplate that what is going on in the USA is part of that much larger decay of modernity or whatever one wants to call it. In short, the predicament you focus on may be something which will not lend itself to any satisfactory local solution whether the unreasonable or the reasonable, the Trumpists or the anti-Trumpists, come out on top.

Our predicament may well be much larger and more terrifying than you picture it?

David Palmeter said...

Your scenario scares me too. I was pontificating on that in a zoom chat Friday with a couple of old friends. They weren't a riled up about it as I am, but they didn't argue against it either.

s. wallerstein said...

It's over 3 years until the next presidential election. So why can't the Democrats come up with a candidate who can out-populist Trump? Someone who isn't racist, xenophobic or misogynist, but with whom the Trump voter feels affinity, someone who can make Trump look

Not Biden or Bernie (he'll be too old), maybe someone who isn't a professional politican, maybe from the TV or a sports star.

I'm too out of touch with U.S. popular culture to suggest names, but I can't believe that in a culture as dominated by the media as the U.S. is, there isn't anyone, who like Trump, appears from popular culture, but with more progressive ideas.

If the Democrats can't come up in 3 years with someone who can destroy Trump, they deserve their fate, outlined above by Professor Wolff.

Danny said...

Fine let's meditate about who is not certifiably crazy. Ideas floating through the air affect us more than reality. Communism was the dark shadowy idea that clouded your own generation of intellectuals.

Danny said...

'To be sure, the more thoughtful among us are perpetually questioning, raising doubts, insisting on corroboration, looking for alternative accounts, especially in areas like politics and economics where we have learned long since to recognize the role of ideology and simple self-interest in the corruption of information. But let us be honest.'

.. let the more thoughtful among us be honest? ;)

Danny said...

Sure, as the U.S. presidential election approached, the ingredients for unrest were present. I wonder if it's true that political polarisation in the U.S. is also unusually multifaceted when compared to other democracies, in that it separates voters along multiple axes – including faith, ethnicity and ideology. For example, over the past quarter-century, the Democratic Party has grown more ethnically diverse, has moved to the ideological left on racial and moral justice issues Support for the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement among Democrats is high, for instance. When they become pitched, Democratic commentators tend to portray Republicans as ethno-nationalists and so forth. The substantial majority of Republican voters do not support the Black Lives Matter movement. Thus, perhaps, these differences between the two major U.S. political parties are magnified in rhetoric that can only reinforce a deep sense of division. The U.S. electorate is fairly evenly divided between the two major political parties, both nationally and in many states. Against this backdrop, there is much that can go wrong in any year. On the other hand, I ponder the decentralisation of electoral administration, and perhaps the national military’s non-involvement remains important.

But I don't really think of myself as being a close observer of our presidential elections, like as if I find myself in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. Like, maybe my screens are blinking red, I see the obvious signs we all see, but I also know subtle things that most of us do not. Heck, if I did, it might be that mail-in ballots will have plenty of flaws for the Trump lawyers to seize upon. Voting by mail is more complicated than voting in person, and technical errors are common­place at each step. There are endless happenstances in any election for lawyers to exploit. Republicans control both legislative chambers in the six most closely contested battleground states. Of those, Arizona and Florida have Republican governors, too.

Tell you what, I'll worry when two weeks remain until Inauguration Day and stalemate reigns.

aaall said...

Re: The armed forces. Trump didn't have the time to pack the GO cohort with traitors and I assume Sec. Austin will see to a purge of the O1 - O6s.

J. Wilson, social liberals in the UK and the US both are disadvantaged by districts and FPTP voting. In 2019 the Tories got ~44% of the vote and won 56% of the seats in Parliament. Social Democracy waned for reasons and can be reconstituted as neo-liberialism has clearly failed.

If the Republicans take the House in 2022, it won't matter who the Dems run as the House won't certify any EC vote that isn't won by a Republican.

WA, OR, CA, HI, NV, AZ, and NM would make a nice sized nation and AK would have some deciding to do as will CO and UT. Ditto N.E. and the Atlantic states. I can't see Texas playing sugar daddy to the rump so minds would be concentrated.

Carl said...

Given his age, I don't think Biden will run for reelection. I expect a Harris–Buttigieg ticket.

aaall said...

Because racism, nativism, misogyny, and homophobia aren't a thing here abouts. Assuming the Dems can hold both houses, Biden needs another term to spike the ball on neo-liberalism and give Harris a chance. Given age, demography, and our failing Constitution we are, in effect, having to draw to an inside straight while hitting on 20 (multitasking).

james wilson said...

aaall, I hate to get even more parochial, but Scotland doesn’t have a FPTP system yet even there, although the SNP somewhat pretends to be more social democratic than Labour, there’s widespread acknowledgement that it’s what some refer to as a neo-liberalism lite party. And Labour has been driven close to extinction there. But yes, social democracy I do believe waned for reasons. It’s just that not too many people seem to be concerned to figure out what these reasons may have been.

If I may continue to be parochial, there’re some parallels between what has been wrenching the Labour Party apart and what is causing tension within the SNP [see, e.g., ] But I'm sure the destruction of social democracy was ongoing before the "wokerati" issue arose. The reasons just keep piling up.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I have heard many people say that the events of Jan.6th prove that the system works, but I suspect nothing is further from the truth than that piece of wishful thinking. The U.S. has had 40 years of the deliberate starving government with the result that government doesn’t work.

If government worked, there would have been no attempted insurrection. And, having had one failed coup, another is certainly a strong likelihood. The norms that have operated to refrain elected officials from actions that harm government are not longer operative, and the Constitutional remedy of impeachment was proven toothless as power trumped law. Legislators who actively supported the insurrection still hold office.

Politics has become government by paranoid delusion, as Dr. Wolff has pointed out. There is no functional difference between the German belief that Jews and communists were the reason they lost WWI and that Trump lost due to voter fraud. The belief that the electoral system is corrupt is utterly without substance, and proves again that if something is repeated often enough it will come to be seen as true. We have all kinds of science denial rooted in the fundamentalist/evangelical segment of society.

When an individual has paranoid delusions they can get psychiatric treatment. When tens of millions hold such delusions, we have a fascist political party ready to harness these delusions, couple them with white supremacist beliefs, and destroy democratic governance in the process. This is going to be a long fight.

I.E. Rabinovitz said...

To understand the psychology of the ones you say are not insane but dark; you may wish to read Tolstoi's parable below. The Russian is even better but, alas I cannot type it into this space.


As a squirrel was springing from bough to bough she fell down right onto a
wolf who was asleep under the tree. The wolf jumped up and was about to eat
the squirrel when she started to beg him,

“Let me go.”

Said the wolf,

“Very well. I’ll let you go, only you tell me why you squirrels are so jolly. I’m
bored all day long, but every time I look up at you you’re always playing and
springing about merrily.”

Said the squirrel,

“Let me go up into that tree first and I’ll tell you from there, or else I’m too

The wolf let her go and the squirrel jumped into the tree and said,

“You’re bored because you’re so malicious. Your malice is eating away at
your heart. Whereas we’re always so jolly because we’re kind and never do
anyone any harm.”

aaall said...

James, taxes being settled, I believe Scotland has more then one system with the UK general elections being FPTP.

Policy is hard, social conservatism is easy.

On another note and re: the armed forces, I see a LTC in the Space Force got relieved of his command for airing some far right nonsense in public. Perhaps there's hope.

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