Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics:  a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away.  Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat.  But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities.  He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy.  His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.

You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page.  Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.

Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):

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Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.

Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal.  As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:

“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change.  However, his piece contains several fallacies.

First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto.  For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets.  For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.

Second, Lomborg erects a straw man:  no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow.  The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat.  The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate:  to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon.  Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris.  The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.

Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:

Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.

In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues.  Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.

Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables.  What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former.  This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources.  This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics.   And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support.  Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy.  However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate.  Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon.  And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy.  Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea:  individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity.  Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy.  Prudent investors hedge against risk.

Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare.  But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely.  Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change.  One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.

All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”

It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives.  How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?

Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”

Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”

Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”

The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.

More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.

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I know.  It sounds crazy. But think about it.

First, let’s back up a bit.  I challenge anyone to disagree that the healthiest race for the country would have been Clinton vs. Kasich. Frankly, they were the only serious candidates ever in the race:  Christie was too mean (and fat); Paul too reasonable; Cruz too craven (and Christianist); Bush too Bush; Fiorina too shrill; Rubio too green (and thirsty); Carson spacey (and, like, generally ridiculous); Sanders too liberal (and grumpy); O’Malley too bionic; and Trump too…well, Trump.

By rights, Clinton and Kasich should have been facing off against each other. They would have likely run the cleanest, most idea-driven, and most issue-based campaigns possible in our sensationalist, sound-bitten era. They would have provided a breath of fresh-air after the silly season of the primaries. They would have been–they are–the most experienced, the most moderate, the most mature, the most qualified candidates. And that is why I think that they would make—that they should forge–the most formidable alliance to beat back and slay the monster that has somehow slithered into the American body politic.

Read the rest of this entry »

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the final installment.]

VI. Study Near

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Last summer, America celebrated the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau did not study abroad. Somewhat like Kant, he spent most of his life confined to a small territory. He went to Harvard, just a few miles down the road from his home in Concord, Mass. But in a way, Thoreau did study abroad; he just didn’t go very far. Thoreau’s study abroad was a mere two miles from his hometown: a modest wooden cabin he built in the woods by Walden Pond. Though he didn’t go far, he stayed a long time: two years. While commonly regarded as a founding father of American environmentalism, Thoreau was also a passionate advocate for what we today would call social justice. His time at Walden changed his perspective on Concord. Living on the fringes of town, he saw first-hand evidence of the marginalization of Concord’s vulnerable residents, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans. And, of course, he made a sustained case for civil disobedience a few years later. It may be a stretch, but perhaps Thoreau intuited what Pope Francis would confidently declare a century and a half later: that environmental and social justice go hand in hand. His time in the near abroad revealed the imperfections of the near.

We have little trouble finding the familiar in the foreign. We are terrible at finding the foreign in the familiar. If travel is not at least a little bit scary and hard and humbling, it’s not travel. It’s tourism. The challenge is not making sense of the new place. It’s not being a tourist at home. This was Thoreau’s signature talent—to daily encounter his tiny territory as an exotic land rich with mystery, never fully known. Travel, rightly done, can teach us how to inhabit our homeland with reverence and awe.

If I were speaking with a student coming back from study abroad, I would ask them some of the following questions: Not where did they go, but why? Not what did you get out of it, but how did it get to you? Who got to you? What stories struck you? What demands do they make on your own? On your country’s?

Ultimately, I suspect that human rights draw their power not from logical arguments, abstract moral principles, or international agreements—important though these are–but from the experiences of recognition, the memories that ravel about them, and the stories we spin from their ragged thread.

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

V. The “BC Bubble” and the Hero’s Journey

If there is a moral ideal as hallowed in the Western tradition as human rights, it would be the Christian ideal of neighborly love. We tend to interpret this as, at least, not hurting people and not taking their stuff, and at most, being nice. We typically take the first part as the easy one. Of course we love ourselves! The challenge, we assume, is loving others. But as is usual with Jesus, things are not what they seem, and true wisdom is the opposite of conventional wisdom. The real challenge is loving ourselves, which is only possible through seeing ourselves as we truly are—as vulnerable, suffering, dependent, flawed, mortal, human. We tend to regard our “humanity” in abstract, or perhaps even biological, terms—as a class or species we belong to. But our recognition of our own humanity is actually an intimate affair, something spied far from the madding crowd.

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Pope Francis expressed his understanding of this deep truth in his response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” His reply: “I am a sinner.” We tend to put saints and popes and heroes on pedestals, but they’re all flawed, too. In his study of the Argentinian dictatorship, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein writes,

In contrast with many other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church was one of the main backers of the junta [in Argentina]…. The basis for this alliance rested on a notion accepted by most Argentine bishops at the time: any condemnation of human rights violations was a threat to the homeland and God…. The intimacy between God and the military nation was emphasized at the time, and Pope Franics, who as Father Bergoglio was the most important Jesuit in the country, never spoke out against this.

Even the best of us are in constant danger of the primordial avoidance. Our egos block us both from a genuine encounter with the neighbor, and a genuine encounter with ourselves. When we pile on additional layers of culture, nationality, religion, class, etc., the wall thickens even more. What maintains superficial bonds with the few undermines deeper bonds with the many.

At Boston College, it is customary to refer to the “BC bubble.” Apparently, the bubble is now portable: I hear students, faculty, and administrators report that for many of the popular study abroad destinations, such as Spain, BC students tend to clump together and, on weekends, skip around to other cities, bringing, in effect, the comforting connections of home abroad. While it is natural to want to maintain connections to the familiar, we should ask what is lost by bringing too many buffers, too many life-preservers, too much of the familiar to cling to that it saps the power of the adventure.
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The mythologist Joseph Campbell liked to talk about what he called the “Hero’s Journey.” He believed that at the heart of all great stories—myths, epics, fairy tales, fictions—was a universal pattern. This basic archetype, the “monomyth,” has a threefold structure: 1) departure, 2) initiation, 3) return. Departure is the call to adventure, where the hero is drawn or casts herself into the unknown, a dark underworld, a zone of great power and great danger. There she encounters challenges that evoke qualities of her character and unlock parts of herself she didn’t even know were there. The descent is disorienting, and she must resist the temptation to retreat back to the light-world of the surface. But if she persists, she meets a great trial that, if survived and completed, initiates her into a new order, gives her deep insight, new eyes, a fresh perspective on herself and where she came from. Only from the bottom of the ocean can she finally see the surface. This hard-won pearl in hand, she returns home, sharing her wisdom with the community. Without that plunge into the unfamiliar, she would not have really gone anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Campbell liked to say, “If you’re falling, dive.”

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the fourth installment.]

IV. Human Rights in the Classroom

There is a kind of eternal frustration bound up with teaching ethics. In Plato’s dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks whether virtue can be taught (short answer: No.). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that the purpose of the inquiry is not to learn what virtue is, but to become good. The moral virtues cannot be transmitted through instruction, but must be acquired through habituation. Teaching ethics in a university classroom might then appear as a fool’s errand. The challenge is to puncture the air of unreality that pervades an academic setting, to help students see how and why these matters—of virtue and vice, of justice and injustice, of human rights—matter, and are bound up with their own lives. The assumption is that that same air of unreality pervades our everyday lives, and that regular puncturing can make us more awake and aware and responsive to reality. The goal, in short, is to make it real.

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Read the rest of this entry »

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the third installment.]

III.  Them—Us–I

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The most powerful part of the faculty seminar, for me, was our visit to Villa Grimaldi, a sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city, tucked into the lap of the Andes, that had been converted into a detention and torture facility immediately after the military coup. Our tour guide, Pedro–a tall, poised man with observant, piercing blue eyes—was not only highly knowledgeable, but a great storyteller. About 20 minutes into the tour, when we first came to the torture chambers, his diction shifted: “And this is where we spent most mornings.” His use of the second person pronoun continued for the next several minutes. I traded glances with some of my colleagues, knowing we were thinking the same thing: “Is he using that language for effect, or was he actually a prisoner here?”

Our suspicions were confirmed several tour stops later, when Pedro began to tell his story. How he’d been taken. How he’d been imprisoned and tortured. How he’d been moved from one facility to another, spending a full 16 months in the regime’s detention system.   How he’d been released, yet stuck in a zombie-like stupor for a long time afterward. How he’d learned, years later, that the reason the regime released people in such a condition was to strike fear into the population. And how, finally, he had come to the US, expressing his gratitude to the late Senator Ted Kennedy for his fierce opposition to human rights violations in Chile.

One of the most striking things about Pedro’s story was the ambivalence he felt toward the United States. On the one hand, the CIA helped foment the coup that led to his imprisonment and torture. On the other, Ted Kennedy’s valiant efforts enabled him to come to the US and put his life back together. America provided the kindling for the fire that burned him, and helped him heal from those very wounds. This ambivalence reflects a tension in America’s self-identity: as nationalistic, self-aggrandizing empire, or as cosmopolitan champion of human rights. Or perhaps the reality is more complicated: the attempt to beat back left wing politics in Latin America through covert support of rightwing dictatorships could be seen as part of the geopolitical struggle against communism, a threat to human rights. In any case, Pedro’s story complicated any simple picture of my country’s relation to his.

But what was most striking was not just his story, but how we told it. There was no theoretical discussion about human rights, no political theory or policy analysis, no history lesson. There was only a singular story of suffering, relayed from one person to another.  And the many stories of suffering he told us.  Stories of kidnap, torture, murder, rape.

And this.

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One of the cruelest methods of the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships was “disappearing” prisoners, which chiefly meant drugging them, throwing them onto a plane, and dumping them in the Pacific ocean. For a long time, however, many doubted this actually happened, racking it up to a rumor meant to demonize the dictatorship.  Reports that the disappeared had had heavy objects, such as large rocks and pieces of metal from railroads, tied to their backs to sink their bodies began to trickle out from survivors of the detention camps.  These reports were hauntingly confirmed when officials began to dredge the ocean floor miles from shore.  While flesh, bone, and clothing were all worn and washed away, the only sign of human life left behind was a single button, encrusted in the rock.

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

II.  The Age of Neo-Illiberalism

Preparing to leave for a day of museums and tours recounting the atrocities of Chile’s military dictatorship under Pinochet, a headline from that morning’s New York Times caught my eye: “To Trump, Human Rights Concerns are Often a Barrier to Trade.”

Nowadays, it is hard not to hear the phrase “human rights” as hollow. Abroad and at home, the specter of illiberalism has descended. According to political scientist Larry Diamond, the world has been in a “democratic recession” since 2006. From Turkey to Russia, from the Philippines to the Netherlands, from France to the UK and, of course, the United States, the forces of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are, for the first time in seven decades, challenging the liberal international order. As Robin Niblett writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs,

the architects of the [liberal international order] sought to promote not just economic development and individual fulfillment but also world peace. The best hope for that, they contended, lay in free markets, individual rights, rule of law, and elected governments, which would be checked by independent judiciaries, free presses, and vibrant societies.

We are playing at trading the “West”—the post-World War II liberal system erected by the Allies to foster economic interdependence in order to prevent civilizational war, protect human rights, and foster prosperity–for “Westeros”—the fictional world of Game of Thrones, a Hobbesian state of nature riven by warring families and fiefdoms, tribes and warlords, where force and fraud are the cardinal virtues.

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According to this worldview, human rights are a luxury we cannot afford to care about. We must look out for #1. America first, humanity second.

Call it the age of “neo-illiberalism.”

Whether this phenomenon is a trend or a tectonic shift, only time will tell. But as Niblett warns, “liberal democracies cannot postpone difficult political decisions any longer. They need to fix themselves first if they are to sustain the liberal international order.” Conservative writer and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush David Frum, in what is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the Trump phenomenon that every American should read–is even darker: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”

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It is difficult to convey to students, who by this point are too young to have any memory of the day, just how different the country was before 9/11. I was a sophomore at BC that year, getting ready for class that day (a philosophy course called Romanticism and Idealism, of all things). Before I left for class that day—before the towers fell—it’s safe to say that the dominant historical narrative was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” At that time, the country was still flying high off of the “holiday from history” that characterized the 1990s. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, there just wasn’t much of world-historical consequence going on. Fukuyama’s thesis, put forth in a 1992 book, was that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of history: not in the literal sense that time would stop, of course, but that History understood as a contest between competing ideologies was effectively over. The combination of liberal democracy and capitalism had proved to be the most desirable and sustainable way to organize human life, and the remainder of history would be a gradual process of its global spread.

Short of nuclear war, it is difficult to imagine a more deadly blow to this thesis than 9/11. Indeed, after the twin towers fell and al Qaeda had been identified as responsible, the “return of history” was promptly proclaimed. Samuel Huntington’s alternative narrative, the “clash of civilizations,” was resurrected. According to Huntington, geopolitics can be understood through the analogy of plate tectonics: there are certain cultural plates forged through millennia that, over long stretches of time, will inevitably collide. The West was not Civilization, a star destined to draw all lesser satellites into its orbit, but just one civilization among many.

The events of the last two years have thrust us back into Huntington’s world. Or so conventional wisdom has it. But we would do well to remember the other half of Fukuyama’s story. As Paul Sagar suggests in a recent article in Aeon,

Rarely read but often denigrated, [The End of History] might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.

Attention is typically focused on the title of Fukuyama’s book—“The End of History”–which he cribbed from Hegel. Little is devoted to the subtitle—“the Last Man”—which he took from Nietzsche. “The most universal sign of the modern age,” Nietzsche wrote, is that “man has lost dignity in his own eyes to an incredible extent.” Fukuyama elaborates the notion of the last man and the risks it poses:

The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been ‘all about’ these past few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens?

His concern was that, on the one hand, we might become a nation consumed by consumerism, cocooned in comfort, withdrawn from the realm of politics and detached from reality, unconcerned with any greater purpose for our lives or countries or species. Maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and whatever you do, don’t talk or think about religion and politics. Having abandoned God, Nietzsche wrote that the modern world subscribed to the “religion of comfortableness.” The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was filled with hamburgers, Candy Crush, and porn. This is the end of history as secular eschaton of escapism and entertainment. Think Wall-E.

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Writing this before the personal computer–before widespread internet access; before the smartphone; before Facebook; before the descent of digital disruption onto everyday life in the last decade—Fukuyama’s warning is prescient. And, when we look at what he has to say about another potential pathway, eerie: “Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dissatisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution?”

This regression, Fukuyama thought, might transpire due to the return of an element modernity represses—of megalothymia, “a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways.” His example of an individual possessed by megalothymia is eerier still. Sagar:

In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’.

Sagar lays out the alternatives as Fukuyama saw them:

It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun…. But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.

An unattributed quote has been circulating around the internet over the past year or so: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The expansion of egalitarianism poses a perceived threat to the previously empowered—politically, economically, and culturally.

The collapse of confidence in international institutions and the sacredness of human rights flows from the collapse of confidence in national institutions, the decline of democratic norms, the cessation of civility, the deficit of decency, and the recession of the respect that all take root in one place: the primal experience of recognition. Recognition that pierces through all distinctions of race and religion, culture and class, ability and age, distinctions that express but do not exhaust our identity.

The identity politics and “intersectionality” of today’s far Left, and the ethno-nativism of Trumpism (I hesitate to call it today’s far Right out of a conviction that it is an ideologically inchoate beast that lurks about the fringes of our political spectrum) both miss this essential element. Trumpism is fueled by a megalothymic mélange of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, not to mention a misguided economic protectionism. But the flip side of the quote above is this: “When you are accustomed to oppression, revenge feels like justice.” The rage that fuels the ascendant identity politics of the left is resentful and reactionary in its own way; hence the prevalence of online lynch mobs quick to tar and feather anyone who departs from intersectional orthodoxy. Helen Pluckrose nails it:

It is regrettable that intersectionality in practice so often manifests in restrictive ideological conformity, exclusionary tactics, hostility, tribalism and even racist abuse. It’s regrettable because liberalism could be benefitted by specialist attention to the ways in which specific groups within society are advantaged or disadvantaged. However, focus on group identity and experience should not come at the cost of respect for the whole world of human ideas and experience and every individual’s right to access and subscribe to any part of it. Until intersectionality respects diversity of ideas as well as of identity and supports every individual’s right to hold any of them regardless of their group identity, it cannot be said to represent anything except its own ideology.

Both the far Left and Trumpism traffic, in various ways, in what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed false senses of superiority and inferiority. Both are irrational; they seize upon arbitrary identity markers—race, class, nationality—to construct moral hierarchies. Both, in different ways, are illiberal. And both miss the universalist element, the standpoint from which human rights flow: the ground-root experience of recognition.

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the first installment.]

I.  Comfortably Numb

I never studied abroad as a BC undergraduate, which was probably for the best, since I had vague designs of going to Australia (primarily to surf, of course). I felt honored to be invited to participate in the faculty seminar in Latin America, and decided to treat it as the study abroad experience I never had. Preparing for the trip, I found myself asking more basic questions: what is the point of study abroad? How does it fit into the greater purpose of college? And what does all of this have to do with human rights? I wondered: beyond the facts and statistics and history of the dictatorships and their litany of human rights violations, what will I learn of great value that I can bring back to my students? It wasn’t until weeks after I’d returned that I recalled a scene from the film Calvary that crystallized the most important thing I learned.

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Read the rest of this entry »

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(Please begin with Part 1)

Now let’s look at the other candidates to see why they aren’t connecting as well as Trump, and where they fall on the worldview spectrum.

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Jeb Bush:  Orange-Blue

Red

When people describe Jeb as “low-energy” or remark upon his “slump-shouldered shrugging”, they are indicating that he does not resonate at Red.  He doesn’t have any fire in the belly, he does not relish the fight, and he does not project strength.  This is just what you would expect from a man who grew up as part of a wealthy political dynasty, glided through the Ivies, and led a privileged life.  Political leaders don’t need a Red center of gravity, but they need to know when and how to activate their Red core to inspire followers, cow political opponents, and crush enemies.  Red projects power, strength, and the willingness–even an eagerness–to use force.

Contrast Jeb’s countenance with that of Mitt Romney.  The reason Romney won the first debate with Obama in 2012 is because he was on the attack, he made Obama look weak, he enjoyed it, and he knew that that’s what voters wanted to see; Red never “apologizes” (especially for America) because Red does not recognize right and wrong; might makes right.  Yet when Jeb recently tried to talk tough and blunt like Trump, he looked foolish, not forceful; it wasn’t authentic.

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Another way of saying this is that politicians like Jeb lack emotional intelligence.  Imagine Jeb with the square jaw, silver temples, killer instinct, winner mentality, photogenic family, private sector chops, and presidential timber of Romney–none of that would change the fact that his last name is Bush (Incidentally, Romney was what a GOP Presidential Candidate Generator algorithm would spit out, but ironically, this “Mr. Perfect” image made him seem hollow and robotic to voters; alas for the GOP, if he ran today, he would win the nomination and the election handily).  And anyone with good political instincts, or even just common sense, should see that the country will never elect another Bush.  He can add as many exclamation points as he wants to his logo–and even color it red!–but at the end of the day, he just doesn’t have the stuff.  We know it, and he knows it, but I don’t think he knows that we know it yet; otherwise, he would have the good sense to leave the race and endorse John Kasich (more on Kasich later).  I suspect he actually does not want the presidency that badly, but is pursuing it out of some sense of filial piety and familial duty:  to restore the family name burnished by his father and tarnished by his brother.

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Blue

When you hear Jeb try to talk about “faith” and “family values,” you can hear that it is hollow and isn’t coming from the heart, but from the head. People can tell when you’re not one of them, when you’re pandering.  Contrast Jeb with his brother, who is Blue-Red (“shoot first, ask questions later”).  Though criticized ad nauseum for not being the sharpest tool in the shed (Orange), one reason Bush was able to connect with so-called values voters (Blue) was because he had a compelling “come to Jesus” personal story:  his own (Red) selfish desires were so strong that they almost destroyed his political future and neutralized all the advantages he’d been given in life.   These kinds of politicians–and these kinds of voters–demand and recognize moral absolutes in the world, and tend to suspect that the world order is always on the verge of collapsing into chaos.  Hence the positions:  strong military, strong family, strong faith.  Red is harnessed and channeled in the service of something greater:  God and country.  It was because George W. had a strong Red core that he had the presence of mind to mount the pile of still smoldering rubble and promise vengeance from a bullhorn, in possibly the most inspiring and memorable action of his presidency.  Can you picture Jeb doing that?

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Orange

Jeb is a clear thinker, a policy wonk, and from all appearances was a competent caretaker as governor of Florida. For politicians like Jeb, politics is an energy drain and a distraction from the issues; “If we could just get done with all the irrational emotional stuff and get down to problem solving, then things would get better.”  This was a mistake that Orange-Green Obama made after taking office, thinking that he could drop the poetry of campaigning for the prose of governing, only to be blindsided by the GOP’s activation of the Blue-Red Tea Party.  Contrast Clinton, who relished the cut and thrust and bloodsport of politics, and who always had one eye on playing the people with the same skill as he played the saxophone.  Though, of course, Clinton’s lack of a Blue moral core made him prone to impulsive and irresponsible decisions; those without a strong Blue moral compass are prone to use orange rationalizing to achieve their egocentric desires (see Cheney, Dick).

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama remarked that you had to be kind of crazy to run for president.  It was an insightful piece of political psychology.  You have to be crazy in the sense that you have to have an unusually strong desire for power, and Jeb just doesn’t seem to want it that badly.  You almost get the sense, watching him onstage or on camera, that he’d rather be doing something else.  Orange politicians see Blue voters as masses to be pacified with patriotic platitudes so they can get on to the “real work” of policy and governing, and this is the impression you get from Jeb.  Right now, that just alienates voters; they get angry, which pushes them into Trump’s loving arms, where he receives their rage and channels it for them:  at Obama, at Washington, at establishment politicians, at immigrants, and so on.

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All of which is to say that Bush is too Orange-centric to win the nomination and to be an effective leader at the national level, even discounting his bad name.

In Part 6, I will shift to the other end of the spectrum, where we find the “PPP”‘s–the Pandering Pastor Politicians–Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.

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(Please begin with Part 1)

So how is Trump leveraging the Spiral?  Why the gravity-defying poll numbers?

In my view, it is because he is firing on all the main cylinders of the Republican mind:  Red, Blue, and Orange–these are, quite simply, where the GOP brain hangs out.

Put another way:  Trump presents himself as a Bully, a Bigot, and a Businessman.

Red:  The Bully

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Perhaps the most striking feature of Trump’s candidacy–and a key source of his appeal–is his almost total lack of respect for anyone else in the race or anyone covering it.  He does not let an event or appearance go by without sticking it to someone, and it is almost impossible for candidates or reporters to attack him.  When Trump chided Rand Paul during the debate, “You’re not doing so well tonight”–like he was kicking a wounded dog–that was pure Red.  Ands he told Jeb near the end of the first debate, we don’t have time for proper “tone.”  We need to “go out there and get the job done.”  And that is what Red does, without regard for rules or regulations, decency or decorum.  Red brings home the bacon.

But it does so only for its own sake–remember, Red is egocentric.  Red is concerned above all with the projection and acquisition of power:  getting it, keeping it, and thumping your chest to make sure everyone knows how much you have.  He surrounds himself with the spoils of financial war:  ostentatious wealth and beautiful women.  For a great case of Red, see Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street.  For a great explanation of Red and how Trump is channeling it, see Jeff Salzman’s analysis over at the Daily Evolver.

In projecting Red, Trump serves as a mouthpiece for the grievances, resentment, and sheer anger stewing among substantial swaths of the electorate:  anger at Obama, at the federal government, at Washington politicians, at the media, and even at monied elites like himself.  There are other candidates channeling Red–Cruz and Huckabee, for instance–but as I explain later, because they are stuck in a Blue box, they don’t give voters confidence that they can fix systemic problems, and their appeal will thus be restricted to social conservatives.

As Salzman notes, there is another key factor in the Red aspect of Trump’s appeal:  In the campaign context, Trump’s Red card is a Joker.  Like a stand-up comedian, the court jester deftly directs people’s attention to disturbing truths about the court by presenting them with humor.  By puncturing the “poll-tested pretensions” of the other candidates and mocking reporters and moderators, Trump shines the spotlight on the farcical foundations of presidential politics–and the media that covers and feeds it.

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This is a natural role for Trump the reality TV star.  We all know “reality TV” is an oxymoron, we all sort of know that presidential politics is a kabuki dance, and more and more of us know now that our de jure democracy is a de facto plutocracy.  How fitting, then, that a reality TV star comes along to reveal the way in which politics has become a reality TV show.  He gets the camera to pan behind the scenes, to show voters what they already know but can’t quite believe:  that the game is basically rigged, and that the odds are not in their favor.  I’ll return to this later, since I think it is part of the reason that Trump’s success is, contrary to the views of many–including Hillary–a good thing for our political system.

Yet there is a dark side to Red.  Witness the savage beating a homeless man in Boston by thugs invoking Trump.  It reminded me of this scene from American Psycho, based on the novel about Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman, a finance something-or-other (winner) by day, serial killer of homeless people (losers) by night.

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The dark Red psycho-cultural pot of racism and nativism Trump is stirring is probably going to spew some toxic stuff over the next year when mixed with the politics of immigration and the recent inflammation of racial tensions, whatever happens to his candidacy.

Blue:  The Bigot

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If you looked at his personal life and the source of his wealth, you’d conclude that Trump would have a huge “Gomorrah Problem”:  the ex-wives, the decadance, the empire of sin, etc.  And to be fair, Blue is certainly Trump’s weakest link.  Yet he is nonetheless firing on Blue; less on religious identity, and more on racial and national identity.  The key to Blue is not necessarily religion, but group identity–a strong sense of membership in an extended community bonded by race, religion, or national identity.  Blue has a firm sense of boundaries and easily slips into an “Us vs. Them” mentality.  Hence, Trump is meeting his Blue quota with bombast about securing the border.  In doing so, he is stoking racist and nationalist fears.  As Timothy Egan puts it, he is willing to say “things that the darker elements of the GOP believe but rarely voice.”  I think the real forces driving the fears of many working class whites about the loss of jobs and a middle class life are global and sort of world-historical–technological and economic currents largely beyond the ability of the US or any country to seriously redirect.  But these abstractions aren’t useful scapegoats.  By concentrating the problem on a particular place–the border with Mexico–and on particular people–“dirty” and “dangerous” Mexican immigrants–Trump makes the problem definable and thus potentially solvable:  we just throw them out and build a wall to keep them out.  It gives the problem a place and a face.  Is it stupid, bigoted, and impossible?  Yes.  Is it effective framing?  You betcha.

Another place Trump is weak on Blue is the military and foreign policy.  Despite his embarrassing performance in an interview with Hugh Hewitt on foreign policy, Trump reassured us that “I’ll be so good on the military it will make your head spin.”  I predict that foreign policy will be Trump’s ultimate undoing.  When push comes to shove, voters won’t be willing to hand over the keys to a guy who sells slot machines.

Orange:  The Businessman

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While Red is his strongest card in the trenches–at the knife fight level of politics–Orange is his best play at playing president. Orange is about winning–about coming out on top in the competition of the marketplace through talent, hard work, and grit, and so Trump’s reputation as a successful business leader stands him in good stead with Orange voters.  He knows how the economy works, he knows how to manage massive organizations, he knows how to make deals, he knows how to get things done, and so on.  And, of course, he wins.  And wins.  And wins.  I’ll have a great deal to say about the irony that the lion’s share of his winnings come from a game in which winning has nothing to do with talent and hard work, and everything to do with luck–and where the average player is guaranteed to lose, and the house always wins.  But for now, it seems clear that Trump’s business chops signal that as president, he’d be good for the economy.

So that gives us a sense for why Trump is doing so well–he is firing on all three major cylinders.

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Finally, the Spiral is even woven into his campaign slogan (now trademarked–to trademark such as thing is, of course, trademark Trump):

Make (Orange):  America is a nation of makers (not takers), entrepreneurs, creators, visionaries, free enterprise, start-ups, self-reliant, rugged individuals.  Government must get out of the way to let people help themselves.

America (Blue):  We need a strong national identity, flag-waving patriotism, secure borders

Great (Red):  America should be the best, #1, top dog, the one great superpower, and we must “beat China” (or something)

Again (Red/Blue/Orange):  Trump’s proposition is that on all three levels, America is in decline.  Obama’s regulatory regime has hurt business and the entrepreneurial spirit (see “You didn’t build that”), catering to the takers, not the makers.  Obama is a cosmopolitan elite, a liberal internationalist who has made America look weak abroad, apologizing for America’s past mistakes (see Birthers), abandoning our allies (especially Israel), preferring diplomacy over military action, and compromising with (if not cow-towing toward) our enemies.  By not projecting Reaganic strength, he allows bullies to be bullies (see Putin, Vladimir).  And so on.

Of course it is all nonsense.  But that is the fantasy world of American conservatism that has emerged and congealed in the past decade or so, a world ruled by what Julian Sanchez dubbed “epistemic closure,” a world midwifed by Fox News.  Fox wants to arrest the Spiral, to insulate America from the modern world, to cling to an airbrushed, white bread image of American life from the ’50s and the ’80s, to, as William F. Buckley audaciously put it, “stand athwart history.”  As Bill Clinton put it in a commencement speech in 2010–in the wake of the rise of Tea Party–many of the cuckoo things going on in our politics nowadays are not what they seem; it’s a bunch of people on a train called the modern world hollering to be let off.  Fox News created the conditions for Donald Trump, and their failure to nip his candidacy in the bud in the targeted hit job of the first debate is coming back to bite them.  Connor Friedersdorf nails it:

hasn’t Fox News spent years conditioning viewers to believe that journalists belong to a condescending class of decadent elites which engages in barely-concealed conspiracies to destroy anyone who tells it like it is to real Americans? For years, Roger Ailes broadcast everything that Glenn Beck wrote on a chalk board! Surveying America for individuals whose insights he would broadcast to the masses, he settled on Sarah Palin as a person whose analysis he would amplify. It is no accident that a chunk of the Fox News audience is now inclined to side with Trump over Kelly. With Trump’s rise, the network is reaping what it has sown.

Trump is cut from the same cloth as Bill O’Reilly–they are both grade A assholes.  But Bill-O is a hired hand.  Trump cannot be controlled.  The clown is already out of the box.

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Trump’s success isn’t just about what he is doing right, but what other candidates are doing wrong, or aren’t doing.  In Part 5, I will look at how his opponents are hazarding the Spiral.