Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

Many people, including many conservatives who have not caved to the insanity, have enumerated the numerous ways in which Trump erodes the shared norms on which our society depends. Oliver’s break down may not be the only way to do it, but it is as good as any. He highlights three strategies Trump uses to erode those standards. Actually, I think referring to anything Trump does as a “strategy” is giving him too much credit. These, rather, are the habits that Trump has adopted which have the effect of undermining our society.

The first is to delegitimize the media. Of course, news outlets are not without fault. They have their own biases and are rife with quality-control issues. Half of what I do on this blog is correct bad reporting about science. But the way to deal with this is to call them on their errors and bias, but in a way that respects the institution and vital role of journalism itself.

Trump doesn’t do this. He attacks entire news organizations as “fake news.” The term “fake news” has become a shield against anything Trump doesn’t like or finds inconvenient. When news organizations reveal legitimate information, or ask the kind of questions they should be asking of a world leader, Trump’s response is to delegitimize them, denounce them as fake, and even flirt with the idea of banning them from the press room, delicensing them, or “opening up the libel laws” so he can more effectively threaten them.

At the same time he promotes the one news outlet that is essentially functioning as a propaganda arm of the White House. It is clear that Trump would love to have one state media that tow his party line, and ban all other media who would challenge him on anything.

The second method Trump and his defenders use is diversion and distraction, what Oliver calls “whataboutism.” Skeptics will recognize this strategy as the tu quoque logical fallacy – defending one action by pointing to someone else who is engaged in something similar. This is only legitimate to the extent that it points out actual hypocrisy, but it is not a defense of ethically wrong behavior, flawed logic, or bad evidence. The recent allegations about Moore are a great example. Moore is accused, now by multiple women, and supported by accusations that he was banned from a local mall for cruising high school girls, that he had relations with teenage girls, at least one of which was underage. The defense? Well, what about Bill Clinton? Even if you accept as true that Democrats hypocritically gave Clinton a pass on his behavior, that does nothing to excuse Moore’s alleged behavior.

There is also a strong implication or direct claim of equivalency. All presidents lie, everyone engages in similar behavior. As long as you can point to someone else who has every done anything even slightly wrong, it’s all the same.

Whataboutism is part of a larger strategy of diversion – to distract from the actual issues with irrelevant dog whistles and appeals to emotion and tribalism. On countless occasions over the last two years I have been in conversations with Trump supporters, asked them about a specific policy point or failing of Trump, and their response was, “What about Hillary Clinton?” They still do it, even though she lost and is now politically irrelevant. The demonization of Hillary was so much a part of their support of Trump, they simply can’t let it go. Trump can’t let it go – he wants to use the Justice Department to punish his political opponent and continue the demonization. It is a convenient distraction whenever anyone has concerns about his blatant incompetence.

Finally, Oliver points out that Trump is essentially a troll. He is the first troll president, who won election by literally trolling his opponents and the media. By troll it is meant that Trump says things not to put forward a serious argument, based in logic and fact, but to have an emotional effect. He does it to upset anyone he perceives as an opponent or obstacle. He even does it to allies, just to keep them in their place.

This provides deniability to anything Trump says. He can never be held to a specific position, because he is generally incoherent. How many times has Trump said something outrageous. Then the media and the public are left scratching their heads – it sounds like Trump just said he thinks Neo-nazis are OK. Did he really just say that? Then his spokespeople take to the airwaves to reinterpret what Trump said, and when Trump is confronted he gives vague and incoherent responses that just muddy the waters even further.

Watching one of his people on talk shows gives me a flashback of reading 1984. It is all newspeak and double talk. Deny, distract, divert, confuse. For anyone who cares about being precise and accurate in communication, it is a nightmare.

The scary thing is that Trump is affecting the baseline norm for society, not just for himself. His behavior is metastasizing. I actually don’t think Trump originated this behavior. Much of it has always been around to some degree, and has been greatly increased by social media. I think Trump is just a social media troll who inherited a marketable name and a lot of money. He found out how to troll his way into politics, at a vulnerable time when we are in social transition.

But he is exacerbating the problem by orders of magnitude. There is an optimistic view, however. Trump is shining a bright light on all the problems with trolling, fake news, and anti-intellectualism. He is also too incompetent to take maximal advantage of his position. I can only hope this will limit the damage he is doing. But hopefully the attention he is bringing to the problem will lead to a backlash, and a rededication to the norms of respect for truth, transparency, and scholarship that are necessary for a functional democracy.

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