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Sunday, July 08, 2018


The punishment is the message

by Tom Sullivan

Perhaps it was Chris Hayes's interview Tuesday with Kevin Chmielewski that brought home how devout Donald Trump's followers are. The former Scott Pruitt deputy chief of staff at the Environmental Protection Agency was forced out after telling CNN Pruitt kept secret calendars and schedules to hide certain meetings from the public. From falsifying his calendar to Pruitt using public funds for hotel rooms for the inauguration, first-class travel, a trip to Morocco, to using government resources to find his wife a job, and more, Chmielewski told Hayes he couldn't take it anymore:

CHMIELEWSKI: So I’ll make it even easier than that. I’ve basically lost my whole career something that I’ve worked 20 years for. I was one of the President’s first advanced guys. I just couldn’t put up with it anymore. I love this administration, I love the President but Scott Pruitt, I mean everything I was – everything I witness I couldn’t be a part of anymore. I mean, this is just one of dozens and dozens of things that he did that I just did not feel comfortable. Not comfortable, I mean it was just downright wrong.
But the sitting president, that Gordian knot of moral and ethical failings? Kevin Chmielewski is still a committed believer. Which is the phrase Cult 45 is now, as Cokie says, "out there."
This Trump policy change may have won the trifecta of mean-spiritedness, injustice and stupidity.
Bill Kristol, commenting on the Army discharging dozens of immigrant recruits and reservists
What has establishment conservatives such as Kristol aghast is that mean-spiritedness, injustice and stupidity is the point. It is why the Chmielewskis support the reality show president.

We have a "nationwide emotional health crisis," laments writer, pastor and activist John Pavlovitz (A Bigger Table). Trump supporters are in it for spite:
That is all that matters to them.
It’s the reason they voted the way they did.
It’s the reason their support is steadfast through affairs and cabinet implosions and human rights disasters and wanton ignorance.
It’s the reason they will keep themselves tethered to him even if he is proven to have leveraged our very nation with the Russian government.

The story, they say, is that Trump supporters see his Presidency as a big F*ck You to his predecessor, to the identity politics that they feel targeted them, and to an ever-diversifying world that they see as a threat. They want someone to stick it to the world on their behalf and this President does that.
"We're voting with our middle finger" is how a used-car dealer from Greenville, SC described his support for Trump ahead of the 2016 Republican primary there, although the target of his ire likely included the GOP establishment. But the spite didn't start and won't end with Donald Trump. A friend who has electioneered in Greenville said years ago he often could spot Republican voters outside the polls by their sour looks. "They're not coming to vote," he says. "They're coming to f*ck someone!"

Many are authoritarians, the "single statistically significant variable [that] predicts whether a voter supports Trump," according to researcher Matthew MacWilliams. But a predisposition towards authoritarianism is often latent, psychologist Karen Stenner believes. So why is it expressed now? The director of Insight-Analytics explained to Pacific Standard:
The conditions that significantly activate authoritarians, and greatly exacerbate the expression of their authoritarianism in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors, are what I call "normative threats," (which are) threats to "oneness and sameness." In diverse, complex, modern societies not sharing a single racial/ethnic identity, the things that make "us" an "us"—that make us one and the same—are common authority, and shared values.

So the classic conditions that typically activate and aggravate authoritarians—rendering them more racially, morally, and politically intolerant—tend to be perceived loss of respect for/confidence in/obedience to leaders, authorities and institutions, or perceived value conflict and loss of societal consensus/shared beliefs, and/or erosion of racial/cultural/group identity. This is sometimes expressed as a loss of "who we are"/"our way of life."

Conditions for activating latent authoritarianism may be real or merely perceived. Data supporting the notion that economic insecurity is a trigger, Stenner believes, is "weak and inconsistent."

Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, 2009) found:

... the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which "activated" authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.
Making Donald Trump (to borrow a phrase he's fond of) a “central casting” strongman. A TV strongman only, but a reasonable enough facsimile to play well in Great Falls, MT. And Washington Township, MI. And Moon Township, PA.

So how to dial it back, especially since, once activated, authoritarian fervor will likely persist beyond the current presidential term? Stenner suggests, "Working across the aisle, less demonization and greater civility in public discourse would be a really big help, as would voluntary commitment to more restrained and temperate coverage, in both traditional and social media, of all of the above." But since patronizing the kind of intolerable behavior Chmielewski witnessed and thousands of immigrant families on the southern border have experienced firsthand seems not only ineffective, but naive. In a 2008 TED Talk, Stenner's colleague, Jonathan Haidt, pointed to another way to rein it in.

The psychology game Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter used to study the effects of "altruistic punishment" on human cooperation invites subjects to contribute a portion of money they're given to common pot. After each round, the experimenter doubles what is in the pot and distributes it evenly to the players:
And what happens is that, at first, people start off reasonably cooperative -- and this is all played anonymously. On the first round, people give about half of the money that they can. But they quickly see, "You know what, other people aren't doing so much though. I don't want to be a sucker. I'm not going to cooperate." And so cooperation quickly decays from reasonably good, down to close to zero.

But then -- and here's the trick -- Fehr and Gachter said, on the seventh round, they told people, "You know what? New rule. If you want to give some of your own money to punish people who aren't contributing, you can do that." And as soon as people heard about the punishment issue going on, cooperation shoots up. It shoots up and it keeps going up. There's a lot of research showing that to solve cooperative problems, it really helps. It's not enough to just appeal to people's good motives. It really helps to have some sort of punishment. Even if it's just shame or embarrassment or gossip, you need some sort of punishment to bring people, when they're in large groups, to cooperate. There's even some recent research suggesting that religion -- priming God, making people think about God -- often, in some situations, leads to more cooperative, more pro-social behavior.
Punishment is not a tool the left tends to deploy except in boycotts and variants such as Sleeping Giants. But considering the impact of impromptu protests of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen, it might be time to. The advice from California Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters to "create a crowd, and you push back on them" in public might be cruder than needed. I'd prefer the Stephen-King creepiness of entire restaurants going silent. Still, a little scorn, exclusion and rejection, writes Jennifer Rubin, "is not altogether a bad thing to show those who think they’re exempt from personal responsibility" for their actions. Shame and shunning may be as quaint as Alberto Gonzales thinks the Geneva Conventions, but they clearly bite. Ask Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Ed Kilgore explains:
It’s probable that most Americans have only heard of Dershowitz because of his involvement in the legal supernova of the O.J. Simpson case. But still, he has lent his mostly borrowed celebrity to an extremely high-profile habit of defending Donald Trump’s efforts to evade the attentions of Robert Mueller. And it’s his background as a mostly liberal commentator, not his reputation for legal brilliance, that has made him a go-to figure for cable-TV bookers seeking a dependably pro-Trump voice.

So you’d think Dershowitz would be able to take some blowback from former political allies in stride. But no: In an op-ed for the Hill last week, he publicly whined about his terrible persecution by denizens of Martha’s Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod where many rich and famous people (including Dershowitz) spend large portions of every summer, saying he had been subjected to “shunning” from “old friends” who are “trying to ban me from their social life on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Dershowitz compared the shunning to McCarthyism, but he clearly got the message. Jack Holmes of Esquire quipped, "But did you hear that Alan Dershowitz has been reduced to drinking rosé alone?"

Something must be done to stuff this authoritarian genie back into its bottle. And it cannot wait until November 2018 or 2020. A live experiment in whether shame and shunning has any lasting effect is worth trying. But it might be more effective if progressives can refrain from leftsplaining it to the subjects of the shunning. The punishment is the message. The message is not the punishment.

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