Sunday, August 25, 2019

Trump as the "Chosen One:" Making Something That Isn't Funny into a Big Joke

Donald Trump, White House photo
On August 21, President Donald Trump announced during an impromptu press conference that he was “the chosen one” to win a trade war against China. Calling himself “the chosen one” makes him sound like a messiah. (Messiah literally means “anointed one,” which is pretty close to “chosen one.” Christian theology considers Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah.) Predictable outrage arose; predictably, the Christian Right has stayed mum about Trump’s presumed blasphemy. A few days later, Trump said that he was joking.

When Trump said he was just joking, he got two things done: (1) he walked back his ridiculous boast and (2) he broadened his appeal by giving his supporters an excuse to continue supporting him. The persuasive tactic is outrageous but clever. 

When Trump speaks like that, he creates a paradox: he broadens his appeal by being divisive.

Let’s look at his entire statement in context: 

We are winning against China. They’ve lost two and a half million jobs in a very short period of time. They want to make a deal. It’s got to be a deal that’s good for the United States, where they want to make a deal — probably, we will make a deal.

"But if I didn’t do that — and I’m not doing this — somebody said it’s Trump’s trade war. This isn’t my trade war. This is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago by a lot of other Presidents.

“Over the last five or six years, China has made $500 billion. $500 billion. Ripped it out of the United States. And not only that — if you take a look, intellectual property theft. Add that to it. And add a lot of other things to it. So somebody —

“Q (Inaudible.)

“THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me. Somebody had to do it. I am the chosen one. Somebody had to do it. So I’m taking on China. I’m taking on China on trade. And you know what? We’re winning. Because we’re the piggybank. We’re the one that all these countries — including the European Union — wants to rob and takes advantage of. European Union — $200 billion. China — more than $500 billion. Sorry.”
[italics added] 

He didn't make a religious claim, and may or may not have grasped that "chosen one" meant something religious.

He soon learned, however. After the predictable outrage, he tweeted that it was all a joke:

“I was smiling as I looked up and around.” Factually wrong. Videos show that he was not smiling. He looked and sounded deadly serious. 

Trump routinely says outrageous things and then says it was all a joke. In 2016, he said that climate change was a Chinese hoax and later said he was just joking. Saying it was all a joke was standard Trump-talk.
First, to describe himself in messianic terms was outrageous if not narcissistic. People ridiculed him. He could not let that stand. So, since he rarely admits error, Trump instead walked it back by claiming it was a joke. Second, Trump wants to appeal to his most fanatical supporters, most of whom seem happy to think of him as a chosen one. But, but by (falsely) saying that it was just a joke, Trump could allay criticism and give his many Christian supporters an excuse to support him. 

Many people were eager to jump onto Trump's make-believe train. Trump’s “They knew I was kidding” tweet received, as of this morning, 116.6 thousand “likes” on Twitter and 23.7 thousand retweets.

Politicians need to appeal to multiple audiences who hold different attitudes. Most politicians handle that by being wishy-washy. Trump handles it by contradicting himself and saying it was all just a big joke. He can appeal to supporters who genuinely think he is their savior. He can appeal to supporters who don't. His devotees happily wink and play along. The tactic works. Politicians like Trump always find plenty of people eager to be deceived.

The entire dust-up was predictable. Trump made an outrageous comment; the press jumped on him, and Trump jumped on the “Fake News outlets.” He took two opposite positions without breaking a sweat. He left the mainstream media sputtering in frustration.

Yes, Trump did praise himself in lavish terms. No, he wasn't joking. Was his rhetoric honest? No. Was he forthright? No. Was his tactic legitimate? No. But millions of supporters are happy to play along.
P.S.: This all falls under the larger category of rhetoric whose purpose is not to make policy, but to “make liberals heads explode.” I’ll write more about that some time in the future.

P.P.S. Trump has talked quite a bit about his tariffs. Tariffs are always popular, and they are always a bad idea

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Rev. Witherspoon and the Christian Right in the Revolutionary War

John Knox Witherspoon

The conservative movement supports such policies as oppressing the stranger, stomping on the poor, and suppressing programs to care for children, while concealing its malice under biblical trappings. Is this new? No, it is not. The Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the institution that later became Princeton University and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, presaged the Christian Right’s persuasive tools. On May 17, 1776, Witherspoon preached on the topic of "The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men." (Yes, he was sexist. Surprised? Princeton was an all-male school.)

Witherspoon’s method, which today’s Christian Right has polished to blinding perfection, was to state public policies that had no biblical foundation while quoting unrelated Bible verses to support them. Since I endorse the biblical view that there is “no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), let’s look at how Witherspoon did it and see how similar his speech was to what we hear from the Christian Right today.

Witherspoon took as his thesis that the American Revolution, then already in progress, represented God’s divine will. There can be no surer way to stop a debate then to say that God is on your side. Who wants to argue with God? Citing God is the ultimate debate-stopper. Witherspoon began by quoting Psalm 76: Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shall thou restrain.” The war, no matter how cruel and violent (“wrathful”), served God’s will – so Witherspoon said. The listener did not need to understand why God willed the revolution, only that the war served him. Why argue with God? The catch is that there was no objective reason to think that God willed the Revolutionary War, which was then already underway.

Nevertheless, Witherspoon gave his interpretation a Revolutionary War twist: “The fury and injustice of oppressors, shall bring in a tribute of praise to thee; the influence of thy righteous providence shall be clearly discerned; the countenance and support thou wilt give to thine own people shall be gloriously illustrated; thou shalt set the bounds which the boldest cannot pass.” That, of course, is not what Psalm 76 says. However, the Declaration of Independence, which the Continental Congress would proclaim the Declaration only a few weeks later, depicted King George III as an oppressor: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Tyranny, oppression. Psalm 76 does not talk about oppression: that was Witherspoon's little twist to give the Revolutionary war’s aims a make-believe biblical foundation, tying it to the Enlightenment ideal of political freedom.

From then, Witherspoon wandered farther and farther afield: “In the first place, the wrath of man praises God, as it is an example and illustration of divine truth.”  The very fact that the war was violent – “the wrath of man” – proved, in Witherspoon’s logic, that God was behind it. 

Apparently sensing how twisted his view was, Witherspoon talked a bit about the horrors found on the “field of slaughter.” This admission did not, however, dissuade him: “There is no part of divine providence in which a greater beauty and majesty appears, than when the Almighty Ruler turns the councils of wicked men into confusion, and makes them militate against themselves.” The “wicked men,” by which I presume he meant the British, were thrown into confusion and violence, which could only please God – so Witherspoon said. By this point, he had traveled far from his biblical text, although he may have been alluding to Psalm 64: "Hide me from the secret counsel of the wicked; from the insurrection of the workers of iniquity," a text that many Christians would know.

Lest anyone overlook his anti-British message, Witherspoon reminded his congregation that English settlers in America had escaped British religious tyranny.  “The only other historical remark I am to make,” he explained, “is, that the violent persecution which many eminent Christians met with in England from their brethren, who called themselves Protestants, drove them in great numbers to a distant part of the world, where the light of the gospel and true religion were unknown.” He asserted it as a positive good that these people then brought the Christian faith to a land that had hitherto not known it. Continuing, Witherspoon compared the British with the “heirs of hell:”

“Is it of much moment whether this beautiful country shall increase in fruitfulness from year to year being cultivated by active industry, and possessed by independent freemen, or the scanty produce of the neglected fields shall be eaten up by hungry publicans, while the timid owner trembles at the tax gatherers approach? And is it of less moment my brethren, whether you shall be the heirs of glory, or the heirs of hell?”

The New Testament Gospels make tax-gatherers out to be the ultimate sinners (e.g., Matthew 9:10). By that point, Witherspoon no longer even pretended to explain the Psalms and had become purely political. Step-by-step, he had proceeded from a rather vague, innocuous Bible verse to a specific political conclusion. As I asked, who was going to argue with God? But what if God never said anything that supported Witherspoon’s thesis? What if Witherspoon was merely practicing diversion with the skill of a stage magician? 

Witherspoon's method is called proof-texting. In proof-texting, any Bible verse, no matter how yanked out of context, can be taken literally and support the speaker's point. It's not the thought that counts; in proof-texting, it's the words that count. Word magic. Like casting an incantation. The Christian Right still proof-texts today. I showed a couple months ago how conservative preacher Paula White used similar language when she compared President Donald Trump’s enemies to the forces of wickedness: “Let the secret counsel of wickedness be turned to foolishness right now, in Jesus name.” She spoke as if Trump's enemies were the "secret counsel of wickedness." 

Two caveats: First, I am happy to live in a free and independent United States. Second, anyone steeped in American history knows that, although most of them belonged to one church or another and attended services occasionally, the Founders of our Republic were not, for the most part, especially religious.

Witherspoon’s sermon was printed up and widely distributed, thus reaching an audience much larger than the congregation that heard him deliver it aloud.

Walking in Witherspoon's footsteps, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. started the Christian Right’s resurgence when he founded the Moral Majority to encourage the election of conservative candidates. The Christian Right has infested politics and given Christianity a bad name ever since. 

A meme circulating on social media says, “you should never trust religious leaders to tell you how to vote. You should never trust politicians to tell you how to pray.” Truer words were never spoken, then, or now.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sonny Perdue Makes Fun of Minnesota Farmers. Are Republicans Taking Their Base for Granted?

Sonny Perdue, USDA photo
Public Speaking Rule #1: if you want the audience to trust you, don't make fun of them. Is that so hard?

I lived in the Central Savannah River region of South Carolina, right across the river from Augusta, Georgia, for many years, where I saw endless publicity releases, campaign ads, and news stories about Sonny Perdue when he was governor of Georgia. I never developed a high opinion of him and was appalled that anyone would vote for such a man.

Donald Trump appointed Perdue to be Secretary of Agriculture. Well, yes, Perdue grew up on a farm and, yes, Georgia is an agricultural state. Perdue's appointment made sense in some twisted reality.

Anyway, Trump's trade war with China, which is part of his misbegotten America First policy, has pushed the United States' family farms to the point of near-disaster. American farmers export much of their harvest and depend on international trade for their livelihood. China has retaliated against Trump's tariffs by cutting off American farm imports. Instead, China signed long-term trade agreements with other countries. Promised federal bailout money has mostly gone to big agribusinesses, not family farms.

Farmers, by and large, still support Trump. Still, when Perdue spoke to farmers in Minnesota a few days ago, he didn't seem to sense their concerns. He told them that, "If your solution is to forget about what China has done and sell and trade with them anyway with cheating, then I just fundamentally disagree with you." As the farmers continued to dissent, Perdue replied, "What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar." Whine cellar?

The audience booed. Of course.

So, here's the story: farmers, for the most part, love Trump. They are part of his voting base. Trump's policies, which should have surprised no one (what did farmers think "America First" meant?), are wrecking their businesses. The farmers expect Trump's Secretary of Agriculture to support agriculture. That seems reasonable. The farmers shared their concerns with the Secretary of Agriculture. He ridiculed them for being whiners.

Policy-wise, Perdue implied that farmers needed to tolerate economic hardship as part of Trump's trade war against China. To some extent, they probably will. But for how long? Rural America has voted solidly Republican for decades. I expect that to continue. But making fun of your own base can't end well.

Good public speakers establish rapport with their audience. When they have real concerns, telling them to stop whining is not just bad politics; it's also a bad public speaking technique.

P.S.: Tariffs are always popular, and they are always a bad idea.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Nutty Epstein Conspiracy Theories: Did Hillary Kill Him? Trump? Putin? Jack the Ripper? King Kong? Before We Believe a Conspiracy Theory, We Need Evidence.

If you want people to believe something, prove it. It is wicked to accuse people of doing something bad unless you have real evidence. Alas, conspiracy theorists seem to dominate our political world – and here comes the horrible case of accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Aren’t his alleged crimes bad enough? Why do people have to add more wrongs by spreading conspiracy theories? I'll look at some of the conspiracy theories, show why they are unproven, and give ways to tell real conspiracies from unproven conspiracy theories.

The Facts?
Jeffrey Epstein was found dead just this morning, a reported suicide, and the Epstein conspiracy theorists instantly started to clog up Twitter. They popped up faster than mushrooms on a rainy day in Ohio. The conspiracy theorists provide, as usual, no evidence for anything that they are saying. But since when has lack of evidence ever worried a conspiracy theorist?

The facts as we know them so far are: Epstein, a multi-millionaire who got rich with some sort of bizarre financial dealing, a friend of the rich and famous, was arrested and charged with many counts of sex trafficking and having sex with minors. Placed in federal lockup, he attempted suicide but, after several days, was taken off suicide watch, which gave him a second chance to kill himself.

Epstein has been photographed in the company of underage girls together with various famous personages, including President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton. Authorities have found records and videotapes that Epstein had made over the years, which might or might not mean that some famous people are getting very anxious.

Still, evidence of a conspiracy is going to take at least a matter of hours or, more likely, weeks or months, to emerge. If famous people did arrange for his murder, they are surely smart enough to work through intermediaries. They won’t be standing over the body with a bloody rope. The fact that the conspiracy theories arose immediately is by itself a sign that the conspiracy theorists are motivated by hatred, suspicion, or malice, not by evidence.

Conservative Nonsense
Conservatives, for example, are assuming that Bill and Hillary Clinton have added Epstein to their so-called “kill list.” As is not unusual for people their age, some of the Clintons’ associates have died of various well-explained causes. Still, every time somebody remotely associated with them dies, conservatives immediately add the name to their kill list. They have no evidence that the Clintons had a thing to do with any of these deaths, but the more conspiracy theories angry people come up with, the more evidence they think they have found. They are wrong. Zero evidence plus zero evidence, plus zero, plus zero, plus zero, equals zero. Every time.

My former philosophy professor William P. Alston compared this sort of thinking to a group of dead people sleeping together to stay warm. There is no evidence for any of the conspiracies, but if you pile up enough conspiracies for which you have no evidence, well – well – in real life – that doesn’t give you any proof that anyone conspired. You have merely proved that, once someone is a target of smears, that person is always a target of smears. The most suspicious conservatives have long called Hillary Clinton “Killary,” just to reinforce their conspiratorial thinking. 

For example, a Twitter account under the name Right in Illinois said that, “Jeffery Epstein is dead along with others in the past who were going to spill the beams on the Clinton's.” (Yes, it says “beams.” No one ever said that conspiracy theorists know how to spell.) President Donald Trump himself retweeted a wild accusation that Hillary Clinton may have been behind Epstein’s supposed murder. The ultra-conservative website Before It’s News has already published an article speculating that Epstein’s death adds to the “Clinton body count.” Laugh out loud? No, this kind of thinking isn’t funny. Not at all.

Liberal Nonsense
Liberal conspiracy theorists, however, point out that the prison was under Department of Justice control, that Attorney General William Barr is an obvious Trump stooge, and therefore assume that Barr must have arranged for his killing to protect President Trump. Although I have a low opinion of Mr. Barr, I can’t imagine that he would do something that evil or stupid, and there’s certainly no evidence that he did. That doesn’t stop the conspiracy theorists. A Twitter user called Omar S. tweeted, “Epstein was held in a building under the control of Bill Barr &; Trump. That's all you need to know.”

Anyway, there are thousands of these tweets – literally – and that’s just on one social media outlet. And I have yet to see any of them give any evidence: no eyewitnesses, no forensics, nothing.

I’m seeing only about half as many of these silly conspiracy theories from liberals as I am from conservatives, but even if conservatives are tweeting this nonsense twice as often, it is no defense for liberals to say they are only half as crazy.

Evaluating Conspiracy Theories
How do you know that a conspiracy theory is unsupported? I blogged about this earlier. Here are some additional points:

First, when we have many conspiracy theories – Bill Clinton did it, Hillary Clinton did it on behalf of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump ordered it, or William Barr ordered it, we know right off that there isn’t any evidence. Or someone thinks that Barr or some other official ordered Epstein to be taken off suicide watch hoping that he would die. I’ve seen a few tweets saying that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin arranged for Epstein’s death to help Trump. That’s all speculation: if the conspiracy theorists had evidence, the evidence would send them to a single conspiracy theory.

Second, if you make an accusation against someone, it is your burden of proof – and no one else’s – to give evidence that your accusation is true. Debaters have known this ever since Richard Whately wrote about it centuries ago.

Third, if the conspiracy theory erupts before any evidence is produced, you know that suspicion and fear, not reality, brought it into existence. In music, comedy, chess, and conspiracy theorizing, timing is everything.

Fourth, questions aren’t evidence. Yes, important questions should be answered. But are there unanswered questions? Of course. So what? As life putters along, you will always ask more questions than you will hear answers. Questions are just questions. Questions prove nothing.  Deal with it.

Suspicion + fear = conspiracy theories. But only evidence gives us truth. 

P.S.: Is it possible that some of Epstein’s rich and famous friends are sex criminals? Yes, it’s possible, but I will wait to make up my mind until I see the evidence. If they are guilty, I hope they get a fair trial and a long prison sentence. If they are not proved guilty, stop accusing them.  Proof: it’s a good thing to have.