By Sarah Roark, contributor to refusefascism.org
Bad takes on Trump’s shutdown and threat to declare an emergency to build his wall abound. Let’s cut through the Smart-Sounding Bullshit™ and talk about what’s actually happening.
Trump is losing! (Again!) Trump is on the brink of disaster! (Again!) Trump is making such a fool of himself! (Again!) Mueller and Pelosi (or Ocasio-Cortez, or Waters, or insert-your-liberal/progressive-hero-here) are coming for Trump and he’s lashing out in the sweaty desperation of a man about to fall completely apart! (Again!)
Honest! And this time, for sure. This time I will totally hold the football still and you’ll absolutely get to kick it, Charlie Brown. Just hang on for one more week, one more month, one more year and it’ll happen!
This is a seductive narrative, and it’s not hard to understand why.
It’s what everybody wants to hear. It’s what I’d like to hear. It would reassure us that somewhere up there – in Congress or Heaven or the FBI – there’s some deus ex machina of democracy, some guardian angel of sanity and decency who’s going to swoop in any moment now and give us back the world that, however flawed we knew it was, was at least “normal.” Comprehensible. The world we liked to think we knew how to navigate. Where we could trust the grownups in charge to try not to let terrible things happen to all of society, and ordinary folk could concentrate on trivial things like surviving and taking care of our loved ones in a system of toxic capitalism.
How true this worldview ever was is a deep question for another time. But that overall idea continues to rule what we’re supposed to take as wise commentary despite its having proved demonstrably, repeatedly, and recently untrue.
What we desperately wish were the case, is not the case. And we’re not doing humanity any favors by continuing to pretend. But some people, who unfortunately are very good at sounding right even when they’re 100% wrong – whose job requires they look like they know what they’re talking about no matter what – do benefit from pretending. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” But for the rest of us who aren’t paid to not-understand things, what’s our excuse?
I don’t think we have one. So, let’s actually look at this crisis point which the shutdown is rapidly bringing us to. In order to do that, I’m going to make an example of this piece from Politico titled “Stop Freaking Out About Trump’s State of Emergency Threats,” by Zachary Karabell. (Yep. The yelling at us to stop yelling? Is baked right into the headline. It gets better.)
And I’m afraid I’m going to be extremely mean to it. Because while not every dollop of nonsense on the Internet matters, some do. The ones selling you veggie smoothie powder to cure your cancer do. The ones selling public complacency amid the fascist collapse of a nuclear superpower do.
There’s one specific paragraph in the article that brings a lot of bad take together in one compact package. It is a prime example of what I like to call Smart-Sounding Bullshit™: it sounds like logic, it reads like logic, but it’s not actually logic. And it leads people to an understanding of our very perilous situation that is the exact opposite of reality. Which…I wish I didn’t have to repeat this…matters.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about some dumb, ignorant group of other people, over there. I mean us. I mean all of us. Sometimes the smartest people are the most vulnerable to this brand of bullshit. That’s how these pundits convince themselves of these delusions, in fact. They’re not dumb or uneducated. They’re just drinking each other’s Kool-Aid and constantly reinforcing the shared fantasy.
Sadly, the result of that is functionally indistinguishable from idiocy.
From the article:
“As with all things Trump, the knee-jerk reaction to the idea of the president declaring a national emergency has been extreme. Yes, Trump is manufacturing a crisis and wants to use an expansive notion of executive power to solve it; that may echo a path to tyranny, but as shadows on a cave wall aren’t the real objects, an echo is not the same thing as the real sound. Declaring a national emergency to solve an invented crisis might be misguided. It might be venal, cynical and wrong. It might set a terrible precedent, one that should not stand. And it might not pass the test of law if challenged in courts. That does not turn it into an existential threat.”
Okay, there’s a lot of frantic language-juggling in there, with the clear intent of making us feel like stupid sheeple for even worrying. But I don’t really care how I’m supposed to feel, so unless you care, let’s start from the conclusion and work backwards.
“That does not turn it into an existential threat.”
There are, presumably, other things that would turn it into an existential threat – but those things apparently don’t include any of the ones he listed. And I’m not really sure why:
- It may not pass the test of law. I don’t have a J.D., but my impression’s always been that when something doesn’t pass the test of law, it’s usually because it’s…illegal. So, in other words: the President doing illegal things? Not an existential threat. Check. Moving on.
- It may set a terrible precedent that should not stand. Also not an existential threat; fine. But when we call something a terrible precedent, what we generally mean is, it could lead to terrible things later on. Which is why it should not stand, and its standing would be terrible.
- So…what exactly is the terrible something that Karabell is acknowledging this declaration could lead to? He doesn’t say. I’d like to know, before I go along with the idea that I’m overreacting.
- It might be venal, cynical, and wrong. And misguided. Also not a problem. Overreacting. Got it.
- It might echo a path to tyranny. Okay. This one, I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to mean. “Echo” a path? How does a path “echo”… never mind. Put the mixed metaphor down and back away slowly.
- An echo is thing that imitates something else. Specifically, it imitates its own source – the thing that produced, led to, or inspired it. Yet it’s not identical to that source. It just resembles it.
- We only know an echo is an echo, and not the real thing, because there’s some difference that gives it away. Some distortion, some weakening. So what’s the difference here? What enables Karabell and us to confidently declare Trump’s proposed emergency declaration (and the ensuing seizure of resources and powers he normally wouldn’t be allowed to)…a mere imitation of tyranny?
- How, exactly, are we sure that it’s not the real thing?
- It is manufacturing a crisis and then proposing to “solve” it with an expansion of executive power.
- I can’t argue with any of that. That’s dead factual. Now remind me why lying and scapegoating refugees in order to seize emergency extraconstitutional powers in a situation that doesn’t remotely justify any of that is sometimes regarded as a possible problem?
- A problem, by the way, that the author clearly feels obligated to raise before he can dismiss it – as opposed to not mentioning it at all, which is what you do with things that aren’t problems.
- Actually, I’m not being fair here: it’s not an expansion of executive power, it’s an “expansive notion [emphasis mine] of executive power.” That’s a significant word choice, because notions are much less dangerous than deeds. Only silly people get worked up about mere notions. Like, the notion of an echo of a path to tyranny. (Or a mere shadow on a cave wall, which is a reference to Plato. Mind you, in Plato’s famous analogy the “shadows” are actually the real-world, individual examples of a thing, while what throws the shadows is the general conceptual ideal of said thing – so in fact, it’s the cave shadows in the metaphor that are in some sense more real than the OH NEVER MIND.)
So now you see what I mean by Smart-Sounding Bullshit™. It sounds like logic. It reads like logic. But it’s not actually logic. (It might be a shadow or an echo of logic. ::halo emoji::) But you don’t necessarily know that, until you inspect it closely and actually try to follow it from premise to conclusion. Certainly, it uses all the best words.
The process it employs is a facsimile of logic, because it appears to be bringing up counterarguments and then striking them down. That is a traditional way to format an argument. But the trouble is, he isn’t striking the counterarguments down with contrary facts. He’s just using the word “may” as a disqualifying label.
It makes exactly as much sense as if I said: “Mussolini may have acted the way most scholars agree is how fascists act; and he may have literally called himself a fascist; and he may have actually helped form the very concept of Fascism; and he may have gone on to drown millions of people in a bloodbath carried out solely for the sake of expansionism and domination in service to the fascist Ur-myth…but these are merely things that look a whole lot like fascism. Not the genuine article! Don’t worry, I see how you might have been fooled, but now it’s time to stop being foolish. Mussolini was not a fascist. You’re not helping grownup politics recover with your hysterias, you know.”
See what I did there? No evidence that this wasn’t fascism was actually brought to bear. All I did was pretend to acknowledge your points, then simply declare them untrue.
That’s not logic, but the emotional content and the style are cleverly constructed to send an underlying message of “I diagnose these maladies much better than you, because I diagnose them better. You can’t tell butter from margarine or diamonds from cut glass. You are clearly out of your depth, and interfering with the intelligent converse that actually solves problems. Sit down.”
And that message does transmit. Reading this, I felt vaguely embarrassed and belittled. Until I went through it again to analyze what the actual content was, only to realize there…kind of wasn’t any.
That broke the illusion pretty quickly.
In Part 2 I’ll get more into the facts that actively prove the narrative of “Trump is losing, you’re freaking out about nothing” to be just flat wrong. But it was crucial to note before we dive into details that in spite of the pantomime of rationality here, no actual facts have been presented from the opposing side either. The author has so far shown us nothing at all – only asserted, with a confident veneer of authority.
Which would matter less, if the ability of people with bad agendas to assert complete lies with a veneer of confident authority weren’t a lot of what put fascists in our White House in the first place.
Sarah Roark is a contributor to refusefascism.org, an organization mobilizing to drive out the Trump/Pence regime though a sustained, non-violent protest movement. Their slogan is “In the name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America.” Follow her on Twitter @AfterDaylight.