Still Crying Wolf

Hitler and the Nazi’s have long held a quasi-mythological status in the American psyche. I do not know when this began, but it has simply been a fact for my entire conscious life.1 I can only imagine that, in centuries gone by, Satan and his devils filled the niche in the collective social consciousness that Hitler and his Nazis serve today.

Deep down, the people of all Western democracies wonder if their nation could–given the right historical circumstances–follow in the path of Nazi Germany. And all the citizens of these nations have wondered–at least at some point in their lives–if they would have had the courage and the foresight to have opposed Hitler’s rise. Because everyone wants to believe in their own heroism, and because the only evidence that they would have opposed the last Hitler is to oppose the next Hitler, there’s latent desire for someone to fill that role, just so that they could prove to themselves2 that they would pass the test.

This is related to what Scott Adams had in mind when he wrote his blog post: Be Careful What You Wish For (especially if it is Hitler).3:

But lately I get the feeling that Trump’s critics have evolved from expecting Trump to be Hitler to preferring it. Obviously they don’t prefer it in a conscious way. But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons. No one wants to be a confirmed moron. And certainly not after announcing their Trump opinions in public and demonstrating in the streets. It would be a total embarrassment for the anti-Trumpers to learn that Trump is just trying to do a good job for America. It’s a threat to their egos. A big one.

And this gets me to my point. When millions of Americans want the same thing, and they want it badly, the odds of it happening go way up. [emphasis original]

Adams hastened to clarify that he wasn’t “talking about any new-age magic.” Instead:

I’m talking about ordinary people doing ordinary things to turn Trump into an actual Hitler. For example, if protesters start getting violent, you could expect forceful reactions eventually. And that makes Trump look more like Hitler. I can think of dozens of ways the protesters could cause the thing they are trying to prevent. In other words, they can wish it into reality even though it is the very thing they are protesting.

I don’t agree with Adams on a lot of thing, even here. I don’t, for example, find the idea that “Trump is just trying to do a good job for America” to be credible. It seems clear to me that Trump is just trying to do a good job for Trump. However, I do think he’s right that the anti-Trump movement has become so invested in their own narrative of manning the barricades in a last-ditch defense against tyranny that they kind of need Trump to come through for them. Everybody wants to be a hero and so, deep down, everybody wants their enemies to be villains.

This is all a little bit abstract, however. Adams tries to make things concrete with his example of protesters going overboard, but there’s a much better example of how this can play out. It comes from Damon Linker’s piece: America’s spies anonymously took down Michael Flynn. That is deeply worrying. Linker makes a couple of vitally, vitally important philosophical points, like this one: “In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter.”4 Along those lines, he points out that–even though the resignation of Michael Flynn is a good thing–the fact that he was essentially removed by intelligence professionals as part of a “soft coup (or political assassination)” is a serious concern. In particular:

The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That’s bad. But the answer isn’t to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage — or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.

As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News put it in an important article following Flynn’s resignation,

Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do. [Bloomberg]

Those cheering the deep state torpedoing of Flynn are saying, in effect, that a police state is perfectly fine so long as it helps to bring down Trump.

I haven’t had an awful lot to say–on my blog or even to friends and family in person–about Trump since the election. This is why. I haven’t figured out a good method of opposing Trump that doesn’t feed into the larger pendulum-swinging crisis in American politics. A lot of the opposition to Trump–both before and especially since the election–has been not only hysterical and unprincipled, but deeply, seriously dangerous. The reality is that at this point opposing Trump–in most places and for most people–is not an act of courage or bravery because it doesn’t carry any substantial risk. Take Attorney General Sally Yates. She was lauded as a hero because she ordered the Department of Justice attorneys not to defend Trump’s immigration executive order and was subsequently fired. Her opposition to the executive order is laudable, but there’s not even a glimmer of heroism in how she went about it. She was a political appointee on her way out anyway. Her grandstanding cost her literally nothing and earned her endless applause and praise. Heroism has certainly never come cheaper than that.Whether it’s violent protests at Berkeley, punching Richard Spencer, or applauding the growth of an unaccountable police state (see above), the anti-Trump movement is increasingly dominated by a radical fringe hellbent on racing Trump down the downward spiral of dishonesty, hysteria, and extremism.

I believe in defending our nation from Trump’s cavalier disregard for law and principle. But I also believe in defending our nation from the escalating cycle of co-dependent extremism. Journalists, who fall over themselves to run 16 fake anti-Trump news stories in the first month of his presidency, are making King Pyrrhus proud; even if they win they will find they have shredded the last vestiges of their credibility in the process. It’s time to reiterate that one Nietzsche quote everyone knows5:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.


Maybe Trump is the next Hitler, but I doubt it. He’s probably not the next Stalin or Mao or Mussolini either. He doesn’t have the commitment, the talent, the opportunity, or the ideology to pull it off. But if we keep pushing the pendulum further on every swing with escalating hyper-partisanship and if we sabotage our own institutions–from the civil services to the mainstream media to expectations of basic decency–we will find that on the day when an American Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini steps up onto the stage, we will have ripped all of our institutional safeguards to shreds already.

Trump got elected because the American right keeps crying wolf when it comes to illegal immigrants and terrorists and because the American left keeps crying wolf when it comes to fascism and bigotry. Neither side has learned their lesson. And so the crying wolf continues. The reality is, we haven’t seen the wolf.6


13 thoughts on “Still Crying Wolf”

  1. Nathaniel – it’s Kelsey :). First of all I enjoy reading your articles and they are so intelligently and thoughtfully written that it’s such a relief and even a pleasure to read, especially with the constant chaos being reported every second across every media platform right now.

    The truth is I don’t know what to do. I did not vote for Trump because of a million reasons, and I still can’t believe he actually won. I’m not a democrat (I’m affiliated with neither party because both scare me/frustrate for varying reasons. I voted for Hillary because I was voting against Trump. I am aware many people, especially the right, voted for Trump to vote against Hillary). I think Trump is an egotistical, sexist, racist buffoon, and a disgrace to any thinking person. In my eyes, he is repulsive on every level. The people he’s picking in his cabinet are horrendous. I am, on my own account, disgusted by what he’s doing and what he’s done. But I certainly agree that he’s not Hitler for the reasons you expanded on. However, I do think that what is going on right now with politics in our country is how these horrendous types of tragedies begin. It’s a seed. Where half the country passionately, and even violently, disagrees with the other half. This is how it begins. I’m not saying at all it’s going to happen – again pointing to your points above – but as a reader of history, this is how terrible things begin. War, oppression, hypocrisy, disenfranchisement of race/religion/gender, etc.. That ‘s what scares me.

    The one thing I disagree with in your article – or actually it’s not that I disagree, but rather I have a comment on: You mentioned, “the hysterical and unprincipled, but deeply, seriously dangerous” reaction the Trump opposition is having. But wasn’t the right just as hysterical and unprincipled against Hillary Clinton/the left during the election? Remember the Republican National Convention? From my, admittedly amateur (I’m not nearly as well versed in politics are you are), perspective it looks like both parties are and have been frantically trying to tear the other down. The hatred towards Hillary was even more hysterical than when Obama won and the Tea Party did their thing.

    I remember back when Bush (II) won – the liberals were constantly tearing him down. Then Obama had eight years and the right did the same thing the left did over the previous eight years. And it’s even difficult to have a sane, logical conversation with both the left and right, but, at least in my experience, the right has been particularly difficult because they get their news from Fox and Brietbart. They tune in to news that constantly agrees with their opinions, so an accurate dialogue never truly occurs. The left reads and watches the left media, the right reads and watches the right media.

    And now the tearing down between both parties is the most extreme it’s ever been in my lifetime. It’s scary. And I am terrified of Trump. As a writer and reader, and thinking person, facts matter. The past matters. The Trump administration and his followers are blatantly disenfranchising facts. That scares me more than anything else. (And as a feminist Trump also disgusts me but that’s a story for another day).

    What I’m really saying is I am scared and appalled with politics in our country right now. Your writing helps me get through it, so thank you. I would love to hear what you think of my ramblings. I’m trying to be level-headed, rational, and thoughtful in these very chaotic times. Your writing has always helped me with this. So thank you and keep my mind alert and healthily skeptical :)

  2. I interpret the vast majority of the opposition to Trump as a reaction to his contempt for law, abetted by the Republican establishment. What horrifies liberals isn’t that Trump advances conservative policies, but that he can get away with ignoring the law and standards of democracy because Congress so wants to see those policies enacted that they refuse to bring law to bear on the various misdeeds of the Trump administration. When Republicans refuse to even consider Merrick Garland, openly adopt the defeat of a Democratic President as their primary policy goal, and Rand Paul is explicitly opposing investigating Republicans simply because they’re Republicans, we’ve already abandoned a democracy based on law. Once we’re ignoring democratic norms and laws, what reason can we give to anyone not to celebrate the ascendancy of an extra-legal source of power on their own side?

  3. Kelsey and Trond-

    I’m gonna reply to y’all together, because you raised a similar point. Kelsey wrote:

    But wasn’t the right just as hysterical and unprincipled against Hillary Clinton/the left during the election?

    Trond wrote:

    you say that now but didn’t you spend the last eight years saying Barack Hussein Obama was the wolf?

    So I’m not sure if by “you” Trond means me personally or just conservatives in general. As for myself, I did buy into some hysteria about President Obama, especially in 2006 through 2009 or 2010. (I don’t know that I was aware of Obama in 2006, but at that point I was basically buying into the Democrats = bad, Republicans = good dichotomy.) For me, the turning point was reading Dinesh D’Souza’s “Roots of Obama’s Rage.” The argument was so poorly reasoned and so unnecessarily inflammatory that it made me realize how much I’d been duped.

    I continued to oppose Obama after that, but I dropped the “Obama is a socialist” nonsense.

    Now, as for the right more broadly speaking: yes they did (by and large) spend the last 8 years fear-mongering about President Obama. I would say they weren’t as bad then as the left is now, but a lot of that is due to the fact that Obama is nowhere near as dangerous / corrupt / incompetent as President Trump. Furthermore, I see it as a cycle of escalation, and I fully expect the GOP to be worse than the Democrats in 2020 or 2024.

    Which gets to Kelsey’s point: yeah, I do see a broad pattern of escalating radicalization, and it’s my primary concern right now. It seems to matter less who is elected. If it’s a Democrat, the GOP will become unhinged. And if it’s a Republican than vice versa.

    Now, I do happen to think that Hillary was also uniquely corrupt in a way that made the opposition to her a little less hard to rationalize (the same way the opposition to Trump is more understandable than the opposition to Obama), but those are just details.

    The broad pattern is one of escalating extremism, and it’s eroding the foundations of our democracy. Everyone’s worried about who occupies the Presidency, but it’s the bedrock institutions that have me worried.

  4. To avoid confusion, I’d just like to note that the Kelsey who posted first is different from me.

    To me, it seems like there’s a simple, principled option available to decrease polarization and improve confidence in our institutions, and it’s for Republicans to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Russian ties of the Trump administration and a second to examine issues with conflicts of interest. The Democrats have very little legitimate power, and have every reason to expect that Republicans will use whatever dirty tricks are available to keep it that way. I can’t think of anything the Democrats could do which would have anywhere near the impact of Republicans treating themselves like the law applies to them; Rand Paul’s recent comments struck me as the worst possible note to strike.

  5. I take a small issue with your metaphor: in the story, the boy crying wolf knew there was no wolf. He did not believe there was danger. The current dissent (and judging from “we endured 8 years of tyranny, now it is your turn!” comments, the past dissent) is sincere. People really do believe there is a wolf.

  6. “However, I do think he’s right that the anti-Trump movement has become so invested in their own narrative of manning the barricades in a last-ditch defense against tyranny that they kind of need Trump to come through for them. Everybody wants to be a hero and so, deep down, everybody wants their enemies to be villains.”

    “the anti-Trump movement is increasingly dominated by a radical fringe hellbent on racing Trump down the downward spiral of dishonesty, hysteria, and extremism.”

    As a Liberal who is very anti-Trump, I wanted to speak to these comments because I think they are inacurate and miss the point. While this may describe some anti-Trumpers, I think I speak for many when I say that most would love nothing more than to be proven wrong. I understand your theory, but being right for the sake of winning is not what drives the average Libral. What we want most of all is a stable and effective government that seeks to make the country a better place for everyone. The goal is “let’s all just get along, accept each other’s differences, protect the environment, help the disadvantaged, treat refugees and immigrants fairly, give access to reasonably priced health care to everyone, fair wages, fair tax policies, reduce wealth inequity, give everyone a chance at the American dream. This stuff matters to us a whole lot more than “being right”. We would gladly accept an olive branch from the GOP if one were offered. You give a little, we’ll give a little and let’s meet in the middle.

    The way things are going, being right sucks. It’s not fun constantly worrying about what is happening, being terrified of what the angry madman in charge is going to do next, anxiety about Russia’s involement, chaos and destabilization of our government, concerns about a war being started, inciting terrorists, the divisiveness, the hate and the anger. It’s been so much worse than most anticipated. The protests from the left have been overwhelmingly peaceful with people carrying signs that say “love Trump’s hate”. The violent protesters at Berkley were not students, but we’re radical anarchists who invaded the campus.

    Say what you will about Hillary. She has her flaws, but had she won she would be reaching across the aisle and doing everything in her power to heal the divide and unify the country. For that reason it is especially painful to have a POTUS who is doing his best to widen the divide and feed into the hate. Who wins in this scenario? No matter which team you are on, right now we are ALL losing. Some just don’t realize it yet.

  7. There’s a number of things here that really shouldn’t pass without a closer examination.

    Let’s start with Scott Adams:

    “But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons. No one wants to be a confirmed moron.”

    On a general level, Adams is not wrong that people get invested in their conclusions, but he’s overstating his case a lot. I think many people find it useful to make a distinction between making a judgment that turns out to be incorrect, and, well, whatever permanent characteristics one might assign to morons, which for me is either a developmental slowness or an inability to learn from people or your environment.

    And on a more specific level, this kind of moron-hood is not anything I can find evidence for in the portion of Trump’s opposition I’m acquainted with. Almost to a person, everyone I know personally who is terrified or angry about him has stated they will be pleased if he doesn’t turn out to be an authoritarian nightmare. Some have explicitly used phrases to the effect “I hope what actually happens makes my concerns look silly.”

    People do become invested in their conclusions. But that’s much less often true of their nightmares, from which most people are pleased to wake up.

    To Linker’s/Lake’s point:

    “In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter.”

    The problem here is that it’s not really clear what occurred is an institutional failure, certainly not clear that it’s one that indicates a particularly ominous or even unprecedented breakdown. The actions here boil down to the leaking of information. There are generally good reasons why some information is not public and why procedures are followed with it. At the same time, there’s also a fine tradition of individuals at times choosing to ignore these rules and leak usually privileged information that they believe as a matter of conscience is something important to have the public’s attention. Such whistleblowing and leaking is arguably an essential institution itself.

    But even if you wouldn’t go that far… it stretches credibility beyond breaking to conclude that *publicizing information* about the dealings, connections, and policies of key figures in power is indicative of an *unaccountability* when it comes to government. Selective disclosure of things that should be personal, sure, I might agree that amounts to character assassination. But that’s not what we’re talking about with Flynn. And the participation in that process of actors inside the intelligence community doth not alone a deep state coup make.

    A couple of other points:

    Since you brought up the violence about Berkeley AND news stories where a possibly inaccurate narrative is woven around barely understood reported facts (and I intentionally use that phrasing as opposed to “fake news” because if you look closely at those 16 fake news stories, you’ll find that description fits many of them better)… this is one place where if you’re serious about practicing principled moderation of the swinging pendulum you might do well to take a closer look. Look up “black bloc anarchists,” and a history of where else they’ve appeared. Look up some accounts from identified student protestors at Berkeley about their intent and actions. If you still believe when you’re done with that reading that the violence was primarily caused by UCB students and fueled by hysterical anti-Trump sentiment, I don’t have a way of proving it’s false, because short of identifying and interviewing those involved in the violence, no one does, but I rather suspect when you’re done with that reading, you’ll consider it plausible that there are other explanations.

    I can’t really figure out what Sally Yates is doing in this article. It’s fair enough to say that she doesn’t cut a particularly heroic figure for making the judgment call she did and for being predictably removed. Why the need to take her laudable contribution down a notch, particularly as filler for a paragraph apparently dedicated to the idea that Trump’s opposition is “deeply dangerous”? Even if her contribution could be qualified as symbolic, that’s hardly dangerous, particularly when there’s no indication she wouldn’t have offered more than symbolic resistance if she held a position where she had the power to do so.

    Spencer’s encounter with gratuitous violence is disturbing — that’s the most credible thing in your whole post, and if it were fair to generalize that action to “a lot” of Trump’s opposition, then I’d be even more concerned. But other than this high profile example, the agitation I’m seeing now has previous precedent in conjunction with the friction of protest… and given the higher energy and participation in the protests, frankly, the fact that we’re talking about *precedented* levels belies the idea that there’s something specifically deeply, deeply dangerous. Perhaps you should consider exactly what you mean by “a lot of the opposition to Trump” and why you’ve painted a picture where Spencer figures so prominently in its composition.

    And while we’re on the topic, the idea that agitated resistance can call forth violent suppression might be true… but let’s be sure to note that agitated resistance was present under both of the two most recent presidencies. Police abuse was hardly unheard of, and is a matter of concern, but both Bush and Obama managed to avoid going totalitarian, if for some reason a Trump administration takes a different tack, it’s pretty safe to put the responsibility squarely on its officials rather than the population.

    “the American left keeps crying wolf when it comes to fascism and bigotry.”

    It might be fair to say that the left (among others) has in the past used fascist as an epithet instead of a genuine warning, and in so doing diluted the power of future warnings, as the story goes.

    It’s probably even accurate to say it is not clear if the wolf of totalitarian fascism is approaching, or question whether Trump could pull it off.

    But then again, a year and a half ago most of the thoughtful would have also said Trump didn’t have the commitment, the talent, the opportunity, or the ideology to pull off being a Republican nominee, much less elected to the office of president. Nevertheless, he found the campaign team and activated the voters that let him do exactly that, in the face of full-throated opposition and any number of other institutions with incentives and ostensible ability to stop him.

    I’m not sure why anyone thoughtful would think they correctly have his limits dialed in. And if this particular combination of features isn’t the moment when someone can credibly say “Hey, village, this looks *a lot like a wolf*, certainly enough that we should be paying close attention even if it’s not” then I’d love to see you lay out your suggestions of exactly what thresholds need to be passed.

  8. Yeah, we got a small proportion of Black Bloc folks at a protest here in Rochester, NY, and everybody else was pretty pissed at them.

  9. Hi – sorry this is Kelsey Arp here with the first comment. I love seeing another Kelsey though! There aren’t a lot of us :)

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