Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Trump Tragedy

Welcome to listeners of Seth Andrews’s The Thinking Atheist podcast! Here is the text version of my contribution to his annual Ghost Stories episode, with footnotes.
People had turned away from the fundamental principles of a civil society”–liberty, equality, education, optimism and belief in progress”–and faith in reason to embrace “the forces of the unconscious, of unthinking dynamism and of pernicious creativity,” which rejected everything intellectual. Fed by those tendencies and carried by a “gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive, populist fairground barking,” National Socialism pursued “a politics of the grotesque . . . replete with Salvation Army allures, reflexive mass paroxysms, amusement-park chiming, cries of hallelujah and mantra-like repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone foamed at the mouth.”
—Thomas Mann, October 1930.1
A class act (from CNN)

I’ve been following U.S. politics closely for thirty years. It’s been sort of a civic hobby of mine, a fascination with the process of representative democracy.

Election nights always felt to me like a celebration of sorts, even when my side lost. The majesty of our shared Constitution stood proud and resolute over my disappointment or elation, a solid structure to house and protect the nation’s differences. I fondly remember driving home to the soothing voices of NPR hosts already announcing the electoral votes of some important state on the East Coast. At home or a neighbor’s house, I’d watch on the TV screen and, later, on my own Internet browser, to see the states lighting up in their contrasting colors.

The people were making their choices known. It was a wondrous act of civic communion, being enacted in school cafeterias and grange halls and church foyers across the country, one check box at a time. The pundits and politicians and talk show hosts could only sit and watch it happen, in all its unstoppable glory, just like everybody else.

Eventually, victors would stand beaming among cheers and losers would wave sadly at their disappointed backers. Except for the drama and unseemly judicial politics of Bush v. Gore in 2000, everybody quickly found some gracious words for their opponents and promised to work together for the good of the nation.2

This time it’s different. The Republican Party’s nominee for our nation’s highest office has conducted his campaign like an eight-year old schoolyard bully, spewing out childish insults against not just his opponent but seemingly everyone who dares to criticize him, including fellow Republicans. As November 8 mercifully draws near, with the polls showing him facing a humiliating landslide loss to a tarnished and unpopular Democrat, he is lashing out with accusations of a rigged election.3

“The whole thing is one big fix,” “one big ugly lie,” he told his crowd at a rally in North Carolina last week, after an extended heated denial about “fabricated” sexual assault accusations, an assessment of Hillary’s attractiveness as seen from behind (“She walks in front of me . . . believe me, I wasn’t impressed”), some rounds of “lock her up” chants, and a “get him outta here” protester eviction.4

“This whole election is being rigged,” he said a day later in Cincinnati, according to a Boston Globe article observing that “Trump is now using the prospect of his loss to undermine faith in democratic institutions.” If he loses (I will venture to say “when”), some of his supporters “are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem.” It’s no exaggeration, judging from what one of those supporters had to say:

“If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take . . . . I would do whatever I can for my country.”5

Bowel Movement

Trump wrapped up his North Carolina speech by boasting, “This is a movement like nobody’s ever seen in this country before.”6 He may be right about that, unfortunately. I’m terrified for the future of this country, because I’ve paid some attention to what’s happened elsewhere in the past.

Democratic governments–technically, republics–are fragile civic arrangements between people who agree to respect majority opinions they may not share, to put up with a degree of regulations based on those opinions. The agreement need not be unanimous, but the “consent of the governed” cannot withstand even a strong minority who want to see the whole thing torn down. Such minorities grow in number and loudness when they see themselves being used as tools rather than respected as fellow citizens. Those angry white men shoving protesters and jeering and shouting themselves hoarse at Trump rallies have some legitimate grievances.

But they’ve found an odd sort of champion in this tax-avoiding7 billionaire who began his speech in North Carolina talking about owning property there (no cheers for that line), peddles Chinese-made clothes,8 and stiffs everyday people who do work for him.9 The idea of him being a standard-bearer of the Religious Right’s family values agenda is laughable, even without regard to his change of heart about abortion.10 One of the most reasonable explanations I’ve heard for Trump being the GOP candidate of the huddled masses came from a friend of mine recently:

People are so stinking tired of the single party-like system that services the elites. There was no conspiracy to put him there. He saw the disenfranchisement people were feeling and capitalized on it.

The only major party that will put up a candidate that is a true outsider is the Republican Party because they didn’t implement a superdelegate system like the democrats did back in the seventies. And the only way an outsider will win the Republican nomination against the established machine is to be highly controversial, because it’s the only to get attention without having an unlimited spigot of money.

“Controversy is the only way to stand out against the kleptocracy,” my friend concludes. “Nice people do not win in this scenario.”11

Before I respond to that with some glib analogy about getting rid of bedbugs with a propane canister left open overnight plus a match, I must admit to having actually cheered Donald Trump’s ascent in the Republican primaries. It was clear from the infantile antics and debate-night food fights that he would be the easiest for the Democrat to defeat.12 For once, the GOP’s elites and billionaire patrons found themselves unable to ease in a genteel puppet like Jeb! to keep the money funneling upward, the environmental regulations disappearing, and everything from Social Security to our national forests going private. Certainly, they could find a way to manipulate Trump into doing most of that for them, too, if it came to that.

But, as I breezily told a few friends, there simply was no way Trump would win in November. Relax, I said, it won’t even be close. Now we have this glorious festering moron as the GOP nominee.

Well, at various times since then, I wound up abandoning all that confidence. Compulsively checking and rechecking the latest projection at FiveThirtyEight.com, back in September, I wondered how the hell this guy was running even in the polls. (Still checking: The polls-only forecast now gives him a 11.4% probability of winning, not low enough for my liking.) There were a few very dark nights of the soul when I wished the only thing the name Donald Trump meant to me was something vague about a combed-over windbag who churned his way through a few wives and bankruptcies and fired people on TV.

Bonfire of the Vanity

Allow me to simply give voice to a deep-seated revulsion that has welled up from too many hours now spent in the vile virtual company of that scowling and smirking face, the hand waving and hog calling that passes for campaign speeches, the volleys of infantile insult bombs launched on Twitter: Donald Trump is a proven serial liar, an immature schoolyard bully, a pathetic attention-craving egotist, and a truly gaping asshole.13

“This is not how decent human beings behave,” the First Lady said last week after gagging along with the rest of us on the recorded voice of “a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior, and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV.” This, as she said, is not normal.14

So just what is just going on inside that large orange head? The behavior is so unseemly, so far beyond the pale, that people naturally have been tempted to make psychological speculations. A Google search for “trump mental illness,” run through an anonymizer with my cookies cleared to avoid biasing the algorithm, yields a million hits.

The top result is of an article in The Atlantic by Psychology professor Dan P. McAdams, entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump.” McAdams found he could “discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost.” It is, he said, “as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation.” A couple of other psychologists he cited had similar impressions:

Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”15

Now, this was all written back in June, before Trump announced his VP pick by spending nearly a half hour standing by himself on stage, “delivering a long and improvised riff that emulated his rallies instead of a traditional vice-presidential debut” and then finally getting to the matter of talking about somebody else.16 Before he reacted to his opponent’s criticism of his past treatment of Miss Universe 1996 with a series of tweets about a non-existent “sex tape,” her “terrible” past, her being “disgusting” and a “con.” And of course before he was heard saying in the tape that disgusted so many of us and at long last eliminated the possibility of his presidency, “You can do anything” when you’re a star.17


McAdams and those he quotes don’t go so far as to connect the narcissism they see with mental illness, but even what they’ve said has raised criticism from their peers. In August, the president of the American Psychiatric Association “reminded her organization’s members of the so-called Goldwater Rule, ‘which prohibits psychiatrists from offering opinions on someone they have not personally evaluated.’” It seems that Barry Goldwater so disturbed 1,100 psychiatrists during his 1964 campaign that they told a survey taker he “was psychologically unfit to be president.”

Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, is one of the critics of such armchair psychiatry. (McAdams, Gardner, and Simon are psychologists, not psychiatrists, for what that’s worth.) She writes that Trump “most certainly does not have a Personality Disorder” (isn’t that a diagnosis of sorts?), but she certainly isn’t a fan:

This does not make Trump fit to be president, not by any means. He must be by far the least suitable person ever to run for high office in the US completely disqualified by habitual dishonesty, bullying, bravado, bloviating ignorance, blustery braggadocio, angry vengefulness, petty pique, impulsive unpredictability, tyrannical temper, fiscal irresponsibility, imperial ambitions, constitutional indifference, racism, sexism, minority hatred, divisiveness, etc.18

Fine, so let’s all agree not to label Donald Trump as being mentally ill. Let’s agree that even a psychiatrist couldn’t ethically make a diagnosis from afar. The pattern-recognition circuits in my brain still light up uncomfortably when I read what Wikipedia has to say about Narcissistic personality disorder, which it calls

a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others’ feelings. People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them.

People with the disorder “are characterized by their persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a disdain and lack of empathy for others,” Wikipedia says. “These individuals often display arrogance, a sense of superiority, and power-seeking behaviors.” This isn’t just self-confidence gone into overdrive. Rather, narcissists “typically value themselves over others to the extent that they disregard the feelings and wishes of others and expect to be treated as superior regardless of their actual status or achievements.” They “may exhibit fragile egos, an inability to tolerate criticism, and a tendency to belittle others in an attempt to validate their own superiority.” To “protect the self at the expense of others,” narcissists “tend to devalue, derogate, insult, [and] blame others and they often respond to threatening feedback with anger and hostility.”19

If I’d been presented with that description before reading anything about narcissism and then asked to provide an example of someone whose recent behavior matches it, I know what my answer would be. And considering what’s at stake for the entire country, that bothers me a lot. This isn’t just about avoiding drama from unfortunate relatives or poorly chosen friends.

More descriptions are found in a new book by some Jungian psychologists, entitled A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump. The editors and contributors know better than to say something like “Trump is a pathological narcissist,” and their publisher starts things off with this stern preface:

Let us be clear: The contributors, editors, and publisher have not engaged in diagnosis of any public figures mentioned in the pages that follow. Specifically, we are not claiming that any public figures or leaders mentioned have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). To establish a diagnosis of any psychological disorder requires individual assessment by a qualified mental health professional. Proper diagnosis is reached only after thorough, individual diagnostic evaluation.20

Then, turning the page to their “Introduction to Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” they say:

The extreme utterances and behaviors displayed by candidates like Mr. Trump may have shined a light on narcissism and perhaps given society a chance to confront this phenomenon head-on. We wish to reiterate that we are not proposing that Donald Trump suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, nor are we proposing he does not. Yet we wish to thank him and other candidates in the 2016 presidential election for the opportunity to take an honest look in the mirror and confront our individual and collective narcissism.

So, just what is this Narcissistic Personality Disorder they say Trump may or may not suffer from? Their answer refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual–the “Psychiatrist’s Bible,” 5th edtition:

The DSM 5 defines people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder as having very specific attributes. They show enduring patterns of grandiosity, an absence of empathy, and a need for being admired by others throughout adulthood. People with grandiosity have a sense of superiority, viewing themselves as better than others. They often look at others with a sense of disdain and perceive others as inferior themselves. They see themselves as unique and overly important and often exaggerate their achievements. Lacking empathy, they are unmoved by others’ suffering. They have difficulty seeing how their actions can harm others or how someone might feel in a particular situation.

To meet the criteria for NPD, the DSM 5 requires at least 5 out of the following 9 characteristics to be met: grandiosity; fantasies of unlimited power and success; sees self as “special” and only associates with others of high status; needs admiration; has a sense of entitlement; is interpersonally exploitative; lacks empathy; is envious of others; or appears arrogant.

Even people who fail to meet 5 of the 9 the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, those said to have narcissistic traits, may experience difficulties in the way they relate to the world. The distinction between narcissistic traits and narcissistic personality disorder is sometimes subtle and difficult to make.21

In the next chapter, the editors let their feelings be known about the Goldwater Rule, saying “it seems ill-conceived that laypersons with no formal training or experience should be free to opine on the psychology of public figures aspiring to high office, while trained, experienced professionals are gagged.” Then they go on provide some examples of “Donald Trump’s own words [that] are often used to fashion impressions about his ‘political psychological profile,’” which are amusing but almost quaint in view of the awful things Trump has said and tweeted in the months since they compiled their list.

One uncredentialed but sort-of expert on narcissism is not being restrained at all in his assessment. Sam Vaknin was interviewed by the conservative American Thinker back in March and said, “Trump is the most perfect example I have ever come across of a malignant and, probably, psychopathic narcissist.” Sam Vaknin is a fascinating character because he describes himself as a narcissist, an assessment shared by some critics who feel he has gained too much attention in the field.

In response to the question of whether Trump would represent a significant danger as President of the United States, Vaknin says:

You just have to look at Trump’s business history to extrapolate America’s future under a President Trump. Narcissists are unstable and go through repeated cycles of self-destruction (with other people usually paying the heft of the price). Narcissists tend to be divisive, vindictive, confrontational, aggressive, hate-filled, raging, incoherent, judgement-impaired, and irrational. Narcissists are junkies: they are addicted to attention (“Narcissistic Supply”) and will go to any extreme to secure it. Narcissists are liars, confabulators, and miserable failures (although some of them, like Trump, are geniuses at disguising the fact that they are, in fact, losers). Is this the kind of person you want in the White House?22

Though there is something a bit creepy about Vaknin’s scholarly forays into the very area where he claims to have mental issues (even running message boards where victims of narcissists have gone to get help), that certainly doesn’t make him seem more sympathetic toward narcissists. Here are some gems quoted from his book Malignant Self Love, the tenth edition published in March 2015. Note that this was all written before Trump announced his candidacy, so it’s not directed at him or his behavior during this train wreck of a campaign:

  • The fuel of the narcissist’s rage is spent mainly on vitriolic verbal send-offs directed at the (often imaginary) perpetrator of the (oft-innocuous) “offence”.

  • The narcissist wittingly or not utilizes people to buttress his self-image and to regulate his sense of self-worth. As long and in as much as they are instrumental in achieving these goals, he holds them in high regard, they are valuable to him. He sees them only through this lens. This is a result of his inability to love others: he lacks empathy, he thinks utility, and, thus, he reduces others to mere instruments.

  • He regards and treats people as though they were objects: exploits and discards them. He mistreats people around him by asserting his superiority at all times; by being emotionally cold or absent; by constantly bickering, verbally humiliating, incessantly (mostly unjustly) criticizing; and by actively rejecting or ignoring them, thus provoking uncertainty.

  • He is capricious, infantile and emotionally labile and immature. The narcissist is frequently a 40 years-old brat.

  • The narcissist needs and requires an audience to applaud, approve, affirm, recoil, admire, adore, fear, or even detest him. He craves the attention and depends on the Narcissistic Supply that only others can provide.

  • Mostly, the narcissist prefers to be feared or admired rather than be loved. He describes himself as a “strong, no nonsense” man, who is able to successfully weather extraordinary losses and exceptional defeats and to recuperate. He expects other people to respect this image that he projects.

  • Narcissists are pathological liars. This means that they are either unaware of their lies, or feel completely justified and at ease when lying to others.23

Yes, these are selected quotations from a large, somewhat rambling book. Yes, it is possible to quote-mine negative traits from such books about most anyone you don’t like. No, we can’t know Trump’s internal mental state from what we see in public. But the comparisons still jump out at me and give me the creeps.

I do not want anyone who has acted anything remotely like this in the Oval Office. And I really can’t imagine why you would vote for such a man–no matter what party he’s claiming to be in, no matter what your grievances or politics, or how much you don’t like his opponent.

What’s Left to Believe?

One thing I will not hesitate to call Donald Trump is a liar. The media danced around the issue of his obvious falsehoods for a while and then finally started calling them what they are.

“Virtually all of Mr. Trump’s falsehoods directly bolstered a powerful and self-aggrandizing narrative depicting him as a heroic savior for a nation menaced from every direction,” Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns said in their summary of a “week of whoppers” before the first debate. His “version of reality allows for few, if any, flaws in himself.” Operating inside that bubble, Trump imagined a crowd chanting “Let him speak!” after being told not to get political in a church, opposed the Iraq war despite no record of anything but pro-war remarks from him ever being found, and slandered his opponent by blaming her for starting the smear he kept up for years about Obama’s birthplace.24

Someone who knows about this better than most is Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal who “spent 18 months in the 1980s interviewing and shadowing Mr. Trump.” He feels “a deep sense of remorse” for contributing “to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” The book is really a work of fiction, he says, and ought to be titled The Sociopath. “Lying is second nature to him,” Schwartz says of the interview subject he said regularly exaggerated, had no attention span, and whose need for attention is such that he’d run for “emperor of the world” if he could.25

Trump’s own lawyers didn’t even seem to believe him. Two of them would meet him together “so we don’t have a problem of people lying.” He is, after all, “an expert at interpreting things,” as one of them delicately put it. “Donald says certain things and then has a lack of memory.”26

It Matters

Volker Ullrich describes the atmosphere at a rally led by a man who was still on the far margins of power, trying to gain a foothold. It was the evening of February 24, 1920, and

around 2,000 people squeezed into the Hofbräuhaus’s main first-floor hall. Hitler was the second speaker, but he was the one who really got the crowd whipped up with his attacks on the Treaty of Versailles, Erzberger and, above all, the Jews. The police transcript of the event read: “First chuck the guilty ones, the Jews, out and then we’ll purify ourselves. (Enthusiastic applause.) Monetary fines are no use against the crimes of fencing and usury. (Beatings! Hangings!) How shall we protect our fellow human beings against this band of bloodsuckers? (Hang them!)”27

“Audience sizes ranged from 800 to 2,500,” but “in the second half of 1920, levels of 3,000 were reached.”28 The goal of the speaker at this point “was to attract attention to his still relatively small party and secure its place in the public sphere. ‘Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals?’ Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. ‘The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.’”29

He was still being careful about how he said things, but he wasn’t making a secret of his despicable views. Even

in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews. But hardly anyone seems to have disapproved. On the contrary, storms of applause greeted precisely the most anti-Semitic passages of Hitler’s speeches, strongly suggesting that they were the source of much of the speaker’s appeal. When he demanded that Jews be “removed” from Germany by some unspecified means, therefore, Hitler and his audience were on the same wavelength. Both were carried away by the racist wishful thinking of a fully homogenous ethnic community.30

Making comparisons between Trump and Hitler (Googling “trump hitler”: 32,700,000 results) is problematic for a number of reasons, perhaps primarily the fact that Trump has never been in a position of power. In 1920, Hitler wasn’t, either. He hadn’t killed anyone yet or even broken any laws. But he was already making it known that there was an entire group of people he didn’t want to have in the country, and a small segment of the population was cheering him for saying it.31

We are not yet seeing a militia of armed thugs marching in the streets for a political strongman. Trump has boasted that he alone can fix ISIS, has threatened to lock up his political opponent,32 and doesn’t seem to care about the Geneva Conventions when it comes to killing the families of terrorists,33 but he is not yet demanding the entire power of the state.

Yet the Donald is leaving us plenty of things to be concerned about. Imagine our country thirteen years from now–the length of time between Hitler’s first Munich rallies and his accepting the designation of Chancellor from an aged and wishful-thinking Paul von Hindenberg. Are those good jobs coming back to the middle class? Are the wild-eyed jihadists going to stop massacring people in shopping malls and marketplaces? Is the planet going to stop warming and flooding and creating refugees from hot places teeming with Muslims and Mexicans?

When do the irresponsible words start shift into actions? The people showing up at Trump rallies have plenty of weapons in their basements, and I’d bet a lot of them would eagerly sign up for deportation patrols if they thought they could get away with it.

The classic definition of the state, provided by the German sociologist Max Weber, is the institution that seeks to monopolize legitimate violence. In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Hitler sought to discredit the Weimar Republic by demonstrating that it could not, in fact, do this. His armed guards, known as the SA and SS, functioned before his takeover of 1933 as de-monopolizers of violence. When they beat opponents or started brawls, they were demonstrating the weakness of the existing system.34

Consider who we have asking for our votes, right now: a man who has praised Putin for his “very strong control over a country.” That’s the kind of leader Trump would like to be, in the assessment of Danielle Pletka at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Trump’s “instincts are authoritarian, and dangerous,” she told the New York Times.35

“His smile masks a hunger he cannot contain,” Alex Castellanos wrote more than a year ago, a conservative who was against Trump before being a conservative against Trump was cool. “He does not believe federal power is too removed from our lives to control our lives. He does not believe our factory-like government fails because it is trying to do too much, not too little. Instead, he appears to believe this: Lesser people than he are running things. And power should rest not with the people, but with him.”36

His claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not fairly preside over the lawsuits against his sham of a “University” because of his Mexican heritage has been widely denounced as racist, but the trouble goes beyond that. “Mr. Trump accused the judge of bias, falsely said he was Mexican and seemed to issue a threat,” Adam Liptak summarized in the New York Times, then quoting David Post, a retired law professor:

This is how authoritarianism starts, with a president who does not respect the judiciary.

You can criticize the judicial system, you can criticize individual cases, you can criticize individual judges. But the president has to be clear that the law is the law and that he enforces the law. That is his constitutional obligation.37

The man wants to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Negative articles–verboten. “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”38

He has “called for the broad use of the contentious stop-and-frisk policing strategy in America’s cities,” the New York Times reported last month, “embracing an aggressive tactic whose legality has been challenged and whose enforcement has been abandoned in New York.”39

Trump’s “vision of the presidency is an American strongman working on behalf of the little guy, who by implication cannot take care of himself,” writes Jay Cost at the conservative Weekly Standard. At one point in the first debate, “Trump criticized Clinton for not mentioning the phrase ‘law and order.’ But where, from Trump, was any talk about liberty, or the Constitution, or limited government?” Cost asks. “Nowhere, of course because these are not values that are central to his way of thinking.”40

To borrow Jacob Weisberg’s memorable assessment, we have one candidate who is running for President and another who is running for Dictator.41

One last thing: Please don’t give me any of that tired Christian “vote your values” bullshit. Not now, not with this candidate. Valerie Tarico commented, “Christian devotion to Trump is exposing the moral vacancy at the heart of many Christian churches and leaders (and their member/​followers), for whom the religion of low taxes trumps the religion of caring for the least of these.”42

Believers might consider the example of Karl Tervo, a Christian I respect and occasionally interact with on Twitter:

I don’t pretend to know Donald Trump’s heart, but I can see how he lives his life, the words that he chooses to use, and how he treats other people. Matthew 3:8 says, “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance . . .” (NASB). By this measure, which is admittedly subjective since I can’t see into his heart, Mr. Trump does not seem to be heeding the words of Christ. Many American Christians will eat up the words of politicians who profess faith, especially those on the right. He purposely makes racist comments both against Black people and Jews. American Christians will also use the Supreme Court as a reason for voting for Trump, but how exactly does anybody know what the man will do. He’s changed his mind countless times, sometimes within speeches, so that line of reasoning is a nonstarter for me.43

Tervo is voting for Evan McMullin, a Mormon who shares his opposition to abortion. “This election has been a watershed moment for me,” he told me. “Never again will I blindly pull the lever for the GOP, but rather I’ll more rigorously investigate the candidates for the particular office.”


“Trump told us who he was, showed us who he was, again and again,” Ezra Klein says. “The test here is not of his decency, but of our own.”44 It matters who sits in that Oval Office on our behalf, and it matters to me who would vote to put Donald Trump in that exalted place. That really matters to me quite a lot, I’m afraid.

Once when I was deep into my study of the German language, I made the acquaintance of somebody who spoke it fluently. It was a fun and worthwhile relationship between teacher and student, and one day I went to her house to pick up a Luther Bible her husband had brought back from Germany for me. While sitting on their couch, I saw some light from a nook in the corner of the living room and noticed that she was sitting not on the end of the couch opposite me but near the middle, in a way that kept me from scooting over and seeing whatever was producing the light. That got me curious, and I invented an excuse to get up and move to the side of the room where I could see just what was over there.

It turned out to be a large gold-framed portrait of Adolf Hitler with a light shining on it. Red swastika flags stuck out proudly from the wall on both sides.

I never spoke with her again.


  1. Quoted in Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), Kindle loc. 5507. 

  2. In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court stepped in and halted a recount of votes in Florida. It just so happened that the four justices who voted for this, handing the election to George W. Bush, were conservatives and the three who voted against it were not. Those black robes have belied their contrasting party colors ever since. 

  3. Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “Officials Fight Donald Trump’s Claims of a Rigged Vote,” New York Times, October 16, 2016

  4. Donald Trump Rally in Greensboro, North Carolina (10/14/​2016), RBC Network Broadcasting, youtu.be/​jNfK48WpM7Q

  5. Matt Viser and Tracy Jan, “Trump’s supporters talk rebellion, assassination at his rallies,” Boston Globe, October 15, 2016

  6. Trump speech, youtu.be/​jNfK48WpM7Q

  7. Steve Reilly, “Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills,” USA Today, June 9, 2016

  8. David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner and Megan Twohey, “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found,” New York Times, October 1, 2016

  9. Heather Long, “Donald Trump Suits and Ties are Made in China,” CNN Money, March 8, 2016

  10. “Well, look, I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I hear people debating the subject. But still, I just believe in choice.” Donald Trump, interviewed on Meet the Press, October 24, 1999. youtu.be/​tsOlXidHXRE

  11. Paul Kariniemi, commenting on my Facebook post of October 13. Reprinted with permission. 

  12. I voted for and donated to Bernie, but fully expected that Hillary would win the nomination. And she is such a flawed candidate that any of the other contenders, even the hated lip-curling Ted Cruz, would have been likely to defeat her. 

  13. The people I know who support the man, even without contradicting this assessment of him, disgust me only a little less. It seems that nothing can penetrate their hatred of Hillary and their long-standing loyalty to a party that has shafted them at every turn. To borrow a phrase from the Donald himself when addressing his groping accusations, they’re just words. 

  14. “Transcript: Michelle Obama’s Speech on Donald Trump’s Alleged Treatment of Women,” NPR, October 13, 2016

  15. Dan P. McAdams, “The Mind of Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, June 2016

  16. Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump Delivers a Long, Passionate Speech. He Introduces Mike Pence, Too,” New York Times, July 16, 2016

  17. Ezra Klein, “A Donald Trump presidency would bring shame on this country,” Vox, October 7, 2016

  18. Susan Perry, “The armchair psychoanalyzing of Trump stigmatizes and trivializes mental illness, experts warn,” MinnPost, August 15, 2016

  19. Wikipedia, Narcissistic Personality Disorder

  20. I concur with this disclaimer, and repeat it here as if it were my own, also noting that I’m not even remotely qualified or credentialed to establish a diagnosis of anyone, regardless of the circumstances. Unless “gaping asshole” is a psychiatric diagnosis. 

  21. Leonard Cruz and Steven Buser, eds., A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump (Chiron Publications, 2016). 

  22. Arlen Williams, “Donald Trump and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: An Interview with Sam Vaknin,” American Thinker, March 6, 2016. This bold statement was followed by the usual disclaimer language: “Of course, he cannot be fully and assuredly diagnosed this way. Only a qualified mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews. But the overwhelming preponderance of presenting symptoms and visual and textual evidence for tentative profiling is definitely there.” 

  23. Sam Vaknin, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited (Narcissus Publications, 10th edition, 2015). The text in bullet points is directly quoted from the book. 

  24. New York Times, September 24, 2016

  25. Alan Rappeport, “‘I Feel a Deep Sense of Remorse,’ Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Says,” New York Times, July 18, 2016

  26. Deposition of Trump bankruptcy lawyer Patrick T. McGhan, (April 7, 1993), Case No. 92-11188-JHW, Doc. 491, pp. 77-78. 

  27. Ullrich at loc. 2159. 

  28. Ullrich at loc. 2240. 

  29. Ullrich at loc. 2253. 

  30. Ullrich at loc. 2472. 

  31. It almost pains me to also point out that Hitler seems like an intellectual giant compared to Trump. Hitler read voraciously, appreciated art and architecture, and had a prodigious memory. Obviously, this isn’t a defense of a man who tried imposing a sick ideology on the world and bore responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocents. 

  32. Tim Murphy, “Trump Says He’ll Imprison Clinton’s Lawyers, Too,” Mother Jones, October 12, 2016

  33. His way of dealing with terrorists would be “to take out their families.” Terrorists “may not care much about their lives,” he says, but “they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” That goes not just against the Geneva Conventions, conservative Sen. Rand Paul replied, correctly, but “it would defy every norm that is America” (Louis Jacobson, “Geneva Conventions bar Donald Trump’s idea of killing terrorists’ families, as Rand Paul says,” Politifact, December 17, 2015). 

  34. Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Crown/​Archetype, 2015), Kindle loc. 785. 

  35. John Harwood, “Donald Trump’s Admiration of Putin’s Ruthless Use of Power,” New York Times, September 13, 2016

  36. Alex Castellanos, “Trump is the strongman we don’t need,” CNN Opinion, August 20, 2015 

  37. Adam Liptak, “Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law, Scholars Say,” New York Times, June 3, 2016 

  38. Donald Trump, Rally in Fort Worth Texas, February 26, 2016. Quoted in Hadas Gold, “Donald Trump: We’re going to ‘open up’ libel laws,” Politico.com, February 26, 2016

  39. Michael Barbaro, Maggie Haberman, and Yamiche Alcindor, “Donald Trump Embraces Wider Use of Stop-and-Frisk by Police,” New York Times, September 21, 2016

  40. Jay Cost, “At the Debate, Donald Trump Rejected Conservatism,” The Weekly Standard, September 27, 2016

  41. Valerie Tarico, comment to my public September 26 Facebook post during the first presidential debate. 

  42. Karl Tervo, personal communication. Reprinted with permission. 

  43. “The ‘Grabfest Post Debate Special,’” Slate’s Trumpcast hosted by Jacob Weisberg, October 10, 2016 (21:00). 

  44. Klein, October 7, 2016


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Poem From a Young Person

If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.
—Daniel Dennett,
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Still time to change the road you’re on.1

The following poem was written by someone eleven years old in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, which I left a few years back. I reprint it here with permission of the young author who wishes “to see this out there,” and a parent of the author. Except for the visual formatting and the addition of a couple of punctuation marks, it is exactly as written.

Their only proof is a weathered book.

Brainwash the young ones with lies and excuses.

Give ’em someone to worship

to avoid thoughts of reality.

Write the rules on a rock.

If they do otherwise

you’ll make sure they don’t.

Scared, insecure children hiding back from the cult.

Hold in those tears, my friend.

Why let them run? You’ll be questioned.

You’re worried what the Almighty might do.

And maybe his famous son too.

They’re living a living hell.

Believe me it’s never that swell.

They wipe you off and rip you out.

You never got what you deserve!

Boy you’ve got some nerve

To say his name out LOUD!

And if you shame the name of god

to make yourself heard,

Remember what I say:

You’re not a believer!

God I can’t explain

To anyone who’se sane

One single fucking thing

About how I live and

Who I think is “king.”

People handing out diamond rings

At the age of seventeen2

Pumping ’em out to save their souls

In order to be fit for heaven.

They’ve got eleven!3

Don’t even run!

Go and try, they’ll hunt you down

and you’ll be shunned.

I wore the face of an innocent child.

But my bitter thoughts soon made me vile.

If you ever leave the clan I’ll shake your hand.

Honey, you’ll be glad you left.

And overjoyed you’re gone.

Though your memories will always rage on.

There is nothing to add to this heartfelt work, except the hope that it be seen by other young people struggling under the weight of a harsh fundamentalism they did not ask to be part of, and by parents unware of the pain they are inflicting on their children–in service of doctrines those parents privately admit to doubting. And perhaps to repeat the remarkable age of the poet: eleven years old.


  1. “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (1971). There’s actually a poem in an LLC publication with a line taken right from another 70s rock & roll song. The writer (not me, and I’m not telling who it was) obviously had a sense of humor. The photo is mine, taken deep inside the half-million acre Colville National Forest. 

  2. Since all forms of sexual contact outside marriage are considered sin, teenage engagements are common. Most Laestadian young people are married (for life) by their mid-twenties. 

  3. Readers not familiar with the LLC might not appreciate that “pumping ’em out” refers to children. The church has a strict doctrine that all forms of birth control (even the rhythm method!) are sin. 


Friday, September 9, 2016


When [in 1957] an armed Klan motorcade came after [his friend Dr. Albert E.] Perry in his neighborhood, intending to terrorize him into submission, [Robert F.] Williams, a US Marine veteran of World War II, had his NAACP chapter meet the Klan with “disciplined, withering volleys” of rifle fire. The Klansmen fled, and the very next day, the Monroe city council banned KKK parades.
—Roy Scranton,
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
Whoops, picked the wrong house.1

The other weekend a man named Ian, one of my fellow citizens in the rural northeast corner of Washington State, heard his dog barking and went to check out what was going on. What he found was an intruder he says was “definitely whacked out on something,” dressed in black. Way out in the back woods where Ian lives, the front yard is not a place where you just wind up by accident late at night. But this intruder had picked the wrong house to try breaking into.

Ian, you see, is very prepared for this sort of thing because of his service in the Marine Corps and a career as a correctional officer. He’s one of those guys who sits with his back to the wall in a restaurant and reflexively does 180-degree eyeball scans of the scene. It’s not something he enjoys; he has PTSD from his time spent in very rough places. But the other night, that vigilance served him well.

He retrieved his AR-15 with its 30-round magazine. That rifle, he says, “while not guaranteeing my safety, allowed me to have a fighting chance against a possible threat” in those first dark moments confronted with an unknown intruder, when Ian “had no idea of how well armed he was or if he had friends, waiting in the shadows of my expansive property to try and help victimize myself and my family.”2

The guy was messing with the door handle. Ian “swung the door open” and his unwelcome guest “went from the porch to the concrete quickly with some assistance. Supposedly he’s got some broken bones.” That, Ian added, can happen when you’re falling. Especially with some assistance from a well-placed foot appearing out of nowhere. He proceeded carefully but firmly:

My wife retrieved her weapon and covered me while I did a cursory search of him and I found a 7 or so inch knife.

I held him at gunpoint while waiting for the cops. He started to bend his arms as if he might get up so I reminded him to stay down and then he cried a bit about his ribs.

After 40 long minutes–not an unusual amount of time for our far-flung rural area–the “cops came and cuffed him up and I told him if he ever came back, he dies.”

Hold that pose, please.

Note Ian’s use of non-lethal force to drop the guy, even as he held one of those big bad “assault” rifles at the ready.3 The intruder had no shots fired at him, though Ian was ready to “press his head out the second I saw him and the whole time I had him down. I was totally prepared to. I told him, as serious as I could that I would and please don’t make me do it. By that time he was crying about his ribs anyway.”

But he’s glad he didn’t need to, because he didn’t want his “kids to see a body if they don’t have to.” For those of you that think it’s an easy thing to do, Ian says, “you’ve never done it.”

He didn’t feel good afterward. This wasn’t going to make the PTSD any easier. Though he was glad to know that he still has what it takes to protect his family, he said the incident took him “back to a place I don’t miss.”

But let it be known, he added, “This guy fell like a sack of potatoes and had he not, he would have died. I’m no tough guy but I will end your life to protect my family.”4

I don’t have his training or experience, and I never would’ve had what it takes to be a Marine. But a traumatic experience years ago showed me just how long it takes for a response to a 911 call out here. (That it took 40 minutes for the police to finally arrive at Ian’s place didn’t surprise me a bit.) The defense of my home and family is up to me, and for me, the Second Amendment is not about being able to go hunt with a bolt-action rifle.

Hell, I don’t even hunt. Never have. But I do have some guns, ones I’ve shot plenty at old appliances and other worthy practice targets and at least know how to aim. The firearms are all safely locked away; I have no patience with parents who leave deadly weapons laying around for curious kids to check out. But, note to scumbags: “Locked away” definitely does not mean “inacessible if needed quickly.”


  1. This and the other image are actual photos Ian took while waiting for the police to arrive, reproduced here with permisison. 

  2. From an open letter Ian posted online addressed to Washington’s Attorney General regarding a proposed “assault weapons” ban. 

  3. An armed homeowner without Ian’s training and experience could easily have made a tragic mistake at this moment. There are stories of fathers accidentally shooting their sons returning home late at night, or coming horrifyingly close to doing so. 

  4. Thanks to Ian for permission to quote these remarks in the fourth paragraph and thereafter from a summary he sent to some friends and acquaintances after the incident.