Friday, 16 September 2016

The Rise of Unreality

The US Presidential election is shaping up as a battle between reason and unreason. The distressing thing is, reason isn't winning by nearly enough.

Clinton's lead has shrunk to approximately 3% in national polls. That's probably enough for a clear victory; the Princeton Election Consortium gives her an 81% chance of winning. But it still means a very large segment of the US electorate prefers Trump.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Republican party's descent into howling ignorance has been a long time coming. In the 2012 election, Romney and Ryan hardly bothered to pretend their budget arithmetic would add up. Still, they managed to keep up an appearance of moderation and pragmatism. If they had won office, there was at least some hope they would pay attention to reality -- defined by Philip K Dick as that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Trump has dispensed with all that. It cannot be stressed enough: He simply doesn't care about reality. Trump doesn't care what he himself said last month, let alone what people with actual knowledge and experience have to say. (There is a parallel here with Brexit, and Michael Gove's infamous remark that the British people "have had enough of experts".)

For a presidential candidate to say "I believe in science" should be as bland and unremarkable as endorsing motherhood and apple pie. Instead, it was an applause line in Clinton's convention speech.

Trump doesn't believe in science. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy argues this is a vulnerability on his part, but I'm not so sure. The polls indicate unreality is just fine with a substantial chunk of the American electorate.

It's the logical conclusion of two powerful forces in American culture. One is the proud ignorance of the religious right. Never mind the godless facts, what does our highly selective interpretation of the Bible say? The other is the therapeutic ethos of the stereotypical New Ager. The facts are such a drag, man; how does it make you feel? If it feels good, it must be true.

Trump cares nothing for religion and no doubt disdains the granola-munching hippies, but he has taken their unreality to its ultimate conclusion. He doesn't believe in anything at all which is greater than himself: Not science, history, religion, the rule of law, or democracy.

The USA did not become the most powerful country in the world by beating its chest and shouting about how awesome it is. Any tinpot dictator can do that. The best achievements of America were made by hard work; commitment to its founding ideals; and the embrace of science and technology. Trump is trying to squander this legacy, like the spoiled brat he is.

Clinton, to her credit, is plainly calling out Trump's ignorance and bigotry. So is President Obama. But the USA is well used to overheated political rhetoric. I'm not sure enough people will register that this time, it really is different. It's a two party system. If you're lazy and distracted, as so many people are; well then, by definition, anything endorsed by one of the parties must be normal.

As Ed at Gin & Tacos observes, this election is inflicting damage which will not be easily undone. Trump has exposed the ugly side of America for all to see. The bigotry, ignorance, and hatred is out in the open now. Releasing it was easy. Driving it back to the margins, making it abnormal and unacceptable; that will be hard.

How will this be resolved? In the optimistic scenario, it will take decades of slow, patient education and debate. Maybe, one day, the better angels of America's nature will have the upper hand. Then it can get back to being a sane country, with reasoned political debate, instead of the circus act it has now.

In the pessimistic scenario, it will get worse before it gets better. People could die. Trump himself has hinted that "Second Amendment People" could bring their guns to bear. Elected Republican officials like the Governor of Kentucky have abandoned hints, and predicted bloodshed if Clinton wins this election.

We shall see. We can only hope America comes to its senses, before it reaches a point of no return.

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