Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Birmingham Screwdriver

"We're sending law enforcement," [President Trump] told reporters. "We can't let this happen to the cities."

He specifically named New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland in discussing problems with violence.

"We're not going to let this happen in our country, all run by liberal Democrats."

Mr Trump also praised the controversial federal law enforcement efforts in Portland. The city has seen protests against police brutality since George Floyd's death in Minnesota in May.
"Portland protests: Trump threatens to send officers to more US cities." BBC News.
To be sure, President Trump is not alone in feeling that things may be spiraling out of control in some of America's cities. I'm a native of Chicago, and when I spoke to a relative there a few days ago, she expressed alarm at the current level of violence in the city. But the President's methods and rhetoric give many people, myself included, the idea that he's relying on a political instinct that sees the differences between people, and the disagreements those differences spark, as an asset. In other words, President Trump operates by finding disputes, and choosing a side. The question becomes to what degree he, either intentionally or instinctually, stokes those disputes, in order to make the distinctions between the factions sharper.

While it's become common, especially outside of the President's base of support, to hint, if not outright state, that the President likes situations such as the continuing protest movement that has taken hold since the death of George Floyd, because it presents a convenient "distraction" from his inability to deal with the ongoing SARS2-Coronavirus outbreak in the United States, I would suggest that the President has had difficulty finding his footing on the pandemic precisely because it isn't as amenable to "divide and conquer," as it were, as the protest movement is. It's well understood that the President spent time, especially early in the pandemic, looking for a party to cast as the enemy: whether that was China, whom the President accused of either creating or failing to suppress the virus, or Democrats and other left-leaning political factions in the United States, whom the President accused to perpetrating a damaging hoax, designed to remove him from office (and thus prevent him from protecting and advancing his supporters and their interests). And while it may seem obvious that a plan to combat a global pandemic by treating it as a conflict and then picking a side would be doomed to failure, I'm not sure that it is.
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966
One of the definitions that Wiktionary supplies for "Maslow's Hammer," as it is sometimes called, is this: "If a person is familiar with a certain, single subject, or has with them a certain, single instrument, they may have a confirmation bias to believe that it is the answer to/involved in everything."* And while President Trump's seemingly endless search for parties to vilify in situations where it seems inappropriate is often attributed to malice, I suspect that it's simply that confirmation bias at work. President Trump's consistent record of success (okay, I realize that many people would dispute how "successful" the President has been in life) with finding disputes and picking a side has demonstrated to him that it is a useful tactic. After all, it's pretty much what enabled him to win the Presidency of the United States, despite having less support than Hillary Clinton. So it's unsurprising that, as President, he's continued to employ the tactic.

Part of what makes the President's personal version of Maslow's Hammer workable for him is that he only concerns himself with the interests and opinions of whichever side he's chosen to ally himself with. And so to the degree that they come out ahead, it can be chalked up as a victory. And when they lose, the other side is always there as a convenient scapegoat, open to charges of cheating and other moral failures. But it's also worth keeping in mind that he doesn't actually have to share the worldview or interests of the faction that he's chosen. A panderer doesn't have the be a true believer. But this can also bite him.

In the case of George Floyd, President Trump initially started out by condemning the injustice done. He pivoted somewhat, later, once the protests started gaining steam, and his base of support began to see the reaction as lawless, rather than justifiably angry. In the case of the SARS2-CoV outbreak, the lines are a lot less stark, and there is much less of an idea that a crackdown on political enemies will solve anything. The United States has seen somewhere in the area of 130,000 confirmed deaths attributed to the outbreak in the past four or so months. It's unclear to me, and I think to a lot of people, how a clear partisan victory somewhere along the way would have reduced that number. And so the President's habit of treating the outbreak as a dispute between people simply makes him appear incompetent to those people who are not disposed to believe that the numbers are falsified.

The protest movement is a logical choice for the President to focus on because, while the social justice issues involved are not nails, the protests they've spawned are more nail-like than the pandemic. And thus the President's habit of pounding away at problems is more likely to work. Well, for some definition of "work," anyway.

* The fact that "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail," is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, even though there's no extant Samuel Clemens work that includes it, may itself be an example of this. To the person for whom Mark Twain is the source of clever quotes, every clever quote is attributable to Mark Twain.

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