Russ Roberts has a nice piece on the state of our political world, and what to do about it. If I had to boil down his thesis, it would be: be nice and be humble.
Just kidding. It’s good advice. In the age of Trump, it is also very difficult advice to follow. And that makes the advice even more important.
This passage does not represent Roberts’s thesis, but just one example of how the Trump era causes people to discard their normal way of behaving, for the worse:
I follow a lot of mildly left-leaning journalists on Twitter who write for major publications and outlets. They are not fringe players. Their employers aren’t either. These reporters aren’t ideologues. They’re just right-thinking people who lean left. Somewhere along the line, they stopped pretending to be objective about Trump. They have decided he is dangerous and a liar and they write about it openly on Twitter. They mock him in a way they didn’t mock previous presidents who they didn’t particularly like. They may be right about the dangers posed by a Trump presidency. But their stance which violates long-standing norms of their profession amplifies the feelings of Trump supporters that those supporters are under attack from mainstream American culture.
Here’s a relatively benign but simple example. Trump says America is the most taxed nation in the world. This is not a true statement. But I suspect in Trump’s mind and the minds of his supporters, it’s not a lie. To them, Trump’s claim is a marketing statement, the way a real estate developer would tell you that this corner is the best location in the city. It’s enthusiasm to get you sympathetic to a tax cut.
Politicians lie and dissemble all the time. But they tend not to lie and dissemble about things that can be fact-checked. So this is new and it understandably outrages people and reporters. There is indeed something outrageous about this kind of hyperbole. So when a member of the media tweets or prints a chart showing Trump’s claim is totally incorrect, the chart reminds Haters of Trump that Trump is a buffoon and a liar. But it doesn’t convince the Lovers of Trump. Instead it confirms their view that the media is hostile to Trump. And as the media becomes more self-righteous in its denunciations of Trump, the Lovers of Trump see this as confirmation not of Trumps idiocy but of Trump as victim and the media as the enemy of their friend.
I am not suggesting that the media shouldn’t fact-check the President. But it’s a little like shooting fish in a barrel. And when it’s done with disdain or triumphalism it reinforces the view that Trump is embattled.
I’m not proud of my hatred of, and anger towards, Donald Trump. Hatred is a negative emotion. Anger is a negative emotion. (I’m working on it.) I reject virtually everything Trump stands for on a moral level. It is frustrating to point out his clear ethical failings — evidence of which crops up on a seemingly daily basis — and have people defend him nevertheless. If Trump and his supporters feel embattled, well, they’re not the only ones.
But reading Roberts’s column gives me a picture of how this dynamic can lead the embattled — on both sides, and that means me and you both! — to adopt a self-righteous attitude. I’m guilty of this. So are you. We can all do better. Roberts offers some simple ideas for doing so.
The ideas are time-honored, yet forgotten in our overheated climate. Turn the volume down when confronted with nastiness. Be humble. Imagine that you could be wrong — and that the person you are talking to could be right.
I fail to do these things, all the time. I will try to do better.
I appreciate Roberts setting these thoughts down to (virtual) paper, and I wanted to take a moment to spread the word. I commend the entire piece to you. It’s not the kind of post that will get a lot of clicks, shares, and so forth. But the ideas deserve to be spread. They’re not new with me, or even Russ Roberts. But we could all do with a reminder.
Thanks to reader Simon J. for the pointer.