Lies & Loyalty

Why Team Trump doesn't care if you believe them or not.

So we’ve been having the usual go-around with the White House about what Trump knew and when he knew it regarding the allegations that Russian intelligence was offering bounties on US troops.

There are some things we should bear in mind.

One is that Trump’s base among the voting populace (and the much larger theoretically voting populace) is absolutely not going to care both about what Trump does and what Trump or anybody in his regime says about it.

There can be at any moment three or more official stories, encompassing what Donald Trump, what his press secretary and other PR proxies are saying, and what “the White House” says, with each of the three having some direct contradiction to the other two.

To Trump and his base, the purpose of these statements is to score points, block points on the other side, win the moment and “own the libs”. Whether it’s true or makes sense is immaterial. The more stories there are, the better! Because that means when coming across a criticism of the infallible God-Emperor, there are more cards in your hand and you can play the one that best fits the situation.

The other is that no matter how uncomfortable the Lindsey Grahams of the world may get with Trump’s conduct, no matter how many strong words they may offer that something is wrong in the abstract, they will not turn on him or break with him in any meaningful way so long as he is in power and their route to holding onto power seems to run through his Oval Office.

So leaving aside the question if this will be the thing that breaks his support among his supporters inside the circles of power or outside of them, let’s talk about the fact that AP reported that Trump was not only briefed on the bounties but was presented with a range of options for how to respond and chose to do nothing.

There is an obvious PR move here for Trump if we lay aside all questions of loyalty and personal priorities and just take it as a given that he’s loyal to himself first, Russia second, and the United States only as a matter of convenience.

That would be to lean on Moscow’s predictable denial and admit that yes, he was aware of it (because no matter how convenient a Sergeant Schultz impression might be for a corrupt CEO, it is not in keeping with the illusion that he is the Leader of the Free World to plead ignorance) but owing to the extreme seriousness of the matter he chose to hold off on a public statement or reaction until it had been verified beyond a shadow of a doubt and Russia had a chance to respond.

Here’s where I’m glad I have this newsletter as an outlet for these thoughts because if I tried to tweet this one out, some of this part here would wind up being read as tweets in isolation and inevitably be mistaken for me saying that actually doing this – sitting on the info and saying nothing out of a sense of seriousness – would be something the Trump regime would do or that an actual functioning administration should do.

It isn’t either of those things.

But as a story to explain the thing he did want to do and got caught doing, it’s better than anything they’ve tried.

As I was writing this, it crossed my timeline that the press secretary tried out a variation of this: that Trump didn’t know because the IC was awaiting verification before bringing it to his attention.

Which has the advantage of sounding like a good idea on the surface if you don’t know anything about how the government works and don’t think too hard or too deeply. It makes sense in some contexts!

If you find out something explosive, something that if it’s true it demands immediate and sharp action, then yes absolutely you might well want to make dang sure you’ve got your ducks in a row and all the various crossed-and-dotted letters dotted and crossed before you bring it to the boss’s attention.

But that specific kind of caution is more about making sure that you don’t make a mistake and that your backside is covered than it is about protecting the boss, which is the first and last priority of the office of the press secretary under the inauspices of Donald J. Trump.

In today’s modern Know-Nothing Republican Party, all the politicians who hang on Trump’s every word somehow never find time to listen to his speeches or interviews or read his tweets, even as they take their marching orders from them. And the man himself is capable of not knowing anything that would be inconvenient for him to know. He can retweet a video of someone shouting “White power!” and claim ignorance of it.

Even laying aside the value of ignorance in his political movement, Trump has another reason for not making the stories good, though. If you know your supporters will go along with a bad story as easily as a good story, it’s better – assuming dictatorship is your goal – to give them bad stories. Offering a reasonable explanation for his behavior in this case would set an expectation that his actions have reasonable explanations.

Offering transparently false and terrible ones, though, sets the opposite expectation. Anybody who goes along with his nonsensical alibis in these cases signals that they’ll go along with anything, implicitly making a pledge that Trump has tested again and again throughout his term in office.

The sky-high approval ratings within his party that Trump keeps boasting and posting may be cherry-picked at best and utterly fanciful at worst, but the underlying trend for most of his so-called presidency has been an intraparty approval rating that creeps up over time. I wouldn’t be the first person to note that this is what happens when you repeatedly drive away all but the most fanatical loyalists, but it’s not just the people leaving who skew his approval upwards. The people who stay tend to become more loyal to him, less willing to question or object, because they reached what could have been a breaking point and chose to side with him.

The audacity of the lies is functional. The inherent contradiction between them serves a purpose. However much Trump would like to be loved universally, what he really wants is the most unconditional loyalty possible. Anybody who won’t swallow what he puts in front of them is not someone he finds reliable. Anybody who needs to be convinced through a compelling argument is not worth the energy it takes to convince them.

You know those scam emails that you read through and you immediately think, “How could anybody fall for these?” Or the pick-up artist dating tips that self-evidently would turn more women off than not. If your goal is not to fool any specific person and it’s not to fool everybody but only to find enough foolish people for you to make a decent score, there is an advantage to not putting energy into convincing the skeptical or discerning.

And if your goal is to inflate your own ego by surrounding yourself with followers whose loyalty to you is complete and total, then you absolutely will not waste any time or energy offering convincing arguments.

To put it simply: the lies are a loyalty test. The test is pass/fail, and people who pass it graduate to a more advanced class of loyalty.

More In Sorrow Than In Anger

On what we choose to do when all our sins are remembered.

This is not the piece I had planned on writing this week. While I cannot ignore national politics or world events, the professional community of which I am a part – that of the science fiction and fantasy literary profession – has been imbroiled with a wave of revelations of misconduct by some of the big fish in our small ponds of convention circuits, mentor programs, and what passes for royalty and nobility in our petty fiefdoms.

I do not intend to use this newsletter to editorialize on specific cases or take up for or against particular individuals. I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to use a paid platform for that. I don’t want the appearance or temptation of taking up a particular stance because it may seem more profitable to do so. This is not a pledge of neutrality or an attempt to appear objective. I am neither neutral, nor objective. I have been commenting on my personal Twitter account and will continue to do so.

These first four paragraphs (the two above, this, and the one below here) were added to this essay after I wrote it, when I realized that to someone who doesn’t know the context the words below may appear rather ominous, as though I am doing an essay-length “subtweet” against some person in particular, or am alluding to some harm done to me or some particular harm I have done to another.

This is not the case. If anything, this essay is probably less applicable to the conflicts that inspired it than to more everyday interactions and more incidental harms than those coming to light now. But these thoughts have arisen in me out of watching so many people, both recently and essentially throughout my adult life, react to finding themselves forced to examine their own past or recent actions through the eyes of another person, to finding themselves and their actions cast in a light they did not see and do not wish to see.

At some points in our lives, all of us will find ourselves in a situation where the next thing we do will either make others very sad or very angry.

Sometimes this will be entirely outside your control. Sometimes you are placed in a situation through no fault of your own where nothing you do will make others happy, and in fact anything you do will likely leave them unhappy.

This is not about those times.

This is about the times when you do something, or are party to something, or fail to prevent something that is hurtful and harmful to others. Maybe you didn’t see it that way. Maybe you didn’t intend to do anything wrong.

But it’s true nonetheless that you’ve caused damage and now the question is what to do about it. What to say about it. Where to go next.

This might be something that happens on a small, interpersonal scale between you and one other person. It might involve a group or community. It might be something that started out interpersonal and is now playing out in front of a community.

Regardless of the scale, if your focus in that moment is on winning or on staying ahead of something or staying alive in what is a game to you, then it may seem like the right move is to make people angry. Because if they’re angry, that means you’re in a fight, and you know what to do with a fight. You’ve got moves in a fight, you’re not backed into this corner where you might have to make people sad. A fight, you feel – not even think but feel – can be won.

You can’t win at sadness. No one wins at sadness. If you go with sadness, that means the game is over. Sadness means you’re out of moves. Sadness means there is no convincing the other person or people that you were right all along, that what you did was fine. Sadness means the final death of your last hope of powering through and coming out the other side untouched and unscathed.

In the face of that, anger can be tremendously appealing. You get angry, they get angry, and if there are witnesses or spectators, they all get angry, too. Some of them are angry at you, some of them are angry on your behalf, and this is all so terribly and wonderfully clarifying, isn’t it? To know who is with you and who is against you. To have a side, to have a team, instead of being one person with hat in hand and an open heart hoping to not be judged too harshly.

At forty years of age, I understand too well the clarifying, terrifying power of anger as a response. I understand the urge to get out of a no-win situation by turning it into a fight.

But the promise of anger, or at least this promise of anger, is an illusion.

I should make it understood that I am not against anger. Saint Augustine of Hippo is responsible for many things, and among the better of them is an epigram of which I am particularly fond: “Hope has two beeautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain so.”

In this moment of history, I would not cast aside anger as useless.

But winning an argument against someone you’ve hurt, whether in their eyes or the eyes of the part of the public that takes up your side, does not undo the hurt. It doesn’t actually resolve the unwinnable situation. When the dust settles and the smoke clears, you will inevitably find that far from saving the Kobayashi Maru from destruction, you have merely added another catastrophe for which you are also responsible alongside it, and now you have the same choice as to what you do about the new one while the old one burns silently in the void beside it.

Sadness does not offer us this false hope. It does not offer us anything nearly as bright and gleaming and attractive as anger does. This is not to say that it offers us nothing. Sadness instead offers us a quieter and more distant hope: the hope of healing. The hope of getting past – working past – the harm we’ve done. The hope of moving on.

And I should stress that as we cannot control how others feel, the choice of causing sadness or anger is not entirely our own. Realistically, the choice is less between making others sad or making others angry and more between doing something that makes us sad versus giving in to our own anger. The sorrow or anger of others merely tends to follow from those things.

We cannot prevent the anger of others. But we can look at two paths and see that one way leads more obviously to ongoing anger, and the other more obviously to sadness, even if anger pops up along the way there.

To put it simply, when we realize that we’ve hurt someone by our actions, we often must decide between confronting ourselves and confronting them.

Confronting yourself, examining your actions and intentions from an outside point of view, and coming clean… it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the worst interpretation of yourself. It doesn’t require canonizing as objective factual reality the way that your actions were seen or are remembered by others. In the final accounting, there is no final accounting. Certainly not in this life, if at all.

Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” I’m not writing about forgiveness here, not exactly. More like resolution. In the moment when you have the choice to confront what you’ve done vs. confronting how others feel about it, between the path of sorrow and the path of anger, only one of them is likely to lead to a resolution, but it means letting go of the hope that you can be proven righteous, if not right, of the hope that you can prove you were better in the past lieu of the hard work of being better in the future.

There is little real solace in righteousness. It’s not a cold comfort, but a searing hot one that lets you cover up the pain at the cost of always keeping the fires of anger stoked and blazing. There is little chance of closure in a fight, more a point where battle lines are drawn so firmly and reinforced so strongly that the battle grinds to a halt and the hot war becomes cold for a time, unless and until something else happens and the whole thing flares up again.

And since I’m talking about hope, I should mention that uncertain hope is the only certain thing any path can offer. We cannot control others and we cannot control events.

Ultimately, the only thing we can control is ourselves, but that is not nothing.

Vision Restored!

I can see clearly now, the pain is gone.

Just a quick note to all of my subscribers: I’m sorry that this project has fallen by the wayside so much lately.

If you’ve followed my Twitter closely enough, you already know what’s been going on. It’s been hard for me to function without an updated eyeglass prescription, and hard to get a new prescription during The Quarantimes.

I tried various workarounds (using wearable screen devices that put the text right in front of my face, making text larger, etc.) but ultimately it wasn’t that I was straining to see that it was painful, it was that one of my eyes had degraded quite a bit more than the other and I think that was making it painful and tiring to process what I was seeing even when it was clear.

Worse, while I had thought my last eye exam was two years ago but when I checked my records on Zenni Optical (which, by the way, is a great source for lenses and frames if you know your current prescription… that’s not an affiliate/referral link, I just want people to know the option exists), I realized it was in early 2017.


Assuming my financial situation doesn’t change much for the worse, I’m definitely going to start going for annual exams instead of waiting for things to get so bad that I can’t help noticing them.

Yesterday, two weeks after my eye exam, I was able to pick up my new glasses and I’m now enjoying my first day without a splitting headache in probably over a hundred days.

As you might imagine, I’m very eager to get back to doing all the things that I’ve been missing – reading, writing both fiction and non, and doing the kind of in-depth news analysis that had become my bread and butter.

Right now my biggest problem is that I’ve been unable to focus on work for so long that I’m not sure where to begin or how to get back into the swing of things. So what I’m writing now is mostly lists and plans, but even that is kind of weirdly fulfilling?

Anyway. Not to tempt fate, but you may expect a couple of actual serious newsletter updates this week, and a resumption of steady updates after that.

Thank you all for your patient support. At the risk of getting gushy, it means the world to me.


An American Horror Story

Stephen King asks how much is enough, but it's not a numbers game for the MAGA crowd.

Today, author Stephen King had this to say about the US COVID-19 death count:

I think it’s a mistake to think there is any number that will move Trump’s base as a whole. Among the reasons I think that is that they have used the same rebuttals this whole time even as the number goes up: “now do car crashes” or “more people died of the flu last year and we didn’t shut the world down” or similar things, along with claiming that the number is fake and inflated and also way lower than it would have been without the supreme leadership of their supreme leader.

The exact same people who believed Trump when he said it was 15 cases and would soon be zero also celebrated when he announced we would hold fatalities to 60,000 by August andt hat was pretty good and then kept the faith when he was talking about a hundred thousand or so, which we’re going to hit soon with no sign of stopping.

Whatever the number winds up being, the answer is going to be: wow, we’re lucky Trump was in charge or else it would have been times that.

And some of them will mean every word, but I think we need to remember that for a lot of Trumpers, the cruelty really is the point.

During the government shutdown in January or 2019, a disappointed Trump voter sort of famously told a reporter, “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.

If Trump had managed to shut off government money to a mythically homogeneous Blue State so that they lost essential services and people’s lives were upended and livelihoods lost, she and her ilk would have been happy. Thrilled! That’s the kind of thing he ran on, after all.

That was the core promise of Trump’s campaign, behind all the specific pledges and the rhetoric and the boasts: I will hurt your enemies. I will hurt the people you hate. I will lift you up by driving everyone else down into the dirt.

But his inability to make one of his famous (and equally mythical) deals and keep the government running was hurting everybody across the board. That’s not what she had signed up with!

The virus doesn’t discriminate, exactly, but neither is it universally nor uniformly distributed. The early US outbreaks that grabbed the headlines and set the narrative in Trumpland were in places like the D.C. area, the Pacific Northwest, and of course, California and New York.

And for every story of a Trump supporter who believed him that the whole thing is an overblown hoax right up until they got sick themselves, there’s a whole lot more people who haven’t been slapped in the face by reality, and that imbalance is likely to remain unless and until things get really bad… even in the worst of the worst case scenarios, there will always be more people who don’t have it or didn’t get sick from it than people who did develop COVID-19.

Even things do get worse, though, we will very likely reach a point where more people personally know someone who died or had a bad illness with a lengthy recovery than not. That—personal experience, or hearing it from someone they know and trust—is what has the power to turn members of Trump’s base.

Not facts. Not figures. The experts who stand beside Trump are credible only to the extent that they’re echoing what Trump says. Sometimes the same person is a Deep State agent (or leader) one day and a Trump loyalist the next, back and forth based on whether they’re saying the things that the listener wants to hear.

There’s only one number that can change the mind of a Trump voter, and it’s the only number they’ve ever cared about: Number One, as in “I have to look out for Number One.”


The Logic of the Mask

A bad decision doesn't become a good decision just because the worst doesn't come to pass.

So most days these days, I wind up reading Andy Slavitt’s daily COVID-19 update thread, which I’ve come to think of as being the closest thing to the fireside chat we might be having in the event of an actual president.

They’re interesting, useful, sometimes reassuring and not prone to either panic nor pulling punches. Andy strives to tell it like it is, as he sees it.

Of course, I don’t always see it as he sees it, and that’s fine, but yesterday he said something I found egregiously wrong, to the point I feel like it must be addressed.

Speaking about the situation in Georgia, he counseled a wait-and-see attitude towards Kemp’s decisions re: opening rather than immediately criticizing before we know the results.

The thing is, he’s correct that we can’t say for certain that Georgia will be materially worse off than other states that did better. This is not a Just World, not in the sense that outcomes are just and not in the sense that anything is just one thing. People can make the wrong decision for the wrong reasons and come out ahead through sheer luck. People can ignore the warnings and take the worst risks and it won’t force anything bad to happen.

The virus can’t spontaneously generate out of thin air just because it senses people without masks playing beach volleyball. Someone has to bring it to the party. That’s why various state restrictions have focused on the size of gatherings: it’s not that the virus will leave if it gets to the house and sees fewer than 10 people are there, it’s that each new person increases the chances that the virus gets there.

And just to be clear, I don’t expect Andy Slavitt will ever personally read this newsletter, so I’m not trying to explain this to him thinking he doesn’t get it. This is not “Andy Slavitt is horrible and cancelled and I’m never going to listen to him again.” He just tweeted a thing I disagree with.

He went on talk about randomness in the same thread:

And this is correct. Saying the virus has an R value of around 3 doesn’t mean there’s a rule that when you get the virus, you give it to 3 people. Some people give it to nobody, and all those people are averaged out by people who pass it on to more than 3 people, sometimes many more. Just where you are and what you’re doing when you get into the invisible spreading phase of it can have a lot of impact, and that’s obviously going to be random, subject to way too many variables for us to predict or figure out.

It’s possible to fire a bullet into a crowded room and hit no one. It’s possible to fire a bullet into a crowded room and hit several people with the same bullet. There’s no guarantee that firing a bullet into a crowded room will hit anybody.

But here’s the thing, and the reason we can and should criticize Kemp and other governors who disregard warnings and open early:

You still shouldn’t fire a bullet into a crowded room. If you do so and no one gets hurt, this doesn’t mean you were right! It means you were lucky! It means everyone was lucky!

Now imagine there are fifty people with guns and for whatever reason many of thema re eager to let off a round indoors and the rest are willing to be convinced, and for whatever reason there’s a great big building-wide conversation about whether this is a good idea or not.

If one of them decides to just test the theory out and gets lucky, that person should still be criticized!

This is the same logic whereby we all wear seatbelts even though most car trips don’t involve any collision at all.

It’s the logic of the mask. It’s entirely possible to wear a mask and not spread the virus — only people who have it can spread it, and we don’t know who has it.

If everybody wears the mask, a lot of people who didn’t have any chance to spread the virus anyway are wearing a mask “for no reason” but that’s the only way to make sure the people who are capable of spreading it wear one.

If Georgia squeaks by without a devastating outbreak after Kemp’s carelessness, then Georgia is lucky. What if all the states around Georgia see how lucky Georgia is and decide that Kemp was right? Will they all be so lucky? If one of them has a bad outbreak, it might spread back to Georgia and that’s the end of Georgia’s luck.

As Andy Slavitt has noted many times, the lag between policy choices and their effects — as well as between infection and illness — is making it hard to connect outcomes to their events right now. If the takeaway from a “successful” Georgia opening is that Kemp was right not that Kemp took a wildly irresponsible risk with a lot of people’s lives and those people, fortunately, made it through okay, then we’re likely to see other states follow suit… and because of the delay, because of the disconnect, the “success” or “failure” of all those decisions won’t be immediately apparent, which is to say they will all at first appear indistinguishable from a success.

What I fear here is a snowball effect of other states following Georgia’s lead, and still more states looking at those states reaping the financial benefits of re-opening and no outbreak in sight so they reopen, and so on.

The more states reopen, the greater the pressure to reopen will become and the harder it will be to get any relief for states (and businesses, and people) that are still locked down. Already the Republicans have all but declared they’re done with relief measures. Already the narrative is about lazy blue states want to leech off the government forever while red states are eager to go back to work.

I don’t disagree with Andy that we should be careful how we talk about the situation with Kemp in Georgia. He’s right that we shouldn’t assume there will certainly be a devastating outbreak, like there’s an inexorable law of physics or a vengeful god of plague that will make it happen because he did the wrong thing.

But we should be clear: he’s doing the wrong thing. It’s unwise, it’s risky, it’s irresponsible, and while we can’t say that any one state will have a devastating outbreak, I think even the most conservative risk estimates would show that if all fifty states do what Georgia is doing, there will be large scale outbreaks.

And because of the delay between events and outcomes, and the mobility of people, those outbreaks won’t stay in the places they happen.

We can’t guess which states will certainly have those devastating outbreaks, any more than we can predict who will live and who will die if they do get the virus and any more than we can know without testing who is capable of spreading the virus and thus in need of a mask.

We all wear masks so that we all have reduced spreading capability. That’s the logic of the mask, and the logic of the shutdowns.


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