Thursday, February 16, 2017

Underestimating Trump

Underestimating Trump

One peril we face in trying to understand Trump is underestimating him. There is a delicious moment of television during the primary season when Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, warned that Trump might become president and the New York Times reporter, Maggie Hagerman, led out a “vigorous belly laugh.” After Trump’s election some of my liberal friends were convinced that the Republicans were preparing to impeach him to make way for Vice President Mike Pence, who while very conservative, is temperamentally fit to be president. In the same vein, many critics announced that Trump had a narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosis rendered as part of the argument that he was simply unfit to be president. Let me make clear that I oppose the politics of the Trump administration and the Republican congress. The purpose of this post is not to assess his policies, but rather to consider the man in the round, to grasp his talents as well as his limitations, and to assess the conditions under which he might succeed or fail on his own terms. As the great Chinese military master Sun Tzu said, “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

The limits of narcissism as an explanation

Take for example the issue of narcissism. Steve Jobs was a famous narcissist. He bullied people, denied the paternity of his child, cried when his initiatives were blocked, attacked people personally when he felt their work was inadequate, violated antitrust laws by threatening competitors who were hiring Apple employees, and parked in handicapped spaces. Yet we admire him because we know that he brought his rage, ambition and single-mindedness under the control of his impulse to design beautiful, useful and novel tools. Looking beyond his psychology, we see how he was shaped by a wider context; in particular, the entrepreneurial setting of Silicon Valley, the role of the hobbyist culture in developing the personal computer, and the aftershocks of the counterculture. This matrix, shaped by his talent, his setting and his psychology gave rise to what he can call his character. Character as a concept offers up a way of understanding a person in the round. A psychological diagnosis by contrast is one-dimensional.

Consider as well the case of Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters (truck-drivers) union, who built it into an economic powerhouse from the 1930s through the 1950s. In a masterful study of character, Abraham Zaleznik highlights his political and organizing genius, as well as the primitive layers of his character. He built the union’s power by identifying the weak points in interstate trucking routes, where a strike at one warehouse could cripple truck traffic between major metropolitan areas. He played off one employer group against another and kept his “file cabinet of data and information all in his head.” His union members loved him. He was schooled by a Marxist and believed that capitalism was doomed. Growing up in the depression, in the home of his single mother, he had a deep sense of injustice. As a young labor organizer he fought physically with anti-labor cops and scabs and valued his toughness. He “had flashes of uncontrollable rage, and although he learned to keep his feelings under control in public, he occasionally resorted to bare fists when aroused. Flaring up viciously at his associates, he undermined the self-respect of those he admired most.” He was close to his children and family and flew home on weekends to be with them. His daughter reported, “He never spanked us.” As Zaleznik makes clear, we would so impoverish our understanding of Hoffa if we reduced him to a psychological diagnosis, for example highlighting his rage and antagonism as expressions of narcissism. Instead, we should see his character in the round; in its roots in the Great Depression, his sense of injustice, his Marxism, in close ties to his struggling mother, his genius for organizing, his physical courage, as well as his primitivity.

Trump’s Dark View
One question this raises is what talents and dispositions does Trump bring to the present moment in American politics. One feature of his success, I suggest, is his dark worldview and its resonance with the experience of many voters. My readers will recall his inaugural address in which he noted that, “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The reference to “carnage” was a striking metaphor, evoking as it did slaughter and bloodbaths. The address echoed his earlier acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention in which he referenced the “chaos in our communities.” Critics pointed out that these terms were gross exaggerations. But their emotional overtones resonated with precisely those residents in older urban and rural communities where joblessness and drug use are undermining families and communities. One result is “cultural carnage” as men in such settings lose the material basis for their roles as providers and fathers, the hallmarks of their masculinity. This is why they and their wives were sensitized to the discourse of political correctness (PC), which, by attacking “male privilege,” only fanned the flames. This is also why Trump could profit by attacking PC, and why Clinton failed to win the “white woman” vote. They were protecting their men.
It may seem strange that Trump, born into privilege, should win the affections of working class people in decaying industrial towns. But one of Trump’s great strengths is his concreteness. He has led his life in the world of buildings and construction and had an early education in manual labor as an apprentice in his father’s real estate business. Describing his early education in construction, one author notes,  He ran errands. He collected coins from laundry rooms. He hosed down dust at the Trump Village construction site.” Working in a machine shop he reported, “I loved it, working with my hands, and I saw a different world, the world of the guys who clean and fix things.” (loc 4082)*

Attending a military academy as a teenager he was schooled in a culture of physical discipline and toughness where, “Physical brutality and verbal abuse were tolerated, even encouraged.” His mentor, the academy’s athletic director, would set up a boxing ring two afternoons a week forcing cadets with poor grades or disciplinary problems to fight each other, “whether they wanted to or not.” (loc 724) His frugal father, who was at once his protector and mentor, put great store in the value of supplies and tools, picking up unused nails off the floor and returning them to his carpenters at building sites. From one point of view Trump’s buildings and signs are garish shaped by, “surface decoration, clumsy massing and opulence.” But they also reflect a life lived in a material world where ideas, abstractions and nuance lack salience.

In addition, Trump comes to his dark worldview honestly. It is not a conceit or a public relations stance. This is why he can represent it emotionally. Despite his privileged background, he is after all the son of an enormously successful real estate entrepreneur; he sees the world starkly, as a battle for status and as a setting where defeat is always around the corner. An oft-reported vignette is revealing here. Talking to a New York Times reporter in 1980, when he was 24 years old, he described an experience he had upon attending the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York city. “The rain was coming down for hours … In a corner just standing there in the rain, is this man, this 85-year-old engineer who came from Sweden and designed this bridge, who poured his heart into it, and nobody even mentioned his name. I realized then and there, that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool. I realized then and there something I would never forget. I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.” 
The life and death of his older brother, Fred Jr., was also telling in this regard. The presumed heir apparent of their fathers business, Fred Jr. lacked the interest and temperament for the construction business. He was a gentle and good humored and loved flying, but died of alcoholism in his parents’ home some years after separating from his wife. Reflecting on his brother’s presumed failings, two months after his death, Trump said that he had learned, “to keep my guard up one hundred percent. Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you.” (loc 1646)
The term “sucker” is revealing. It is closely connected to the idea of humiliation. Humiliation is different than shame. The latter is an internal experience. We are ashamed in front of ourselves when we fail to live to up to our own ideals. But humiliation is public, in which for example, a man who has a reputation for public probity is revealed to have stolen money from the company treasury, or hired escorts. A person has some control over how he regulates his internal experience of shame, for example, by rationalizing his conduct-- “my unhappy marriage drove me to use drugs,”--but little to no control over his public humiliation. Trump’s foolish obsession with the number of people who attended his inauguration, an obsession that undermined his gravitas, was not in this sense based on a thin skin, or low self-esteem. As befits a good narcissist he has high self-esteem. Rather, it reflects his attunement to the prospect of humiliation.
Trump’s restlessness

The prospect of defeat and humiliation accounts I think, for Trump’s strong work ethic and indeed his restlessness. To build his brand as a business tool he encouraged the press and newsmakers to think of him as a playboy if not a sybarite. But this is far from the truth. Ned Eichler, who helped the Penn Central Railroad divest its real estate in Manhattan, saw the younger Trump as a man “more focused and more competitive than anyone he had ever seen. ‘He’d be in a meeting, performing and carrying on, and then some guy would ask him a technical question and he’d be on it like a tiger… The only topic of conversation, all day long and during dinner as well, was business. You didn’t talk about any of the ordinary things, like movies or books. With Donald, there was no small talk.’” (loc 4500) Peter Osnos who edited Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, for Random House Publishing, noted that, “Trump had this urge to be a really big name, so he cultivated celebrity. But his lifestyle was surprisingly unglamorous. He’s quite disciplined in some ways. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, lives above the store. He was not a big New York socialite, never was. He basically enjoyed going upstairs and watching the tube.” (loc 1734)

As two authors write, For all of Trump’s salacious chatter on the radio and carefully staged appearances with models and other beautiful women, those who spent lots of time with him through the 1990s described not as an overheated Casanova, but rather a workaholic and something of a homebody, a savvy business operator who was keenly aware of the value of being perceived as a player. Goldberg, the attorney who was often by Trump’s side during those years, said many of his client’s much-ballyhooed associations with famous women and top models were mere moments, staged for the cameras. ‘Give him a Hershey bar and let him watch television.’” (loc 2914)

His relationship to women

Indeed, his relationship to women is more complex than his occasional predatory behavior or his playboy image would suggest. (Though it should be noted that, as happens to many powerful men, women have sent him solicitation letters.) He has mentored women and given them great responsibility in his business. His first wife Ivana, was his business partner. He gave her the role of CEO of the Trump Castle and casino in Atlantic City and put her in charge of doing the interiors for the Commodore Hotel. “Demanding, insistent, hoarse-voiced from screaming so often and so loudly, Ivana worked eighteen-hour days for months on end to be sure that the new hotel would radiate glitz and glamour in every detail.” As she told a reporter in 1988, ‘Donald calls me his twin as a woman.’” (loc 5244)

As her quote suggests, Trump may in fact be most comfortable with women who are masculinized. This may be due in part to his wariness of women’s sexuality. As he told a reporter, “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. . I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part. . . . There’s nothing I love more than women, but they’re really a lot different than portrayed. They are far worse than men, far more aggressive, and boy, can they be smart. Let’s give credit where credit is due, and let’s salute women for their tremendous power, which most men are afraid to admit they have.” (loc 2687)

A psychoanalytic perspective

A psychoanalytic perspective may illuminate this constellation of character traits; his dark view, his restlessness and his suspicion of femininity. It is common conception in psychoanalysis that a worldview is partly a projection of our inner world. This is the world shaped by our fantasies and images, mostly unconscious, of the primary figures in our lives; the figures of “mother,” “father,” “man,” “women,” “rivals and friends,” the “dominant and the submissive”, and the “sexualized and the neutered.” We can see this internal world externalized in our myths, fairy tales, films, and literature. This is why these art forms are compelling and their familiar themes so timeless. For example, the popularity of the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” is a projection of a fantasy of inner chaos that anyone who has experienced some damage or disappointment in an early relationship to a mother, father or sibling, can identify with.

We can only speculate about the specific contents of Trump’s inner life. Perhaps his fear of women and their femininity reflects some early and primary disturbance in relationship to his mother. From a psychoanalytic point of view such an early experience certainly marks a man. Indeed, a reading of his biographies suggests to me that he had a good relationship with his father, who though a sometimes a harsh disciplinarian -- after all, he exiled Donald to a military academy when he was thirteen -- was also a mentor and life-long supporter.

But whatever the contents of his inner life, he responded adaptively to inner chaos by becoming a restless builder and business developer. This is one reason why he did not simply take over his father’s business, an easy step for a less ambitious son. Instead, he decided to take the risk of constructing luxury buildings in Manhattan, rather than build middle class apartments as his father had in Queens, an outer borough of the city. In this sense he has externalized his conflicts and channeled them constructively, at least in term of his wider culture’s scale of values.

This is altogether common. For example, there are any number of successful Wall Street traders who pore their genius and emotional life into trading as a way of staving off a lack of meaning. But the emotional basis for meaning is in the loving relationships we develop, if not at first with the members of our family of origin, then with the primary figures in our adult lives. Building the latter relationships takes psychological work.  Many successful and ambitious people put it off by externalizing it through culturally sanctioned activities like trading, commerce, lawyering, or even scientific research. Such people, particularly men, may face a life-crisis only later in their lives when they consider retiring, or when they lose their edge.

Trump as Trickster

One of the more peculiar features of Trump’s primary campaign was the ease with which he insulted his opponents, calling Marco Rubio, “Little Marco,” Ted Cruise, “Lying Ted,” (with the added phrase-“nobody likes him”), and Jeb Bush, “low energy.” In describing Carly Fiorina he said, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Doubly puzzling was the fact that many voters found these insults funny. After all, in earlier presidential primaries and elections small slipups derailed campaigns; for example, when President Gerald Ford, running in the Republican primary for a second term, was labeled a “klutz” after slipping on the stairs of Air Force One. 

One hypothesis is that Trump posed as the great disruptor. Carl Jung proposed that cultures throughout the world shape their mythology by evoking archetypal figures such as the “hero,” the “wise man” or the “explorer.” One such archetype is the “trickster” who “disobeys rules, ignores what is normal or expected and often encourages chaos. He openly questions and mocks convention, and encourages other characters to follow their impulses, to do what is fun or what feels good rather than what is right.”

The biblical patriarch Jacob is certainly a trickster. He tricked his brother into giving up his birthright “for a mess of pottage” (bowl of soup), his father into giving him a deathbed blessing due his older brother, only to be later tricked by his uncle Laban, who gave him the matriarch Leah rather than Rachel, the woman he really loved, after seven years of servitude.

In modern culture, the “Joker,” in the Batman movie “Dark Knight” is a destructive trickster. He lives for chaos, though he retains features of a clown, for example his makeup, his grin, “the upward swoop” of his shoes at the toe, and indeed his name. Bart Simpson, a cartoon character in a long-running television franchise, is a more benign trickster. In the “The Telltale Head,” an episode of the first season, Bart joins a group of juvenile delinquents who shoplift at the “kwik-e-mart” and throw rocks at the statue of “Jebediah Springfield,” a revered town founder. Later, Bart cuts off the head of the statue to impress his delinquent friends. The episode’s title is actually a takeoff on Edgar Alan Poe’s story, A Tell Tale Heart, about a murder. Turning a murder story into a clownish tale is itself an act of trickery, disguising murder as the decapitation of a statute. As Freud said, a tendentious joke is a rebellion against authority; its hostile intent masked by the discharge of pleasure we feel upon laughing at it.

If this line of reasoning is correct, Trump’s mix of hostility and humor resonated because he took up a culturally embedded and readily understood role --the trickster -- as a way of promising that, unbound by convention –after all, he almost always spoke of the cuff -- he would upon his election overturn traditional policies and practices, risking chaos in the process. This is also why he has questioned shibboleths about trade, treaties, nuclear weapons, our relationship with Russia and the two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

One can see why his promise of disruption resonated. After all, Trump’s populism meant that he was borrowing tropes from the left as well as the right. What did the left’s conception of the “neo-liberal order” mean if not that elites had such a lock on resources and opportunities that “left behind” communities, whether in the inner cities or in old industrial towns were on their own to choose their favored route to social decay? What did it mean if not that global commerce favored world cities such as New York, London, and Paris, which by rapidly becoming playgrounds for the rich, made even middle class living standards unsustainable? What did it mean if not that student debt now exceeds credit card debt hobbling young people, starting out on their careers, for many decades to come? How could there be any change without significant disruption? The elites, as Trump implied in his inaugural address, were corrupt. Trump as a symbol of disruption, compared with Clinton as a symbol of continuity and corruption, sealed his victory and her defeat.
Commerce as War
Trump’s preparation for the trickster role was conditioned by his belief and experience that commerce itself is a form of war, which after all abides by few conventions and privileges disruption, surprise and deceit. Indeed it is said that in war, “the first casualty is truth.” In an oft-told tale, Trump was eager to attract Harrah Hotel executives as investors in a hotel he wanted to build in Atlantic City. He owned the site but had limited financing for construction. “To impress the Harrah officials, Trump told a crew to dig up dirt and push the piles around the two-acre make it look like the most active construction site in the history of the world..  Three weeks later, Harrah’s agreed to invest $50 million up front.” (loc 2222)
My own view is that this conception of commerce as war was realistic, or at least socially acceptable within his milieu. Consider for example the case of the lawyer Roy Cohn. Some writers have made much of the fact that Trump seemed close to him or at least used him as counsel. After all, as one journalist writes, “In the Sixties, Cohn was indicted four times (the first case ended in a mistrial) and always acquitted. He has suffered several judicial reprimands for unethical conduct, had his wrists slapped in civil cases, and been ordered to make restitution. In the Seventies, he has been indicted for violating Illinois banking laws; the Internal Revenue Service has audited his income tax returns for the last nineteen years and seized some of his assets. He has been the target of criticism and innuendo about his ethics, his finances, his personal life.”
Yet at the peak of his career his clients included, “Newhouse newspapers and Conde Nast magazines; the Catholic Archdiocese of New York; the Ford Model Agency; Studio 54; Potamkin Cadillac, Baron di Portanova; the biggest names in New York real estate, including Lefrak, Helmsley, Trump; Louis Wolfson, owner of Affirmed; Warren Avis, as in rent a car; Peter Widener and his sister Tootie, a Main Line Pennsylvania family with coal, rail, and racetrack interests; Jerry Finkelstein, a New York businessman; John Schlesinger, a British investor in South Africa; Carmine "Lilo" Galante, the reputed boss of bosses; "Fat Tony" Salerno; Nicholas "Cockeyed Nick" Rattenni; Thomas and Joseph Gambino, sons of the late Carlo; and a string of hoods; Nathan's Famous; Luca Buccellati, the jeweler; Congressman Mario Biaggi; Mrs. Charles Allen Jr., wife of the chairman of Allen & Company, He has counseled his friend George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees. As a favor to his friend Halston, Roy advised Bianca how to handle Mick.”

As another journalist wrote after Cohn’s death, “Large slices of the upper crust of New York and Washington snuggled up to him, laughed and entertained one another with stories about his crimes as though they were choice insiders' jokes, and wrestled for the privilege of partying with Cohn and his crooked and perverse friends.”

The puzzling question is why Cohn should have such social standing. One hypothesis is that many people of wealth and privilege, particularly if their status is not secured, such as first generation entrepreneurs, believe that competitors, ex-spouses, new spouses (who sign prenuptials), tax authorities, politicians on the take, gangsters, banks that hold their debts, recreational drug dealers, and fair-weather friends are out to bankrupt them. Cohn in this sense was their pit-bull, whose dirty tactics and litigiousness, made it costly for his clients’ enemies to go after them. I suggest that this social milieu, where the struggle for money and status is never ending, shaped Trump’s conception of commerce as war by other means.

The Apprentice

There is a striking dialogue in Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, about the relationship between truth telling, winning and what it takes to compete in his milieu. Recall that The Apprentice was a show in which contestants formed teams and competed to complete real tasks like creating and promoting a workout class for a gym, or designing a promotional character for a new brand of ice cream. Many of the tasks were trivial but the team dynamics were serious. Trump and his staff judged how project managers responsible for a particular task took up their roles and how team members collaborated to accomplish the tasks. In the end the “best performer” won a job in Trump’s organization.

My readers familiar with group dynamics will readily recognize the tension in the show’s design. To win, contestants had to stand out, to excel. But should they fail to collaborate with others, and subordinate appropriately to the project manager, they would lose. Similarly, project managers had to take up a leadership role. But should they fail to mobilize their team members’ best efforts, for example by being authoritarian, they would lose. In the “boardroom” scenes Trump and his advisors would interrogate team members about their process and performance. Taking counsel, Trump would decide which team members to “fire” based both on their task performance and the way in which they took up their roles in the boardroom itself.

At one board meeting Trump is querying a project manager, Ted, who apparently okayed a decision to give out gift bags with nothing in them. A woman named Summer is on his team.

Trump: You know Ted these people are laughing at you. I am starting to laugh at you.
Summer: (Interrupting). I am sorry, you know. Let me,.. I must say something really quick.
Trump: Why should your interrupt me, when I am knocking the hell out of him?
Trump: By interrupting me when I am knocking him, what are you doing to yourself?
Summer: Because I am being truthful and will always be truthful.
Trump: How stupid is that? Right?
Summer: It is not stupid.
(A teammate, whispering, counsels Summer to say, “Sorry.”)
Trump. I am getting ready to almost fire him for being a horrible leader and you interrupt me?
Summer: If I stay, I want to stay on the truth..
Trump: (To Summer) And you had no great strengths yourself. You did a lousy job, here I am getting ready to practically fire this guy and you keep interrupting me and stopping me from doing it, and in the end what Carolyn (Trump’s advisor) said is true.
Summer: I want him to be fired with the truth ..
Trump: She (Carolyn) said what have you done, and you couldn’t answer it. You know what Summer, you’re fired.
Summer: Okay
Trump Go, thank you (to whole team)
Trump: (to Ted): You did not make it by much, I want to tell you. You know she saved your ass with her own stupidity. She saved your ass. 

This is a harsh interchange, underlining the entertainment value of the show. But Summer’s “stupidity” is salient on the scale of values that Trump abides by; whether or not participants on the show are tough enough and competitive enough to survive in his world of commerce. In a telling moment in another episode, Felicia, the project manager and Ala are at loggerheads, with Ala “browbeating” Felicia, (Trump’s term), for her poor leadership. At the end of their argument we have the following dialogue.

Trump: Felicia do you really believe you are tough enough to work in New York?
Felicia: Absolutely I do.
Trump: By the way Ala, I have no doubt about it. You are tough enough. But Felicia you are not strong enough to be here. You’re just not strong enough. You’re lovely, you’re smart, you have so many things going, but you’re not strong enough for this city. Felicia, you're fired.

From Campaigning to Governing

There can be little doubt that Trump was a brilliant campaigner, upending many traditions and practices, while melding his spontaneity, skills in self-promotion, and his capacity for publicity, to what turned out to be a very sophisticated polling and outreach operation. He currently dominates the news. But it is very reasonable to ask if he has the capacity to govern, or at least the ability to learn how. In some degree, people asked the same question about Barack Obama, who after all came into the role with no executive experience and limited exposure to the rough and tumble of politics. His rhetorical gifts as well as the promise he represented for a post-racial society carried him a long way. In retrospect, his failure to build a stronger Democratic party in the wake of his two presidential campaign victories was a grievous one.

It is seriously wrong to imagine that Trump’s relative lack of education; he has a business degree and was an indifferent student, signals any lack of intelligence. A developer, Jack walker, who worked with him for a decade, noted that he could retain a “remarkable amount of detailed information in his head.” (loc 6024) I have reviewed only selected videos of his shows, The Apprentice and later, The Celebrity Apprentice. They are hard to find online. But a colleague of mine, a psychiatrist and management professor whose judgment I trust deeply, reports teaching management and leadership skills using these videos. He was struck by Trump’s ability to incorporate a great deal of second-hand data about team members’ performances --he did not observe them in their work -- and then integrate this information with his assessment of a person’s character based on his or her boardroom behavior. As my colleague wrote, “He blocked out the noise and picked up the signal,” a salient skill when making decisions situations rife with uncertainty and complexity.


Trump has great interpersonal strengths and the habit of command. However, his capacity for abstraction may be limited. By this I mean his understanding of how power is institutionalized, how the contest for influence is governed by rules and conventions rooted in culture, and how the levers for exercising power are widely distributed. President Lyndon Johnson understood these power dynamics and used them successfully to build a coalition that supported the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the U.S. Congress. The abject failure of Trump’s immigration order, a two-page document rendered without careful vetting, and his subsequent attack on the character of the judge who ruled against him, reflects this lack of understanding. He acted as if power was based on interpersonal exchange and the competition for dominance, rather than on the interplay of institutions.

To some degree, he comes by these limitations honestly but they may prove costly. As an entrepreneur running a family business he never faced the dilemma of balancing interest groups. His subordinates were unquestionably loyal, his children I imagine were deeply grateful for the opportunities he gave them. The pressing issue is whether he can learn to rely on advisors who can make up for his limitations.

A signature idea?

There is no doubt that Trump is relying for the moment on the Republican Party’s traditional program of deregulation, low taxes and privatization. This is a turn away from Obama’s priorities, but it is not a moment of social or economic disruption. My hunch is that this will not satisfy Trump’s restlessness, his impulse to disrupt and his habit of command. Nor is it likely to create jobs in the communities who so strongly supported him and are hoping, after all, for improvements in their living conditions. Economists agree that jobs are created when new small businesses are established. It is unlikely that small business owners would commit time and money to an enterprise located in a depressed city, even if taxes were lower and regulations less onerous.

Trump had one signature idea in his campaign; the trillion-dollar infrastructure program for rebuilding bridges, roads, tunnels and airports. This idea emerged organically I believe from Trump’s own experience. He is after all a builder, and “decaying” bridges and roads instantiate the idea of “carnage,” physically and concretely. The idea also has the merit of being simple in conception, focused in its execution with the likelihood that it could provide construction jobs as well as work for people whose employers sell construction materials and equipment. A “buy American” proviso would amplify its impact and solidify his support among unions. As is the case with defense spending, the dollars could be spent widely so that voters in a wide array of congressional districts would see benefits in their neighborhoods. Should there emerge local shortages of skilled or semi-skilled workers, cities, counties and states would have an incentive to fund community college and other vocational training programs. Were Trump clever, he would negotiate with construction unions for their commitment to scaling up minority apprenticeship programs. Many Democratic congressmen would support the program.

But the plan at least as it has been discussed to date, is designed to avoid federal deficit spending, the most ready source of dollars for spending on such projects. Instead it relies on private spending and lending stimulated by tax credits. The Cato institute, a conservative think tank has registered its skepticism. For example, private companies or public agencies, like electricity producers, may simply use the credit to finance their current spending plans rather than increase spending. In addition, much infrastructure, like local roads, is not profitable. Even if investors get a tax credit for funding such projects, they can’t expect to recoup any profits from them.

Deficit spending is anathema to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But should Trump presume that he has no leverage over them, particularly after he has advanced their agenda on so many other fronts? My hunch is that this is the kind of dilemma that is likely to engage him fully. It lands him in his sweet spot of negotiating multi-party deals, a skill he honed in his years as a developer. It focuses his attention on issues he has mastered in an arena where the resources and objectives are concrete and visible. Most importantly, it provides direct material support to the people who voted for him. There are of course many reasons to be skeptical. But as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, we should not underestimate Trump.

*loc refers to the location in the amazon kindle version of the book.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

What happened to Pragmatism?

What happened to pragmatism?

The New York Times carried an article several months ago on a social policy paradox. Needle exchange programs through which drug users can exchange dirty needles for clean ones, dramatically reduce HIV infections. One study found that a needle exchange program in the District of Columbia reduced new HIV infections by 70%. Yet there are only about 200 syringe exchange programs operating in 33 states. Instead, “Today, injection drug use, notably of heroin, is on the rise and has led to outbreaks of HIV in some communities.” Yet empirical research shows that needle exchange programs actually increase drug users’ participation in treatment programs. This makes sense since they are healthier and are likely more hopeful. So these programs are simple to implement, reduce the burden of illness and its associated costs in a community, prevent the spread of infections to innocents, and increase the likelihood that drug users will stop using. As they say in American slang, “It is a slam dunk” (referring to basketball). Yet there are so few programs.

A few weeks before this article appeared, the Times published a piece on a failed program for rehabilitating prisoners through a work-release program in a small Arkansas town. The town “was a casualty of the mechanization and other changes to American agriculture,” and had many abandoned buildings. Criminals used the buildings as refuges, and the crime rate was high. The program as conceived would employ prisoners on work-release to demolish the buildings while receiving high school instruction and drug treatment services. The prisoners would also earn $1,000 over six months of work and master demolition skills. The town would remove abandoned buildings, eliminate sites for criminals and vandals, while also creating vacant land available for future development. Finally, prisoners released on probation would be more employable. Everyone would benefit. Again, a slam-dunk! But the buildings contained asbestos. To save money on asbestos removal, town officials who implemented the program gave prisoners only flimsy protective clothing for example, “outfits picked from a local clothing drive and masks with a disclaimer on the packaging warning against use around airborne asbestos or lead particles.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency ultimately shut down the program.

These might seem to be minor stories. But consider a more egregious situation. In 2014, the state appointed managers of Flint, Michigan switched from using treated water from Detroit to using water from the Flint river. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin.” As a result, “between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.” This happened even though earlier, “Flint had commissioned an evaluation of Flint River water, the results of which indicated it would need to be treated with phosphates to reduce its corrosiveness.”

These events point to a larger question that has puzzled me for some time. What has happened to American pragmatism, its resolute “can-do” culture that attracted Europeans ever since Alexis de Tocqueville made his trenchant observations about the early Americans? As he wrote, the Americans were fixed upon “purely practical objects” shaped in part by their focus on commerce, which drew them “earthward,” distracted only in a “transient” fashion by their religious beliefs.

This earthward glance created a culture that prized commerce and used taxes and bond issues to build bridges, railroads, canals, and interstate highway systems. Yet in August of 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more. Close to my home, the New Jersey Transit system is in crisis. “Its aging tracks and trains need billions of dollars in improvements. Delays and fares are rising along with ridership, with passenger cars packed to the breaking point. The century-old tunnel that carries its trains to New York is crumbling. And the agency has gone nearly a year without a permanent leader.” On September 29, a New Jersey Transit train crashed into the Hoboken train station killing one person standing near the tracks and injuring more than 100. This was an eerie evocation of the derailment of an Amtrak train outside Philadelphia in 2015, which killed 8 and injured 200. Yet, neither the New Jersey Transit nor the Amtrak train tracks were equipped with “positive train control” technology, which automatically slows down trains turning corners or entering a station. Why the backwardness?

Consider the following as well. Reviewing the state of infrastructure in the United States, “the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America a ‘D’ on its nationwide Infrastructure Report Card. ASCE estimated that $2.2 trillion is needed to completely reform the nation’s transportation networks, a huge sum of money that is double the federal deficit. Regardless of the government’s inability to provide this money, it must find a solution for the infrastructure crisis.” Similarly, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, complained in a presidential debate that the U.S. airports met the standards of a “third world country.” In this matter, he was in spirit, accurate. As the Economist reports  “Skytrax releases an annual ranking of the world’s top 100 airports. This year’s list puts five airports in developing countries ahead of the top American airport, Denver International, which lies in 28th place.” To account for this poor standing the reporter writes, “There are a number of factors, beginning with chronic underinvestment in public infrastructure across the country.”

These reports point to the following hypothesis. There is a sense in which what is public—the commonly shared places, facilities, tracks, roadways and utilities, that connect us in commerce and daily life-- has been devalued practically and psychologically. Pragmatism is weak because the object of its efforts, the “public square,” is devalued.

Pragmatism in American history

What is striking about the loss of a “can-do” and public-spirited ethic is that American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey established a unique strain of American philosophy, itself called “pragmatism,” as a counterpart to European rationalism. In the spirit of “doing” rather than just “thinking,” these pragmatists prized empirical knowledge gained through action by finding out what in fact works. Truth, in this way of thinking, emerged from experience, not from the exercise of unencumbered reason nor through the recourse to faith or holy texts. John Dewey in particular played an important role in the intellectual life of what has come to be called the “progressive period” in American history, roughly the period from about 1890 to the end of World War One.

I have been drawn for the longest time to the social reformers of this period. They were practical, inventive and deeply touched by the day-to-day lives and struggles of common people in large cities. They were instrumental in restricting child labor, creating local housing codes, setting up baby-milk stations, limiting the working day, building parks and playgrounds, educating immigrants in Settlement Houses that still stand today, and deploying visiting nurses to tenements. They invented the profession of social-work as a way to connect families to housing, schooling and jobs, developed zoning codes for cities, advocated that cities own their trolley lines and utilities, and propagated the idea of “social standards,” what today we would call a “living wage.” Many of the ideas that shaped this inventiveness and energy were informed by the wider ethic of the “conservation of resources,” so that people, settings and nature itself were used rationally and not to excess. In this way of thinking the “market” was not efficient in the widest sense insofar as it undermined families, sickened children, ruined natural landscapes, and created slums.

Jane Addams, a leader in the movement for progressive social reform, had close intellectual and personal ties to John Dewey, a leading philosopher of pragmatism. Dewey founded an educational philosophy based on the idea that children learn best from experience. As one scholar notes, Dewey was intellectually nourished by two settings, the “lab school” at the University of Chicago and Hull house, the settlement house that Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded in 1889. Philosophical pragmatism and social reform pragmatism were joined together by the idea that Dewey advanced and that Addams underlined, that, “knowledge is not its own justification but a means of resolving the problematic situations in which it arises.” In other words, problematic situations, only when meaningfully engaged, that is with the mind and the heart, give rise to the understanding that is required to resolve them. This is the pragmatist ethic of “learning from experience.” This is why Addams believed that young social reformers had to “settle” in the neighborhoods they hoped to help improve.
The division of labor
To my mind there is something compelling and uplifting by the breadth and depth of thinking that Jane Addams and others brought to their very practical work. “Cost-benefit analysis,” the managerial appropriation of public policy planning today, pales in comparison. I have long wondered what was the basis for their conviction, courage and steadfastness. In this regard I have admired and puzzled over a text that Herbert Croly, a major progressive period intellectual, and the founder of the magazine, The New Republic, wrote. It is found in his book, The Promise of American Life, first published in 1909. Let me quote it at length and bear with me as you read it.
“A man achieves individual distinction not by the enterprise and vigor with which he accumulates money, but by the zeal and skill with which he pursues an exclusive interest, an interest usually but not necessarily connected to his livelihood. The purpose to which he is devoted, for instance as that of running a railroad, is not exclusive in the sense of being unique. But it becomes exclusive for the individual who adopts it because of the single-minded and disinterested manner in which it is pursued. A man makes the purpose exclusive for himself by the spirit and method in which the work is done; and just in proportion as the work is thoroughly well done a man’s individual quality does not depend merely on the display of superior enterprise and energy although, of course, he may and should be as enterprising and energetic as he can. It depends on the actual excellence of the work in every respect, an excellence which can best be achieved, by the absorbing and exclusive pursuit of that alone. A man’s individuality is projected into his work. He does not stop when he has earned enough money and he does not cease his improvements when they cease to bring him immediate return. He is identified with his job and by means of that identification his individuality becomes constructive. His achievement, just because of his excellence, has an inevitable and unequivocal social value. The quality of a man’s work reunites him with his fellows.”
I would describe this passage as a paean to society’s division of labor. Croly is extolling the way in which a person’s exclusive work connects him to a wider social order represented by the world of work. As he says, once a man, or person, finds the work he is singularly called upon to perform, once he projects his individuality into it and thereby becomes constructive, he is “united with his fellows.” The paean evokes what the first sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered in his groundbreaking book, The Division of Labor in Society; that working connects us organically by virtue of our specialized but complementary roles. Croly’s paean to the division of labor also expresses the basis for what my colleague Howard Schwartz calls, “objective self-consciousness.” This means understanding yourself by seeing yourself through the eyes of others to whom you make contributions and from whom you gain resources. This consciousness is built on the idea of one’s limitations, hence the notion of exclusivity, and in this sense is a bulwark against narcissism, the belief that we are omnipotent and co-extensive with the world.
Now to the modern ear this focus on “exclusivity” might sound strange. We live in a period in which we value our flexibility. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the terms “protean man” or “protean self” to give an account of our own post-modern condition. In light of the choices we face, the perspectives we acquire, and the competing narratives we encounter, Lifton argued, we are strengthened by our eclecticism. We are in this vision “shape-shifters.”
This suggests that “exclusivity” in the progressive period had a precise and historically specific referent. We don't have to look far for it. In building a progressive social order out of what was, at times, the chaos of market-led development, particularly in large cities, progressive intellectuals were drawn to the metaphor of the machine. The machine’s power derives precisely from the interaction of its specialized, yet complementary parts. Each part has an exclusive function and the failure of any part stops the machine.
The grand expositions of the post-Civil War period highlighted the visual and metaphorical dominance of the machine. The giant Corliss machine of the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition-- replete with shafts, belts, hammers, presses and wheels-- provided power for the entire fair. At the Chicago exposition of 1893, President Cleveland pressed a small button that made the great Allis engine “throb” and in response, “thirty great engines in Machinery Hall, as if they had heard the ringing of the gong on the electro-automatic engine stop, started up with a roar and thrashed the air with immense fly wheels like a cyclone.” The historian Henry Adams, long obsessed by the apparent inscrutability of social change, thought he had found one key to history – the exponential path of change itself, by observing the hall of dynamos at the Great Paris exhibition of 1900. 

The machine as metaphor was linked to the idea of efficiency as a social ideal. As one writer notes, in the first decade preceding World War One, efficiency became a “normal American madness.” Frederick Winslow Taylor of course promoted efficiency on the shop floor, but there were also movements for “personal efficiency, “household efficiency,” “natural resource efficiency” and even “social efficiency,” which meant harmonized relationships between social classes.  In April of 1914, 69,000 people attended an “efficiency exposition and conference” at the Grand Central Palace in New York City. A similar exposition was later held in the Midwest. Thorstein Veblen, the iconoclast economist wrote a series of papers, later collected in the book, The Engineers and the Price System, in which he proposed that since, ”the progressive advance of this industrial system towards an all inclusive mechanical balance of interlocking processes appears to be approaching a critical pass,” it was time for engineers rather than business people to oversee production and thus prevent inefficiency and artificial scarcity.
Let me pull these threads together. I am arguing that the pragmatic temperament as expressed by the social reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century was based on the idea that there was a larger social order based on the division of labor, which through social reform, local planning and “conservation” in the widest sense of the term, could be realized. This ideal social order, glimpsed through the chaos of actual city life, but felt to be within reach, had the merit of giving to everyone a valued place in an interlocking system of roles. People were reciprocally engaged in the work of building civilization. This idealized social order meant that the shared public space of cities, the streets, the schools, the houses, the factories, could be beneficent in a psychological sense, if it could be organized according to practical reason and common sense. I propose that this was one important basis for American pragmatism.
If this argument is right, it suggests the following. Pragmatism declines insofar as we no longer have a purchase on a societal-wide division of labor, if we no longer experience our roles in a societal wide system of interlocking parts through which we share our collective work. The resources and institutions we hold in common- our schools, cities, roads, bridges, rails, neighborhoods- are not part of the connective tissue that sustains a social order; an order through which we attain an awareness of our dependence on others, and our contributions to them. Instead, we are more likely to feel extruded from this dance of reciprocity. If so, the public order would no longer appear to be beneficent. And insofar as it excludes us it would be toxic.
But my reader can ask; can there possibly be evidence for what is after all a most abstract proposition?
 The decline of work
We may not have to look too far. One striking development is peoples’ increasingly insecure attachment to the working world. For example, men of prime-age are increasingly disaffected from the world of work entirely. As the following graph shows, the ties that successive cohorts of men have to the work-word are weakening.

As Nicholas Eberstadt writes in, “Men without Work: America’s invisible crisis, “Almost all of the collapse of work in adult male America over the past half century is due to the rising numbers of men no longer seeking jobs. Between 1965 and 2015, the employment-to-population ratio for U.S. men twenty and older fell by a bit over thirteen percentage points (81.3 percent to 68.1 percent). Over this same period, LFPRs (labor for participation rates) for U.S. men twenty and over fell by more than twelve percentage points (83.9 percent to 71.5 percent). In effect, exit from the workforce—including retirement—accounted for almost all of the drop in employment levels for all adult men….The prime prime-age male exodus from the labor market accounted for seven-eighths of the total work rate decline.” Moreover, in 2015, “over two-fifths of prime-age male un-workers had some college education, and one-sixth had at least a bachelor’s degree.”
And prime-age men are not alone. Young people are also experiencing what the Social Science Research Council calls “disconnection.” In its Measure of America project, the Council’s authors estimate that 13.8% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school. “Disconnection” peaked in 2010 in the early phases of the Great Recession, but it has fallen only slightly since then. Strikingly, the Council’s report connects the fates of young people and prime-age men. As it notes, “Parents who themselves struggle with weak attachment to the labor market are less able to help their children gain a foothold in the world of work than parents with robust employment histories.”
Finally, even for those who do work, their attachment to work may be increasingly insecure. As a Forbes reporter notes,Tucked away in the pages of a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office is a startling statistic: 40.4% of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers—that is, people who don’t have what we traditionally consider secure jobs.” 
The causes of these trends are legion, from the decline of manufacturing jobs, automation, the rise of low-paid service work, a growing number of ex-prisoners, the end of the draft, the rising cost of college, and a more generous disability insurance system. My focus is less on the causes and more on the effects. Reporting on prime-age men, Eberstadt notes one simple fact, “For un-working men, watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day. That’s four hours a day more than for working women, nearly three and a half hours more than working men, and a striking two hours a day more than unemployed men.”

I take from this that being what Eberstadt calls an “unworking” prime-age male puts you at great risk of being and feeling isolated. This is not far from Emile Durkheim’s original insight that the obverse of social integration, what he called “organic solidarity,” is “anomie.” If this line of reasoning is plausible, it suggests that important segments of the population are losing their material and psychological relationship to the division of labor broadly considered. This means that they are not finding their place in the world of work, and because they feel isolated, to the local communities in which they live.

The psychology of the “bad object”
Psychological processes link isolation to the devaluation of the public domain. Margaret Thatcher, in attacking social entitlements, famously said, “there is no such thing as society.” But in fact there is always a “society in the mind.” We are creatures of what Freud called “introjection" and "projection.” If we feel isolated we give an account of that isolation to ourselves, unconsciously to be sure, by creating a picture in our mind of the kind of setting that would isolate us. We then project out that picture, giving further color and shape to how we in turn experience these settings. For example, if we feel isolated we may come to see the setting that devalues us, as itself lacking in value. Its failings--we can't even secure clean drinking water(!) -- then confirm our projection. It is then only a short step to suppose that this setting does not deserve our support, and if anything, we should deconstruct it. In this sense, the public realm has become what psychoanalysts call a “bad-object,” a symbol of what extrudes rather than includes us. Why should we support it?
This conception also echoes Robert Putnam’s finding, in his classic book, Bowling Alone, that we have abandoned our “social capital,” the network of relationships we sustain by being members of unions, churches, parent-teacher organizations, fraternal lodges, and block associations. It is not that these organizations have disappeared, but that we are less motivated to support them. Interestingly, in a comprehensive paper in which Putnam goes through the many causes of the decline of social capital --he calls them “the usual suspects,” (time pressure, mobility, women working, the welfare state, etc.)-- he zeroes in on television watching as his “prime suspect.” This echoes Eberstadt’s finding.
In effect, as “un-work” grows, we increasingly hate the public sphere. This undermines public-spirited pragmatism. 
I concede that my argument needs more buttressing. But it has the merit of explaining potentially why we have so willfully underfunded the public infrastructure we share and depend on, why as I noted, my local transit system is in such a state of disrepair. It also suggests why we might be so unforgiving when government programs fail. In the progressive reform tradition, failure would be a trigger for correction. Facing corruption in municipal government, the progressives, often led by local business people, instituted merit-based selection for government jobs, professional city managers and municipal research bureaus. But today there is a presumption of innate corruption, so that when programs such as the building demolition program in Arkansas fails, it secures our conviction that these efforts are hopeless.
My argument also helps explain why public policy has been “moralized.” We can’t assess needle exchange programs pragmatically, ferreting out the “greater good” they can provide. To arrive at a conception of the greater good we have to consider our moral standards in the round assessing the conditions under which they promote human welfare and when they don't. We have to be empiricists. Instead, upon feeling useless, we turn public policies into avatars of our own potential worthiness. They can be tolerated only if they meet our absolute moral standards. And when they do, they help affirm our worthiness in the face of attacks on our own self-esteem. For example, when upon my insistence and the insistence of others, my local government does give drug users clean needles -- because drug use is immoral -- I feel elevated by its stance. In psychological terms, I turn the public domain from a “bad object” into a “good object.” But this transformation works only because the public domain was already a bad object in the first place.
Finally, this argument helps explains the rise of populist sentiments in the current election season, both on the right and on the left. Populists attack the leaders of established political parties and institutions for two reasons. First, they believe that the elites are systematically excluding them from social and political life, a not unreasonable belief today as many people confront their experience of feeling isolated and useless. Second, they believe that the elites’ claims to privilege and power are completely unjustified. Ironically here, the sad state of our public services and our public infrastructure are proof points. It proves that we are leaderless.
By contrast, in the progressive period, municipal business leaders joined with social reformers to make cities efficient in the narrow sense by controlling public spending, but also in the broader sense, to ensure that children, land, and natural resources did not go to waste. Elites joined in the work of both modernizing cities and protecting people and resources. President Theodore Roosevelt was the quintessential figure here. As an assemblyman in New York he advocated for better housing for the poor and merit exams for government posts, as the police commissioner in New York City he modernized police practices and fired a police chief for bribery, as Governor of New York he introduced factory inspection and slum housing laws, and as President he oversaw the passage of the railroad regulation bill, the meat inspection act and the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

Today, we have the obverse of pragmatism in the form of nihilism. Populism unmoored can shade into nihilism when we come to believe that the society our leaders govern is so corrupt that it is beyond reforming. It can only destroyed. This is one reason why Hillary Clinton’s thoughtful policy positions seem to many voters to be irrelevant. Why trust elites’ tinkering when they have failed so fundamentally? What masquerades as reform is seen as simply ongoing manipulation.

This nihilism trope certainly colors Trump’s campaign. Ronald Radosh reports on an interview he conducted with Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager. “’I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. ‘Lenin,” he answered, ‘wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.’” As Radosh goes on to write, “He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.”

Nihilism’s shadow is the apocalyptic alternative. Angelo M. Codevilla, emeritus professor at Boston University writes, “the 2016 election is sealing the United States’ transition from that republic to some kind of empire. Electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump cannot change that trajectory. Because each candidate represents constituencies hostile to republicanism, each in its own way, these individuals are not what this election is about. This election is about whether the Democratic Party, the ruling class’ enforcer, will impose its tastes more strongly and arbitrarily than ever, or whether constituencies opposed to that rule will get some ill-defined chance to strike back. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone.”  There may or may not be a sound basis for this vision. I present it here not because it either rings true or false, but as one measure of the climate of opinion that makes pragmatism impossible.