The Christie Mystery continues: why does anyone think he is a viable candidate for the presidency? The more the media looks, the more troubling things there are to see. But so what?
Christie is a symptom (a big fat truly obnoxious symptom!) of a deeper pathology afflicting America. Part 1 of this case study examining Christie as a type specimen for the larger class of pathogenic politicians covered a lot of the mechanics of how a sociopath like Christie has come to be regarded as Presidential timber. It's not a big secret - though as Part 1 should have made clear - it might as well be so long as people deliberately chose not to acknowledge the process.
The bigger question though is how do people like Christie keep coming up and succeeding in our political system these days? You can swat plague mosquitos all day long - but sooner or later you have to find the swamp they're coming out of if you really want to do something about them. Part 2 is going to dive a bit deeper, so take a deep breath and follow me below the Orange Omnilepticon … AFTER a brief detour.
Part 1 of this case study looked at the courtier press and the crafting of narratives. Well you could hardly find better examples than the ones the inimitable Charles P. Pierce over at Esquire turned up today. His Monday review of the Sunday Talking Heads - What are the Gobshites Saying These Days - is a collection of textbook examples of a corrupted media at work playing the courtier game and helping craft narratives. Compare and contrast the treatment of Edward Snowden with that of Chris Christie by the Very Serious People Who Tell Us What To Think. Pierce also points to this Catherine Thompson TPM piece on the Morning Joe atrocity of courtier 'journalism' on full display.
Read those, and come back here - we're about to start getting into the meta - type stuff the press ignores or glosses over. The Real Deal in other words.
Corrupt politicians are nothing new in American history (definitely not in New Jersey!), nor even unique to America. Tom Ford in Toronto comes to mind… Yet, you'd think there ought to be a bit more outrage over the governor of a state engaging in petty revenge that affected thousands, with potentially lethal consequences for the people caught in traffic - or mismanaging a staff so badly that they'd do it without his knowledge. What's that phrase about "the soft bigotry of low expectations"? So what exactly is going on here?
The Toxic Legacy of Ronald Reagan
The mythos of Ronald Reagan continues to poison America, the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, that "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" is nothing but a lie. The President as John Wayne - keeping law and order in the world by virtue of American Exceptionalism and military might. The idolization of the business community and Capitalism as the source of all that is good for America - deregulation and lower taxes to set them free to do even more good, and destruction of unions so they could be more competitive in a global economy. Voodoo economics - the supply side idea that Americans would prosper by lowering taxes and reversing Keynesian policies that (for conservatives) had the fatal flaw of expecting the government to play a role in keeping the economy on the right track and making life better for people. Market Forces are the answer to every problem! Privatization now, privatization forever - because there is no such thing as the public or the public good.
In other words, you're on your own suckers. Every man for himself.
This has been the über-narrative that has shaped the United States for the last 3 decades, implicitly adopted by too many Democrats as well as Republicans. The actual facts of Reagan's presidency are quite different - but no matter. How well has it worked in practice? I really can't do better than Milt Shook's epic rant The Republicanization of the United States: Becoming a “Can Do Nation” Again
This coming election day marks the 34th anniversary of the election of Saint Reagan and the end of the most prosperous era in American history. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asking people to compare the most recent 34 year period, during which Democrats only held control of the government for a grand total of four years, with the previous 34 year period, during which Republicans had control for a grand total of four years. The response has been interesting to say the least. The stark difference between those two eras is incredibly striking. Under Democrats, we were a “can do” nation that invested in the country, but had less debt. Under Republicans, we became a “can’t do” nation that takes a miserly attitude toward government investment. In fact, Republicans see all government spending as a problem, even though they waste far more money than Democrats could ever imagine. Think I’m joking? Consider the record.Read the whole thing - it's that good and that important. Because…
Republican rule has transformed this young, vibrant nation from a nation that once believed it could do anything, into a nation that believes it’s broke and can’t afford to do anything. Think about it; everything we discuss doing these days is through the frame of how much it costs and whether or not it will make money, which is not rational. While we are still the richest nation in the world, with Republicans in charge – especially the current crop – we won’t be for long.Christie's biggest asset in this Republican political landscape is that he doesn't look like the worst of the bunch who'll be contending for the nomination. The post-partisan fetishists imagine him as a leader who'll just get things done, without all the political divisiveness. What they don't get around to asking, is what kind of things are going to get done by someone from a party that has such a low opinion of government - and why would they want to invest so much of their time and energy in something in which they do not believe?
What lies behind Milt Shook's observation is simple: the Republican Party has become an authoritarian cult. The party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, has become the party of the Koch brothers, Rush Limbaugh, Elmer Gantry, Gordon Gekko, George Wallace, the whole PNAC crew, and every petty grifter looking to score big-time. It does not exist to solve problems - it exists to aggrandize its leaders, reward the favored few, and exploit everyone else.
We did this. We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons.emphasis added
This is what they came to Washington to do -- to break the government of the United States. It doesn't matter any more whether they're doing it out of pure crackpot ideology, or at the behest of the various sugar daddies that back their campaigns, or at the instigation of their party's mouthbreathing base. It may be any one of those reasons. It may be all of them. The government of the United States, in the first three words of its founding charter, belongs to all of us, and these people have broken it deliberately. The true hell of it, though, is that you could see this coming down through the years, all the way from Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address in which government "was" the problem, through Bill Clinton's ameliorative nonsense about the era of big government being "over," through the attempts to make a charlatan like Newt Gingrich into a scholar and an ambitious hack like Paul Ryan into a budget genius, and through all the endless attempts to find "common ground" and a "Third Way." Ultimately, as we all wrapped ourselves in good intentions, a prion disease was eating away at the country's higher functions. One of the ways you can acquire a prion disease is to eat right out of its skull the brains of an infected monkey. We are now seeing the country reeling and jabbering from the effects of the prion disease, but it was during the time of Reagan that the country ate the monkey brains.
If you want to think of Chris Christie as the Poster Boy for political prion disease, go right ahead. We have something of an epidemic going on.
Authoritarianism - Making the World A Better Place for Sociopaths
So, if Pierce describes what has happened to our government as being akin to a disease, what's the underlying pathology? It turns out there's some work out there that goes a long way in explaining it.
Bob Altemeyer's seminal work on authoritarian personalities, and John W. Dean's work drawing on it, Conservatives Without Conscience, put people like Christie and the Republican Party into a context that makes much clear. Members of authoritarian groups divide into two types: leaders and followers. Sara Robinson has done a still unsurpassed (in my opinion) job of distilling Altemeyer and Dean's findings down to essentials, and I keep returning to it. Here's an extract from Cracks in the Wall, Part 1
Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.emphasis added
High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:
Intimidating and bullying
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of "suckers"
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican
Dean notes: "Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, the are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge." In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.
Does this sound like a portrait of Christie, or what? When you look at the list of characteristics above, it's hard to come up with any Republicans in leadership positions these days who don't score high by these SDO measures, not that High SDO types are limited to the GOP. You can find them everywhere there is power to be gained, especially power over others. Forbes picks up on an NPR story looking at some recent research that's uncovered what happens when "toxic leaders" get into the officer corps. From the Army's leadership "Bible":
Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.Note: the above description of the negative consequences for the people subject to this kind of leadership sounds more than a little like a description of what has happened to America in recent years.
While the Army is organized along authoritarian lines by its nature, leaders who are focused primarily on their own wants and needs are a detriment. Leadership is supposed to serve the interests of the service as a whole and its mission (set by civilian leaders from outside); an army led by nothing but high SDO types is an army that would quickly find itself in trouble. The Army has realized it can't afford toxic leaders. They're trying to figure out how to weed them out; they should talk to Bob Altemeyer. He's got a set of questionnaires that can identify those with that potential quite handily.
For a purely authoritarian group under high SDO leaders, the mission is simple: maintaining and expanding the power of the leaders. But, they can't do it all by themselves - they need followers. So, what kind of people are their natural followers? What do they get out of it?...
While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:emphasis added
1. Submission to authority.
"These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; [they] believe there are proper and improper authorities…and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views."
2. Aggressive support of authority.
Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice. Notes Dean: "Authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by a remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses."
Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy.
Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others -- a perception that's usually buttressed by the use of magical absolution techniques that they use to "evaporate guilt," in Dean's words. Because they confessed, or are saved, or were just following orders, they can commit heinous crimes and still retain a serene conscience and sense that they are "righteous people." On the other hand, when it comes to outsiders, there is no absolution. Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well).
If you look at the above descriptions of high SDO leaders and their followers, it's readily apparent how this applies to politics, but it's easy to see how well the authoritarian dynamic can also apply to religion, never mind higher moral purposes or divine law. Any organization that puts a premium on unquestioning faith is tailor made for a high SDO leader to exploit - especially where the faithful are looking for that feeling of security in the face of the ultimate threat: eternal damnation and a world full of temptations.
It's no wonder high SDO types and their followers find so many overlapping interests between their politics and their religion. It's also why they spend so much time trying to discredit the whole idea of the separation of Church and State - they rightly perceive it as a threat to their authoritarian order. In Conservatives Without Conscience, John W. Dean traces the evolution of the Republican Party into an authoritarian structure in large part due to deliberate outreach to conservative religious groups for the voting blocs they could mobilize. Once their needs became paramount, they began to force out what used to be called moderates.
The dynamic between authoritarian leaders and followers plays out in other ways as well. Much has been made of Chris Christie's press conference where he kept emphasizing over and over again how he had been betrayed by people he trusted, that he had no idea what was going on behind his back. This is seen over and over again when Republicans get into difficulties - they portray themselves as victims. Why?
For those of us who do not grasp the dynamics of the authoritarian world view, this seems like a paradox: how can a strong leader be so quick to claim to be a hapless victim? The answer is simple - their followers feel like victims all the time - this reinforces their bond with the leader "as one of them." This feeds their world view that is essentially built on paranoia: lack of trust and constant fear of betrayal. It provides scapegoats to explain away all the failings of their leader and the bad things that happen to him and them. It's why they continually act against their own interests - because they don't see it that way. It's always "Us against them".
When you understand how authoritarian organizations function, and why, it makes it a lot simpler to understand what's happening in our country - and how anti-democratic it is becoming. The problem of the failures of the press becomes clear when you realize they've either failed or refused to come to grips with how authoritarianism is changing the country for the worse, and it's hard to believe it isn't deliberate.
Thomas E. Mann and and Norman Ornstein used to be regular guests on Sunday talking head shows and punditry platforms. When they came out with a book detailing just what was going on with the Republican Party, they quickly became unpersons. They went against the "both sides are to blame" narrative and could no longer be seen through the Overton Window.
Just as Chris Christie's character flaws remained invisible to the press - up to a point. Now, if you followed the links to Pierce way up above, it's clear some of them are going into active denial.
The next installment of this series is going to continue on from here. We've started to look at authoritarians, their characteristics, and their motivations. The synergy between religious and political authoritarians is obvious - so where to next?
Here's a hint. Can you think of another element in American society where high SDO types can thrive? Can you think of an institution that largely operates on authoritarian lines, rigid beliefs, and is hostile to democracy? That often answers to no one and exercises an unhealthy influence on much of American life? Stay tuned.