Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

Now Batting: The Decider

The most important words in 18th century American history: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the 19th: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In the 20th:

First third: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Middle third: “I have a dream.”

Final third: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Too early to tell about the 21st century. If unreserved arrogance is the theme, Bush and his folks have a lock on it.

Vietnam, Iraq

I joined the Organization of American Historians earlier this year, mostly to get access to its online journal archives; besides, you don’t have to be a real historian to be a member. One of the unanticipated perks is the quarterly Journal of American History. The September issue has a sort of roundtable discussion–it was conducted in email–among a group of scholars who have focused on the history of the Vietnam War. The subject is legacies of the war, and among the questions the journal posed to the historians was this: “Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

[The question is in the news, too. The commander-in-chief was asked the other day whether there was some parallel between the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the current bloodbath in Iraq. He allowed there was, then quickly added that since we’ve succeeded in turning Iraq into what it was not before we invaded–a 365-day-a-year, hands-on, post-graduate level training camp for ambitious terrorists–there is no way–no way!–we’ll leave before “the job” is done.]

Back to the historians. They all have much to say about Vietnam/Iraq parallels. But the one who sums them up best (and most dispassionately) is Christian Appy of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says:

“There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different … but surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all … one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the “bad guys”?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

“At the risk of gross oversimplification, I’d like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).

—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.

—We fight far away from home so we won’t have to fight in our own streets.

—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.

—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.

—We are making great progress, but the media isn’t reporting it.

—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. “help.”

—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.

—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

“Then, as now, the president does not say:

—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we’re fighting anyway.

—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.

—We are using weapons and tactics that don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.

—We won’t ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.

—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.

—Troop morale is going downhill.

—Most of the people over there don’t want us in their country.”

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