“One Big Guy” And The Cost Of Accountability

One of the more bitter ironies of this already-bitter political season is that many – I won’t say “all,” though I am sorely tempted – progressives / leftists are mirroring Donald J. Trump by, like Trump, seeing things that are not there.  With Trump, the illusion concerns the inaugural multitudes that were not there, the millions of illegal voters that were not there, the JFK-assassination conspiracy that was not there, and related delusions.  With progressives, the corresponding delusion concerns what they consider the overwhelming likelihood that Donald Trump will be removed from office, either by impeachment or resignation. The two latest examples are Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times column predicting that Trump’s attempt to emasculate Obamacare will undermine Trump’s support among his base, and Mary Buffett's flat prediction in the Huffington Post that Trump, in the intermediate future, will resign.  Both the Times and HuffPo succumb to the blandishments of progressive delusion by failing to take due account of the “OBG syndrome”.

The One Big Guy (OBG) syndrome is the tendency of absolutist / authoritarian ideologies, and adherents of a similarly disposed personality type, to assert that the world is best dealt with in terms of a belief system sustained by one single, monolithic principle which is itself so certain as to lie beyond all question. Furthermore, the “One Big Guy” sustaining this world-view is not only beyond question or accountability, but is believed to be such without evidence – in fact, quite often in the face of decisively countervailing evidence.  The “One Big Guy” may be a person – Hitler, Mao Zedong, L. Ron Hubbard, Rev. Moon, etc. – or a principle / tenet of belief – the materialist dialectic of history, the Divine Right of sovereigns, Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, etc. (As a person, an OBG is always a man, so "Guy" is the correct phraseology. In fact, I know of no women OBGs. Well ... OK ... maybe Catherine the Great of Russia or Queen Victoria ... ) Now -- all-important qualification – there is nothing at all intrinsically wrong with ascribing such critical importance to “One Big Guy”, provided that there is evidence to support such an ascription, or at least no dispositive evidence against it. This happens in science all the time, and, in fact, amounts to a kind of scientific faith. All mathematicians and scientists believe, i.e., have faith, in the absolute consistency of mathematics, even though it is not possible to prove that math is completely consistent. (In fact, if you take a graduate-level course in the foundations of math, and if you get your tuition money’s worth, one of the things you will do in class is to prove rigorously that the complete consistency of mathematics cannot be proven. All we know is that math works in the strictly tentative sense of so far, so good.) But the One Big Guy syndrome – hereafter, just “OBG” – says that the OBG, be it Person or Principle, is to be taken as true under any and all circumstances, counterexamples and counterarguments, however compelling and conclusive, notwithstanding. The OBG is to be affirmed, deferred to, and believed in. Period. New line. New paragraph. The OBG is right even when he / it is demonstrably wrong. Any questions? OK ... smoke 'em if y'got 'em!

OBG obviously has great appeal to certain authoritarian personality types, if for no other reason than that it is not only authoritarian, but also (is believed to be) authoritative. No uncertainty or effeminate shilly-shallying. The materialist dialectic of history dictates the triumph of the Proletariat, by Gawd, and to the gulag with all dissenters! But perhaps the most instructive analogy, in terms of understanding the fallacy of the Times and HuffPo, is accessed by comparing the Catholic Church’s reaction to the pedophilia crisis with the reaction of (most of) Trump’s base to Trump himself.

I have struggled for several years to understand the reaction of most – not quite all, but most – lay Catholics toward the Church’s pedophilia scandal. About 15 months ago, I even wrote a “Skeptics” column about it, in which I honestly expressed my perplexity in the closing lines:

[I]s the willingness to direct rage at the finite Church leadership, while withholding an even greater rage from the Church's infinite God, rooted, not in rational considerations of morality, but rather in the knowledge that, while we can reject the Church leadership, we are terrified, at the level of gut and gland, at the prospect of following that logic to its inevitable conclusion by rejecting its God? In other words, do many of us on that marrow-deep level need God even more than we need kids to be safe?

If I were writing that column today, I would phrase the first, longer question, not as a question, but as a declarative sentence:  if we follow the preceding logic to its ultimate conclusion, we will, in fact, end up rejecting God – the Ultimate OBG – for the same reason we reject the pedophilia-condoning episcopal leadership: both knew of the abuse, both had the power to stop it, yet both did nothing. (As I said in that column, knowledge plus power equals responsibility. For both God and man.) And I would answer the concluding question “Yes”. The rational response to the pedophilia crisis would indeed be to reject Christianity and the God thereof. (If that sounds excessively "prescriptive," perhaps even intolerant, I would invite you to advance an argument supporting the rationality of belief in and worship of a God Who condones the abuse of kids:  the burden of argument is on you. Good luck!) But by renouncing belief in God, the granite-bottomed certitude provided by God – that is, by the Ultimate OBG – would also be lost, and that is a psychic catastrophe rather few monotheistic believers can deal with. So, purely for the sake of preserving that stabilizing belief, and thereby their own psychological moorings -- justice and rationality be damned -- most Catholics blame the hookers and allow the Pimp to go scot-free. As evidence for this admittedly sweeping assertion, I can point to the fact that, this coming Sunday, Christian churches -- not just Catholic -- will not be empty of all but echoes, as would be the case if Christians were remorselessly and relentlessly rational in their moral judgments.

Same with Trump, whose celebratory rallies around the country will be at least equally well attended, despite Trump's much-bragged-about moral illiteracy. For Trump-the-Genital-Grabber-OBG appeals to certain types of people for the same reason as God-the-Child-Abuse-Condoner-OBG, not only to denizens of the economic Rust Belt that everyone knows about, but to denizens of the ideological Rust Belt whose existence is seldom mentioned. For both OBGs, God and Trump, address essentially the same set of issues:  fear occasioned by uncertainty. (That is true of all monotheisms, not just Christianity:  at the bedrock level, that is ultimately what monotheistic gods are for. But that is obviously another rant for another time.) Not only have people in the shuttered steel mills of Pennsylvania and the deserted coal mines of West Virginia lost their jobs, many others, who still have jobs, have lost their bearings. Even if they still have a job, which many do, they no longer have (what they consider) their Nation. They yearn for the America where women knew their place, where  individuals knew what their gender was, where the phrase “same-sex marriage” made about as much sense as “two-sided triangle,” where their kids did not have to live in their parents’ basement until their $60,000 college loan was paid off with service-sector wages, when America’s word in the world was law so that missile-bearing Soviet ships turned tail and steamed away from Cuba in 1962, etc., etc. That America – their America – is gone. Along with their jobs. And their retirement aspirations. (And in many ways, they are right!) John Donne in the 17th century, could have been writing about them, and for them, when he said in Anatomy of the World:

'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world's condition now ...

Residents of both Rust Belts want certitude above all else and prior to all other considerations, and if they have to hit the flush handle, sending the Constitution that their parents and children fought to defend down the toilet, all in the name of certitude and making America great again, they will not hesitate – did not hesitate – to do it. And thanks to the perfect storm of creaky election machinery left over from the late 18th century, combined with anger and uncertainty … they succeeded. At this point, (most of) Trump’s base can no more call Trump to account and reject his Presidency than a devout Catholic can call God to account or a Jonestown / Guyana cultist can call Jim Jones to account or than a devout Scientologist can call L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise to account:  in all those cases, the personal cost would be (it may well be in the literal sense) lethally exorbitant. Belief must be preserved at all cost. (I am told that kind of damn-the-torpedoes fanaticism is termed "anchoring" by social psychologists.) The stakes are too high to do otherwise. For, as the Vietnam-era protest song said, "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool says to push on!"

That is the basic flaw in the Times and HuffPo analyses. Prof. Krugman and Mary Buffett approach the issue of the Trump Presidency from a pristinely Enlightenment-centric standpoint, a standpoint one of whose founding axioms is that everything -- and I do mean everything -- is subject to critique by the norms and canons of human Rationality ... and if found wanting by those criteria, summarily rejected. That is, rejected by rational agents ... the dead fly in the vichyssoise. Again, on the basis of a purely rational, essentially scientific, data- / evidence-centric analysis.  In that sense, nothing is sacred. Nothing. Thomas Jefferson's immortal words in the Declaration of Independence constitute a universal solvent:   "when any [thing] becomes destructive of those ends [of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it". If you accept the basic principles of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, especially as manifest in England and Scotland, i.e., the most fundamental basis of the American political culture, there is no room to argue. From a purely rational, even empirical, stand point, Krugman and Buffett are right:  the Trump Presidency is already utterly bankrupt. But both analyses suffer from a fatal flaw in that they both neglect to address a question beyond the ambit of a purely Enlightenment understanding:  what would be the emotional cost to the people of both Rust Belts of acknowledging this conclusion and acting on it? To many people, at this point, renouncing Trump would be like renouncing God. So the Times and the Huffington Post end up playing the part of Hegel to Trump's Kierkegaard -- two names I never anticipated using in the same sentence.

In general, in any political contest between Truth and Comfort, the latter will usually win if the advocate for same has a smooth enough delivery and his listeners are sufficiently desperate.  Call it "the art of the deal".

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Putin on a horse ... Reuters ... Public domain
Blighted area in Detroit ... Paul Sancya, AP ... CC by SA 3.0
Coal miners in Gilbert, WV ... Robert Galbraith, Reuters ... CC by SA 2.0
Napoleon Crossing the Alps ... Jacques Louis David ... Public domain
Pope Benedict XVI ... Vatican ... Public domain
Donald Trump ... Author unknown ... Public domain
Huge Mistake ... David Smith for "The Guardian" ... CC by SA 3.0

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