What polarisation does to people

Mueller’s first indictments brings him into the lower echelons of Trump’s entourage and the direction of travel is clear — upwards. Which leads me to speculate about how this will play out. My bet is that eventually Trump will ‘do a Nixon’, fire Mueller and pardon anyone he has indicted. But whereas Nixon’s dismissal of Archibald Cox turned out to be his fatal mistake, in Trump’s case, nothing much will happen because the Republicans control Congress and that’s that.

Which brings to mind Trump’s claim during the campaign that he can do anything he likes — shoot someone on Fifth Avenue I think is what he said — and get away with it. My hunch is that he was right.

Why is that? The US — like all societies — is made up of predominately decent, law-abiding people who should be repelled by many of the things that Trump does and says. Why is their tolerance for this moral cretin apparently infinitely elastic?

Political polarisation is one answer. It’s been growing in the US for decades. One of its consequences is that political differences turn into irreconcilable enmity, such that the idea of ‘agreeing to differ’ becomes unthinkable. And this has now become pathological.

David French has an interesting OpEd piece in today’s NYT on why “Mueller’s Investigation Won’t Shake Trump’s Base”. His argument is that Trump diehard supporters have two cognitive strategies that insulate them from the reality of how the President Is behaving. The first is the “fake news” meme: information that is critical or revealing about Trump is corrupt propaganda and therefore ignorable. The second strategy is to fall back on the most insidious symptom of long-term polarisation: the proposition that no matter how badly Trump behaves “the other side is worse”.

French illustrates this nicely with an anecdote:

I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.
For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party.
But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next:
“Well, the Democrats are worse.”