Donald Trump, Charles Manson, and the Importance of Basic Fairness

Following the belated death of Charles Manson, Newsweek published an article comparing the rhetorical style of the late cult leader and murderer to that of the current American president. Based primarily on the opinion of psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, the Newsweek piece notes similarities in how both Manson and Trump were “able to speak in a way that engaged those who felt marginalized or alienated.” Per Smaller, “Our current president speaks in an emotional or affective way to large numbers of people in our country who feel a kind of alienation or disconnection from the government.” Meanwhile, “cult followers … are so seduced by feelings of acceptance and understanding that they accept their leaders’ ideologies regardless of how destructive or dangerous they may be.”

Evaluations of Trump’s communication style are nothing new. Evan Puschak, more commonly known as the Nerdwriter, has done at least two video essays on the topic. One focuses on how Trump answers questions, using an example from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, while the other takes a look at how he composes tweets. Studies have shown that Trump communicates on a fourth-grade level, using disproportionately simple, monosyllabic language, a “volley of jabs” as Puschak puts it, and ending his sentences with strong, punchy words. Likewise, Trump charges his tweets with emotion by taking advantage of the fact that we perceive Tweets (and texts and other screen-oriented communication) to be more akin to speech than to writing. “Where his opponents and other politicians write through Twitter, Trump speaks through it,” says Puschak. “Instead of asking us to read, he forces us to hear.”

While one might draw similar ideas from the Newsweek piece and the Nerdwriter videos, one is left with the feeling that putting Manson and Trump side by side was a little bit fanciful. While Newsweek does take pains to note that they are not trying to draw a direct comparison between Trump and Manson — “Smaller is clear that he does not believe President Donald Trump is similar to the convicted killer, or that their followers have any shared beliefs or characteristics” — it’s reasonable to wonder if such bases covering is a little bit disingenuous. It’s perfectly valid, I think, to draw comparisons to the way different leaders might use language to apprehend the devotion of impressionable minds; it’s also perfectly valid to point out that such comparisons could be made without such objectionable insinuations. Newsweek might not have been trying to say that Charles Manson and Donald Trump are similar in other ways, but they certainly didn’t seem to mind if we came away with that idea on our own.

These comparisons may be true while not being fair. If this example doesn’t strike you as particularly egregious, ask yourself what your reaction would be if Fox News compared Obama to Hitler because they both love dogs or if Breitbart likened Hilary Clinton to the serial killer Ted Bundy because they were both in favor of suicide prevention.

In the age of Internet memes, political talk shows, and political propaganda television dressed up as educational comedy, fairness is a dying virtue. We increasingly prefer to anger ourselves over things other people don’t actually think than to actively engage with what they do. In “The Reason for God,” Tim Keller notes that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. At this point, few of us seem at all tainted by exposure to our opponents, much less the strongest form of their ideas. Those witches might have had us in mind when they chimed, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve previously argued that most popular political positions can be framed as a positive (i.e., “Because I care about….”). In another of Evan Puschak’s video essays, he examines the pernicious effects of combining schadenfreude, the process taking delight in someone else’s misfortune, with politics, and how it’s helped create a more toxic political atmosphere. While it used to be that, “on some level, we believe our opponent group is genuinely trying to help, just going about it the wrong way,” we’ve slowly come to see each other as evil incarnate, and deserving of whatever bad things that come each other’s way. This truth is sad and demoralizing, but also self-apparent… and possible to stop. I think it’s on each of us to help create the world we want to live in.

If that’s not enough reason to give fairness another shot, think of the way that ignoring basic fairness distracts us from more important issues. The more time we spend discussing the nonexistent similarities between Donald Trump and Charles Manson, the less attention we can give to Trump’s record as president, or to the still lingering, unanswered accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.

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Roy Moore and Overcoming Perceptions

One of the great contemporary American heroes, in my opinion, is an Afghani immigrant named Mohammad Rahimi. In Afghanistan, Rahimi was an anti-Soviet mujahid, one critical of the Taliban. In the late 80s, Rahimi fled the Middle East and settled in Elizabeth, a New Jersey city about fifteen miles from New York City, where he opened a fried chicken shack which, thanks to Rahimi’s children, became a spot where local artists like Flee Jones would have rap battles.

In the summer of 2011, Rahimi’s son Ahmad disappeared for three months. When he returned, Ahmad was no longer the genial, generous kid he’d purportedly been growing up. He exchanged his graphic tees and hip-hop persona for traditional Muslim garb and beard. He started praying in the back of the chicken shack, posting concerning messages on jihadi websites, and wrote about his desire to become a martyr. Mohammad caught him watching Al Qaeda and ISIS training videos. After Ahmad refused to stop, Mohammad reported his son to the FBI, who in turn cleared him as a potential terrorist and turned their attention to other, more acute, threats.

Two years later, Ahmad detonated three bombs in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Thirty-one people were injured, though incredibly no one was killed.

Putting it in print is easy enough, but it’s hard to overstate just how rare a thing it is for a father to turn his son into the authorities on only the suspicion that he’s a terrorist-in-training, much less an Afghani mujahid in post-9/11 New York. In fact, in the history of crime, we are far more likely to find the opposite tendency: people overlooking the obvious culprit within their community in order to persecute an outsider.

In 2014, I wrote about the murder of a Texas police officer named Robert Wood. Wood had pulled over someone driving with their headlights out, and as he approached the stopped vehicle, the driver opened fire. Wood died at the scene. A month passed before police got a lead in the case: a sixteen-year old kid named David Harris had been bragging to his friends that he killed a cop. After interviewing Harris, the police found 1) the vehicle driven by the suspect had been stolen from Harris’ neighbor; 2) ballistics from the gun used to kill Officer Wood matched the gun Harris had stolen from his father, a .22 revolver; 3) this gun was still in Harris’ possession; 4) Harris matched the description provided by Wood’s partner; and, 5) between the murder and the interview, Harris had been arrested for holding up a convenience store. Inexplicably, the Dallas police department and a jury of twelve Americans were convinced that an Ohio hitchhiker named Randall Adams had murdered Officer Wood. Adams served twelve years in prison before he was able to get the conviction overturned. Harris was never officially charged with the crime.

Harris had prior contact with the Dallas Police Department, and it was those incidents that helped him escape what should have been a very straightforward murder conviction. Harris was, by all accounts, a charming and gregarious teenager, a troublemaker with a difficult home life who everyone expected would mature into a decent person. It was almost certainly the fact that the officers working the case already knew and liked Harris that they couldn’t accept the obvious fact that he murdered their friend.

Two more cases that follow this pattern are the murders of Mary Phagan and Meredith Kercher which, although separated in time and place by almost a hundred years and five thousand miles, have astonishing similarities. Both girls were killed by men who were the last known people to see them alive. Both assailants had criminal histories. Both assailants defecated at the scene. Both murderers were well-known within the local communities. Both murderers pointed police towards scapegoats that were outsiders to the community: in Phagan’s case, a northern Jew named Leo Frank, and in Kercher’s, an American student named Amanda Knox. After three trials and several years, Knox was exonerated and returned to America. An impatient mob kidnapped Frank from his jail cell and lynched him in the public square of Marietta, Georgia.

I’m not sure what artifact of human psychology drives us to divert our suspicions from clearly suspect people in our in-group and onto clearly innocent people in our outgroup. It’s easy to hypothesize that after millennia of living in small, tight-knit communities, a tendency towards xenophobia and its related pathologies has been bred into our survival instinct. Perhaps it’s related to the psychology of perceptions, that it’s harder to change a formed perception than it is to create a new one. Perhaps it’s something more complex than that. The point, though, is that the urge to “protect our own” is common, whereas the tendency to see someone we know or someone we love as a murderer, as an agent of evil, is so rare that is basically a miracle when it does happen.

This is a roundabout prologue to talking about senate candidate Roy Moore, but my point about him is succinct but the context to understand it is lengthy. When allegations emerged last week that Moore had sexual contact with a 14-year old girl when he was 32, some people were surprised that some Moore supporters didn’t immediately abandon him. But this does not surprise me, nor do I find it inherently wicked. In a perfect world, they’d ask him to step down and drop out of the race. But as someone who’s framed himself as anti-establishment, who portrays his opposition as willing to slander him, it strikes me as exactly what we should expect to see.

Listen, if it’s an act of heroism when a man can turn his own son into the authorities (and I think it is) then that’s only because of how difficult a thing like that is to do. It should not surprise us that their constituents stuck by Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, even as it became more and more apparent that each had committed horrible crimes. And it shouldn’t surprise us that his supporters don’t yet want to abandon Moore. That they can’t yet identify him as a creepy old man who has no business in politics isn’t evidence of their wickedness but their humanity. I hope Roy Moore drops out of the race, or barring that gets trounced in the election. But I refuse to see his base as anything other than what they are: the most recent example of a group of people held hostage by the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.

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