Sam Harris and Trump Derangement Syndrome

I’ve said before that I don’t usually like to talk about the news-of-the-day stuff here. I like to make posts that, even if someone stumbles upon it a few years from now, they’ll still find it relevant, or at least interesting. Here I’m going to talk about the recent controversy about Sam Harris and his alleged Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS. The reason is that, like it or not, Donald Trump’s ascendancy to leadership (even messianic) status among conservatives, Republicans, and right-wingers is going to have a long-reaching effect within the United States. And, since the U.S. has such a large place on the world stage, this is also something that will have far-reaching effects throughout the rest of the world as well.

This post was inspired by the above podcast from Sam Harris.

I’m only a casual follower on Sam Harris. I’ve read his book The Moral Landscape, I’ve listened to probably somewhere around 20-30 of his podcasts, and I’ve listened to him on the Joe Rogan podcast. My point being, as with most of the sort of public thinkers I follow, I’m not an acolyte or someone who will defend them at all costs. I didn’t listen to the podcast he was on where his words got him in the trouble that prompted the above clarification. Indeed, the above is actually the first podcast of his that I’ve listened to in probably over a year. One of the reasons for that is because Sam Harris often strikes me as somewhat naive on political issues. His embracing of neocons like David Frum is quite disappointing. Anyway, those are my biases as concerns Sam Harris.

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, I’m not a fan. I agree with Harris’s assessment that Trump is little more than a narcissist and a conman with few, if any, personally redeeming qualities. I would probably be baffled at how well Trump has conned so many people into worshiping him as a cult of personality if I hadn’t seen first hand the way a narcissist can manipulate and turn an otherwise intelligent and fiercely independent person into a shadow of themselves (this happened to a cousin of mine and it nearly tore their family apart). Yet, it’s still a bizarre feeling to watch it happen, when it’s so self-evidently clear to me that Trump is hoodwinking all these people with what they must experience as something very charming in the man yet only looks grotesque to me.

That being said, the response Trump’s opponents have had to the man are almost certainly an overreaction, and absolutely counterproductive to their stated goals. Their so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) only makes Trump’s supporters like him all the more. Trump is a bumbling buffoon of an administrator, favoring loyalty and sycophancy over competence among his inner circle (e.g., the number of ways his lawyers screwed the pooch on the recent Mar-a-Lago FBI raid is just astonishing, but Rudy Giuliani is a great case-in-point by himself), but he is a troll par excellence. As narcissists often do, he can see what makes people tick and is able to manipulate them with aplomb, whether that’s saying things that can get the supporters to obey (and all without having to be explicit about his demands) or to get the opposition riled up and acting irrational, making them just as bad as himself (see the whole Russiagate farce as a case in point).

However, I don’t see Trump as a force of evil. He’s chaotic neutral, if anything. He has no vision, he has no ideology besides self-aggrandizement, and lacks the administrative competence necessary to carry out the sort of diabolical plans his detractors accused him of. The COVID issue, I think, is illustrative of this. If Trump were truly the Machiavellian authoritarian he’s accused of being, then instead of bungling his handling of the crisis, he could have used it as his own version of the Reichstag fire and seized more power for himself. Instead he just downplayed it, likely thinking that such a potential catastrophe would make him look bad.

I live in conservative part of the country (southwest Michigan), where I’ve seen bumper stickers in support of Trump that say “promises made, promises kept” and it always makes me wonder: exactly which of his promises were kept? His greatest tangible achievement, as far as the conservative and rightwing in the country is concerned, was appointing three Supreme Court justices. But as far as his campaign promises: Hilary’s not in prison; we have no border wall with Mexico; wokeness is worse now than it was before his presidency; the news media is even more out-of-control biased (his “opening up” of libel laws never transpired and therefore never bore fruit); the deep state is still overly powerful and influential; China is up to more trouble now than in 2016; and so on. Of course, some of this can be blamed on the stonewalling efforts of Trump’s detractors, and perhaps on his only having one term, and yet also on all the time wasted on bogus controversies like the Russiagate fiasco, but much of it has to be laid at the feet of Trump himself. Throughout his administration, he reveled in the chaos, and was himself the catalyst for quite a bit of it.

When it comes to Trump, the news media must always get a mention. Trump was adversarial toward the news media from the start, and with good reason. One reason, of course, is that it played well with his supporters. But it was also because the news media had been hostile toward him since at least his stoking of the Obama birther conspiracy theory. Early on, the news media followed the Trump phenomenon with a sort of joking, yet derisive attitude. Trump was seen as a ridiculous clown whose rhetoric was far too fringe for anyone to seriously worry about (this attitude, of course, was in large part because of the echo chamber the liberal news media lives in). When it became clear that Trump was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and was likely to remain that way, the tone shifted to one of alarm. The news was all Trump, all the time. And, since the majority of the news media has a liberal bias, it was mostly negative. This also served the push the liberal media farther and farther to the left, adding gasoline to the growing fire of wokism burning within cultural institutions (e.g., universities, Hollywood, and already within the news media).

And this finally gets us to what the controversy and the above video by Sam Harris concerns: was there a justification for the news media and social media corporations to suppress the October surprise story of Hunter Biden’s laptop prior to the 2020 election? Harris seems to think so because (1) at the time there was still good reason to think that the story was Russian disinformation, and (2) because Trump is so odious that someone might be excused for wanting to tip the scales out of his favor. I’ll look at these two things in turn.

For (1), I don’t know that I can speak on it. I don’t follow the news all that closely, especially the sort of news-of-the-day kind of stuff. As a result, I didn’t follow the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, or the subsequent coverup, at the time (besides: a politician is corrupt? Well, color me surprised!). I will say this, though: during the Russiagate farce, a lot of unverified information was readily presented as news (think the Steele dossier). It’s clearly bias when stories meant to disparage Trump are subjected to little, if any, vetting, while suddenly concern with accuracy and verification becomes paramount when it has to do with Biden. Besides, 90% of what the mainstream news media does is speculation, so why wouldn’t they take the story and just fill airtime with speculation about the laptop story? It’s clear that they preferred to cover the story up.

For (2), I can understand the mindset that would lead to thinking something like this, but I can’t get behind it. Particularly the social media campaign to smother the story. Mark Zuckerberg recently did a podcast with Joe Rogan where he said that the coverup of the story on Facebook was at the request of the FBI, who called it Russian disinformation. This, to me, is worrying: that a social media company would take requests by the FBI to cover up a story. While I think social media companies can set their own rules and standards for what sorts of content they allow on their sites, that does not make it a socially or ethically good thing for them to favor certain viewpoints over others, or to suppress potentially important information. As far as the news media, if they still want to uphold the pretense of objectivity (although leftist ideologies rampant within their ranks probably makes objectivity rate low on their list of priorities), they should not have suppressed the story. One would hope that adherence to the higher ideal of objectivity would trump (no pun intended) banal partisan loyalties. Of course, given that the left have convinced themselves that Trump poses an existential threat to democracy itself on the scale of Adolf Hitler, one can understand, even if they don’t sympathize or agree with, the sort of “any means necessary” stance they take with their opposition to Trump.

And so, the upshot is that I disagree with Sam Harris that one could conceivably justify the way the news media handled the Hunter Biden laptop story. Obviously, before any story is verified, it should always be presented as unverified allegations (which is also how much of the Russiagate conspiracy theory should have been presented), but a conspiracy of silence on the issue should not have been the answer.

That being said, I can understand why Harris’s political views might put someone off. As I said above, it’s his embrace of neocons that have made me pay less attention to him of late (I always knew Harris had neocon sympathies, but his hatred of Trump has made those views a much more prominent part of his public persona). But I find the vitriol toward his views puzzling. Well, perhaps not puzzling – it’s a reliable human reaction to respond to disagreement with anger and even hatred, which is a testament to just how irrational human beings are – but it’s certainly unnecessary. A person can disagree with another person without enmity. But, this of course gets to the tricky debate about whether social media outrage is a good strategy to hold people accountable or if it’s an unhelpful, perhaps harmful, means of chilling free speech; a debate I won’t get into here (I’ve touched on the subject here and here).

I also disagree with Sam Harris about Trump being worse than Osama bin Laden. And I disagree with Harris for pretty much the same reasons he gives to support his position. Trump, as I said, is more chaotic neutral than any kind of evil. As Harris says, Trump has few, if any, redeeming qualities as a human being. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, was ideological: he may or may not have even been personable and even virtuous toward (some of) his fellow Muslims (I don’t know enough about the man to say one way or the other), but he held onto a dangerous and deadly ideology. To me, the sort of banality of Osama bin Laden’s evil (lawful evil?) is far more pernicious than the narcissistic, inept chaos that Trump the troll-in-chief brings. I can see the logic in the argument that, given Trump’s personality cult-like hold over the minds and actions of so many people in one of the most powerful nations on earth counts as a weight in favor of his being potentially more dangerous than Osama bin Laden, but that is merely potential, whereas bin Laden’s harmful actions are actual. Additionally, if we only judge bin Laden based on the 9/11 attacks and the roughly 3,000 people who died as a direct result of those attacks, we’re forgetting about how much pain and suffering his actions have had (A) on the rest of the U.S. (the domestic response to the 9/11 attacks, such as spying programs and the Patriot Act, which were likely bin Laden’s motivations for doing the attacks, since he almost certainly knew it wasn’t going to topple the U.S. government or anything like that) and (B) on the response abroad, which has caused untold harm, primarily in the Muslim world. Trump, on the other hand, has done damage mostly through his potential to cause harm (granted, things like the Capitol riot are actual harms that can be laid at the feet of Trump and his enablers, but that was less deadly and just as likely to fail to collapse the U.S. government as the 9/11 attacks), and how this potential has made people behave in erratic and irrational ways (e.g., wokism has only gotten worse due to the left doubling down in anticipation of their perceptions about Trump’s propensity to cause harm).

There is, I suppose, a sort of apples-and-oranges (take one guess on who the orange is) when comparing people like Osama bin Laden and Donald Trump as to which one is worse. By what criteria are we to judge? Potential to cause harm? Actual harm caused? Deaths and bodily injuries caused? Psychological or sociological harm caused? Harms caused by responses to their actions? How virtuous they are as a person? I don’t know. But, I think someone who both has a vision, and the competence to achieve it, is probably more harmful (regardless of personability) than someone who is a terrible human being, but who lacks in both ideas and competence.