The Left’s Pavlovian Response to Trump

We have a unique opportunity to understand something today. For once, the president started a tweetstorm that isn’t about identity politics. In fact, he didn’t even start it on Twitter, but instead in an interview with Forbes magazine where he challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ contest. Let’s have a refresher. The Secretary of State called Trump “a f—ing moron.” What does moron mean? On the original Stanford-Binet intelligence scale, it means that you have the mental development of a child between the age of eight and twelve:

Idiot (IQ of 0–25)
Imbecile (IQ of 26-50)
Moron (IQ of 51–70)

In other words, Rex Tillerson could have been harsher in his assessment. What’s important isn’t whether or not Tillerson is technically correct nor whether the president is telling the truth when he claims he has “the highest” IQ score. What’s important is that we’ll spend the rest of the day talking about this rather than talking about Puerto Rico’s needs, or gun violence, or the fact that Sen. Bob Corker thinks the president might start World War Three.

Trump distracts us constantly, preventing us both from dwelling too long on any particular subject and from being able to drive any narratives of our own. Most of the time he does this by attacking us on issues of identity, but this isn’t strictly necessary. Any outrageous statement he makes will serve the purpose just as well.

In her last piece, Nancy made the following remark:

The so-called “culture wars” not only include the agenda of the “court evangelicals,” but also Trump’s intention to exploit Islamophobia and the age-old issue of racial fear-mongering for political gain.

This is why I’ve been saying for a while now, that those who claim that Democrats are hurting themselves by embracing “identity politics” are, at best, naive. The Trump administration is doing everything humanly possible to attack women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims and LGBT Americans. That is their strategy right now. It is one that is based on nothing but fear, hate and division. To stay quiet or ignore those attacks is to be complicit.

The charge of complicity is highly significant in this context. It’s easy to see how a failure to stand up for the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized could be justly criticized and even turned into a kind of enabling of the victimizer. I think people on the left are wired to race to the defense of anyone who needs help defending themselves. They’re also wired to avoid taking criticism for failing to do so. This is normally a strength rather than a weakness, but it’s also predictable. And anything that is predictable is exploitable and can become a weakness. If I know how you will react to a stimulus, I can easily manipulate you into behaving exactly as I want you to behave.

That’s why today’s distraction is valuable. We don’t have anyone we need to race to defend. Other than the president, there’s no one here we feel obligated to condemn. We can choose how to respond to Trump’s IQ challenge without those other considerations. Or, if we’re really dedicated to playing the identity game, we can decide to defend the mentally challenged and disabled and take things in the direction of complaining about the use of intelligence-based insults.

Overall, however, this is completely different from defending those who protest police violence or Muslims or the LBGT community or victims of sexual assault. It doesn’t force us to take a position on charged issues like the national anthem or the flag or the pledge of allegiance.

The playbook from Trump’s perspective is roughly the same. He can count on us to react to his stimulus in a very predictable way. We may wonder why he’d rather we talk about whether or not he’s a moron than the fact that a U.S. senator thinks he’s a dangerous lunatic, but he has his reasons. Senator Corker’s accusations present a real danger that silly talk about IQ tests cannot rival.

In this way, Trump manipulates us to his advantage. People criticize Hillary Clinton for not having a strong enough message, but she was starved of attention by these tactics. You can’t just blame the media for acting like Pavlov’s dogs. The left reacted to Trump’s every outrage in the same way as the press. They felt obligated to drop everything else and race to the defense of the injured. They couldn’t help but leap in to exploit what appeared to be the latest gaffe.

There’s a separate but related issue here, which is whether we hurt ourselves by talking about issues of patriotism, race, religion and sexual preference. Trump and Bannon certainly felt that they could bait us into doing this and that the result would be a collapse in support from rural white voters that would (and did) put them over the top.

It could be that we had to fall into that trap to avoid complicity in Trump’s attacks on the vulnerable. Maybe we can’t find an ethical way not to race to the defense of an ESPN reporter who is suspended for telling the truth about the president’s racism. But we don’t want to be reduced to puppets on a string, either, and we can’t be perpetually trapped in a Pavlovian nightmare.

The IQ controversy gives us a chance to look at this question without all the usual baggage and moral obligations. Do we have the discipline to ignore a story that doesn’t help us and stay focused on stories that do? Do we have the foresight to focus on matters that actually matter, like children’s health care and Puerto Rican disaster relief, or will we flit like water bugs from one Trump-directed distraction to another?

To be honest, there are no easy solutions here. The best suggestion I have is that the left needs to work on developing ways of directing attention to the stories and narratives and issues that they want people to hear and discuss.

In much of the country, people are looking for answers to problems that are plaguing their communities, and they’re not seeing how the Democrats are even examining their issues, let alone offering solutions. This is the way in which a focus on so-called identity politics helped Trump win the presidency and how the Republicans have come to dominate Congress and the vast majority of state legislatures.

And while the Democrats could do a better job coming up with solutions to issues like regional inequality, rural job loss, and the opioid epidemic, it’s more a problem of not communicating a message than it is actual inattention. Trump’s ability to hog all the attention prevents us from getting that message out. And we’re complicit in letting this happen.

So, there’s more than one type of complicity here. And if we frame this around our moral obligation to act in ways that benefit our opponents, we’re not going to win the larger war.

First of all, it’s deeper than that. We might have an ethical duty to stand up for NFL players who are now at risk of suspension if they take a knee during the anthem, but we have no obligation to spend all day talking about IQ scores.

Secondly, if we don’t learn how to push a narrative into the consciousness of the electorate and maintain a discussion on our issues, we’ll be forever trapped in a battle where we’re more lab animals than genuine contestants.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.