Paul Rosenberg is one of the smartest and sharpest voices writing on American politics today. Rosenberg is also a friend of The Chauncey DeVega Show. Writing over at Salon he has a new fine and very necessary and incisive essay on the debates around psychological, morality, and conservatism--and how they help to explain the rise of the American Il Duce Donald Trump and his allure for his millions of human deplorables. If we are to defeat Donald Trump going forward we need to understand the forces and dynamics that gave rise to him: this is the true "swamp" that needs to be drained.
The week before the 2016 presidential election, Francis Wilkinson wrote a piece for Bloomberg View headlined “The Moral Foundations of Trumpism.” The title was intentionally jarring. The moral foundations of a movement led by an accused sexual predator who has nourished and fed on racism, a proto-fascist, pathological liar, bullshitter and gaslighter? Or, as Wilkinson put it, a movement of “good, decent people supporting a moral delinquent who subverts many of their most basic values.” Believe it or not, that’s exactly where the idea of “Moral Foundations Theory,” or MFT, leads us.A key point:
MFT is a social psychology theory developed by Jonathan Haidt and others, popularized in Haidt’s 2012 bestseller, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which purports to explain how everyone — liberal or conservative — is moral, just in different ways. As an explanation of liberal/conservative differences, the theory aims to shove aside decades of earlier research on a wide array of different distinguishing factors, which were first comprehensively brought together in the 2003 paper “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by Jonathan Jost and his co-authors.
Two of those factors are particularly salient in regards to group prejudice, and were highlighted in John Dean’s 2006 bestseller, “Conservatives Without Conscience“: Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), which reflects ideological commitment to tradition, authority, and social convention; and social dominance orientation (SDO), reflecting commitment to group-based dominance and social inequality.
“MFT seeks to obscure the darker sides of conservatism revealed in the work on both right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social-dominance orientation (SDO),” Sinn said. “MFT seeks to repackage RWA as simple in-group solidarity (denying the out-group antagonism) and completely denies SDO as the twin-driver of conservatism. Multiple studies show that the so-called binding foundations are simply RWA and that so-called ‘individualizing’ foundations replicate (the reverse of) SDO.” The only thing new MFT offers is “highlighting the special role of purity in conservatism,” he concluded.
Taking a step back, an even more basic problem comes into view: the fact that the dark side of conservative motivations — most vividly, SDO and the aforementioned “dark triad” — disqualifies them as moral values according to MFT itself. Haidt has defined morality as “any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”
I asked Sinn about this. “Yes, I completely agree,” he responded. “It’s all a semantic game. MFT defines morality as those practices that regulate selfishness and then presumes [that] ideological differences reflect merely different moralities. SDO is an exploitative, power-based motivation not fitting the definition of morality, ergo it cannot be a driver of ideological differences. Sleight of hand. Nothing to see here.”The closer:
That sleight of hand may have worked with Obama in the White House, but it clearly doesn’t work in the face of Donald Trump. There is no getting around the fact that Trump’s powerful emotional draw on his conservative base is driven by appeals that unleash, justify and celebrate selfishness and even cruelty, topped off by his own very public “dark triad” behavior.
At the very least, it can help us stop fooling ourselves. When it comes to moral foundations, Trump doesn’t have any that are worthy of the name. That needs to be made clear to anyone who yearns to side with him. There’s no hiding from that anymore behind a psychological or sociological just-so story.
MFT argues that we must treat everyone’s moral conclusions as equally valid, but is based on a false claim of moral equivalency. Still, the striving for inclusion and equal treatment are fundamental to how liberals see the world. Conservatives may delight in warring against liberals, but liberals will always want to make peace. Neither basic orientation is about to change. What progressives and liberals can change is how we think about making peace. We can strive to respect and understand conservatives’ moral orientations and concerns without feeling any need to agree with their immoral conclusions. Once we’re clear on that, we can fight like hell for a just and lasting peace.The corporate news media is normalizing Donald Trump. This is a parallel project to how too many social scientists have also been depicting conservatism and authoritarianism as mere points on a continuum of political values as opposed to something aberrant and dangerous. These researchers had too much faith in America's democratic institutions and values. They also refused to admit to themselves that normativity should and must often override their commitment to positivism. Stated differently: it is often insufficient to just describe a thing; we as truth tellers must make a moral demand and evaluation of it...and do so boldly and unapologetically.