Leon Neyfakh is a writer at Slate that I’ve thought about before. I want him to keep writing, because he writes impressionistic, first-person accounts of what it’s like to be a Good Liberal.
In his latest piece, he reveals fascinating information about how the normals are holding up psychologically under Trump, particularly on vacation over Memorial Day weekend. He starts off by describing an alien experience of comfort and security that he can experience in the midst of “a bunch of people.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife, Alice, and a bunch of our closest friends rented a house in upstate New York with barely any internet, lots of beautiful meadows and mountains to look at, and a big living room where we could sit around until late at night.
These are not people I have any trouble feeling like myself around. Hanging out with them is always easy and always natural. I don’t ever have to worry that something I’ve said has landed badly, or that they’re not having fun with me even though they say they are, or that they’re thinking secret thoughts about me of any kind. These are people who know and get my natural registers. I am legible to them in my authentic state, and I like to think they’re legible to me in theirs.
It’s not that social anxiety is great, but there is such a thing as being too comfortable. If a person’s life has too much of that social comfort, too much time not needing to be considerate, they’ll become careless towards everyone they’re not identified with.
This is how they passed the time:
It was a great weekend—we played Uno, we watched The Wolf of Wall Street on cable, and we tried to get my dog to swim in the pool. Except there was this one thing. Every once in a while, a chill wind would sweep into the house and briefly ruin everything. Now, I don’t literally mean that sometimes it was windy, which would not be worth mentioning, though it was quite chilly for most of the weekend. Rather, I’m describing a kind of room-transforming social gas that someone would pump into our midst and that infected the air around us. This gas was not emitted by just any someone, but a pretty specific and very famous someone, a guy who has been living in all of our heads for the past year or so, and who now demands our attention every day.
I’m talking, of course, about our president, Donald Trump, who came up frequently during our idyllic weekend even though none of us particularly wanted to talk about him. He was like a genie. As soon as his name came up, it was like Trump was summoned—like he was right there with us.
The president’s arrival had an unmistakable and singular effect: In an instant, he would cause us all to stop speaking like ourselves. It was like talking about Trump made our voices come out of our mouths wrong—as if, in discussing current events, we were turning ourselves into parrots who generically repeated stuff we’d read in the papers, seen on TV, and heard on NPR.
Really, there isn’t much thinking that’s original. Everyone’s speech is a little bit echolalia. That’s exactly why rich people spend so much money on the media. The truth is that most of their social interaction is probably inauthentic in the same way. It’s just that the centrally distributed memes about Trump are so stupid that it’s making even Leon Neyfakh self-conscious about the process.
The movie they chose for a shared fantasy life is key to understanding them:
This is a writer for Slate with his friends. His day job is a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in this scene: being a naive suck-up to complete dickheads, in awe of their leadership qualities.
Disclaimer: I haven’t watched the movie, just some scenes on YouTube.
It’s important that the truth about the stock market is spoken by a charismatic person who’s comfortable being evil. If what he’s saying is true, we should obviously get rid of the stock market and, at the very least, enforce our existing laws against ripping people off. If a leftist expressed those same truths about the stock market, it would be some kind of crazy-person hyperbole that no Serious Person could believe.
It can only be true if you’re using that information to hurt people.
“Oh man,” I said not long after we all woke up on Sunday morning. “Trump’s tweeting again.”
“What’s he saying?” my friend asked.
“He’s saying, ‘The massive TAX CUTS/REFORM that I have submitted is moving along in the process very well, actually ahead of schedule. Big benefits to all!’ ”
“Oh, he just got back from his big foreign trip,” Alice offered.
“He was probably itching to get back to his phone that whole time he was abroad,” I said. “He was conspicuously disciplined about not tweeting provocative stuff while he was over there.”
“Well, sounds like he’s back with a vengeance now,” said someone else. “OK, back to you, Leon, for the weather and traffic report. This has been Friends Talking About Trump, we’ll see you next time!”
OK, so that wasn’t a direct transcript of the conversation. But you see what I’m getting at: Trump changed us all from human beings into news commentators, spouting off warmed-over reactions to the latest awful thing in the news. Without even meaning to, we would find ourselves—and hear each other—using phrases and expressing thoughts we would never otherwise say.
Well, why are their warmed-over reactions all about imagining themselves as Donald Trump? Are Trump and the Wolf of Wall Street character any different at all? Here we can infer that the Good Liberals secretly identify with Donald Trump.
If I wanted to think about the subject matter of the movie, I’d just read a Matt Taibbi article which isn’t the result of spending millions of dollars to glorify the thieves.
This what he meant by “thoughts we would never otherwise say”:
A few weeks earlier, I’d had the following conversation with Alice while we walked our dog.
“I mean, is it time to start thinking about impeachment as a real possibility?” she asked.
“You would think, but then, the Republicans control all of Congress! It’ll never happen,” I replied.
“True, but even they will eventually reach a breaking point.”
“Why though? Trump’s poll numbers are still fine—there is just this one contingent of people who will never leave his side.”
Holy shit, what an awful conversation! Afterward both of us felt stupid and, worse, far apart from each other. We had turned into talking heads.
As professional writers with mainstream audiences, they’re not getting together to talk about how to stop Donald Trump’s agenda, or making a public case for impeachment, or taking seriously their responsibility as talking heads. You know that Leon Neyfakh wants to be a talking head. He just hasn’t gotten the invitation yet. The article is itself a transcript of a podcast, which is making himself a talking head without video.
He created interpersonal distance in that conversation by shutting down someone else’s hope, a process that I understand very well. The basis for his hopelessness is his own passivity and submission to Republicans. They could’ve strategized together about how to create cognitive dissonance for conservatives in the way they write about Trump.
A few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Russian writer Masha Gessen spoke to Slate’s Michelle Goldberg about life under autocracy. She spoke from the perspective of someone who had left Putin’s Russia for the U.S. three years earlier and could see more clearly than she used to the toll it had taken on her mind. “In the last three years,” Gessen said, “since I got to this country, I realized what a mental price I had paid for living in a state of siege and a state of battle for a decade and a half.” She called this experience “intellectually deadening. When you are fighting, you stop learning. You stop reading theory. You stop reading about things that aren’t part of the immediate fight.”
Life under autocracy, in other words, forces everyone to think and talk about the autocrat all the time. By virtue of his power, an autocrat imposes himself onto all of our thoughts, forcing us to adopt his vocabulary and inhabit his mind in order to try to understand what he’s doing and why. Ever since his rise to power, Trump has served as a vulgarizing agent. Like a true autocrat, he has situated his stumpy body on all of our shoulders and spends his days burping into our faces while we are forced to connect with the people we love by discussing the tenor and odor of the burps.
For Neyfakh, Trump seems like a bad TV show or an annoying commercial. That’s also what Trump literally is. Since Trump got elected, I’ve generally stayed aware of the news, but it was quickly obvious that Trump was relying on everyone to let him jerk their attention around. Nothing was stopping them from reflecting instead of watching a movie.
What is this nonsense about Trump “forcing us to adopt his vocabulary and inhabit his mind?” This is more liberal mystification. Of all people, Donald Trump does not seem to have complicated motivations. Why does Leon Neyfakh want Donald Trump’s motives to seem complicated? He doesn’t like the implications if his motives are simple.
Basically, Leon Neyfakh thinks he has to write about “covfefe” if that’s what Trump wrote on Twitter in the last hour. Somehow I’ve managed to find political events to write about without having Twitter or Facebook accounts at all! There’s actually a lot to talk about because politics is going crazy far beyond Trump. Neyfakh thinks otherwise because, whether or not he’d consciously describe it this way, Trump really is a Twitter feed to him. The concrete implications of Trump on his life revolve around Twitter and an affected sense of distance from his friends.
I realize this is a lucky way to suffer under Trump—that millions of Americans who are more acutely affected by his malevolent policies are dealing with much worse. Nevertheless, it feels important to recognize the disfiguring effect that Trump has had on our ability to connect with one another. After all, if we can’t talk about Trump six months into his presidency without sounding like dumb pundits, it seems possible that we’ll eventually stop trying—that we’ll become disengaged from and outwardly indifferent to the obscenities taking place around and above us.
There are two reasons I worry that this kind of intellectual and political retreat might be imminent—that before too long, social engagements and conversations with loved ones will turn into sanctuaries from the news where people like me can avoid the subject of Trump and pretend nothing is happening. One of those reasons is that I don’t often have much to say about Trump that qualifies as new or remotely thought-provoking. So much of what the administration does is so obviously corrosive and foolish that it feels pointless to say so. “I disagree with the Muslim ban.” Congratulations, Leon—very interesting point. “Jeff Sessions is dead wrong to try to scale back police reform.” Very true, very true. “Donald Trump is not competent enough to handle the responsibilities of the presidency.” Wow, tell me more about that. I haven’t heard that one before.
Leon Neyfakh’s emotional dishonesty around his Trump fascination is the reason he has problems connecting with other people. They’ve all watched and enjoyed The Apprentice at least one time, they’ve all laughed at Donald Trump on The Daily Show, they’ve all got some unacknowledged racism, but Trump is supposed to be the worst thing and they’re trying to act it out like this is terrible and fascism is happening to them, but really they’re kinda helping, so it’s all very confusing and can we just watch TV?
If they watch The Wolf of Wall Street to enjoy themselves instead of to stir up righteous anger, they don’t actually hate everything Donald Trump stands for with a burning passion. Jeff Sessions doesn’t have significance to him like “OMFG the KKK runs US DOJ!” He’s like, “Man, niggers are boring! Blah blah blah scale back police reform,” as if there had been police reform (excluding cannabis in some places).
He has no sense of urgency like maybe he should do something about having an incompetent, touchy buffoon giving military orders and setting policy.
Our political system is going apeshit and it’s already boring to him after a few months. He’s so jaded and cool!
This passage is why conservatives rightfully have no respect for liberals as men:
I have to disappoint here, because I don’t think there’s any good solution to this problem. What are we supposed to do, just not talk about Trump? Obviously not—like it or not, he is our president, and we are stuck talking about him, even if it’s in a language that is not our own, and which makes us feel alienated from ourselves.
The contrast between that feeling and the feeling of hanging out with my dearest friends this past weekend really sharpened this point for me. And it made me realize that, even in a cabin in the woods, Trump is still going to be there, sitting on our shoulders, and reminding us that life will not be the same until this all somehow ends. Like it or not, we’re going to have to keep talking about this guy for as long as we live. May it never start to come naturally.
I think the sense of belonging at the beginning of the article is key to understanding these last two paragraphs. Leon Neyfakh has never been bullied by those guys and incapable of stopping it!
For me, having been a scrawny, autistic mulatto in schools run by the Depatment of Defense, who didn’t stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s soooooooooo fucking obvious why you don’t write those last two paragraphs. Dealing with liberals like this feels like talking to people who didn’t learn anything on the playground in middle school. I just can’t imagine your life being so nice, and the lives of all your classmates being so nice, that you’d have no direct experience of bullies in the act of bulling people.
“Privilege” pisses people off because it’s fucked up to think about our own lives, and then, having gone through all that, realize the normals are genuinely that clueless. Then they’ll just look at you all stupid, not getting that their innocence is what’s criminal.
Either Leon Neyfakh is totally naive about life, or he’s very cynical and deliberately spreading counterproductive mindsets.
This is what a bully hears, in that conclusion: I’M A WEAK LITTLE BITCH I SUBMIT TO YOU FOREVER MY STRONG MASTER LET ME BEND OVER AND HELP YOU FUCK ME UP THE ASS. In the conservative mind, there’s nothing more contemptible. Warriors, MEN, don’t talk like that. EVER. Or everyone will know they’re some kind of goddamned faggot, obviously.
He wrote an article to make a show of it, but Leon Neyfakh is terrible at actually understanding Trump’s mind, because liberals are too squeamish. They like Trump too much at the same time, so the picture is just too ugly.
I’m uncomfortable around normal people like Neyfakh because it’s hard to tell if they’re naive or dishonest, or at least which predominates.
It matters that the normals spend their time working on empathy for dickheads instead of anyone else in the world.
Since Obama’s speech, the phrase “empathy deficit” has gained a foothold, appearing everywhere from academic journals to mainstream media outlets. Among the varied responses to the 2016 United States presidential election were calls for a greater general empathy. Many liberals tried to peer across party lines to understand the motivations of Donald Trump voters, for instance interviewing Republican constituents and reading books about rural poverty (think J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land). But these efforts didn’t alleviate tension between parties, which might be because empathy-building efforts don’t always work. They can even backfire in some cases: when people take the perspective of someone they think will act selfishly, they act more selfishly themselves. If empathy deficits fuel social divisions, why doesn’t empathy building salve them?
Maybe the problem is not with the remedy, but with the diagnosis. Empathy is not like the volume knob on a stereo, which tunes all frequencies of a piece of music identically; it’s more like an equalizer, which boosts different frequencies by different amounts. Rather than empathizing more or less overall—and changing the quantity of a single empathy deficit—we tune our empathy, boosting it for some while lowering it for others. Even people who empathize a lot can still suffer from an empathy imbalance—greater empathy for people who look, think, and act like themselves (their ingroup) and reduced empathy for those who don’t (their outgroup).
Research suggests that imbalances can be a bigger problem than deficits. This year, psychologists Emile Bruneau, Mina Cikara, and Rebecca Saxe measured the empathy in three ingroup-outgroup pairs: Americans versus Arabs, Greeks versus Germans, and Hungarians versus refugees. They found that people who empathized more with their ingroup than outgroup—an empathy imbalance—held more negative attitudes toward outsiders, and even a willingness to harm them. In fact, a person’s imbalance mattered more than their overall level of empathy.
Conflict resolution programs designed to increase overall empathy could backfire if they increase ingroup empathy in an already imbalanced situation. The more empathy someone feels for their ingroup, the more damage they might be willing to inflict to protect it. The people who are most bound to their own group also tend to be the most biased, unwilling to consider information distasteful to their group’s preference. In one study, psychologist Geoff Cohen showed that in evaluating new laws, people care more about which political party proposed it than the content of the law. What’s more, people aren’t aware of this tendency and maintain that their evaluation reflects personal beliefs and an objective assessment of policy content.
The best response to social divisions may sometimes involve doing something counterintuitive: lowering empathy for our ingroup and distancing from our own kind.
Yes! Compassion is universal or it isn’t. Strangers Drowning is mainly about selfless, universally helpful people, but those chapters alternate with chapters on the backlash against it. Something seems monstrous (to some) about not giving preferential treatment to friends, family, “your people” in general. “Who are your people” is exactly the question liberals don’t want to stand up and give a straight answer to:
After Trump’s election, the Anti-Facist (Antifa) movement resurged and, in February, stoked violence while protesting Milo Yiannopolous’s speech at the University of California, Berkeley, breaking windows and launching fireworks at campus buildings. Liberals quickly distanced themselves in response, asserting that this outburst undermined their values. In condemning the edge of their own party, they extended an olive branch across party lines.
Props to the article for mentioning the Asch conformity experiments:
In a famous series of experiments on conformity in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated people’s extraordinary sensitivity to social influence in deciding on truth claims. Asch assembled a group consisting of study participants mixed with research staff pretending to be study participants. He then asked them to decide whether a set of lines had the same length or not. When the research staff pretended to believe that two lines of different size were actually equal in length, the real participants tended to agree with them, doubting their own judgment. In Asch’s experiments, 75 percent of participants agreed with an incorrect answer at least once.
In further studies, Asch showed that such conformity is not inevitable, and people can ignore the instinct to follow the crowd—particularly if someone already has. When the research staff pretending to be regular participants were not in unanimous agreement, it made it easier for participants to resist the pull of the group, and considerably reduced rates of conformity. Courage is contagious, and when one person speaks out against their group others follow suit. Inside every group member is a potential lone dissenter who can restore a sense of individuality and create a foundation for constructive dissent.
The people deciding the public’s opinions know how painful nonconformity is for normals, so they put a lot of effort into making sure that conformity and participation are the same thing.
I think we need to pick our battles and accept that we’ve lost the racist white guy vote for now. The real problem is getting liberals to stop being so chickenshit. The conditions for that aren’t exactly favorable. Their ideas are so mixed up that they’re unconsciously drifting towards Donald Trump along with everyone else, while feeling like it’s an expression of their humanitarian impulses.
How do you get people to let go of things they’re proud of?