Few people have cared as deeply about the rise and fall of Donald Trump as Sam Harris. The podcaster, philosopher and professional atheist has spent Trump’s presidency speaking to everyone he can about truth, free speech, science, technology, violence and other lofty topics.
Harris’s podcast is among the most interesting you could listen to, both in its guestlist and content. Even the episodes of him monologuing in cerebral twists on the famous ‘mad as hell’ speech make compelling listening.
Throughout his podcasting years, Harris has rejected Trump’s presidency. Like many American intellectuals, it is not that he’d merely have preferred the other candidate to win. He takes the New Yorker line that Trump’s victory in 2016 was a violation of American politics rather than a legitimate variation.
Loser’s consent has been notably lacking in many Western democracies in recent years. British readers will recognise the tendency that led remainers to try overturning the referendum on our European Union membership as one example.
In extreme cases this has evolved into something stronger: political derangement syndrome. The incredibly-named Charles Krauthammer, a shrink who worked with Jimmy Carter’s Democrat administration, claimed credit for inventing the concept for deranged critics of George Bush Junior, but it has been applied to other politicians too.
What distinguishes Trump Derangement Syndrome is not just general hysteria about the subject, but additionally the inability to distinguish between legitimate policy differences on the one hand and signs of psychic pathology on the other.
To quote rationalist writer Eliezer Yudkowsky, politics is the mind-killer. Political debate is a swamp of motivated reasoning, grudge settling, and other forms of irrational thinking. This is especially true if you’ve identified your opponent as an existential risk.
Admittedly Trump Derangement Syndrome was as much a slur of the president’s critics as a diagnosis of their biased analysis. But some of the targets of this slur even noticed the general tendency to be oblivious to your team’s flaws, with one entry on Urban Dictionary reversing the diagnosis:
A disease Trump supporters have which causes them to believe his tens of thousands of lies, accept multiple unsupported conspiracy theories, excuse all his offences and crimes, promote that he’s a good man who has learned from his mistakes, and vote against their own interests.
Amid such mudslinging, pundits like Harris have dismissed attempts to put Trump into context – or “normalise” him, to use a favoured term of the sensibles. Speaking in his latest podcast, Harris said:
Now if you don’t think [spreading QAnon conspiracy theories is] a catastrophe for our country and for the world [and that it’s catastrophic] to have promoted such a person to the highest position of power, I’m afraid that’s on you. Caring about this sort of thing isn’t Trump Derangement Syndrome. If you don’t care about a US president who lies as freely as he breathes, who makes a laughing stock out of our country with nearly every utterance, that’s on you. These things actually matter, whether they matter to you or not.
It is however possible to think such things do matter without expecting the apocalypse and while thinking the progs overreacted. To take a typical overreaction from New Yorker editor David Remnick’s election post-mortem in 2016:
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.
In what became a conventional warning, Remnick dropped the f-bomb later in the piece, stating, “Fascism is not our future – it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so – but this is surely the way fascism can begin.” Obligatory references to George Orwell followed, but not the 1984 author’s sound observation that “as used, the word ‘fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.”
To be clear, Trump is a shit. But American centrists, moderates and self-defined sensibles still shat the bed when he won a presidential election. It was never likely that it would prompt civil war or irredeemably damage institutions, because such events are rare and only become marginally more or less likely after every election.
Joe Biden is a better man and will be a better president than his predecessor. Yet the problems of American politics will continue to hold, much as the problems of Western democracies generally will hold. At every election, we are just turning the dial one degree either way. Trump was extreme, but not much different.