Belmont Club

Strategic Self-Deception Is No Substitute for Competence

Strategic Self-Deception Is No Substitute for Competence
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Possibly worse than being pompously addressed with “do you know  who I am” at a minor traffic accident is hearing “do I know you?” when you were once famous. Hearing the latter means you’re over, often a process of considerable interest. One of the fascinations of watching Downfall, the dramatization of the last days of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, is observing how the once-mighty dictator became a nobody.

In scene after scene, one by one, his once-loyal henchmen desert him to save their skins. First Göring sends him a telegram asking for permission to assume leadership of the crumbling regime on 23 April 1945. “According to Albert Speer, the telegram initiated a crisis in the form of Hitler’s psychological breakdown, which precipitated the political disintegration of military command and control as the Reich collapsed.” Then, over dinner, Hitler learns from the BBC that Himmler has been trying to make a separate peace with the Western allies. It ruins his appetite.

Himmler, in Lübeck, has made an offer to surrender to the western powers through Count Bernadotte… according to a report by English radio. …   Himmler… Of all people, Himmler! The truest of the true… This is the worst betrayal of all! Göring, yeah; he was always corrupt

By the end, one almost feels pity for the Nazi strongman when even comparative nobodies are going over the fence, including his own brother-in-law, Hermann Fegelein. Perhaps actor Bruno Ganz’s most memorable moment is when as ‘Hitler’ he pounds the desk screaming, “Bring me Fegelein!  Fegelein! Fegelein! Fegelein!”

Fegelein: Hitler, do I know you? On a much smaller but still tragic scale is the sudden amnesia that has afflicted the once numerous and still illustrious acquaintances of Ghislaine Maxwell. “The great and the good whose names appear in Government Exhibit 52, alleged by the prosecution in the Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking trial to be her ‘little black book’, have not turned up at Manhattan’s Southern District Federal Court to support her.” Lower still — on the level of farce, actually — are the former supporters of Jussie Smollett, who suddenly want to forget he exists or ever existed.

Now that entertainer and Obama White House star Jussie Smollett has been convicted on multiple counts of faking an anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Trump hate crime against himself, what do we hear?

We hear a predictable chorus from Woke Media World:

Let it go. Forget it. Leave it alone. Yes, he’s guilty. And that’s a good thing. But let’s never speak of Jussie again. The mention of his name vexes us. Hush. Please, just let it go.

None of this is news to the cynical and people in power who have long been known to be on the lookout for a subtle loss of status as an early sign of decline. Once they sense it, they seek to reverse it because power is at least in part the perception of power. Once a person is perceived as going downhill, a self-reinforcing feedback loop can ensue.

Joe Biden, for example, has found the Iranians unwilling to strike a nuclear deal with him because the ayatollahs are supposedly doubtful of his ability to stay in office long enough to sustain his end of the deal. As the Atlantic Council put it, “some in Iran are understandably ambivalent about reviving the JCPOA given the ease with which the Trump administration quit—when Iran was in full compliance—and the fact that no US administration can guarantee the actions of its successor.” Once typecast as a loser it can be hard to recover.

A common solution for people trapped in a losing streak is to adopt what might be called strategic self-deception to gin up their apparent power. The most famous example was Winston Churchill who told millions on the wireless during the Darkest Hour that “the curse of Nazism will be lifted from the brow of mankind,” though he lacked the means to do it. In private, Churchill knew that he was running a colossal bluff to which there was no alternative, “because everyone realized how near death and ruin we stood. Not only individual death which is the universal experience, but incomparably more commanding the life of Britain, her message and her glory.”

The outlines of an effort to reinvent Joe Biden as a winner are evident in recent media talking points about a “Biden Boom.” “It’s a Biden Boom—and No One Has Noticed Yet,” writes the Washington Monthly. The NYT puts it this way: “Biden Sees a Boom. Many Americans Don’t.” Your future is bright, though the present is dark. The line’s a little ridiculous but maybe Joe will find some takers.

Mr. Biden described rising prices, including gas prices, as a “bump in the road.” … Polls suggest that the disconnect between the president’s view of the economy and that of voters could pose political problems for Mr. Biden and fellow Democrats in the 2022 elections. But Mr. Biden’s team is undeterred. They see the economy showing signs of what liberal economists have long said is the recipe for delivering the full gains of economic growth to low-paid and middle-class workers, even after factoring in rising prices.

But even his admirers will concede that Biden is no Winston Churchill and the New Republic grimly considers the scenario where even strategic self-deception fails to reverse the rot and Joe continues to shrink. Like the Iranians, the NR writers can also imagine a situation where Biden loses to populist challengers in 2022 and 2024. “As concerns mount over the future of free and fair elections, a debate has broken out about whether the media must protect Biden to save the republic.” The dilemma has them in a bind.

Whether we like it or not, there is reason to be gravely concerned. But against this backdrop, an interesting debate has broken out about the press’s role in protecting our too-fragile institutions and raveled civic fabric from a Trumpian assault—and whether the media, in an effort to support democracy, must unflinchingly support Biden, as well…

[Yet] No true “partisan for democracy” can simply be a reflexive defender of a politician. No matter how well intended, adopting this tendency will only further undermine the civic edifice—and it plays into the hands of democracy’s would-be gravediggers.

The New Republic’s realization that there may be no exit brings us back to the obvious lesson that the famous in decline rarely learn. No one ever stopped becoming a nobody by merely hanging on and repeating the same old failed formulas. The administration’s crisis is a governance-model crisis. It anticipated a Biden boom, an end to the pandemic, a triumphant return to international normalcy and so many things that didn’t happen. Rather than questioning their faith, it was simply easier to blame the unmentionable man in Florida. Yet one has to change, and for Somebodies, even on the downslope, that is the hardest thing to do.

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