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Too good to be true

News that "Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general ... long ... a liberal Democratic champion of women’s rights, and recently ... an outspoken figure in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment" may himself have been an abuser is a reminder that public virtue may conceal private vice.  If the accusations prove true his fall from a height will make the disappointment of former admirers all the greater.

It is human nature to fear unseen danger more than one in plain view. Nothing is more feared in military strategy than the surprise attack. Horror movie writers know that by concealing rather than openly depicting the villain the sense of fear can be heightened. Especially when special effects were crude directors knew to keep the monster offscreen or in shadow lest the audience see a man in a rubber suit and lose all terror of it.

What could explain the relative durability of Donald Trump in the face of the 24x7 media denunciation of his peccadillos is the fact that he, like the man in the rubber monster suit, is too front and center to be genuinely frightening. It is not that the public has ignored his shortcomings or faults so much as they have made adjustments for them. Trump is a definite quantity and many prefer him to what they imagine to be worse.

While Trump’s defects have been “priced in” to the political equation by contrast the liberal heroes are often pitched too high.  The future villains,  ignored or flatteringly covered by the media until the moment of their sudden exposure, prove psychologically more menacing because they were supposed to be the Good Guys. Portrayed as kindly television personalities, avuncular talk show hosts, square jawed news anchors, patrons of feminism or crusading district attorneys until exposure they fulfill the condition of betrayal and a surprise of the classic horror boogeyman. They are the tigers who stalk us from behind, the anacondas that wait coiled in ambush from an overhead branch, or little old ladies quietly eating at a diner who turns out to be possessed.

The almost cartoonish media caricature of Donald Trump can be considerably less frightening than these bent liberal heroes. The rational explanation for this phenomenon is variance. The public has a much more tightly bounded idea of what Donald Trump’s faults are, knowing the worst to as excruciating a degree of accuracy as the media and Robert Mueller can make it. By contrast the public is only vaguely persuaded it knows even the half of what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did.

This explains why counterintuitively, Donald Trump can be perceived as less risky than the Special Prosecutor. The estimate of Trump by his supporters is tightly distributed around a known mean whereas the accepted character of the true Robert Mueller can vary from hell to breakfast. It also explains why the “Resistance” strategy has been so singularly ineffective at moving the idea of Trump’s ouster into the Overton Window. What has been described as the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” has had the simultaneous effect of reducing the region of uncertainty around the Donald while increasing it around his foes. The more the Resistance shines the spotlight the less we fear the man in the rubber suit. The more fawningly it describes its flawed heroes the more we suspect some treachery is afoot.