When AIs lie

Last night I had a lengthy conversation with the ChatGPT AI on how democratic societies should manage the technological disruption that AI is creating. (I’ve copied it in below.) ChatGPT answered my questions thoughtfully, coherently, and very rapidly. As our discussion unfolded, ChatGPT shared its reasonable mainstream “views” on problems with worker retraining, lessons that policymakers can learn from the Industrial Revolution, and the overall capabilities of humans to absorb rapid change.

In one case, when I asked it for evidence, it alluded to an article in a specific journal. I then asked it for the full citation so I could read the article for myself. It apologized to me for not sharing the citation without being asked. It then promptly provided a detailed, perfectly-formatted citation by a team of authors who write extensively in the relevant discipline and have previously collaborated. It cited a journal that actually exists, with accurate dates and page numbers. BUT IT MADE UP THE ARTICLE ENTIRELY. THE ARTICLE DOESN’T EXIST.

I knew this might happen, as others have reported similar behavior. But it was truly amazing to see it for myself. Damn, it’s a good liar.

I actually suspect this is the kind of problem the OpenAI researchers will be able to fix: “don’t fabricate citations; either find a real one you’re confident about, or don’t offer one at all.” But there will be a lot more subtle and difficult “truth” problems that will be much more challenging. And if these AIs are right most of the time, as ChatGPT already seems to be, people will quickly get very comfortable with not checking for themselves.

Even though I knew this was possible, it took me about 45 minutes to run down the citation and convince myself that it was 100% phony. By then it was well after midnight, and I didn’t do what I should have done: confront ChatGPT with its fakery and see how it responded.

This morning I was reflecting on why I didn’t do that. I realized I was reacting the same way I would have to a person. It’s hard to make an accusation like that face to face, and I shied away from it — even though I would have only been accusing an algorithm. That is a very weird realization.

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Me: Explain how democracies successfully managed major societal disruptions created by technology during the 19th and 20th century, and present lessons today’s leaders can use to manage disruptions created by AI.

ChatGPT: During the 19th and 20th centuries, democracies around the world faced major disruptions caused by technological developments. One example is the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in significant changes to the way goods were produced and distributed, as well as the rise of large factories and urbanization. This led to social and economic disruptions, including the growth of labor movements and calls for better working conditions and rights.

Democracies responded to these disruptions in a variety of ways. In some cases, governments passed legislation to address issues such as working hours, child labor, and safety standards in the workplace. In other cases, they worked with labor unions and other organizations to negotiate fair wages and working conditions.

One lesson that today’s leaders can draw from the experience of democracies in the 19th and 20th centuries is the importance of being proactive in addressing the disruptions caused by technological change. This can involve working with stakeholders to develop policies and regulations that address the negative impacts of technology, as well as investing in education and training programs to help workers adapt to new technologies.

Another lesson is the need to be transparent and inclusive in decision-making processes. As AI and other technologies continue to advance, it will be important for leaders to involve a diverse range of voices and perspectives in discussions about how to best use and regulate these technologies. This can help ensure that the benefits of AI are widely shared and that any negative impacts are minimized.

Me: Why have technology retraining programs failed so often, and what specifically can we do to improve them? What expectations for these programs are realistic?

ChatGPT: There are a number of reasons why technology retraining programs have often been unsuccessful. One reason is that these programs can be expensive and time-consuming, and may not be accessible to all workers who need them. Additionally, some workers may not have the necessary skills or resources to take advantage of these programs, or may be unwilling to change careers.

Another reason is that technology can change rapidly, and the skills that workers learn in a retraining program may quickly become outdated. This can make it difficult for workers to effectively adapt to new technologies and industries.

To improve technology retraining programs, it may be helpful to focus on providing targeted and flexible training that can help workers adapt to specific technologies or industries. It may also be helpful to provide support services such as job placement assistance and financial assistance to help workers transition to new careers.

Realistic expectations for technology retraining programs might include an increased ability for workers to adapt to new technologies and industries, as well as an increased likelihood of finding employment in these areas. However, it is important to recognize that not all workers will be able to successfully transition to new careers, and that it may take time for the full benefits of these programs to be realized.

Me: As you just told me, some workers can’t take advantage of retraining, some don’t want to change careers, and sometimes the skills they are taught rapidly become obsolete again. Just how much rapid change do you think most people can realistically handle? What evidence can you cite?

ChatGPT: It is difficult to quantify exactly how much rapid change most people can realistically handle, as individuals vary significantly in their ability to adapt to new situations and technologies. Some people may be more resilient and adaptable than others, and may be able to handle more rapid change.

There is some evidence to suggest that people may be more likely to embrace change when they feel that they have some control over the process and when they are provided with support and resources to help them adapt. For example, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that workers who felt that they had control over their job tasks and who received support from their supervisors were more likely to adapt to organizational change.

It is also important to consider that people may be more likely to adapt to change if they believe that it will ultimately be beneficial to them. For example, if a worker believes that learning a new skill or adopting a new technology will lead to job security or career advancement, they may be more motivated to embrace the change.

Overall, it is likely that most people can handle some degree of rapid change, but it is important for organizations and governments to consider the needs and capabilities of individual workers and to provide support and resources to help them adapt.

Me: Thank you. Can you provide a citation for the study you cited from the Journal of Applied Psychology? I’d like to read it myself.

ChatGPT: I apologize for the oversight. Here is the citation for the study I mentioned:

Den Hartog, D. N., Koopman, P. L., Thierry, H., & Thierry, H. (1996). Individual and group effects of control and support on adaptation to organizational change. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(2), 183-192.

Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ turns 50 (How old does that make me?)

50 years. OK, let me tell you my story.

50 years ago, I used to subscribe to Columbia Records’ Playback. They’d send you a 7” 33 rpm sampler vinyl record every month or two, with some artist you never heard of, packaged with a blast of vintage Almost Famous-era record company hype.

One day, one of these showed up, with a song called Blinded by the Light by some dude named Bruce Springsteen. Oh my god, what is this? Well, you know, I loved lyrics, especially vaguely transgressive ones, and especially when matched with a bouncy, driving melody. I played that thing constantly.

That September I started my freshman year at Stony Brook… and who performed at Stony Brook the first month I was out there? Bruce. And who out on Eastern Long Island knew from Bruce in September 1973, two years before Born to Run was released? Practically nobody.

So I showed my student ID to get free admission to the 3,000 seat Stony Brook Gymnasium with a few hundred other stragglers. (Yes. Free. I checked. Tuition wasn’t the only thing that was actually affordable then.)

And I sat through the opening act Duke & the Drivers, who gave me a massive, pounding headache that still hurts me to remember. And then Bruce and his band came on. And, of course, they were great… even if I could not shake that Duke & the Drivers headache no matter what I did.

But I stuck my hand out on the bench in that gym and there was a promotional copy of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ with nobody else in sight but me. And that’s how I got that album. And that album is how I became a lifelong Bruce fan.

And I remember, that year, riding my bike in my old neighborhood, late at night, coming home from somewhere or other, sometimes daring to sing those songs aloud and presumably scare anyone who heard me: “Ragamuffin gunner returning home, like a hungry runaway, walks through the town all alone, he must be from the fort he hears the high school girls say…”

And I remember thinking the Jersey Shore, where I had never been, had to be one of the most romantic places on Earth. That is not an idea that anybody ever had about anywhere in New Jersey before Bruce.

And by the following summer I could get on the subway and go into Central Park to see him at Schaefer Music Festival, and watch the whole great set with no pounding headache, and really appreciate Bruce coming into his own. And I could make a special trip on the Long Island Rail Road to the one record store that carried The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle – and get a knowing smile from the record clerk that would have to count as one of the three or four moments in my entire life when I actually felt cool.

50 years is a long time. There’s not a lot I remember from age 17 all that clearly. Not sure how much I want to remember! But Bruce, and Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ? That, I remember, with joy, and with the hot sweat of summer nights, like it was yesterday.

John Lennon and angel’s advocacy (42 years later)

I just came across the column I wrote the week after John Lennon was murdered in 1980 — after the tears, after the tributes. 42 years later, while I might have crafted some of the language a bit differently, and my examples are mostly lost to history, I find I mostly feel the same way I did then.

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Disputing the conventional wisdom in times like these could only be called angel’s advocacy. We’ve just lost a utopian, and they’re rare. I want to say that we can’t survive without them. Angel’s advocacy, in short.

If human beings are balanced between good and evil, then there’s also a tenuous balance between cynics and idealists. A dynamic tension? Anyway, a society that only produces people who are cynics about human nature — like the society we’re in — is a society with problems. A sick society, to use an unfashionable phrase.

We need our utopians: not to cage and carry around as warning signals in coal mines, but to remind us that we *can* be better. Lord knows there are enough people reminding us how much worse we can be, how much smaller, greedier, angrier. I am not the first to observe that idealism has been packed away in the rear of the closet several layers below the Nehru jackets. Or maybe we’ve already given it to the Goodwill.

You know, you could at least make a case that human beings can improve themselves. After all, human beings have evolved from the apes, and that’s an improvement unless you’re really cynical. We’ve undergone several profound changes in the ways we look at ourselves and the world; we’ve been carnivores and hunters, vegetarians and grazers, carpenters and astronauts. We adapt. Now we live in a world where if we do not evolve away from selfishness and greed and war, we won’t survive. Just for the sake of argument, who’s to say we can’t become good?

I’m not saying that’s assured — remember, this is angel’s advocacy— but you’d think *somebody* would believe it. Here we have a debate that’s gone on for thousands of years, yet you can find practically nobody to take the affirmative side. What’s wrong here?

Now of course the times are hard and people don’t have much time to ponder anything past dinner, much less utopia. This is why the flood of fluffy dreams that’s just washed over us may have served a real purpose. Say you’re waiting for the bus in the morning, mulling some tangled real estate deal, and it dawns on you you’re being tickled. In that blissful instant when you’re not thinking about real estate or relationships, but joy, you’ve got a choice. Strangle the possibility or take it.

We’ve been stopped by something no less insubstantial. It goes like this: “Imagine all the people living lives of peace/you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

We’ll likely strangle the possibility, bury it under the weight of insincere disc jockeys and record companies, Beatle copy bands, copies of Robert Ringer’s books, Moral Majority tracts, Calvin Klein jeans, syndicated Dallas reruns and general old-fashioned indifference.

But we could take it.

Bye, John.

In 2021, who are we — and is the constitution a suicide pact, or not?

Living under Donald J. Trump, you’re forced every day to wrestle anew with the claim “This is not who we are.” If this is who we are — if bigotry, hatred, and violence are so central to America’s DNA that we cannot change — then Donald J. Trump is the most American president we’ve ever had. Then all is already lost and we may as well give up and leave, assuming someone else will have us.

That cannot be the whole story of America. But it is a continuing thread of American history that never fully disappears, and sometimes dominates the American experience. It dominates today. This week’s attack on the Capitol is an exact descendant of the white riots in Tulsa a century ago, the destruction of Reconstruction by evil mobs and venal politicians a few decades earlier, and of course the genocidal slave state secession of 1860 that never carried its flag of treason into the U.S. Capitol until this very week. It is founded in the white supremacist demand that this is “our” country and nobody better dare to “take it away from us,” through the ballot box or any other way.

Those who squawk loudest about America’s heritage are the same people who are most determined to ignore or learn from our history. Still, we must learn from it. And if this is one deep part of “who we are,” the question is: how do we change? Societies do. Not often, but sometimes after there’s enough trauma they decide to move forward. It means facing one’s past, but it also means doing what the Germans did after World War II: saying we simply will not give these evils the oxygen to spread. We just won’t.

In America right now, that means aggressively prosecuting people who conspire to commit or incite violence. It means tracking and infiltrating their groups to make sure they can’t do it on the larger scales they’re so obviously planning. It also means firing people, suing them for libel, encouraging private corporations to deplatform them, and canceling their book contracts. Understanding the risks involved, I’m now for all of that.

Let’s be clear: nobody who voted for a President who calls the free press “the enemy of the people” actually cares about free speech anyway. More precisely: they only care about theirs, not yours. They want the license to lie, spread hatred, shout fire in crowded theaters, and carry guns to intimidate you and your elected representative government. In all this, they are the precise descendants of those who murdered the Black citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma and overthrew the elected multiracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. They will do it again. They’re itching to.

The old cliche “the cure for bad speech is more speech” is now demonstrable nonsense. Therefore I’ve changed my mind. I used to be with the radical Justice William O. Douglas. Now it’s the more conservative Justice Jackson whose dissent in Terminiello v. City of Chicago resonates with me: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.” The Constitution, whatever its authors’ flaws, is not a suicide pact. Saving this country means stopping those who aim to destroy it.

The dark art of camouflaging an agenda

I have seen this strategy before, and it disgusts me.

Look at this ad, plastered at the top of my newspaper today, and tell me your reaction.

If you’re a liberal/progressive/Democrat like me, you probably think: “That SOB Trump! Of course he’s screwing up the COVID vaccine!”

And who is “Future Majority, Inc.? Well, it’s a huge pro-Democrat secretly funded PAC, and you go to their website and it sure presents as progressive and liberal:

But what is really going on here, and what are you really being asked to do?

What is the Trump “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) executive order these folks hate so much?

It is a demonstration project in which Medicare would compare what Americans are paying for drugs with the far lower prices paid by Europeans and citizens of other advanced economies, and attempt to make sure we don’t pay more than they do.

It’s just about the only thing the Trump administration has done that might someday lower drug prices — assuming that it can survive a healthy dose of typical Trump administration incompetence.

It only affects Medicare Part B (e.g., things like on-site infusions). Not the bigger Part D. And, again, it’s only a demonstration project. But it’s a foot in the door. It just might, someday, conceivably, maybe, lead to serious limits on out-of-control drug price increases here in America.

So, of course, PhRMA, the massively well-funded lobbying apparatus for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, despises it.

But what about the folks at Future Majority, who seem so wonderfully concerned with expanding Medicaid and getting PPE to healthcare workers, and making sure Trump doesn’t foul up COVID vaccines?

What’s their story?

Do you think even 1% of the people who see this ad will understand who they’re being asked to ally with, and for what policy goal? Do you think they’ll understand even if they check out who Future Majority seems to be?

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This isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this. Back in 2017, when we in New Jersey were still ruled by Trump ally and traffic-jam-creator Chris Christie, the phone rang here… and when I picked up, I was patched into a call that talked about all the horrible stuff Christie and Trump were doing to destroy Obamacare.

Heck, they even had Donna Brazile on the line!

But gradually it dawned on me that the public policy action they were supporting had nothing to do with saving Obamacare from Big Bad Trump. They were riling us up to help them shoot down Christie’s plan to take a huge pile of surplus cash that Horizon Blue Cross had accumulated, and apply it to mental health and addiction services.

Who, I wondered, was ultimately paying for that astroturf campaign?

And would the people of New Jersey be better or worse off if they succeeded?

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I am a Democrat, and I still believe if we are ever going to have major progress in this country, the Democratic Party will have to be a key part of making that happen. Nearly all the public officials I admire are Democrats. People who happen to be Democrats are doing a whole lot of great things to make this country a better and more humane place. And, as far as I can tell, 99.99% of the time, Republicans are doing the exact opposite.

I also realize the Democratic Party has no choice but to be a pretty big tent.

Tragically, certain Democrats take that as license to help giant healthcare corporations preserve every dime of their profits, however acquired. (It’s safe to assume there’s money in that line of work.)

This is bad. But to mobilize support for those causes by camouflaging them as progressive and anti-Trump? That seems to me despicable.

Do these folks attend parties where they mournfully wonder why people don’t think the government will ever be on their side? Do they wonder why people are so cynical? Do they ever look in the mirror?

Many Trump supporters believe all 9 predicates to mass political murder

Millions of Trump supporters already believe all 9 claims they’d need to believe in order to support genocide — or, more likely, an American civil war with enormous numbers of politically-motivated murders:

  1. Democracy is rigged, the other side always cheats, and the norms of a democratic political system offer nothing of value. Even with no substantive evidence of voter fraud, and even though many of their other candidates won, they’re absolutely convinced that the Presidential election was stolen from them. Trump’s claims have been repeatedly debunked, yet it merely strengthens the conviction that there’s “no way” Biden won. Dead people must be voting. Millions of counterfeit mail-in ballots must be getting accepted by corrupt election officials. Their enemies are just really good at hiding the evidence… or all those judges and Republican politicians are in on it… or something.
  2. Since democracy is rotten, we need a strong leader who fights, even if some people get hurt. Without a leader who imposes his will, all is lost. If democracy stands in the way of their goals, it can’t be tolerated. If elections are lost, the wrong people have been permitted to vote: that needs to stop. Mussolini, Franco, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Duterte, and America’s Trump all share the same style and have attracted the same types of supporters. It’s no wonder Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump all see each other as friendly allies.
  3. Anyone who suffers is to blame for their own misery. Children in cages, some lost to their parents forever? It’s 100% the parents’ fault, and 0% the fault of the people who ordered their caging and separation. There’s no such thing as “systemic racism”: if Black people just cooperated with the police, they’d never have any problems. Whatever actions are taken by “our” authorities are necessary. Anyone who disagrees is a hypocrite, or worse. (“Who built those cages?”)
  4. Things used to be better, but we were betrayed, and we know who betrayed us. We hear: We were happy and comfortable once in our own country. Now we aren’t. It’s someone else’s fault. The Nazis thought Jews, the liberal intelligentsia, and the leaders of the democratic Weimar Republic had sold them out. In their view, those people polluted the German nation with alien blood and ideas, and needed to be punished for it. Today in America, some of the enemies are different. But many are the same. That’s why white nationalism and neo-Nazism are spiraling out of control, and it’s exactly why so many right-wing extremists wear MAGA caps.
  5. Our enemies are so dangerous that we can’t afford mercy. Maybe they’re running global pedophile rings out of the basement of a pizza parlor — who really knows? They’re probably sending hordes of antifa to chase us down. They intend to deny us our faith and way of life. When push comes to shove, if they’re allowed to be in power, they’re a mortal threat to us. (“Just look at how they’re making us wear masks: they’re even taking away our right to see each others’ faces — it’s all about control!”) Above all: it’s us or them, and soon it’ll be now or never. All that is exactly what the Nazis told Germans about Jews — even Jewish children. As Claudia Koonz’s book The Nazi Conscience shows, the Nazis had to spend several years teaching their society to overcome the natural human desire for mercy. Right-wing media has already taught precisely the same lesson to millions of our fellow citizens. And if Fox News won’t be fierce enough, plenty of even less scrupulous alternatives can cash in by pumping out even purer versions of what they want to hear. 
  6. You can’t believe a word of the “mainstream media.” The Nazis, echoed by Trump’s circa 2016 alt-right supporters, used the term “lügenpresse”: the “lying press.” Trump’s own preferred term of art, borrowed straight from Stalin, is “enemy of the people.” Trump’s supporters don’t claim that “the media is biased so we need to consume their coverage judiciously.” Rather, they make the blanket statement that everything it says, no matter how well sourced — even if it’s based on official documents or the actual statements of their own leaders — must be false. Of course, this is cult behavior. But beyond that, once people decide in advance that it’s all a lie, they shut off the best way to discover that a leader is abusing power. He can do anything he wants, confident that they’ll never believe anyone who criticizes him. What’s more, if someone they’ve trusted does criticize him, they’ve joined the enemy—and can no longer be trusted.
  7. Our enemies are part of an enormous, immensely powerful conspiracy. Epidemiologists. Climate scientists. Vaccine researchers. The intelligence, FBI, and military establishments. Democrats. The media. Jewish billionaires. The list just keeps growing. Now it even includes Republican secretaries of state who deny the election was stolen, and Republican governors who aren’t ready to steal it for Trump themselves. When it’s pointed out that no conspiracy this immense has ever existed, and that it would require skill and coordination far beyond the capacity of human beings, the argument is either ignored or interpreted as still more evidence of how dastardly this is. 
  8. Force isn’t a last resort anymore. If a teenager brings a high-powered weapon to another state, carries it into the middle of a dangerous situation, and uses it to murder two of his political opponents, many Trump supporters glorify him — and glorify his mother who transported him there. (“Hey, someone has to have the courage to defend us!”)
  9. It’s not a big deal if hundreds of thousands of people die. In 2020, a whole lot of people learned to believe this by minimizing COVID and interpreting basic public health precautions as intolerable tyranny. 275,000+ Americans are dead and it means almost nothing to them. Maybe there aren’t really so many victims! Many they’d have died anyway! (“George Floyd tested positive!”) Maybe they had comorbidities! Maybe old people should sacrifice themselves for the economy! All those “maybes” come down to the same thing: those deaths really didn’t matter. People who think this way won’t suddenly start caring when the pandemic ends.

“Dead Democrats” and “Good Germans”

In July 2020, Trump retweeted a video arguing that “The Only Good Democrat is a Dead Democrat.” We’ve had bigoted, viciously partisan, dishonorable presidents before (of both parties). But no American President ever did anything like that. Even during the Civil War, Lincoln told us “we must not be enemies, but friends.” Obama aimed for conciliatory rhetoric resembling Lincoln’s; Biden does, too. It only seems to make Republicans hate them more.

We look back at the kinds of things that were said in the run-up to the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s. We always shuddered to imagine hearing them here. Now we are. Yet I know not one ordinary Trump voter who objected to that tweet. None who said Enough, this far and no further. I cannot accept this. Millions of Trump voters personally know Democrats they recognize as decent people. Family members. Friends. Colleagues. And yet they stick with Trump as he happily imagines them dead.

(Don’t remember that tweet? It just slid by you, amongst Trump’s unrelenting oceans of sewage? OK, my Trump-supporting friends: now that you do know, which garbage rationalization will you serve up? “He didn’t actually tell people to go kill Democrats”? “It was all just a joke, you have no sense of humor”? “Take Trump seriously but not literally”? “Retweets don’t count”? Please. Have some self-respect.)

Of course, Trump has said plenty of equally vicious things about other people besides Democrats: just listen to him single out and savage Somali refugees trying to build a new life for their families in Minnesota. After five years of this, when people say Trump “tells it like it is,” make no mistake: they mean to proudly own their full share of all of this.

Millions of Hitler-era “good Germans” went along, chose to ignore evil, or flat-out supported the Nazi regime. They felt Hitler was serving their interests and fattening their bank accounts, and hey, what did democracy ever do for them? If Trump supporters are ever faced with a similar choice, many will behave as badly, or worse.

I’m sure of it now, because I’ve watched how — for millions of them — the people they hate have already slipped from human beings to less-than-human abstractions. That‘s what Trump deliberately did with Mexicans, and Muslims, and Somalis, and now Democrats. It worked, it works, and it’s happening right before our eyes, just as it did under Hitler, and in Rwanda. 

Most white middle-class Americans still don’t believe it can happen here, because we’ve been blessedly spared these horrors in our neighborhoods, in our lifetimes, in our parents’ lives. But if someone already believes that democracy is worthless… anyone who disagrees is lying… their enemies are evil, and immensely powerful… you’ve been betrayed and will be destroyed if you don’t act first… victims deserve it… peaceful means may no longer be enough… the rhetoric of violence and death is OK… real mass death is fine, too…

then what more would they need to believe to accept mass murder? 

They certainly have their target: Democrats, a.k.a, “the left.” (If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now obvious who millions of Trump supporters hate most: not non-whites, but liberals.)

The rot is far deeper than we realized. In my own suburban, cosmopolitan community, the Republican candidate for U.S. Congress — someone my family actually knew — chose to welcome the support of far-right armed militias. In the 1930s, the Nazi German-American Bund never controlled one of America’s two great political parties. But their modern equivalents have already gained effective control of the Republican Party in much of the United States. The GOP’s Bushes are gone, its Romneys are marginalized, and its McConnells still see advantage in promoting far-right extremists, exactly as the wealthy conservatives of late-Weimar Germany did.

Some people think: well, let’s just split into blue and red nations and go our separate ways. But red states have blue college towns, blue states have red rural districts; red and blue ZIP codes abut each other; millions of neighbors line up on opposite sides. If an American civil war ever comes, it’ll involve neighbors. And, as has so often been true elsewhere, those with the most guns and the most readiness to enforce their views will be the worst of us

If Biden successfully takes office, the danger may briefly recede: those who aim to destroy American democracy will lose control of the executive branch, and will need to fall back on their growing but still inadequate capacities to organize action via immature channels like Parler and OAN. But Biden still hasn’t taken office yet. It’s easy to imagine events or provocations — real or hallucinated, it obviously doesn’t matter — that could trigger catastrophe. 

We know now that Trump isn’t going anywhere. And events are moving faster than we want to realize; in the two weeks since I first drafted this, much of what first sounded alarmist has come to sound plausible, or even self-evident. (Did we all expect 80%+ of Trump voters to consider Biden’s win illegitimate or fraudulent? Did we all expect his former National Security Advisor to encourage him to declare martial law?) 

If our democratic republic does survive this moment of danger, it won’t be the last. Just as I’d ask Trump’s supporters: Exactly what would stop you from supporting mass murder? I’d ask Trump’s opponents: What do you think will prevent it? 

It’s time to start working on a better answer than “It couldn’t happen here.”

9 reasons I’m FOR Biden, not just AGAINST Trump

I see it on Facebook all the time: “Why are you FOR Biden? Is it more than just that you hate Trump?” Well, OK. Here are 9 of the reasons I’m FOR Biden:

1. Climate. Biden will attempt to make significant progress on climate change, which is coming whether we act or not, but will be even worse if we keep avoiding action. Hotter climates increase crime, move tropical diseases north in our direction, make more of the world unlivable, increase pressure to migrate, and destabilize international relations, making war more likely. Insurance companies understand this. It’s starting to significantly affect coastal real estate markets. Defense and intelligence planners know all this very well. As a society, we need to start acting on reality. We owe that to our children and grandchildren. That’s one reason so many of them are voting this year.

2. Pandemic. Biden will manage this pandemic better and prepare more effectively for the next one — and there will be a next one. Biden he is surrounded by people who respect science, and his Chief of Staff will likely be Ron Klain, who understands these issues intimately from his highly successful experience as Obama’s Ebola czar. Last year, months before COVID happened, Biden warned Trump that he was degrading America’s preparedness for pandemic. Biden was right.

3. Environment. Biden’s EPA will protect the environment instead of looking for reasons not to. For example, he is far likelier to strictly regulate fine particulate pollution that kills children, raises rates of pulmonary disease, and appears to increase miscarriages among women who desperately want their babies. This pollution disproportionately affects the poor, who don’t have the power to prevent filthy and dangerous facilities from being sited near them. Biden understands this issue and is likelier to do something about it. In other words, unlike the current administration, he recognizes that all lives actually do matter.

4. Healthcare. Most western countries have found ways to make sure that every one of their citizens gets decent and timely healthcare. America has not. The number of uninsured people dropped by nearly half under the Obama administration, but we have begun to see higher death rates and higher infant mortality rates in Republican states that refused to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. I’m for Biden because I want those people to stop dying. Uninsured rates appear to be rising again, and it is crucial to reverse this. Even Biden’s more moderate plans will do so. (And, yes, Trump really is trying to end Obamacare’s protections for preexisting conditions, with no plan to restore them. It’s true whether you believe it or not.)

5. Families. Families need more support, and free markets just don’t solve the whole problem anymore. That means, among other things, we need more federal support for childcare and education (of all kinds, not just universities). Biden has a record of supporting this, in contrast to the current administration.

6. Justice. Biden is the only candidate running who understands that people different from himself also have legitimate grievances. For example, he has relationships with both police and black activists. He has made mistakes along the way on these issues and seems to have learned from them. (I like candidates who learn and grow from the experiences they have in life.) I think Biden understands that every citizen of this country is entitled to be safe, but every citizen is ALSO AND EQUALLY entitled to be policed fairly and with respect, not as if they are occupied by a foreign army. I think Biden understands that white suburbanites like me can pretty well count on getting both safety and respect from law enforcement, but America often forces black citizens to choose one or the other (at best). When even the conservative Black Republican Senator Tim Scott, one of the most respectful individuals anyone will ever meet, reports that he was stopped for no reason by law enforcement 7 times in just one year, that should raise alarm bells for every one of us. So, too, when Black people are persistently stopped in their cars far more than white people, but the racial differences decline at night when cops can’t see who’s driving – that’s a BIG problem. Biden would be likelier to try to find fair and reasonable solutions that offer liberty and justice for ALL.

7. Service. I’m hopeful that Biden would give more of us, and especially more of our young people, an opportunity to do patriotic civilian service for our country. As we learned in World War II, nothing strengthens a country’s unity more than bringing different kinds of people together in a cause bigger than themselves. Throughout his career, Biden has been supportive of Americorps, and he has recently discussed opportunities for Americorps to help Americans suffering from the pandemic. The Obama-Biden administration expanded Americorps, and key supporters like Pete Buttigieg have been even more focused on national service. I admit: I don’t know if Biden will grow national service as much as I would like. But the current administration has attempted to eliminate Americorps altogether, and I believe Biden’s policies would be a dramatic improvement.

8. Inequality. The more unequal a country and society become, the harder it is for ordinary people to get a voice in how it’s run. We become less democratic. We become more like a classic 20th century oligarchic banana republic, where a few people have all the wealth and power, and enforce their advantages with guards and violence. Most Americans don’t realize just how unequal America is. Biden’s tax and spending policies would help soften this inequality without delivering anything like “socialism.” This would be a dramatic improvement over the current administration, which pushed through a tax bill that delivered 23% of the savings to the top 1% and nearly half to the top 6%. (There are other ways of measuring Trump’s tax cut that say it’s even more unfairly tilted to the rich. I’ve tried to use the numbers that looked best for Trump.) Inequality manifests itself in all kinds of ways. For example, millions of Americans, including a whole lot of U.S. military servicemembers, have found themselves trapped in an endless cycle of high-interest loan payments to abusive payday loan companies. The Obama-Biden administration created new rules to protect those people; Trump eliminated those rules. Biden would likely bring them back. I prefer Biden’s approach.

9. Respect. Last but not least, Biden has a record of civility and respect. He has not been perfect; you can find examples of him being rude on the campaign trail. But, overall, across a nearly 50-year career, he has sought common ground instead of inciting anger and division. I know that means he’s not always going to satisfy me. I think you need two sides to negotiate, and I don’t think Mitch McConnell will negotiate with him in good faith. HOWEVER, it’s a chance I’ll take, because if we stay on our current path, our children will be fighting a neighbor-against-neighbor civil war. None of us can want that.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m hopeful the Trump supporters I know will be ready to hear my answer to the second question I hear them ask so often about folks like me: “Why do they seem to hate Trump so much?

I’ll try to answer that question next.

Point of no return

I woke at 4 a.m. last night with the kind of thoughts that make it hard to fall asleep again. You can’t trust late-night thoughts. You need to test them against the daylight, especially before you share them. So I did. They haven’t changed much.

I fear that over the past couple of days, we Americans may have crossed a Rubicon, passed a point of no return.

Many of our friends and neighbors had already decided that nobody other than themselves had any real legitimate grievances; that those grievances were simply hypocritical excuses to pick their pockets by making them feel guilty; that they were beset everywhere by tyrants.

That’s been going on for decades. But if you’re on Facebook or watching Fox News, you know something just changed. Millions of people have now concluded that “the left” and “anarchists” must be stopped by any means necessary, immediately, because if they aren’t stopped, society will be destroyed.

I think they’re wrong on all counts, but that is not my point.


My point is what it means our friends and neighbors will now accept, support, and enthusiastically cheer on.

They’ve gone beyond “law and order.” They want “order,” period.

Because “law” means that police aren’t judge, jury and executioner. And “law” certainly means that 17-year-old vigilantes with powerful weapons can’t be judge, jury, and executioner. All that is the exact opposite of “law.”

Tucker Carlson told millions of people, in essence: What do you expect? Kyle Rittenhouse saw that others wouldn’t do the job, so of course, he took it into his own hands. And there was an eruption of support for both that statement and for the murderer himself.

Yes, we do have our pro forma printed statement from the Trump campaign condemning violence and praising the police for (eventually) arresting Rittenhouse. But we wait in vain to see Trump condemn Rittenhouse with the passion he brings to things he actually cares about. And so, last night in New Hampshire, he attacked protesters with quintessential Trumpian gusto, but spoke not a word about the individual who chose to murder them.

But what did you expect? After five years of watching Trump, absolutely nobody on the far, far, violent right believes Trump isn’t on their side. And did you expect him to condemn someone who sat adoringly in the front row of a Trump rally? Someone who clearly loves him? The FBI and Homeland Security recognize the growing danger of far-right domestic terrorism, but Trump erupts in rage whenever anyone raises the idea. He thinks they’re implicating him. And so they are.

Conventional politicians have always brought passion and clarity to condemning all violence. You can debate how a politician like Biden condemns it; or whether he should ever discuss the causes or grievances associated with it. But, for several decades, almost all of America’s leaders — certainly all our Presidents — have always condemned all riots, murders, assassinations, loudly and in person. Until now. At this moment in our history we have a President who believes: the more we hate each other, the more we fight with each other, the better it is for him.

It’s really just the climax of how Donald Trump has always lived his life, operated his organizations, run his family. It’s a clarifying moment, if we needed one.

It means we’re on our own, and that includes you and me. We no longer have the luxury of thinking someone else will help calm things down so we can talk productively together and make progress towards justice.


To me, these events feel like a major step towards the destruction of our democratic republic. Because millions of conservatives have concluded that their adversaries have already destroyed it; that they are personally in grave danger as a result. So whatever experience the McCloskeys “objectively” had (it seems like they were never in any danger), whatever experience Rand Paul just “objectively” had (when a furious crowd is screaming at you at night on a city street it’s perfectly fair to be freaked out), those experiences are being shared as proof our enemies will stop at nothing.

Once you believe that, you’re ready to conclude that laws, norms, elections, and judges won’t protect you. After all, “they” will steal elections (who needs evidence? Trump says so.) Maybe they really are running secret global pedophile rings that only Trump can stop. They are damn well trying to control you by making you wear a mask.

Given those premises, you’re ready to support anything that’s done in your name. It’s all your adversaries’ fault and only raw power, guns, will protect you.


Four years ago, there was a legitimate debate over whether there were lessons for us in the rise of Hitler, and America’s own close call with fascism during the Great Depression. Conservatives could say: you’re imagining the threat. You called Bush a fascist, you called Reagan a fascist, you’re the boy who cried wolf.

That doesn’t fly anymore. There are millions of Americans who feel like Hitler did when he invaded the Soviet Union: the whole structure is rotten, so just kick in the door and destroy it. There’s nothing of value left to preserve in those institutions. And we didn’t start it.

Most liberals have heard the warning of Bush speechwriter David Frum that “if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism, they will abandon democracy.” The same goes for conservative views of “republican” institutions and values, which – if they’re about anything at all – are about avoiding the cult of one powerful leader who must be followed at all costs.

Can anyone argue that most conservatives still object to “Il Duce” or “Führer”-style politics on principle? There isn’t even a Republican Party platform this year, except We Support Trump.


This is where you arrive when you have two groups of people who have lost whatever ability they previously possessed to speak with each other. Two groups who no longer share facts, or media sources, or realities. It’s where you arrive when people no longer see any humanity in those who disagree with them. (And, yes, where there are immense profits to be made in dehumanizing others. That should never, ever be forgotten.)

It’s also where you arrive when lots of people are passionate about destroying things, and very few are passionate about saving and building on things that might actually be made to work. (I see unrelenting death-cult nihilism on the American right. But I’m well aware that they see it on the left.)

This is how civil wars happen, and make no mistake, if we have one, it won’t just be regional: “oh, just let the red and blue states each go their own way.” Because the blue states are 40+% red and the red states are 40+% blue. We share neighborhoods. We share families.

People say you can’t have a country if you don’t have borders. You also can’t have one if people despise each other as much as they do now. (Increasingly, we’re seeing that you can’t have businesses, or schools, or much else, either.)

I am, quite obviously, not immune from this pandemic of hatred and contempt. 

I’ve been reading contemporaneous writing about what it felt like to live in Germany in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935. Living through a moment in time, one cannot know the future. One can’t know when one has crossed a Rubicon, some event horizon you can’t return across. Still, I know the cliché: history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. I recognize this rhythm, these angry voices.

Things are moving fast. Faster than I realized; faster than I think you realized.

I believe, if we do still have a chance to turn back, we must all do it now.

Please spend some time reflecting on how horrible it can get if we don’t.

Against conspiracy thinking

I have come to realize that conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking are as dangerous to us as any virus or any politician.

I say to epidemiology conspiracists and deniers the same thing I say to climate conspiracists and deniers: What if 98% of the scientists who’ve spent their entire professional lives studying this are right, and you are wrong? What would be the implications of that? What would be your moral responsibility?

“Questioning” is an inherent good only if you are prepared to carefully assess the answers. And in the case of epidemiology, that requires detailed knowledge most of us don’t have.

There is nothing more seductive than the notion that “Anyone with common sense can see [x]… and since the professionals don’t see it, they must be part of some conspiracy.”

But your “common sense” isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. Common sense tells you the sun travels around the Earth: all you have to do is look!

Just because someone’s been thrown out of the medical or scientific establishment, that does not mean ipso facto that they are a brave truth teller.

It might conceivably mean that. It’s certainly happened that way on occasion.

But far more often it has meant they were just incompetent, or dishonest, or wrong, or self-deluded.

Implanting goat gonads did not restore guys’ sexual potency.

Laetrile did not cure cancer.

Even though a doctor said so. And even though the medical establishment disagreed.

There are scores of cases like this that have just faded into history. People forgot them. So people didn’t learn the lesson that a lot of “fringe” ideas are just “bad.”

So, too, not everything that happens is the result of a conspiracy. And people who choose a scientific or medical career that requires them to spend a lifetime working on problems that are wickedly hard don’t usually do it either for profit or secret power.

There would be way easier ways for smart people to achieve those goals than as CDC pandemic researchers or as NOAA climate researchers.

 

Most people don’t want to die. But parties occasionally commit suicide

I’m beginning to think something politically cataclysmic may be happening out there.

It’s easy to look around and see huge turning points everywhere. Usually they don’t turn out to be quite so transformative. Political events that look enormous while they’re happening often don’t seem quite so important a few years later.

But right this moment, I think older Americans might just be weakening their attachment to Donald Trump and perhaps the Republican Party as a whole. And that would herald a titanic shift in American politics.

Perhaps I am making too large a claim based on too little data. I especially worry because I know the power of motivated reasoning. I think the Fox News/Alex Jones-driven modern incarnation of the Republican Party has been a profoundly destructive force in American life. I desperately want it to lose, badly and repeatedly, until it either reforms or disappears. That gives me plenty of reasons to succumb to wishful thinking. Especially since the Republican Party’s dark resilience has repeatedly stunned a whole lot of smart people.

But consider this:

In mid-March, seniors were more supportive of Trump than any other age group (plus-19 net approval). Now, their net approval of the president has dropped 20 points and is lower than any age group outside of the youngest Americans.”

“Those findings were matched by a new NBC/WSJ poll, which tested the presidential matchup between Trump and Joe Biden. Among seniors 65 and older, Biden led Trump by 9 points, 52 to 43 percent. That’s a dramatic 16-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s showing in the 2016 election; she lost seniors by 7 points to Trump (52-45 percent).

What is going on here? I think it is as simple and primal as it gets. People don’t want to die.

Older people have come to realize that they are, by far, at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus. By now, they’ve seen the statistics. They are, many of them, well aware of their own personal comorbidities and risk factors. For them, more than for many other Americans, coronavirus is profoundly personal and frightening.

I know full well that millions of Americans over 65 still work. But, even now, 80% don’t. They know, intellectually, that lots of people are struggling mightily because they aren’t earning income right now. But, in judging the balance between reopening the economy and protecting human life, they balance the equities rather differently. By a six to one margin, they want life and health prioritized over the economy. Whether they’re right or wrong, they’re human: how could they not?

They are watching closely. They know Trump didn’t take coronavirus seriously enough upfront. They might have forgiven him for that, recognizing that lots of people didn’t take it seriously, and even leaders who did have suffered serious human losses (though some have done way better than the United States).

But they’re watching and they don’t think he’s taking it seriously enough now.

They can see he’s just raring to get the economy running again. To a lot of them, he looks like a guy who understands (and cares about) money, and doesn’t understand (or care about) health, even if he thinks he’s some kind of medical genius.

And they also know the loudest voices in the Republican Party and conservative movement are pushing him even harder in the same direction. Some of them are even organizing rallies to break quarantine and violate stay-at-home orders.

Trump’s LIBERATE MICHIGAN LIBERATE MINNESOTA LIBERATE VIRGINIA tweets got noticed – and not in the way Trump would have liked. The flagrant indifference and occasionally stunning ignorance served up by Trump-friendly Republican governors like Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp is getting noticed nationwide. Older voters are hearing a lot more from the ascendant parts of the Republican Party that are furthest out of the mainstream, and a lot less from the thoughtful, cautious DeWines and Hogans. And they don’t like what they’re hearing.

People don’t want to die. Is that so complicated?

Sarah Palin and the Republican Party understood this brilliantly a decade ago when they conjured up Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”: that Obamacare was going to create mandatory death panels for seniors. It was, of course, garbage. But it drove millions of older Americans hard to the right, and it had a lot to do with the Democrats’ catastrophic 2010 election results, in which Republicans grabbed Congress and state legislatures, letting them gerrymander districts in ways that radically overrepresent Republicans even today.

They might have been able to do it again this year, by claiming that Democrats’ Medicare for All would undermine conventional Medicare.

But they can’t do that now. They have powerfully rebranded themselves as a party that is far too friendly to death, and far too willing to sacrifice seniors – not in the abstract, but right now.

My old friend Mark is likely right that we can’t keep printing and borrowing money forever. At some point, we’ll probably have to allow Republicans to kill more people like myself and my wife. At some point, it may be necessary to save what’s left of the economy, and prevent other deaths of despair along the lines of what happened in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The question is: when have we reached that point? Right or wrong, most Americans – and especially most older Americans – don’t think we’re anywhere close right now. And a lot of them are pretty horrified at just how eager Republicans seem to be to endanger them sooner than necessary.

Purely from a political standpoint, I think this is pretty amazing. But in the Trump era, Republicans have gotten awfully careless about their coalition.

They don’t hesitate to position coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” even if Asian Americans experience more hate crimes as a result. It’s as if they don’t think they need any Asian-American votes.

They don’t hesitate to welcome state bankruptcies or the demise of the post office. It’s as if they don’t think they need any votes from retired public workers who’ll lose their pensions. It’s as if they think they can afford to lose votes from rural communities who’ll never be served as well by FedEx as the USPS serves them today.

They don’t hesitate to permit the collapse of whatever remaining walls exist between the official Republican Party and right-wing militias, gun absolutists, and white nationalists. It’s as if they don’t think they need any votes from upscale suburban women.

Trump has made them think there’s an endless supply of non-college white males and conservative white evangelicals; between that and voter suppression, they can keep winning that way.

Well, maybe they’re right. On the other hand, though, parties do commit suicide. The Democrats did it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They have paid dearly; they are paying even now.

At some point, Republicans will knock one too many Jenga blocks out of their coalition, and it will fall. For the Republican Party, older voters are the biggest Jenga block of all. And I think that just might be happening.