When the Trump Administration okayed the release of a massive federal study on human-caused climate change that contradicted the core absurdity of Republican anti-climate change ideology, many Americans were left scratching their heads. Was the White House sending a signal of a fundamental policy change in the works? Was bureaucratic infighting about to see the arch deniers at the EPA and the DOE fired for their zeal because Trump did the political calculus and found climate change denial to be bad for his poll numbers? Was it the subconscious product of a particularly virulent form of cognitive dissonance akin to schizophrenia and its manifestation in multi-personality disorders? What was going on?
Could it possibly be that in a fissuring society like our own, the Trump people were trying to have their cake and eat it too — fire the scientists at the EPA who agree with research showing the dominant human impact on climate change but publish an in depth scientific report that contradicts those firings?
Or was it just another Trumpian sleight of mind to keep everyone on edge and teetering on the abyss of lunacy?
Perhaps 19th century political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, and his “Democracy in America,” can shed some light on this dark puzzle as he has on so many others. He wrote, “In the long run political society cannot fail to become the expression and image of civil society.” That’s always made sense to me. Even in a ruptured democracy like our own, politics still represents in some sense the state of mind of the country. And we all can see that since the 2016 election we’ve fallen into a terrible place, nationally, as far as political mental health is concerned. We are so divided that at times it can be said with accuracy that we are no longer a single, albeit loosely knit, nation.
Another 19th century thinker, sociologist Max Weber, might also help us unpack the contradictions inherent these days in American society and in the Trump Administration. Weber thought that successful power-seeking was the “ability of an individual or a group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realizing them.” He also thought that great powers had mastered the technology of bureaucracy, because, “bureaucratic administration means domination through knowledge.”
The first thing a power-hungry megalomaniac and his cronies and henchmen would do to secure their clout, it seems to me, would be to sabotage the domination of knowledge in the bureaucratic culture they inherited from the mindset of their vanquished predecessor. Perhaps that’s the best way they can think of to “achieve their goals and aims when others are trying to prevent them ….” But the jobs of career bureaucrats are protected through a long history of labor law decisions and congressional management practices. One can discourage them, but its very hard to remove them. So what’s the best way to neutralize them? It’s to undermine their professional sanity with dissonant decisions and contradictory policies that force them to both react and adjust to what their professional motivations see as inanities.
Releasing the climate change report is not an act of cognitive dissonance. I don’t think it is because the Trump people uniformly believe climate change to be a hoax and are holding no paradoxical views. If that is so then perhaps a phenomenological analysis might be useful. Phenomenology is the philosophical study of experience, of what appears in consciousness. So when you examine an issue from that perspective you have to consider what has appeared in your consciousness and what appears in the consciousness of those whose action you are analyzing. The defining insight of phenomenology is that all consciousness is consciousness of something. In other words, it is intentional.
Not to put too fine a point on it, it appears that the consciousness of Trump and his minions reflexively intends to create a kind of illusion in which what they disagree with is presented in such a way as to seem both important and inconsequential. Now that’s just the kind of mind-f..king that Trump drools over.
So, the White House presents to the world an airtight argument for human-caused climate change, one that was vetted by the scientists and bureaucrats of
13 federal agencies, one that was mandated by Congress as the National Climate Assessment made every four years, and was peer reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. This is a magisterially important document. But everyone knows that Trumpians are dismantling the science infrastructure at environmentally powerful federal agencies like the EPA and the DOE, dismissing science panels and replacing them with shills of big business.
From the perspective of phenomenology, we are not emotionally baffled by the experience of this apparent contradiction. We are utterly demoralized by it. We unambiguously see that this monumental document, reaffirming the domination of scientific knowledge that kept a sane bureaucracy afloat, has been dismissed and erased as a practical guide by the very forces its science understood to be the causes of the terrible devastations visited upon us by consequences of climate-change denial.
In the end, then, the “hugely” important is presented and rendered as hugely useless and inconsequential, thereby rendering impotent the dominating knowledge
that sought to prevent the goals and aims of Trumpian power grabbers.
And that’s what we are left with: a massive document that’s less useful, and therefore less meaningful, than a gigantic plastic bag full of toilet paper rolls. And isn’t that pretty much the state of American social discourse at the moment? Plenty of crap and smearable exchanges, diverting, vacuous, and about as useful to adapting to a changing world as a neo-nazi pogo stick.