Bryant Welch’s new edition of his book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, purports to diagnose the mental illness that produces support for and tolerance of Donald Trump in particular, and the Republican Party in general. To some extent it does so, although it’s mostly very familiar stuff, partly excusable because the first edition came out a decade ago. Welch, by the way, deserves credit for opposing participation in torture by the American Psychological Association.
What I find most illuminating in the book is the first-person account of an apparent sufferer of PHSD (Post Hillary Stress Disorder). I imagine that someone unfamiliar with the notion that Fox News lies and that political campaigns exploit bigotry and fears, or someone eager to hear reassuring accounts of how all evil originates among Republicans, would have a very different reaction to the book. My reaction is sympathy for the apparent trauma inflicted on apparently well-off educated people by Hillary Clinton’s defeat, combined with outrage at the hypocrisies and in particular the militarism of Democratic partisanship.
“Awareness, deeper psychological awareness itself,” Welch writes in his new prefatory note, “must become America’s new Manhattan Project.” Seriously? The creation of a new nuclear bomb? Is that the absolute best metaphor for the efforts of a book that diagnoses half the United States as remarkably evil and the other half as essentially good — even while the bipartisan effort to build “more usable” nuclear bombs speeds ahead back here in reality? Well, yeah, perhaps it is. What else was the Cold War on the international level?
The fact that most everything Welch denounces in Republicans is accurate, while Democrats share many of the same faults and pile on others of their own is apparently disturbing in its perplexity. It’s not difficult to comprehend. There has to be resistance to comprehending it. “The mind,” Welch writes, “becomes so dependent on and pays such irrational obeisance to anyone who can protect it from perplexity that it steadfastly overlooks incompetence or severe character flaws in the admired charismatic leader.” Welch’s book proceeds to overlook all of the following in Hillary Clinton’s performance as an outstanding neoconservative:
She said President Obama was wrong not to launch missile strikes on Syria in 2013.
She pushed hard for the overthrow of Qadaffi in 2011.
She supported the coup government in Honduras in 2009. (Where do those refugees come from, again?)
She long backed escalation and prolongation of war in Afghanistan.
She voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
She skillfully promoted the White House justification for the war on Iraq.
She did not hesitate to back the use of drones for targeted killing.
She consistently backed the military initiatives of Israel.
She was not ashamed to laugh at the killing of Qadaffi.
She did not hesitate to warn that she could obliterate Iran.
She was not afraid to antagonize Russia.
She helped facilitate a military coup in Ukraine.
She had the financial support of the arms makers and many of their foreign customers.
She waived restrictions at the State Department on selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar, all states wise enough to donate to the Clinton Foundation.
She supported President Bill Clinton’s wars and the power of the president to make war without Congress.
She advocated for arming fighters in Syria.
She supported an escalation in Iraq even before President Bush did.
Here are comments from a few of her supporters:
“For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.” —Robert Kagan
“I have a sense that she’s one of the more competent members of the current administration and it would be interesting to speculate about how she might perform were she to be president.” —Dick Cheney
“I’ve known her for many years now, and I respect her intellect. And she ran the State Department in the most effective way that I’ve ever seen.” —Henry Kissinger
Welch objects to criticism of Hillary Clinton’s financial corruption, and associates such criticism with trying to connect Barack Obama to Paris Hilton or questioning John Kerry’s war-heroism, suggesting I guess that Hillary Clinton’s financial corruption is either nonexistent or heroically militaristic.
2017 2007 escalation of the war on Iraq, for Welch, was the work of President George W. Bush and not in any way of the Democratic Congress that had just been elected to end that war. Meanwhile, the 2009 escalation of the war on Afghanistan doesn’t exist or isn’t worth mentioning. In fact, the whole presidency of Barack Obama almost doesn’t exist in various sections of this book which repeatedly leaps from accounts of Bush’s outrages right into Trump’s as if there was no gap between them during which the same or very similar outrages continued.
This partisanship is paralleled in its division of people into good and bad groups by Welch’s patriotism. Welch explicitly claims that nations, not just actual individual people, can go through mental processes. He writes that the crimes of 9-11 traumatized a nation and its people, including Welch himself, because for the first time — and apparently the last time — violent deaths occurred in world history. And those deaths were all of “Americans,” Welch writes, and therefore worth acknowledging, he implies, ignoring the 12% or so of the 9-11 victims who were not from the United States. This sort of attitude, in which mass slaughters by the U.S. military before and after 9-11 are not “traumatizing” but 9-11 is, results from an extreme and extremely accepted sort of bigotry, but it also causes it by suggesting the same view to readers.
The war on Iraq of 2003 was, according to Welch, the “first openly acknowledged preemptive war in American history,” and waging it had negative effects “for our country” and apparently for nobody else worth mentioning. I wonder if any Iraqis were hurt? According to Welch, “America,” and not just its government, is responsible for the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and the creation of ISIS. But Welch acknowledges that Bush was eager for war on Iraq prior to 9-11, and that his excuses for it were just that. However, Welch walks right up to the edge of claiming that believing war lies is acceptable because people are pathetic babies. He then denounces the war lies. He then proclaims his belief in them.
“With remarkable ease,” Welch writes, “America’s cause went from eliminating weapons of mass destruction to evicting an evil dictator to spreading democracy, because the idea that our leaders might have been wrong, incompetent, or worse was simply too disconcerting a proposition for many Americans to consider.” Welch cannot even write the obvious and well-documented fact that “our leaders” were lying. He never mentions that Hillary Clinton promoted the weapons-of-mass-destruction lies. Welch goes on to make clear that he actually believes the evicting an evil dictator lie and describes the war as “America’s attempt to liberate Iraq from a ruthless dictator who had killed tens of thousands of Kurds.” He also believes the spreading-democracy lie but blames the Bush Administration for failing to realize that there was “no historical basis” for democracy among the primitives being bombed in Iraq. Welch even believes in the whole mission and denounces the outing of Valerie Plame as putting at risk “our efforts in the war on terror.” Whose what?
This is typical Democratic partisanship. You denounce an unpopular war while supporting it. You claim the loyalty of anti-Republicans, then hopelessly try to win the votes of Republicans, while alienating independent, thinking people. Welch even admits that Al Gore’s top advisor and speech writer on his presidential campaign was eager for war on Iraq and believed Gore was too, but praises Gore as radically different from Bush because he deleted a line threatening war on Iraq from a speech.
John Kerry throughout the book is repeatedly “a decorated war hero” much like Gore who becomes “a foreign-policy expert” and “one of the most respected experts on defense matters in the history of the United States Senate” who “served [defensively??!] in Vietnam.”
For Welch, war is not illegal or immoral, but a nation should analyze its emotions prior to launching a war, and should make proper emotional use of its enemies: “[O]ur enemies actually help us maintain a cohesive sense of reality.” Is he referring to foreign enemies or Republicans? This book suggests both. Welch refers without any attempt at evidence to “Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election” and claims “We actually appointed a Russian operative to be our National Security Advisor.” He laments energy invested in opposing documented outrages by Trump which he thinks should go into “the possibility that Russia is gaining control of our executive branch of government.” The line between the Russian enemy and the Republican enemy is blurred, and the blame for Post Hillary Stress Disorder is dispersed.
Welch diagnoses in “the American mind” paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy. The first he believes has been created by exploitation of 911, the big real fact, while the other two have been created out of whole cloth. And the combination serves, he thinks, to explain hatred of Hillary Clinton. But all three, as far as I can tell, are generated by a wide variety of lies, while there is no such thing as “whole cloth.”
Welch’s understanding of envy seems to especially lack understanding: “What could Americans be envious of? Despite our national pockets of poverty, most Americans participate heavily in a vast consumer economy their parents never imagined.” Let’s set this comment against reality for a moment. For many in the United States life is harder than it was for their parents. It’s also harder than for many around them. Poverty and economic insecurity are extremely widespread. The United States has the highest inequality and the highest poverty of any wealthy country. This almost certainly contributes to envy of wealthier U.S. citizens and, to a far lesser extent, envy of people in other nations — while contributing to a passionate patriotism that is stronger among the poor than the wealthy, perhaps in part because it covers up envy of more equal and prosperous places. Welch goes on to rightly criticize advertising for promoting envy, but the notion that it promotes it out of nowhere is a notion shared by the right wing of U.S. politics.
In Welch’s view, Trump exploited women’s envy of Hillary to get them to vote against Hillary, while men hated her out of pity for themselves and their need to look down on all women. This is certainly a plausible part of an explanation for the attitudes of some people, mostly people who were probably planning to vote for whoever was the most racist, patriotic, and plutocratic regardless of any specifics. And Welch himself promotes the attitudes he criticizes through the usual hypocrisies, such as mocking George W. Bush for having been a cheerleader. But the paranoid-sexually-insecure-envious-hateful-people-did-it does little better than the Putin-did-it explanation of Hillary Defeat Trauma. I would recommend, instead, the following healing steps:
Stop identifying with a corrupt government or any portion of it. Work to improve it, but don’t consider that work self-improvement.
Stop imagining that social change comes primarily through elections.
Stop identifying with a political party and with a population that makes up 4% of the species you should identify with.
Recognize that an extremely broken and corrupt election system allowed Trump to “win” despite his having lost. Fix these problems before worrying about nefarious Russian masterminds or bitter insecure racists: the Electoral College, voter ID laws, the lack of verifiable hand-counted paper ballots, the Presidential Debates Commission, the corporate media, the rigged Democratic Party primaries that deprived that party of its strongest candidate according to numerous polls, the racist stripping of names from voter rolls in various states, the open criminal intimidation and incitement of violence by Trump, the disenfranchisement of people convicted of crimes, the ridiculous lack of automatic voter registration and of an election holiday and of sufficient polling places.
Recognize that Hillary Clinton was one of the few candidates awful enough to have come anywhere close to shocking Donald Trump by losing to him. She was the epitome of financial corruption and the lack of any consistent belief or integrity. She lost a couple of swing states, studies suggest, to the understandable belief among military families that she was the most likely to get their loved ones killed. She turned off all kinds of constituencies by appearing to give a damn exclusively about herself.
Face head on the apparently somehow frightening perplexity that is somehow supposed to arise in your poor little brain from the fact that lots of people also disliked Hillary Clinton because they were sexists or racists or other despicable things, and from the fact that this fact doesn’t somehow erase all the facts listed above.
1 thought on “The Self-Psychoanalysis of the American Liberal”
I just found this piece while deleting old emails. I’m glad I took the time to read it. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ nuttiness has only increased in the last couple of years–as has the GOP’s. I think, at this point, the Dems are into a full-blown episode of doublethink, and I appreciate your book review for shining a light on the roots of the current malaise.