October 8, 2017


Seeing Trump Through a Glass, Darkly (Peter Wehner, OCT. 7, 2017, NY Times)

When I served in the George W. Bush White House, I believed before the war began that it was justified -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, that he was a particularly malevolent and destabilizing figure, and that it was a military conflict that would liberate an enslaved people.

These presuppositions caused me to ignore, much longer than I should have, the problems inherent in our occupation strategy. I didn't question early enough the errors we made or how the situation was unraveling.

I recall a lunch in early 2006 with a journalist, George Packer, who had just returned from Iraq. A colleague and I, already worried about the course of the war, wanted to hear his firsthand account. What he described was so troubling that my head nearly dropped into my food. In ways I had not fully understood at the time, I had been filtering out information that ran counter to the narrative I believed. (To President Bush's great credit, in 2007 -- in the face of powerful political headwinds -- he embraced the so-called surge strategy that turned the war around.)

I relay all this because confirmation bias is far more difficult to overcome than most of us like to admit. We are ever in search of data that confirms what we want to believe. "Illusion is the first of all pleasures," Voltaire said.

We're particularly tempted by delusions if they constitute bricks in the walls we have chosen to build and to live behind. We're also learning that there is a physiological appeal to confirmation bias (processing information that supports our belief system triggers a dopamine rush) and that our brains are hard-wired to embrace or reject information that confirms or challenges our pre-existing attitudes. Our beliefs are also often tied up with our ideas about who we are individually and our group identity. The result is that changing our beliefs in light of new evidence can cause us to be rejected by our political community. No one likes being accused of disloyalty.

But being on the periphery of my party has given me a renewed appreciation for what Lord Tweedsmuir said. "While I believed in party government and in party loyalty," he wrote, "I never attained to the happy partisan zeal of many of my friends, being painfully aware of my own and my party's defects, and uneasily conscious of the merits of my opponent." I've found through hard experience that the view can be clearer from the periphery than from the center of power.

The especially disturbing thing about partisan zeal is when it leads people to oppose policies they believe in or to support those they do not believe in simply because of the party identification of the president.  There is a big difference between Realists, who opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein and were perfectly willing to have him oppress and exterminate the majority Shi'a and the Kurds of Iraq, and those who profess devotion to human rights generally, but opposed the war because W.  In that sense, what extreme partisanship does is lead people to be dishonest with themselves and sell out their own beliefs for merely political reasons.

While Mr. Wehner has received accolades for self-criticism in this column, the parallel he draws between himself and Trumpies is not really serious.  It's not as if he is generally a Nativist but is now supporting immigration because Donald opposes it.  

Posted by at October 8, 2017 4:38 PM


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