We generally assume the following about responsibility and punishment:
Children are not responsible for their actions because they are not adults.
Mentally impaired people are not responsible for their actions because they are not competent to make informed choices.
Non-human entities (animals, bacteria, machines) are not responsible for their actions in a human-dominated world.
All of these have numerous caveats and they are not enforced simply or uniformly. They are also hotly debated by legal scholars, social theorists, and philosophers. But they nonetheless are assumptions we generally assume to be valid. At first glance, it would seem that this is unfair. Why aren’t they responsible for their choices? However, there is something all of these entities lack: autonomy. In order to have freedom, you must have responsibility.
Children must do what adults say. Mentally impaired people have all kinds of restrictions on their freedom that range from minor to severe. And a computer program can be deleted with the click of a mouse and no one will shed a tear. But what if you want both the freedom to act and shelter from responsibility? Is that possible? Most of the time, no. But rhetorically and politically, it often is. So how do you do it?
You do what Venkatesh Rao called “auto-pseudospeciation” – make yourself into a different kind of human who acts like an animal. Like many things these days, Trump is the exemplar:
Anybody who gets away with a “look what you made me do!” defense for their actions is asking to be basically extended the protection of presumption of animal non-culpability for their actions. I hear it as “I’m an animal and I cannot be held responsible for my actions”… We’ve stopped bothering about explanations for why Trump rose to power and to some extent assumed that his 2nd term is the null hypothesis, narrative energies are being diverted to judgment rather than explanation. The explanation part for his rise has defaulted to the animal level. His supporters are not responsible for voting him into office, and he’s not responsible for what he’s done there so far. The judgment part for ongoing behaviors has become curiously suspended altogether.
Those who do not identify as partisan Democrats often tacitly accept President Donald J. Trump’s behaviors – however bizarre, cruel, irresponsible, self-interested, or even insane – as defaults. Any mention of them immediately swings to discussions of the ills of the media, bureaucrats, academia, liberal politicians, and left-wing personalities. More sophisticated defenses of the President often de-emphasize his agency and play up those of other parties that ought to actually be blamed, They emphasize a world of morally compromised actors, in which the President is just a part of the crowd rather than a singular figure.
Some even go as far as to celebrate the President’s spurning of social norms as a form of courage, in contrast to the hypocritical phonies he attacks. It is an odd echo of the cynical hipsters Hannah Arendt describes in her chapter on Europe between the wars, but as farce rather than tragedy.
None of this can easily be dismissed as incorrect or inappropriate. To be sure, all of those groups are target-rich environments for justified scorn and mockery. But none of them are President, with all of the various implicit and explicit powers of the Presidency and the total backing of their political party. Much of this is simply explained as just the product of negative partisanship. My team good, yours bad. And it is much easier to harp on the flaws of the other team than defend what is currently happening in the White House. Because it is difficult to defend Trump’s conduct without layers of indirection.
Nonetheless, there is something different going on as well in the background that is larger than partisan politics and merits comment in and of itself. Recall again what David Auerbach wrote about what the President is, comparing him to Robert Musil’s villain Moosbrugger. I quote it at length because it deserves to be read and re-read often:
Musil’s core insight is that Moosbrugger possesses a cosmic sense of himself that removes him from the world of human agency and responsibility… Moosbrugger’s indifference to all values and to the very idea of values threatens yet fascinates, since it offers us the freedom to give voice to our most egregious selves and see them reflected back at us not as human qualities but as forces of nature. So it is with Trump, a catalyst that transforms resentment and worship into fame.
… This is a kind of super-solipsism, not just a conviction that no one else exists but an inability to conceive of one’s own self as a separable agent in the world. Trump’s psychology only makes sense after this traditional conception of ego is discarded. I do not think that the ADHD-addled Trump cares how he is remembered; all there is for him is the attention, the worship, the now. For Trump, who defines himself only against his immediate surroundings, liminal forms of relating take precedence over any and all values, facts, or even goals.
… As cosmic entities, Moosbrugger and Trump are only human as far as we perceive them to be. As raw forces of narcissism, they demand that we perceive them. And yet because they are empty, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should tend to accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for.
Trump cannot be held responsible for his actions, precisely because he is a mirror and you cannot hold a mirror responsible for reflecting back what stands in front of it. But Trump is more than a mirror, as Auerbach suggests. Trump reflects back the collective id as a wild and uncontrollable force rather than the vessel of the very human “egregious selves” Auerbach refers to. And it works because Trump lacks another thing that we often at least implicitly consider to be a symbol of autonomy: operational closure. Auerbach speaks in general terms about Trump’s lack of recognition of himself as a separable agent within the world, but what does this mean?
Part of this is of course treating Trump’s behavior with the “objective attitude” that he is not responsible for his behaviors (akin to how we might regard a small child or animals). But there is another way to look at this, from the lens of enactive cognitive science. There are biological entities that only exist if and only if external boundary conditions – over which said entities have zero control – are maintained. If these conditions are altered, the entity may disappear. In order to continue its process of internal growth and change, the entity must be capable of exerting some control over its environment to prolong its independent existence. The more it can be said to generate its own actions that are applied to the environment and use feedback from the environment to guide actions, the more it can be said to have not only autonomy but cognition as we typically understand it.
What makes a biological entity ephemeral, then, is its inability to be meaningfully differentiated from its environment. Operational closure – the way in which system operations are mainly constituted by its own structure and organization – is therefore a key component of autonomy. I have written earlier of a new kind of self that is liberated from constraints but in the consequence loses even the fiction of itself as retroactively coherent, unified, and distinct from the perceptions of others. This is a self that begins to shed many of the stipulations of operational closure, with Trump perhaps as a Janus face pointing backwards to the era of mass media “pseudo-events” and forward to the cyberpunk nightmares of tomorrow.
In sum, operational closure as autonomy is very apt because it conforms to how Musil describes Moosbrugger as a figure who has completely dissolved his self into the universe:
Anyone can conceive of a man’s life flowing along like a brook, but what Moosbrugger felt was his life flowing like a brook through a vast, still lake. As it flowed onward it continued to mingle with what it was leaving behind and became almost indistinguishable from the movements on either side of it. Once, in a half-waking dream, he had a sense of having worn this life’s Moosbrugger like an ill-fitting coat on his back; now, when he opened it a bit, the most curious sort of lining came billowing out silkily, endless as a forest.
Therefore, in lacking the ability to perceive himself as separate from the world, in lacking the ability to make thoughts and words conform to external reality, and in allowing himself to become a vessel for the hopes and resentments of his followers, Trump becomes a unique kind of political figure. He channels the mutually contradictory feelings of the people who follow his tweets and feeds off the hatred of his enemies. But he also reacts to the adulation of his crowds, the latest broadcast from Fox and Friends, the newest memes from his online droogs, and whatever stimuli his advisors selectively expose him to. And to be clear when we speak of “Donald Trump” we cannot talk about a single man but rather a kind of networked, aggregate self (or perhaps selfie) composed by all of those things simultaneously.
When viewed as such, much of the problems of American politics since 2015-16 become much more obvious. Talking heads on CNN can evaluate normal politicians, but you cannot expect the nightly news to be capable of processing a science fiction/horror monster. Which is why much of the energy instead has gone towards finding some kind of device that explains the monster. 4Chan elected Trump! The white working class elected Trump! Putin and Cambridge Analytica elected Trump! And, of course, the Left is how we got Trump by doing X or Y that then compelled Trump supporters to do Z. All of these micro-explanations have varying degrees of truth but all tend to implicitly assume that Trump is not how we got Trump. Because there is no stable, singular, “Trump” to speak of.
It forces continuous reaction to something that seems indifferent to reaction, it forces commitment while refusing to make any hard and fast commitments, and it forces analysis of something too diffuse and animalistic to be fruitfully analyzed. And it is also what makes it so easy for people to both cynically say “they’re all corrupt” as a defense of Trump while consciously or unconsciously reveling in his disruption of political norms. It makes Trump a magnet for self-described “free/logical thinkers,” “anti-elitists,” cynical romantics, and generalized beef-only thinkers. Many of these people see themselves as rebels against the herd, while paradoxically making themselves a part of the broader Trump phenomena that extends out of Trump’s corporeal body.
If he has no responsibility, neither do they. If he is a metamorphic thing constantly re-arranging his shape in response to criticism, so are they. They can become a part of Trump phenomena while maintaing a savvy private distance, delighting in his provocations and forcing critics to enter into a strange and surreal hall of mirrors to engage in battles the critics have little chance of winning.
Trump supporters often say that Trump has “gotten inside the OODA loop” but this is a big misreading of John Boyd’s theories even if the President’s critics often underestimate his political skill. It is more appropriate to say that the President is so difficult to deal with because Trump phenomena as a collective force is emergent. As Rao noted elsewhere, assigning any causal structure to the President’s behavior skates perilously close to justifying it:
Post hoc arguments justifying market outcomes are eerily similar in structure to arguments justifying Trumpian outcomes. Like they believe in some sort of efficient Trump hypothesis… Looking for causal models here, let alone exclusively determinative one, is as misguided. The market and Trump do not work on mechanistic causation but via emergence from information pricing… hurricanes are not “caused” by individual gusts of wind lining up but heat and now pressure regions. In a way, Trump is the notional “rogue field commander” envisioned in brinkmanship scenarios. He just happens to be at the top.
Trump phenomena is not capable of recursive simulation of an adversarial environment, it does not move down the game tree and plot out responses given likely opponent actions, and it is the opposite of a Professor Moriarty villain. It does not do this any more than a hurricane calculates how to inflict the most damage given likely human hurricane preparation. It is not purely random, but its behaviors are more stochastic than purposeful. And thus Trump phenomena robs humans of one of their most effective psychological tools: the intentional stance. We do not know how a computer chess program works, and even if we do we cannot explain – in real time – the full chain of mechanical operations it uses to generate moves. So we assume that it “believes” certain things and then acts on such beliefs to achieve a desired outcome. But does a hurricane believe? That is the power of Trump phenomena. But it is also a weakness.
What makes the COVID-19 crisis dangerous is that one kind of entity removed from human agency (the virus) is fighting another similar entity (the Trump phenomena). But there is a critical difference between them. One is a simple infectious agent that is reliant on living hosts for regulation, metabolism and reproduction. The other is a psychological maelstrom that, among many other things, cannot survive without eight hours of network television and twelve cans of Diet Coke a day. While both are not considered to be responsible for their behaviors, the virus can survive and thrive when put into contact with a force that similarly behaves like a force of nature. Trump, on the other hand, is stymied when he faces something indifferent to his reality distortion field. And the virus is, above all else, a reality that brutally imposes distortions rather than a reality that can be distorted.