Archive for June, 2017

We are all conspiracy theorists

June 30, 2017

Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories starts off saying it won’t be a book cataloguing and debunking them. Instead it aims to explain the psychology underlying such beliefs.

What exactly is a “conspiracy theory?” Real conspiracies, large and (mostly) small go on all the time, but that’s not what we mean. We know Lincoln’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But a “conspiracy theory,” in common usage, is unproven — by design, Brotherton says. Its adherents think they see something deeper than others do. And — in common usage — they’re whacko.

The book’s key take-away is that conspiracy theories come from psychological quirks that are actually not the exclusive province of whackos, but affect us all. Our brains are products of a long evolution during which our ancestors faced many life-or-death challenges requiring quick intuitive responses. You had to be good at spotting predators. And if making a mistake, better make it on the safe side, of seeing something, even if it’s not really there.

This bequeaths us a highly valuable capability, for pattern recognition. The world is a place of dizzying complexity that bombards our brain with a jumble of information. To survive, to function at all, we have to make order from that chaos — to recognize, for example, that that thing concealed in the bushes is a lion. We literally “connect the dots.” And we’re so good at it that we sometimes connect more dots and see more patterns than comport with what’s really there. Thus are conspiracy theories (and religions) born. Conspiracy theories quintessentially entail seeing patterns and connecting dots.

Despite its opening disclaimer, Brotherton perhaps inevitably does fill many pages with the details and defects of popular conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination gets much attention; a majority of Americans believe it was a conspiracy. This illustrates one psychological factor: we are primed to suppose that big outcomes must have big causes. (Thus dice players, when shooting for a high number, instinctively throw the dice more forcefully.) So we refuse to believe JFK’s death resulted from a lucky shot by a pathetic little twerp, Oswald. And Oswald’s killing by another loser, Ruby, almost begs for a bigger conspiratorial explanation. But would a serious conspiracy have relied on two flakes like those? And as Brotherton also explains, truth can be stranger than fiction. (For the truth about the JFK assassination, click here.)

Another key psychological factor is confirmation bias. I’ve written before how our beliefs become impervious to correction, because we love information that seems to validate them, and shun anything that undermines them. Ironically, smarter people are more prone to this, because they are better at coming up with rationalizations to support their preconceptions and to reject contradictory data. As Brotherton writes, “we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.”

Our brains’ neuronal wiring changes as experiences are absorbed. It’s a canonical principle that neurons that “fire together wire together.” After finishing this book, I happened to read an article applying that to beliefs. A strongly held belief actually makes your brain’s wiring to go along the same pathway whenever the subject arises. Over time, this “fire together wire together” effect strengthens, as though etching grooves in the brain — making the belief ever more impervious to being modified.

Humans are story lovers, and Brotherton explains how conspiracy theories feed that hunger via the greatest archetypal story line — the underdog hero battling the powerful monster (think Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). The conspiracy is the monster with evil aims. We are also natural born morality seekers, and enjoy exercising that faculty, puffing up our moralistic feathers. Thus conspiracy theories push our psychological buttons.

Not surprisingly, the kind of mind that goes for one conspiracy theory is likely to buy others, even if unrelated. One Austrian study found that conspiracy-minded people would even agree with a completely made-up conspiracy theory. Such theories don’t even have to agree with each other. Brotherton notes that some conspiracists believe Osama bin Laden was actually killed back in ’02 and the fact was covered up, but also in theories that he’s actually still alive. A “Schrodinger’s terrorist?”

And radio nutball Alex Jones never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — Newtown, 9/11, the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings, you name it — all faked by government conspirators.

Alex Jones

(The fool in the White House appeared on Jones’s show and said Jones has an “amazing reputation.”)

What makes all such conspiracy theories ultimately laughable is the large number of (otherwise serious and responsible) people who would have to agree to be involved, and who would have to keep mum.

The book explores why some of us are more conspiracy minded than others. It has to do with the lens through which you view the world — how you think it works. A big factor is how much trust you have in general, and the degree of control you feel over your own life. But nobody feels totally in control or has absolute trust; we are all suspicious to a degree, indeed, all paranoid to a degree. This too is an evolutionary inheritance — suspicion was prudent for our ancestors, and surely even today there is much to be suspicious about — like e-mails from Nigeria. Brotherton also points out that the randomness factor in life is unsettling to us. Conspiracy theories are a way to impose some seeming order on a chaotic cosmos.

Belief in them also correlates with other departures from conventional paradigms — like belief in the supernatural, parapsychology, alternative medicine. Common to all is rejection of “what they want you to think,” so you can congratulate yourself as an independent mind. Opposition to vaccination and Genetic Modification fits right in with this too. (It’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,” as the title of a book by Francis Wheen declares.)

Most conspiracy theories spin together facts and evidence, even if drawing from them tortured conclusions. JFK is again a case in point; conspiracists are fountains of details. But evidence isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the book details the theories of David Icke, who attracts large audiences to his ten-hour lectures. Commonly enough, Icke sees the world being run, behind the scenes, by faceless conspirators for large and evil purposes. But he takes it a step further, postulating that they are actually being manipulated by a deeper “interdimensional” conspiracy of reptilian aliens called “Archons.”

I wrote in the margin, “He knows this how?”

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Our Gal in Amman (a continuing series)

June 28, 2017

Our daughter Elizabeth soon starts (another) new job, in Amman, Jordan, as project development officer with Right to Play, a Canada-based organization. She’s 24 and this will be her fourth gig already. Kids today — can’t they stick with anything?

She’ll now have worked in three different countries, for organizations headquartered in four other different countries.

She was in Jordan before, then Afghanistan, then Iraq; working for refugee-oriented outfits. Right to Play is different, focusing on giving disadvantaged kids educational opportunities emphasizing play and fun.

That might sound sappy in today’s troubled world. Not so. A lot of our pathologies, particularly terrorism and conflict, are rooted in people who are troubled. Maladjusted for productive societal life. And a couple of books I’ve happened to read lately* drive home how much that’s a product of adverse childhood experience. Children in difficult, dysfunctional, stressful circumstances are often doomed to grow into troubled adults; the kind who strap on suicide vests. Countering that syndrome by exposing kids to positive, life-affirming experiences is a very good idea indeed.

You save the world one person at a time.

* J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, showing how dysfunction is transmitted from generation to generation, by altering brain structure in childhood; and Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (a gift from Elizabeth) about the drug war, explaining how addiction correlates with childhood trauma.

The Daily Show: comedy news versus fake news

June 24, 2017

I’ve written that while Trump complains about the media, and mainstream media is critical of him, it fails to convey just how insane this is. Instead it maintains a patina of sober reporting, as though it’s all just normal news.

But not The Daily Show. Of course, that’s a comedy show, not (technically) a news program. And it does play for laughs. Yet it’s the one media venue that, unconstrained by an ethos of bland neutrality, is really telling it like it is.

When Trump announced his candidacy — that crassly tacky elevator descent, launching what surely seemed his own comedy show — Daily’s longtime host Jon Stewart blew air kisses at what he envisioned would supply plenty of laugh fodder.

Trevor Noah

Stewart’s been succeeded by Trevor Noah, a young comic fresh from South Africa. After a somewhat shaky start, Noah has found his footing. And while he does mine the rich comedic vein that is Trump, he meantime conveys the seriousness of what’s going on. In the applicable vernacular, The Daily Show has its hair on fire about Trump. As should we all.

His shouting “fake news” is an archetypal Trump inversion of reality, he himself being the biggest purveyor of fake news ever. A recent Daily Show highlighted this. Trump made quite a production of a supposed reform of air traffic control, flourishing his oversized signature applied to . . . something. As Noah said, he loves to perform as president (like on his TV show); actually doing the job is something else. The air traffic control reform is fake news. There is no reform. What Trump signed with such fanfare was not legislation, nor even an executive order, but merely a suggestion sent to Congress. (Good luck with that.)

This indeed is the Trump M.O. — all hat, no cattle. It’s true of most of his “accomplishments.” Fake news galore. His tax reform plan is not a plan at all. He talks about his fantastic, tremendous infrastructure plan. Guess what? There is no infrastructure plan either. The Muslim travel ban is blocked by the courts. The wall is not being built. And of course, as of now, there is no health care law, the House bill he celebrated so vaingloriously in the Rose Garden he himself now calls “mean,” and the Senate bill mashed up in secret, to govern a sixth of our economy, without careful fact-gathering and analysis, is bound to be a train wreck if it somehow passes.

But The Daily Show, alas, preaches mainly to the choir. Surely few Trump supporters watch it. However, the show often puts them on camera, illuminating the problem we face. One, on a recent episode, when asked for the first word coming to his mind to describe Trump, replied “honest.”

He probably believes in God and Heaven too. And the Easter Bunny.

Truth, decency, responsibility, sanity — I am now a Democrat

June 20, 2017

On May 14 I renounced here my 53-year Republican affiliation. I said I couldn’t yet join the Democrats.

But now the other shoe has dropped. As I’m fond of saying, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.

This is, again, a matter of culture trumping ideology. It’s not about policy. More importantly today, Democrats represent truth, decency, responsibility, and sanity.

How sad that that’s what it comes down to.

In New York, party enrollment is required to vote in primaries. The GOP is too far gone to the dark side for my primary vote there to be useful; while I am very concerned about the direction Democrats take in shaping the alternative. I want to have a vote on that.

Truth, decency, responsibility, sanity — that should be their theme. But many on the left have classically illiberal instincts. Despite their “diversity” talk, they’re intolerant of deviations from their party line. There’s a danger Democrats will indulge in ideological purity trials. The Economist sees signs of it already.

I hope Democrats can, just possibly, win the House of Representatives in 2018. That’s the only way Trump and his gang might be held to account. It seems Democrats are recruiting a lot of military vets to run, probably smart. And I do hope they will come up with a presidential candidate I can actually support. Someone like Kirsten Gillibrand (who says she won’t run), or Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. But getting to the right candidate will be like threading a needle — between hard left ideologues like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren and the corrupt blowhard bully Andrew Cuomo.

Republicans have vacated a vast territory in the political center, which Democrats should seize. America cries out not for a left-wing ideological alternative, but a centrist one — a party of truth, decency, responsibility, and sanity.

Macron

At least that’s what I think people should crave. But we don’t actually see it. I used to mock French politics, yet the new President Macron created a party of the radical center, which in parliamentary elections Sunday crushed the old right and left parties, gaining a big legislative majority of fresh newcomers to politics. Macron, indeed, seems to understand how the conventional right-left divide has been superseded by today’s true divide between open and closed mentalities.

But “It Can’t Happen Here.” America’s political system is far more impervious to such a revolution, its voters more entrenched in their ideological ghettoes. We may be condemned to lurch from one political extreme to the other based on the thinnest of electoral margins.

“Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)

June 17, 2017

A white author can’t write about a character who’s black.* A white artist cannot depict a black civil rights victim. And nobody’s allowed to argue otherwise.

It’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s the newest gambit of politically correct grievance agitprop, sticking its finger in the eye of freedom of expression. As usual, it’s not enough for these totalitarians to argue their position. No, contrary opinions must be silenced and even punished.

Hal Niedzviecki was forced out as editor of the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine after defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.

Protest against “Scaffold”

New York’s Whitney Museum created a storm for exhibiting Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered by Mississippi racists in 1955, an image that propelled the civil rights movement. British artist Hannah Black** organized a petition for the painting’s destruction. And sculptor Sam Durant was browbeaten into destroying his own piece, “Scaffold,” honoring some Native Americans unjustly executed in 1862.

Is book burning next? At least they can’t burn my blog. (Maybe they’ll attack it with malware.)

The idea is that such “cultural appropriation” is racist. It’s no defense that the white artist was actually memorializing a victim of racism. Nobody can, from the standpoint of white privilege.

And “cultural appropriation” connotes theft. They’re saying Emmett Till belongs to blacks alone; no one else is entitled to him. As if a painting of him deprives blacks of something. As if a black character in a novel somehow robs black culture, pillages it. It’s akin to the belief, encouraged by certain religions, that being photographed steals one’s soul.

At one time, we had minstrel shows, Jemimas, and Sambos. Maybe that was “cultural appropriation,” mocking, demeaning, dehumanizing people. And maybe if that Emmett Till picture was painted by a Klansman, that would be different. But surely we’re not talking about anything of that kind now.

At one time, when segregation reigned, and black culture was walled off from white society, the cry was for integration, to break down those ugly barriers. Now they’re being rebuilt, from the other side. And students whose grandparents marched for the right to join whites in schools now demand to segregate themselves.

Yes, the issue is racism. That’s what the cry of “cultural appropriation” is.

In fact, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing. It breaks down barriers and opens doors. Cross-fertilization among cultures makes all of them richer and better. And it’s harder to have racist feelings against someone if they’re seen as part of your own culture rather than as “the other.” Pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, genocides, all result from people being otherized.

* I use this word as the best among bad choices. “African-American” doesn’t apply to all “people of color.” And the latter, besides being linguistically clumsy, is hardly removed from “colored people,” which those so described once found quite offensive. “Brown” might be more descriptively accurate but no doubt some would profess to find that somehow offensive too.

** Apparently her actual name.

America’s degradation

June 14, 2017

It always made me sick when anti-Americans (like Noam Chomsky) would smear the U.S. on human rights. Perfect we’ve never been. But compared to all other nations throughout history, none more nobly upheld fundamental human values. And our light grew ever brighter.

But now it’s dimming. This, today, is what makes me sick.

Marco Coello was a high schooler who joined a 2014 demonstration protesting Venezuela’s vile regime. Its President Maduro strives to crush democratic opposition while his insane policies make life a cruel misery for most Venezuelans. This is what Marco protested. Regime thugs seized him, jailed him, put a gun to his head, doused him with gasoline, beat him with various implements including a fire extinguisher, and tortured him with electric shocks.

After several months he was released pending trial, and with his father, somehow managed to flee to America. He got a job and started studying English. And he scheduled an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to begin the process of applying for political asylum.

The U.S. is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under a 1951 international protocol, as codified and expanded by the 1980 Refugee Act passed by Congress, which established procedures and set up what is now the CIS to administer them.

Asylum is to be granted when someone legitimately fears persecution in their home country, for race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group, and its government won’t protect them. In such circumstances the 1951 protocol obliges a nation to not return them to the place where they’d face persecution.

But never mind legal requirements. The U.S. being a haven for oppressed people is, well, who we are.

Correction: were.

Marco’s case, his lawyer thought, would be a slam-dunk. After all, his story was extensively documented in a Human Rights Watch report, and in one by the U.S. State Department itself, on Venezuela’s human rights violations.

Yet when he and his lawyer showed up for the scheduled CIS asylum interview, instead of being told “It’s an honor to meet you,” this torture victim was unceremoniously handed over to the ICE gestapo, who arrested him, handcuffed him, and threw him into a detention facility awaiting deportation.

This is Trump’s unspeakable degradation of our country. Hearing “Make America great again” makes me want to vomit.

(ICE’s pretext in Marco’s case was a misdemeanor on his record for parking on private property — seriously. He’s been released from detention after intercession by Senator Rubio, but still faces deportation. The story is detailed in the New York Times.)

My contribution to our China trade deficit

June 13, 2017

Our yearly trade deficit with China is around $340 billion and rising. That is, we import from China $340 billion worth of goods more than we export to China. Trump fulminates obsessively about this, saying China “rapes” us to the tune of that $340 billion.

Confession: I have personally added to our past China trade deficits, by importing many thousands of dollars worth of goods.

Typical Northern Song coin

They were old Chinese coins, bought mainly from one Shanghai dealer, Luo. I think he actually got rich in the process. But I made money too. For example, I’d get Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) coins, 10,000 at a time; cost around 13¢ apiece (shipping included). I’d sort through them, cleaning many, picking out better ones to sell for a buck or two, and the rest typically at $20 per hundred. Collectors loved such inexpensive thousand-year-old coins.

A middleman or trader like me has traditionally been seen as a kind of economic parasite. After all, I produce nothing myself. However, what I do is to get coins from people who value them less to ones who value them more. That creates what economists call a “consumer surplus,” making both my suppliers and my buyers better off. That’s economically beneficial.

I sell much to other dealers too. They retail the stuff to other collectors, creating still more customer value. And meantime, Luo got the coins from other Chinese sellers. They too profited and were made better off.

Also it’s not exactly the case that I produced nothing. My work of sorting, cleaning, and identifying coins added value to them.

Did any of this entail any job losses? On the contrary, my profits made me richer and hence able to buy more goods; and enabling my customers to buy coins cheaper than they would otherwise pay left them with more money to spend on other things. All this added buying power triggers creation of more jobs, to produce the additional goods and services now wanted. Similarly, Luo’s enrichment, and that of his Chinese suppliers, enabled them to spend more, contributing to Chinese job growth. And more jobs in China means Chinese can buy more goods made in America.

So is China “raping” us? What nonsense. Trade is win-win. That’s why people do trade. Being able to buy imported goods cheaper than they can be made here puts something like a trillion dollars annually in American consumer pockets; and spending that extra cash creates lots of jobs — surely more than the few trade might displace.*

Trump refuses to understand this. In his ignorant diseased mind, all deals have a winner and a loser. Sad.

My personal trade imbalance with China ultimately reversed. Chinese coins got much more expensive in China; Luo stopped selling those and switched to other stuff, which he’s been buying in recent years from me. Alas, my profit margin on those is much smaller.

* Another perspective on our China trade imbalance is that as Americans buy more Chinese goods than Chinese buy from us, money flows from the U.S. to China, which translates into China saving and investing at a higher rate than Americans do. Net annual saving by U.S. citizens has hovered around zero. And we finance our combination of consumer spending plus government spending by borrowing (much from China, lending us back the money we’ve spent for their goods). But that’s another issue.

Let’s recap

June 10, 2017

The big story, according to Trump and his flacks, is his total vindication by Comey’s testimony that Trump was not under FBI investigation.

This is fake news. A lie. Because that was never even an issue. Instead, the issues were Trump’s improper attempts to stop the investigation of Russian meddling and of Michael Flynn; and his firing Comey.

Comey testified that he made careful notes of his conversations with Trump because he feared Trump would lie about them. And that Trump did lie, “plain and simple,” in saying he was fired because of disarray at the FBI and lack of support within the agency. Trump later said he actually fired Comey to get the Russia investigation off his back. Thus confirming that his other stories about it were, indeed, lies.

Yet White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated: “I can definitively say the president is not a liar.” Seriously? How many of his hundreds of documented lies need one mention? (Like his giant whopper that Obama wiretapped him.)

Then first his lawyer Kasowitz, and then the Liar-in-chief himself, denied that he’d demanded a pledge of loyalty from Comey.* Trump also denied asking Comey to lay off on Flynn. He added that it wouldn’t have been wrong anyway. (Bzzt. It most surely was wrong.) But if it’s Comey’s credibility versus Trump’s — are you kidding me?

Trump also called Comey a “showboater.” As if that doesn’t in fact describe Trump.

And called him a “nutjob.” As if that doesn’t in fact describe Trump. 

The Lie House has also gotten much mileage labeling Comey a “leaker.” This from the guy who actually blabbed highly sensitive classified information to the Russians, in the Oval Office! The very day after a Congressional hearing into Russian meddling! But never mind that. To call Comey a “leaker” is yet another lie. Comey gave the press his personal notes about conversations he’d had that were not privileged or classified. That’s not “leaking.”

Then Paul Ryan covered himself with shame by cheerily waving off the whole ghastly story as merely the missteps of an inexperienced beginner. Begging the issue of having a president so clueless. But it’s naive to think Trump was acting from naivite. Even my cat would know his interactions with Comey were improper.

* Trump accidentally said something true at his press conference when a reporter misspoke by asking whether Comey had asked him for a pledge of loyalty. “No he did not,” Trump robotically answered.

Michael Gerson on Trumpian moral obscenity

June 6, 2017

Michael Gerson was George W. Bush’s chief speech writer and now writes for the Washington Post. A conservative Republican, he has unrelentingly called out Trump’s awfulness. Trump is a black hole of moral obscenity that sucks in and perverts everything and everyone around him. The Republican party has fallen into that black hole. A recent Gerson column (see below) shows this.

Trump says the press is against him. Yes, there’s a liberal media bias. But more fundamentally it’s biased in favor of truth, decency, and sanity. Trump assaults all three. So is the press against him? Not strongly enough, in my view. Mainstream media still employs a basically temperate tone, almost as though he’s just another president, as though “President Trump repeated his lie . . . ” is a more or less normal news story. It is not. It is the crash-and-burn of American civic culture.

Trump telephoned Philippine President Duterte to congratulate him for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” What is unbelievable about it is literally thousands of murders, outside the law; and that Trump would praise such moral obscenity.

We’re not supposed to blame his supporters. But I’ve had enough about how their feelings must be understood. They are ignorant fools conned by a con man. That was obvious long before November to anyone with open eyes. But Trumpites blind theirs with partisan paranoia. Voting for that vile creep was stupid irresponsibility that greatly damaged America. It is not being made “great again” but sunk in a sewer.

Here is Gerson’s column (my shortened version):

To many on the left, the embrace of Seth Rich conspiracy theories by conservative media figures was merely a confirmation of the right’s deformed soul.

Seth Rich and Hannity

But for those of us who remember that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were once relatively mainstream Reaganites, their extended vacation in the fever swamps is even more disturbing.

The cruel exploitation of the memory of Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot dead last summer, was horrifying and clarifying. The Hannity right, without evidence, accused Rich rather than the Russians of leaking damaging DNC emails. In doing so, it has proved its willingness to credit anything — no matter how obviously deceptive or toxic — to defend President Trump and harm his opponents — becoming a megaphone for Russian influence.

How could conservative media figures not have felt — in their hearts and bones — the God-awful ickiness of it? How did simple humanity get turned off? Is this insensibility the risk of prolonged exposure to our radioactive political culture?

But this failure of decency is also politically symbolic. Who legitimized conspiracy thinking at the highest level? Who raised the possibility that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Who hinted that Hillary Clinton might have been involved in the death of Vince Foster, or that unnamed liberals might have killed Justice Antonin Scalia? Who not only questioned President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but raised the prospect of the murder of a Hawaiian state official in a coverup? [Gerson failed to mention the wiretapping lie.]

We have a president charged with maintaining public health who asserts that vaccination is a dangerous scam of greedy doctors. We have a president who falsely accused thousands of Muslims of celebrating in the streets following the 9/11 attacks.

In this mental environment, alleging a Rich-related conspiracy was predictable. This is the mainstreaming of destructive craziness.

Those conservatives who believe that the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch is sufficient justification for the Trump presidency are ignoring Trump’s psychic and moral destruction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Trump is doing harm beyond anything Clinton could have done, changing the party’s most basic moral and political orientations. He is shaping conservatism in his image and ensuring an eventual defeat more complete, and an eventual exile more prolonged, than Democrats could have dreamed.

The conservative mind has become diseased. The movement has been seized by a kind of discrediting madness, in which conspiracy delusions figure prominently. With the blessings of a president, they have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion. They have allowed political polarization to reach their hearts, and harden them. They have allowed polarization to dominate their minds, and empty them.

Conspiracy theories often involve a kind of dehumanization. The narrative of conspiracy takes precedence over the meaning of a life and the suffering of a family. A human being is made into an ideological prop on someone else’s stage — fully consistent with other forms of dehumanization — of migrants, refugees and “the other” more generally. This also involves callousness, cruelty and conspiracy thinking.

In Trump’s political world, this project of dehumanization is far along. The future of conservatism now depends on its capacity for revulsion. And it is not at all clear whether this capacity still exists.

Trump’s climate speech — full of covfefe

June 3, 2017

America first? Really? Who’d ever thought a U.S. president could make his Russian and Chinese counterparts appear better global citizens than us? But now even Putin and Xi Jinping are on the climate change high road, while America slithers down the other (accompanied only by the dictators of Syria and Nicaragua).

After Trump’s European trip, Germany’s leader Merkel judged that the era of U.S. leadership is over and Europe is on its own. Trump proved her point with his announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. A grown-up nation does not renege on its promises. Far from making America great again, he’s deformed it from an upstanding world leader into a child in a temper tantrum. America has never been this ungreat.

Trump says it’s to protect U.S. jobs. He just says things without regard to any reality; it’s just more covfefe.

It is true that even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still rise, only a little less than otherwise. So if we were to curb emissions by reducing industrial output, to combat climate change, the economic harm would outweigh any benefit. But that’s not what Paris does.

Instead, it merely recognizes carbon’s effect on climate and the desirability of minimizing it to the extent we can. Simple common sense. Its targets are not binding commitments, with any penalties for noncompliance, but rather just earnestly expressed ambitions. Which virtually every other nation on Earth agreed are wise.

So no job losses. Zip, zero, zilch. Nor any transfer of wealth from America to other nations — more nonsensical Trump covfefe. His whole speech was a farrago of nonsense detached from reality, an embarrassment to the country. Transitioning sensibly from dirtier to cleaner energy sources can only have economic (as well as environmental) benefits. Trump’s coal fetish is simply insane. Coal blights the planet as well as miners’ health, and is a comparatively costly energy source. Even China, the world’s leading coal nation, is assiduously cutting back on it. And clean energy is creating around ten times as many jobs.

So why would Trump go out of his way to trash what he himself referred to as a “non-binding” agreement? To pander to his base of course — the rest of the world can go hang. Sensible heads in both government and business almost unanimously advised him against withdrawing from Paris. Polls show a majority even of Trump supporters opposed doing it. So this is aimed at the hard core of the hard core. Even politically it seems insane.

But it sticks a thumb in the eye of the world order, so Trump can play the disruptor. And it reflects yet again his bottomless ignorance about the world, the willful ignorance of a fool who thinks he knows it all. And perhaps also Trump, even in his literally diseased mind, could see that his record so far is not his lie of triumphant accomplishment but a train wreck. Trashing Paris was at least one thing he’d said he’d do that he could actually do. To him a no-brainer. Too bad it really is brainless.

In the Rose Garden he said the world was laughing at us for agreeing to Paris, and that will stop. Trump has an uncanny thing for turning reality exactly inside out. They weren’t laughing at us then, but now they are, while shaking their heads sadly.