Letter to A Conservative Friend

Dear — — — — ,

I think we met twenty five years ago. I was a film producer, dating a friend of yours. You were a screenwriter on the way up. We both went to a church on Sunday, which in those days was an anomaly in Hollywood. After 9/11 when I had become a professor at USC, we both worked together at the Institute for Creative Technologies, trying to help the U.S. government understand how Al Qaeda was using the Internet as a recruitment tool.I knew you were much more conservative than me, but somehow, because of your sense of humor and open recognition that you were an outlier in liberal Hollywood, we maintained our friendship. We clashed harshly when Bush and Cheney invaded Iraq. You were totally supportive and bought Cheney’s line that it would be over in two months. But when it all went south, you were brave enought to admit you had been snookered.

In the 2008 Presidential campaign, you mocked Obama from the start — sure that Hillary would win the nomination. You admitted you wanted that to happen so the Republican candidate could win. And of course during the Great Recession of 2008, I would constantly put your free market libertarian principles on display as the reason for the meltdown and you would just say “those stupid people shoud have never borrowed the money in the first place.” To you, it was all about personal responsibility. I remember one of our monthly lunches in Westwood, when I told you the story of the Hedge Fund operator, John Paulson. Paulson had in 2007 created a basket of the most toxic mortgages he could find — one’s he was sure would default within twelve months. He then convinced his banker Goldman Sachs to package this garbage into a Credit Default Swap and had them get it rated as a AA security and sold to unsuspecting institutional investors, mostly in Europe. Paulson took 100% of the other side of the trade — a bet that the mortgages would fail. He made $3 billion in three months. It was called the “greatest trade ever”. But it wasn’t a trade, it was a con. You had to admit it was pretty ugly, but again you remarked on the suckers who got taken.

Despite our political differences, our monthly lunches continued throughout the Obama administration. You were having a lot of success in the digital world and I was enjoying my life at USC. But when Trump came along, something changed. You loved his “own the libs” braggadocio and I was offended by everything he represented. The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote, “Donald Trump is an amoral incompetent surrounded by grifters, misfits and his own over-promoted children.” That seemed about right for me, but for you, Trump could do no wrong. A few months ago, we had our differences out in public at another gathering of Hollywood and intelligence community personel. We haven’t talked since.

The reason I’m writing this is that I cannot comprehend how two people could have such a different view of the world. Do we not share any of the same facts? The digitization of our communications and media systems, starting in 1989, led to the atomization of our culture into a million niches and so we lost any sense of shared facts. And that lack of national narrative opened the doors for a new kind of propaganda based on Big Lies that could really move the “low information voter”. You watch Fox News, but I never thought of you as a low information voter. But now I have to realize that the balkanized information system the digital revolution created has made it possible for you and I to go through life with a completely different set of truths. So the original sin was not in the politics, but rather the culture. But that cultural shift led directly to the election of Donald Trump. Some of the geniuses of American politics like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln foresaw the possibility of a man like Trump. They knew this problem would always exist: how can virtue and the common good be sustained in a country devoted to the pursuit of material wealth?

Alexis De Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America, wrote, “A man who has set his heart on nothing but the good things in this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time in which to find them, get them and enjoy them.” The Founders understood selfish strivers like Donald Trump and so as the historian John P. Diggins wrote, they “postulated a citizenry incapable of or unwilling to defer to the general good, and the Constitution’s mechanisms were so structured as to render men not so much virtuous as harmless.” Though this system of checks and balances are no doubt frustrating to a man in a hurry like Trump, they are the Founders gift to our present moment. It was Lincoln who truly grasped the danger of a potential autocrat as President.

Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

And of course if many of the citizens are not attached to the government and the laws, then all bets are off. The gulf between the spiritual virtue of Jefferson and Lincoln and the moral turpitude of the current resident of the White House is vast. You still go to church. Can’t you see this?

I remember after 9/11 when the neo-conservatives were in the saddle that we used to talk about Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History. Fukuyama proposed that we had reached the end of history because the discussion of whether capitalism or socialism would triumph was over. The victory of free market capitalist democracy was complete and it was only a matter of time before the remaining autocracies vanished in the face of US hegemony. You totally believed that.

That turned out to be tragically wrong. While everyone else was heralding an emergent globalist world that would take on the best values of America, some glimpsed the terrible risk of the opposite: that the principles of the kleptocrats would become America’s own. This grim vision is now coming true in the person of Trump. Although the 2001 Patriot Act made banks record suspicious money laundering, no such provisions affected the purchase of real estate through shell corporations. Our President was one of the greatest beneficiaries of this loophole. A recent Quinnipiac Poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that Donald Trump committed crimes before he became president. This means that many of Trump’s supporters hold this belief — an astonishing level of cynicism. Maybe you are one of them.

You know I have spent the last two years giving talks about my book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Although I used the Facebook motto ironically in the title of my last book, I came to believe that Donald Trump also believed in moving fast and breaking things. Unlike any previous occupant of the office, Trump understood that the media was always chasing the “shiny new object” and that any mistake he made could be quickly covered over by a provocative tweet that would send the media and the public down a new rabbit hole. The New York Times’s Matt Flegenheimer wrote: “This may be Mr. Trump’s greatest trick:His tornado of news-making has scrambled Americans’ grasp of time and memory, producing a sort of sensory overload that can make even seismic events — of his creation or otherwise — disappear from the collective consciousness and public view.”

From my point of view, Donald Trump is the greatest con man in the history of our country. The recent New York Times story demonstrates that he may have been one of the worst businessmen in American history. Without his father to continually bail him out, he would be like a minor character in Death of a Salesman. So here is the question I need you to answer to me, in the hope we could regain our friendship. At what point do you get off the Trump train? Are you willing to work with me to (in Lincoln’s words) “frustrate his designs?” Trump has now moved into full autocrat mode — unwilling to even recognize the roll of Congress in governing America. I truly believe our democracy is in mortal danger.

I remember you admiring John Paulson’s mortgage con, so is your admiration for Trump like that? He took the marks, but we own the Supreme Court?

But what if you are one of the marks?

Faithfully yours,

Jon

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Director Emeritus, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer/Author, “Mean Streets”, “Move Fast & Break Things”. New book, “The Magic Years”, out 3/21.

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Jonathan Taplin

Jonathan Taplin

Director Emeritus, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer/Author, “Mean Streets”, “Move Fast & Break Things”. New book, “The Magic Years”, out 3/21.

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