(Warnings: this is a serious post about a serious topic on which I am underinformed. It was written largely in response to a sea of scared and angry rhetoric—not the best conditions for rational discourse. It is in the same spirit as my previous posts, rather than an attempt to be maximally useful. Also I just saw that Jacob Steinhardt wrote a similar post in parallel.)
From my perspective, a Donald Trump presidency has two qualitatively different kinds of consequences. To the extent that we are going to do anything to mitigate those consequences, I think it is worth keeping them separate.
On the one hand, policy will shift, often in directions that I consider very bad but that many Americans support; for example on immigration, trade, environmental protections, abortion rights, gun control, and international aid. And we will probably see rhetoric and culture shift in directions that I also consider bad; for example on cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism.
Let’s call these the “political” consequences. They are what democracy is made of. Sufficiently bad policy could have massive social costs, destroy people’s lives, and perhaps over the long run destroy the world. And you may think that these are really bad political consequences (or, if against all odds I’ve somehow managed to reach a Trump supporter, you may think they are on balance good). But it’s what we get: we need some mechanism for resolving disagreements amongst the governed, and our mechanism is that the people vote.
On the other hand, it looks possible that a Trump presidency will threaten our unusually free democracy and our unusually peaceful international order; that there is a real chance of a gradual slide towards suppression of political opposition, and of reckless international policy that could start, escalate, or pave the way for major power wars.
At the risk of hyperbole, let’s call these the “cataclysmic” consequences. I consider them less probable, but in expectation I think they are also quite worrying. In this respect, I believe this election really is qualitatively different from what we have seen before, and even is different from Brexit or from the election of other nationalist candidates. Not because of what Trump supporters want, but because of the character of Trump himself (or what might be the character of Trump—there is plenty of room for uncertainty).
Unlike ordinary political consequences, disagreements about cataclysmic consequences don’t seem to be based on differing value judgments or long-term/hard-to-evaluate empirical predictions. They are based on predictions about what will happen over the next decade, about changes that are broadly disagreeable to the American people and mostly unacceptable to the subset who have an understanding of history. People concerned about cataclysmic consequences seem to believe e.g that there is a >5% chance that Trump will fail to step down from power at the end of his term, or that there is a >2% chance of a full-blown major power war directly attributable to Trump’s brashness and unpredictability. We are not disagreeing with Trump supporters about whether that would be bad, we are disagreeing about whether it is going to happen (or in some cases about whether Clinton would have been just as bad).
We may disagree about the extent to which shaking things up can have cataclysmic consequences; we may disagree about whether the current levels of freedom and peace are surprisingly good or surprisingly bad; but we don’t disagree about which direction is good and which direction is bad.
I will note, as a concession to Trump supporters, that over the last year the left appears to have done much more than the right to suppress dissent. On this point I can sympathize with Trump supporters who are angry. But Trump made a lot of extraordinary remarks about retribution and authoritarianism during his campaign. However you feel about Hillary or the left, or even however much you like Trump in general, I think you should be able to sympathize with someone who finds those remarks deeply concerning.
[This is not an exhaustive inventory of consequences. For example, Trump may well prove to be an unusually inept politician and diplomat (or, to the one Trump supporter who is reading this, he may prove to be unusually competent). But that’s not what I want to talk about here.]
People on the left often seem inclined to tie the political and cataclysmic consequences together. (Where by “people” all I can really talk about are the press and angry students, since that’s what I get inundated by.)
By this I’m trying to point to discussion that equivocates easily between these two kinds of concerns; thinking that does not separate them clearly; an unwillingness and potential inability to talk productively with conservatives and Trump supporters about these issues because conversation instead becomes a political fight; trying to pin Trump and the GOP to Trump’s most problematic statements during the election and to call out flip-flops, in a way which scores political points but risks exacerbating the current problem.
I assume that some of these things are artifacts of the election season, and will cool down with time. But I also suspect that some of this will be with us for a while.
I really don’t think that we should do that. Those of us who don’t want to see the world burn should be in the business of forming a broad coalition that pushes very hard for sanity, not trying to co-opt that coalition to win at politics.
We shouldn’t turn every dispute into a dispute about the political changes that Trump’s supporters actually want, because we know what side Trump’s supporters will take in that dispute. And you can bet that the Republican political establishment will follow Trump supporters, because this is a democracy and that is how democracy often works.
We should try very hard not to push our political opponents into a position where their easiest response is to justify potentially problematic behavior by Trump, or where pushing back against Trump means subverting the Republican party (or even subverting the political interests of Trump supporters). The coalition-against-cataclysm by rights ought to include basically all Republican politicians, every conservative in the judiciary, and an honest majority of Trump supporters (I really hope Trump’s acceptance speech signals a retreat from the “lock her up” rhetoric).
We should try to have a coalition-against-cataclysm that isn’t about raising or lowering Trump’s status preemptively, just about pushing back on every stupid and horrifying step towards an outcome that we would all hate. If Trump doesn’t think he’ll take such steps then great, Trump can be in the coalition too, until/unless he next threatens judges or jails opponents or drains legitimate expertise out of the defense establishment or deliberately creates ambiguity about our treaty commitments. And if doing those things would alienate a coalition that otherwise won’t give Trump trouble, a coalition with the support of many powerful groups, then maybe that will have some real effect.
Many people aren’t concerned about cataclysmic consequences because they don’t think they are very likely. I’m not even sure what probabilities I’d give upon reflection, and they might be very low. But we can all still get behind the desire to preserve stability and peace and freedom, we can all agree that we should push back against every step towards cataclysm that does occur. Hopefully the coalition-against-cataclysm won’t have very much to do, but we can still be supportive of it, and make known that it has teeth if they are needed.
In theory the right should be able to do this all on their own even if no one on the left is willing to play ball. After all, when it comes to a vote we are all on the same side. In my model of the world this probably happens automatically and so we don’t have as much to worry about—if Trump actually moves towards absurdly brash foreign policy or authoritarianism, he will meet with actual honest-to-god resistance.
The last year has definitely provided evidence against that model. My best diagnosis is that this is because the fight against cataclysm became tangled up with the political fight against the right (because that’s how our elections work), and the right could tell themselves that everything would be OK and most of all they really didn’t want to lose.
Whether or not that model is correct, the fight seems radically easier if the coalition against cataclysm is bipartisan.
And even if you are a staunch optimist, it would probably still be possible to fuck things up by entangling the anti-cataclysm coalition sufficiently strongly with other causes on the left. This is an especially problematic possibility because connecting accommodation-of-dissent with the left seems like the most important step of any plan to get Trump supporters to be cozy with authoritarianism. We really shouldn’t go along with it by actually coupling the two.
I can sympathize with my fellow students who say “climate change threatens the integrity of our civilization just as much as war” or “only a straight white man could say that a culture of open hate and oppression is qualitatively different from deterioration of the rule of law.” But I think that as a society, it is quite important that we and the people with whom we disagree cooperate to fight hard against outcomes that we all agree are terrible. That does not include climate change, it does not include nationalism and isolationism. It does include the collapse of liberal democracy, and it does include policy missteps that increase the risk of war without corresponding benefits.
That is how compromise works; it’s sometimes unpleasant, but it makes the world better. Sometimes you have to compromise with people who want to do bad things; sometimes you have to compromise with the people you are fighting in war; sometimes you have to compromise with the Republican base. Observing “but damn those things are bad!” doesn’t make compromise unimportant, it just makes it harder.
At the same time, we can and should fight for the political issues that matter to us. These issues get so little space in this post not because they are unimportant but because it’s not what this post is about. Politics-as-usual is a different fight; it should be fought by a different coalition.
We shouldn’t expect to have bipartisan support for the political fight, and on many important policy questions we will face an uphill struggle against a unified Republican government. That’s how it is.
Defending against absurdly brash foreign policy and authoritarianism shouldn’t be an uphill struggle though. We really are all on the same team here.