On Trump

(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.

I.

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.]

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.


16 thoughts on “On Trump

  1. A well argued and important post. But I’d like to question your distinction between political and cataclysmic consequences. I understand that the undermining of democracy itself is a qualitatively different bad result from all the others – if Trump becomes a dictator, that can’t be reversed by the next election, and yes, that would be cataclysmic in the sense of ending our democracy. But is there really a qualitative (rather than quantitative) difference between changes on “immigration, trade, environmental protections, abortion rights, gun control, and international aid.. cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism” vs “reckless international policy that could start, escalate, or pave the way for major power wars”? Isn’t the decision to go to war essentially a political one? If Trump ditches NATO and this leads to Russia invading Estonia and sparking WWIII, how is that different from isolationists in pre-WWII America refusing to help defeat Hitler? When you say that we can all agree to avoid “policy missteps that increase the risk of war without corresponding benefits”, isn’t whether war has corresponding benefits exactly what people argue about in a democracy, and disagree about as reasonably as they do about climate change, racism, etc.? Why is it reasonable to deny climate change or support white nationalism but unreasonable to think that starting a war would be justified?

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    1. Trump certainly appears to prefer policies that will increase the risk of war in exchange for other benefits (like reduced spending, or reduced trade). I was pointing not to the consequences of Trump’s preferred policies, but rather to consequences of e.g. Trump being unreasonably impulsive or vindictive, or failing to access/understand existing expertise on defense/diplomacy. It seems like (1) these possibilities are responsible for some of the worst risks, (2) everyone agrees that they would be bad and just disagrees about whether they will occur.

      I agree that this is less clean than the point about domestic trouble, it’s possible I shouldn’t have tried to run them together. They do seem to have important characteristics in common.

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    2. (Great post Paul)

      If nothing else, I think there is an important pragmatic difference between objectives of ours that late 2016 Trump supporters will get behind (e.g. don’t cause frivolous wars) and ones they won’t.

      So far, causing frivolous wars is not a core value of Trump supporters. But that could change. The fear is that by talking about Trump’s rash personality in the same way we talk about his stances on culture war issues, we equate them in the minds of his supporters. Hypothetical supporter thought process: “The media says Trump would be a terrible president because he won’t apologize for his culture war stances. But the media is not on my side in the culture war. The media also says Trump’s rash personality is a threat to the world peace. But I don’t trust the media, and it sounds like they are saying that mainly to get their way in the culture war. Trump has demonstrated that the best way to win the culture war is to never apologize. Therefore, we shouldn’t apologize for Trump’s rash personality.” (I think a lot of people were already thinking this way during the election. But rhetoric that causes these thoughts is more foolish than ever now that it can’t keep Trump out of office.)

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  2. This seems like a productive direction. We’d need to think more specifically about how such a coalition could prevent these cataclysmic events. It seems that we’d need two capabilities: detection that these events are becoming worryingly likely and the right power to be able to prevent them.

    With totalitarianism, there are already lots of checks preventing it. This means that Trump would have to gradually erode these checks and we may be able to spot him doing it quite a while before he’s reached levels of power that are unopposable. I’m not sure what an effective response would look like and where the power would come from to overcome Trump’s attempts, but presumably it would involve other parts of the government such as congress or the judiciary. So for this case we’d need to understand specifically what power would be needed to prevent this issue and our coalition would have to have that power.

    With war, the president can authorize military action alone and can launch nuclear weapons with the authorization of the secretary of defence. This could happen too quickly and secretly for detection and even if it was detected there’s not much anyone could do about it. Perhaps there are other cases where a more gradual buildup of tensions could be detected, but again I don’t see what we could do about that.

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    1. I don’t think that it’s realistic to think in terms of detecting and then intervening to stop problematic behavior. I think that bad outcomes are the endpoint of a long slide, and that the sliding is a complicated process that involves a whole lot of people, who are themselves mostly thinking about political maneuvering. I’m also skeptical of the proposed model of nuclear war risk (though I’m also not very informed about these issues).

      Also I think Trump’s statements on the campaign trail already put the probability of authoritarian behavior at “worryingly likely,” though there is a bunch of uncertainty about exactly what he intends to do (and his intentions seem pretty flexible / no doubt depend on the political landscape).

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      1. I’m not at all well informed about these things so wouldn’t be surprised if all my models about this are wrong.

        If not detection and intervention, how would you envisage the coalition-against-cataclysm working?

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        1. One thing I can imagine in the vicinity of a coalition-against-cataclysm is a clear statement of a list of things that are commonly agreed to be bad, which lots of people agree to (e.g. sign) and which it is commonly known is popular. I imagine this would make it harder to do those kinds of things without it seeming saliently worthy of criticism.

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  3. Defending against absurdly brash foreign policy and totalitarianism shouldn’t be an uphill struggle though. We really are all on the same team here.

    Totalitarianism doesn’t come with a big identifying label. And how absurdly brash is a foreign policy that invaded a third world country under trumped up pretences of weapons of mass destruction? Yet, we’ve been there.

    I wish I could share you optimism here, but I fear this team of yours is much smaller than you think.

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    1. With respect to totalitarianism, I think that liberals are concerned because of some pretty clear warning signs sent during the election. They don’t literally have the label “totalitarianism,” but I think there is broad agreement about a class of problematic activities involving e.g. jailing political opponents, undermining the judicial, “opening up” libel laws, and so on.

      With respect to geopolitics, the invasion of Iraq definitely doesn’t classify as “absurdly brash” in the sense I am intending here. These mistakes are characterized by being really easy to avoid, such that the only way you run into them is basically if you don’t care at all. In the Iraq case, the decision might be clear on some views (e.g. on the “war really sucks” view) but it was definitely not obvious to everyone. Support for the Iraq war was not like the Republican establishment begrudgingly endorsing Donald Trump.

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  4. I am disheartened by your liberal use of the word “totalitarianism.” You seem to be using it interchangeably with “authoritarian.” Merely murdering political opponents is not “totalitarian.” It does not mean seizing the totality of political power; it means expanding the scope of political control over the totality of life. This has historically been a useful word and it will be a useful word in the future, so please don’t abuse it.

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  5. Whom is this coalition made of? Congress members? Military advisors? Journalists and bloggers? People who post on Facebook for their friends?

    Can a person (in any of the groups above) advocate for their partisan policy goals and also, separately, be a member of this bipartisan coalition? How do they make people understand the two aren’t meant to reinforce each other?

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  6. Here’s a Republican thinker, Paul D. Miller, who seems like a good candidate for such a coalition:

    “Consider Trump’s effect on the world. The President of the United States is still the most powerful position in the world, the Commander-In-Chief of the greatest military in world history and chief spokesman for an alliance of free nations that encompasses nearly half the globe. And now the presidency is occupied by someone who overtly admires tyrants and dictators, seems ready to cooperate with a new era of Russian aggression in Europe, and openly doubts the value of America’s historic alliances. This deserves its own post, but if I were editing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I would advance the Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight. I am not trying to be hyperbolic when I say that the Trump presidency could see the end of NATO, which would rewind the geopolitical calendar to 1939 and make global war more likely than at any time in three generations.

    “In the days after the election, I heard many people counsel calm and perspective. America will survive, they say. We’ve been through worse. It’s not the end of the world.

    “To which I say, Trump hasn’t been sworn in yet. Give him a chance.”

    thefederalist.com/2016/11/11/left-right-learn-trumps-election/

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  7. You write so abstractly that I find it hard to tell what you’re saying. You really cover all your bases, but maybe you’ve assumed away the problem. In particular,

    that isn’t about raising or lowering Trump’s status preemptively

    How is this compatible with anything else? By proposing that Trump needs special treatment, aren’t you inherently lowering his status?

    Here is something concrete to address that: people who want to promote this coalition should say something like “I am afraid that Trump is the next JFK and that he will cause the next Cuban Missile Crisis.”

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