A different kind of climate change (#DonaldTrump #trust #cancer)

Sonnie Bailey

22 March 2019

I’m saddened about the heartbreaking events here in Christchurch on 15 March 2019. My thoughts go out to those who were directly impacted by the senseless violence.

I’ve been in touch with people in Christchurch, throughout New Zealand, and the world, who were shocked about what occurred.

It feels like we’ve been violated. It feels like some part of the social fabric was broken.

We live in a world where we trust that we can be safe amongst other people.

Our entire way of life is predicated on this. We have to trust we can be safe among other people.

We have different ways of dealing

One of the things that has struck me is that everyone has a different way of dealing with an experience like this.

My way is that I’ve been over-intellectualising things. And brainstorming and writing things down. Which is my excuse for this article – it’s what came out, and it’s what I want to get off my chest.

A warning: despite my better judgement, this article veers away from New Zealand and gets pretty Trump-centric.

The paradox of tolerance

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Friday is the paradox of tolerence. In short: “if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant”.

Where is the line? At what point do we tolerate opposing views, and at what point do we say “enough is enough”?

It’s easy, for example, to pin some portion of the blame on the shootings on white supremacist ideology. But I want to step back a little further, and pin the blame on extreme views that are taken too far.

It is simply unacceptable to take any set of beliefs and use them to justify the murder of innocent people. That’s whether these beliefs stem from white supremacy or any other set of intolerant beliefs.

We need to protect ourselves from people who take their beliefs too far.

I’m reminded of a Sam Harris article (who was not responsible for the atrocity in Christchurch: listen to his comments at the start of his most recent podcast episode for a nuanced view on where he stands), where he talks about different sources of “evil”. For example, there can be a certain type of mental illness that might prompt someone to commit terrible acts. There can be prototypically evil psychopaths. Normal people can cause harm believing they’re doing the right thing, especially if they’re moved by a twisted ideology.

I’m also reminded of Nassim Taleb, and a central theme in his most recent book Skin in the Game. In short: “If you see fraud, and don’t shout ‘fraud’, you are a fraud”.

I won’t go as far as saying I’m a “fraud”, but I see and hear things that need to be called out all the time. But because I don’t want to ruin relationships, or suffer reputational risk, or deal with the emotional slog of debate, or don’t want to spend my time focusing defending others, I often turn the other cheek.

I can’t do everything. But turning the cheek at all times is no way to live with integrity.

Which brings me to…

Donald Trump

On my phone, I keep a list of things I’m looking forward to. These include movies (such as the final episode of Star Wars’ Skywalker saga, or Tarantino’s next movie starring Brad and Leo) and books (such as Richard Meadows’ book – which, from what I’ve seen, is going to be fantastic). My list is peppered with personal things I’m looking forward to as well, like getting a dog (a cavoodle! working name: “Popcorn”), paying off our mortgage, walking my daughter down the aisle, and meeting my great-grandchildren.

But one of the things I’m most looking forward to is seeing Donald Trump get his comeuppance.

I understand this is only tangentially related to what happened last Friday. But Trump is related, in some small (or big) way.

This is a terrible thought experiment, but would the events in Christchurch have happened, but for Trump being elected, and his continued inclination to stoke hate and division?

I’m a little bit obsessed with US politics. I regularly listen to podcasts like Mueller, She Wrote (I’m a patron!); The Rachel Maddow Show; On Topic with Renato Mariotti, and Ask Preet. One of the first and last things I do each day is check a list of Twitter users I’ve curated to see what has happened over the course of the day (if you follow one person, it should probably be Seth Abramson). There are also some seriously good subreddits discussing what is going on, which I check regularly.

My sources are a little biased. But I think I’m on the right side of history with this one.

Donald Trump = cancer

When I think of Donald Trump, the metaphor that seems apt for me is cancer.

A cognitive cancer

Personally, he’s a cognitive cancer – he has infected my daily thoughts. He’s living rent-free in my brain. I wish that wasn’t the case.

The only positive spin I can put on the whole ordeal is that I like reading and watching thrillers, and this whole fiasco is like a John Grisham thriller in real-time, with even more twists and in the sense of “truth being stranger than fiction”.

I’m also learning an enormous amount about the US political and legal system (not to mention criminal law, which is something I don’t have any direct experience in), geopolitics, and about journalism. (These articles from FiveThirtyEight.com, for instance, provide a great crash course for how to make sense of articles that cite anonymous sources: “Which anonymous sources are worth paying attention to” and “When to trust a story that uses unnamed sources”.

It’s also somewhat entertaining. For all Trump has achieved, I think he has been lucky more than clever. I’ve heard people call the current situation as “Stupid Watergate”, or perhaps even better, “Stupid Stupidgate”. This gives me some sense of peace about what we’re experiencing. What would really freak me out is if Trump was competent.

The investigations surrounding Trump are metastasizing

Another way that Trump and cancer are related is that all of the investigations that surround him are metastasizing, like a malignant cancer spreading through a body. What might have once been Robert Mueller and the Special Counsel Office has evolved to various investigations being pursued by many different organisations. Trump World is facing scrutiny from many different angles, in relation to many different crimes and acts of wrong-doing.

I’m not sure what will get him, but one or more of the many tendrils that are encircling him will get him. For example:

  • Fraud. Telling banks he has more assets than he really does in order to secure loans, and at the same time telling the Government he has less assets than he really does to evade tax.
  • Obstructing justice. Just look at his Twitter timeline.
  • Cooperating with Russia and Wikileaks in relation to the election.
  • Illicit connections with Saudi Arabia.
  • Something fishy relating to Jeffrey Epstein.
  • Emoluments – benefiting himself, including receiving income from foreign actors, to the detriment of the US people.

That’s off the top of my head. In any case, I think he’ll be the first US president to go to prison after he leaves the White House.

And in any case, there’s something to be said that some things can be lawful but awful. Trump can’t seem to go a day without doing or saying something awful.

A cancer of trust

The thing that really concerns me is the enormous damage that Donald Trump is doing to democracy, political institutions, and the relationship many people have with the media.

I know the media has its issues, but to frame any institution or reporting you don’t like as “fake news” is the wrong way to go.

It’s one thing to debate opinions, but it’s another thing to dispute facts.

Day after day, Trump promotes falsehoods. He’s a liar.

In terms of democracy? Consider this: the 2016 election was incredibly close. Let’s run a counterfactual where:

  • Trump didn’t pay off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and the information about his extramarital affairs were made public,
  • Russia didn’t strategically disrupt the election by stirring the pot in social media,
  • Wikileaks didn’t leak documents at the same time as Trump’s “Access Hollywood” soundbites were made public, and
  • it was public knowledge that Trump was negotiating to build a Trump Moscow and planning on giving a penthouse worth tens of millions of dollars to Putin despite saying he had no contacts with Russia.

In the scenario above, would Trump have won the US election? I think there’s a case to be made that he didn’t even win the election legitimately.

I bet there’s even more illegality that we’re not yet aware of.

A different kind of climate change

In some ways I see Trump not as a cause but a symptom of something broader that seems to be spreading across the world. Populist, alt-right, anti-immigration movements that I wonder whether they have genuine support or are being stoked by propagandists.

On that note, this video is especially chilling:

In any case, Trump is clearly a bad actor, and he has surrounded himself with bad actors. And he and his cronies don’t seem to be suffering much for it.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it until the sun goes down: Show me the consequences and I’ll show you the outcomes. If he gets away with what he has done, and what he continues to do, we’ll see more of the sort of terrible behaviour that he’s exhibiting over time.

Less scrupulous people will conclude that crime and dishonesty pays. We’ll see more grifters who care far more about extracting value than creating it.

We already see this in the Republican Party. Frequently, we hear platitudes from people who like Mitt Romney criticising Trump. But the GOP keeps protecting and enabling Trump. (My beans are that key people in the Republican Party are being blackmailed by bad actors, but we’ll wait and see.)

The problem with all of this is that our society relies on trust. Trust is the real wealth of nations.

We trust that we can spend our time in close quarters with other human beings without being physically assaulted.

We trust that when we enter into a contract with someone that they will hold up their end of the bargain.

We trust that our elected representatives will act on our behalf, rather than in their own interests.

We may have differences of opinions about what is best for our country, but in most cases we at least hope that they are acting on their belief of what is best.

Donald Trump is not from New Zealand. But the US and the US president has a strong influence on us all.

Donald Trump is a cancer to trust. We can’t trust what he says. We can’t trust his intentions.

Instead of trying to bring people together, he tries to stoke conflict. And he’s been successful – because despite being a clear liar, he seems to have a base of 40% of Americans who will support him no matter how low he goes.

Donald Trump’s role in the world is an affront to trust. He makes the world less trusting, and less trustworthy.

We’re experiencing climate change in relation to our weather. But we’re also experiencing a change in climate when it comes to society and our norms. Trump is both a symptom and a cause of this climate change.

It’s bad now. But the things he does now won’t just impact us in the short-term. The implications will ripple through time. Bad decisions – and a lack of consequences – right now will result in bad outcomes in decades time.

The people of US need to stand up to this behaviour and create better expectations. And those of us from outside of the US need to exert pressure to make them do this.

I am not saying this because I’m biased towards the democratic party. I’m saying this because I’m biased towards trust, towards democracy, towards important institutions, a functioning media, and the rule of law.

Without these things, there’s no room for good faith debate about what is best for society. There’s no room for tolerance. There’s no room for trust.

The existential crisis of Donald Trump

There’s something I still can’t process: we have an unscrupulous person who is in charge of the most important economy and strongest military force in the history of the world.

It terrifies me to think that the nuclear football follows him around wherever he goes. The risk of an existential-level black swan is much higher than normal while he’s in office. 

The US is literally in the middle of a manufactured national emergency, which gives him expanded military powers should he choose to use them. Somehow this is normalised. I hate to break Godwin’s law, but this is Hitler-playbook stuff.

The bright note

I have high hopes for the future. I can’t wait to see Trump’s comeupance, and to see people in Trump World get their comeuppance. I can’t wait to see Jared Kushner go down.

My hope is that Donald Trump will drain the swamp. Not intentionally, of course – he has made the swamp worse, at least in the short-term. It will be inadvertent, because with any luck, he and his modus operandi can’t survive sunlight.

I’m sorry

I’m sorry for starting by talking about the tragic events here in Christchurch last Friday and devolving into a rant about Donald Trump.

It wasn’t my intention to hijack that discussion and talk about something only tangentially related, even if I believe there’s a strong connection between the two.

It’s my way of dealing with everything.

I hope you find your way of dealing with these tragic events. My heart goes out to you. It goes out to all of us.

Kia kaha.

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