Reckoning with a Donald Trump presidency

Sonnie Bailey

26 November 2016

Disclaimer: This steers into the political. I try to keep this out of my blog. I believe that politics is a mind-killer and to a large extent is more about identity and tribalism than policies. But I wade into the arena against my own better judgement… 

Donald Trump. Seriously? Whatever Hilary Clinton’s faults, I can’t conceive of a situation where I would vote for him. I knew his election was a possibility, but knowing something at an intellectual level is different than knowing it on a gut level.

Trump’s election was confronting.

My immediate thoughts and feelings mirrored those of The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy.

My feelings have moderated significantly. In much the same way they did after George W Bush won the 2000 election against Al Gore. (I still think of that election is a significant turning point in modern history. But I’ll put that to the side.)

Two authors in particular gave me some perspective. The first was Scott Alexander, the Slate Star Codex blogger, and the second was David Wong (aka Jason Pargin) of Cracked.

The most important article was published the day before the election. Titled “Tuesday shouldn’t change the narrative”, Scott Alexander pointed out that 538 was giving Trump a 35% chance of winning and the New York Times was giving him a 16% chance. Those figures are not negligible, and Alexander pointed out that this was a close race, and “any deciding factor is going to be about as random as a rainstorm over Philadelphia”.

In the article, Alexander suggests that people precommit to the following view:

We live in a country and a world where Hillary can be at about 47% and Trump at about 45%. This is pretty much all you need to know. It suggests that a lot of people are willing to support a nationalist candidate, and a lot of other people really hate that candidate. It suggests that political fundamentals are totally compatible with a situation where either Trump or Hillary could win based on noise in the electoral process.

In short, it’s easy to read too much into the outcome. Alexander’s comments above are as true after the election as they were before it. As with anything, we rationalise and come up with stories. The media, with its incentives to chase a story, is as a rule going to read things into the election that they wouldn’t have if the outcome had been slightly different.

Which isn’t to say that the outcome won’t impact us into the future. It will.

(Alexander also makes a bold claim: that “the picture of Trump as ‘the white power candidate’ and ‘the first openly white supremacist candidate to have a shot at the Presidency in the modern era’ was overblown”. In his article “You are Still Crying Wolf”, he says:

There is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.

We can hope.)

Wong/Pargin, in his article “Don’t Panic”, points out:

Your country didn’t go anywhere. It’s right here where you left it. America is nothing more than a big ol’ collection of people, and those people are more diverse and progressive than they have ever been [as supported by various statistics, which Wong/Pargin takes pains to point out]. That train won’t be stopped. Donald Trump’s supporters are by and large an aging and shrinking demographic.

He also emphasises that “Half of America did not, in fact, just reveal themselves to be closet Nazis”:

The truth is, most of Trump’s voters voted for him despite the fact that he said/believes awful things, not because of it. That in no way excuses it, but I have to admit I’ve spent eight years quietly tuning out news stories about drone strikes blowing up weddings in Afghanistan. I still couldn’t point to Yemen on a map. We form blind spots for our side, because there’s something larger at stake.

He puts a positive spin on the future: “I personally believe… that this will be remembered as the dying last gasp of the worst part of America, one final stand against the bigotry and ignorance that has plagued us since the day we decided to build this nation on the backs of slaves.”

I’m optimistic that this is the case.

What futures stand in front of us?

In The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson points out that “there really is no such thing as ‘the future’, singular. There are only multiple, unforeseeable futures, which will never lose their capacity to take us by surprise.”

Donald Trump is now a very powerful man, and the decisions he makes have the potential to significantly impact every person on this planet.

I am not saying that Trump’s presidency will be an unmitigated disaster. There’s a chance that things will tick along more smoothly than any of us could expect. He might even be able to shake the US political system up in a really positive way. There’s a possibility he’ll go down as one of the great presidents.

Again, we can hope. And I do.

I don’t think that will be the case. I think it’s more likely that he’ll be a one term president. If he even makes it to one term. He’s an old guy, so who knows whether his health will hold up. Also, impeachment isn’t out of the question. Again, I’m talking possibilities not probabilities.

I remember joking during the primaries that a Trump presidency could be the very best thing for the Democratic party in the medium- to long-term. Sure, he currently has Republican majorities in the Senate and Congress. But I think that makes the long-term Republican position worse than it looks. If things go very badly, we could see a pretty quick reversal in Democratic fortunes. The prospect of a Democratic president with support in the Senate and Congress might have been less likely with Clinton. Trump makes this possibility more likely in the shorter-term.

My concern is with outcomes that are on the margins of possibility. As Nassim Taleb points out in The Black Swan, “History does not crawl, it jumps”.

In a rather pessimistic article, Tobias Stone suggests that “we’re entering another of those stupid seasons humans impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals”, namely a phase “of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another”.

When bad things happen:

At a local level in time people think things are fine, then things rapidly spiral out of control until they become unstoppable, and we wreak massive destruction on ourselves. For the people living in the midst of this it is hard to see happening and hard to understand.

Only later can historians piece it together so it all makes sense.

Stone refers to Arch Duke Ferdinand scenarios, named for the man whose murder set off the events culminating in World War I.

There are a number of possible scenarios ending in devastation for the human race. In Stone’s words, “The number of possible scenarios are infinite due to the massive complexity of the many moving parts. And of course many of them lead to nothing happening.”

If something happens:

It will come in ways we can’t see coming, and will spin out of control so fast people won’t be able to stop it. Historians will look back and make sense of it all and wonder how we could all have been so naïve.

This is what I fear for me, my family, and my loved ones. I hope it doesn’t happen, and I differ from Stone in that I think it probably won’t happen.

But the likelihood of a Franz Ferdinand event has become much higher with a Trump presidency.

This is what I’m still struggling to come to terms with.

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