The other night, my mind was literally 💥 when two of my very smart friends challenged me on the idea that Trump being elected president was not the worst thing to happen in 2016. To me – it’s an absolute no-brainer, and a conclusion that even a little imagination combined with historical knowledge would usher you to.
I guess in part it depends on how bad you think things could get; I think the worst cases are so bad that it’s driven me to become a raving lunatic. Here’s why I think you should be one too:
This one is especially salient given the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
Matthew White calls the beginning of the 20th Century the “Hemoclysm” – literally, blood flood – because of the staggeringly large conflicts and loss of life. WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, the Great Purge, and two nuclear bombs all happened during this time. How did this era begin? As Steven Pinker puts it in The Better Angels of our Nature:
The war was a perfect storm of destructive currents, brought suddenly together by the iron dice of Mars: an ideological background of militarism and nationalism, a sudden contest of honor that threatened the credibility of each of the great powers, a Hobbesian trap that frightened leaders into attacking before they were attacked first, an overconfidence that deluded each of them into thinking that victory would come swiftly, military machines that could deliver massive quantities of men to a front that could mow them down as quickly as they arrived, and a game of attrition that locked the two sides into sinking exponentially greater costs into a ruinous situation – all set off by a Serbian nationalist who had a lucky day.
We live in a fragile world. The complexities of international diplomacy are enormous, and the consequences can be more severe than we can imagine. And Trump has shown himself to be quite willing to fly by the seat of his pants on things like the One China policy, our support of NATO, and just bombing the shit out of wherever.
The President’s #1 job is to keep America safe. This is not as simple as battening down the hatches and keeping “America First”; it involves real, nuanced thinking about how to carefully deploy threats, when to back them up, and when to offer the olive branch. Are we going to get anything close to that with Trump? Don’t tell me he has good advisers – all the easy decisions get made before they get to the oval office.
Norms of American Democracy
Although we have a Constitution that is the ultimate source of law in this country, most of what makes our system of government actually so great is that our leaders respect norms regarding the use and transfer of power. When incumbents lose, they leave office! When candidates lose, they concede! Until, maybe, now.
In addition, candidates for higher office have been careful to make clear that they have no conflicts of interest (say, by releasing their tax returns) and that they are acting in the interest of the country (at least according to their worldview).
Trump has done the exact opposite of all this. He refused to say he’d concede in the event of a loss. He hasn’t released his tax returns. His businesses present a bewildering array of conflicts of interest. He’s installing his family (who are managing his businesses) as his closest confidantes.
Now, putting aside whether any of this is illegal, it certainly screws up the incentives in our country. The way to succeed becomes to curry favor with the government. This is how countries become Russia – a sham democracy and a corrupt kleptocracy.
And then of course there’s the lying. So much lying. Like, for instance, that he had one of the largest electoral college wins (his was one of the smallest); or that the murder rates are the highest they’ve been in decades (they’re the lowest). Politicians lie, have always done so, and will always do so. But – at least in the USA – their lies at least maintain respect for the truth, as they’re couched in euphemisms or misdirection. Trump has no respect for the truth. His lies are so easy to fact-check that it’s hard to escape the impression that for him, lies like this are a much a demonstration of domination (“look how easily and bigly I can lie and you can’t do anything about it”) as anything else.
Degrading the norms of our republic – as Trump has done and seems to be intent on continuing to do – is one way to start ending the great American experiment in democracy.
While certainly not as sexy a way to go out as a nuclear war, climate change poses a similar kind of existential threat. We need a president that can at least recognize the science and the tradeoffs that come with different forms of climate policy – not someone who has once dismissed it as a “Chinese hoax”, or who puts a climate denier in charge of the EPA, or who puts a man who once forgot, in a nationally televised debate, the third federal department that he’d like to eliminate, in charge of said department – the Department of Energy, whose original mandate is to safeguard our stockpile of nuclear waste. What kind of thinking puts a man who’s famous for saying “oops” in charge of that department?
Putting it all together
Maybe raving lunatic was not the right word – you have to be taken seriously at the end of the day. But we should be uncomfortable about all this. We can’t let our vigilance slide and allow this (tax returns, the family posse rolling up to the White House, shattering of stable alliances, abuses on twitter, the lying etc.) to feel normal. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of increasingly-hot water, we can’t just let our government crumble around us and say “this is fine”. It’s exhausting, but we can’t get tired of calling Trump and his enablers out. As Voltaire said:
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.