It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened. Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?). Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican. Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.
I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House. President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act). But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:
Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did. Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president. To which I say: very well. I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence. But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached. Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan. You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.
Given the refusal of so many people I respect to say anything like the above, it came as a relief to read a brilliant New York Review of Books piece by Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist who I’d previously known for her fine biography of Grisha Perelman (the recluse who proved the Poincaré Conjecture), and who’s repeatedly risked her life to criticize Vladimir Putin. Gessen takes Clinton and Obama to task for their (no doubt well-intentioned) appeasement of a monstrous thug. She then clearly explains why the United States is now headed for the kind of society Russians are intimately familiar with, and she shares the following rules for surviving an autocracy:
- Believe the autocrat.
- Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
- Institutions will not save you.
- Be outraged.
- Don’t make compromises.
- Remember the future.
Her important essay is well worth reading in full.
In the comments of my last post, an international student posted a heartbreaking question:
Should I think about Canada now before [it’s] too late?
As I said before, I have no doubt that many talented students will respond to America’s self-inflicted catastrophe by choosing to study in Canada, the EU, or elsewhere. I wish they wouldn’t, but I don’t blame them. At the same time, even in the darkest hour, human affairs are never completely exempt from the laws of supply and demand. So for example, if Trump caused enough other foreign researchers to leave the US, then it’s possible that a spot at Harvard, Princeton, or MIT could become yours for the taking.
I can’t tell you what to do, but as you ponder your decision, please remember that slightly more than half of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of residents of the major cities and college towns—despise Trump, will always despise Trump, and will try to continue to build a society that upholds the values of the Enlightenment, one that welcomes people of every background. Granted, the Union side of America has problems of its own, and I know some of those problems as well as anyone. But at least it’s not the Confederacy, and it’s what you’d mostly be dealing with if you came here.
Finally, I wanted to share some Facebook postings about the election by my friend (and recent interviewer) Julia Galef. In these posts, Julia sets out some of the same thoughts that I’ve had, but with an eloquence that I haven’t been able to muster. It’s important to understand that these posts by Julia—whose day job is to run rationality seminars—are far and away the most emotional things I’ve ever seen her write, but they’re also less emotional than anything I could write at this time!
Naturally, my sharing of Julia’s posts shouldn’t be taken to imply that she agrees with everything I’ve said on this blog about the election, or conversely, that I agree with everything she says. I simply wanted to give her an additional platform to speak for herself.
The rest of this post is Julia:
I’m seeing some well-intentioned posts insisting “See, this is proof we need to be listening to and empathizing with Trump supporters, not just calling them stupid.”
Generally I’m a fan of that kind of thing, but now… Jesus fucking Christ, we TRIED that. Did you not see how many journalists went to small towns and respectfully listened to people say stupid shit like “I can’t vote for Hillary because she’s the antichrist,” and then tried to figure out how that stupid shit was actually, maybe a reasonable argument about trade policy?
Sometimes the answer is not “People are astutely seeing things that I, inside my bubble, have missed.” Sometimes the answer is just “People are fucking morons whose brains are not built to see through bullshit.”
(To be clear, I think this applies to people in general, including Hillary voters. We just happen to have been a bit less moronic in this particular context.)
And fine, if you want to argue that it’s strategically *wise* for us to understand what makes Trump fans tick, so that we can prevent this from happening again — assuming we get the chance — then fine.
But if you keep insisting that we “just don’t understand” that Trump voters aren’t stupid, then I’m going to take a break from the blank look of horror I’ll be wearing all day, and flash you a look of withering incredulity. Maybe Trump voters aren’t stupid in other contexts, but this sure was a fucking stupid, destructive thing they did.
EDIT: Predictably, some people are interpreting my point as: Trump supporters are stupid and/or evil, Clinton supporters are not.
That’s not my point. My point is that humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.
I realized it’s not clear to many people exactly why I’m so upset about Trump winning, so let me elaborate.
What upsets me the most about Trump’s victory is not his policies (to the extent that he has coherent policy positions). It’s not even his racism or sexism, though those do upset me. It’s what his victory reveals about the fragility of our democracy.
Trump incites violence at rallies. He spreads lies and conspiracy theories (birtherism, rigged elections) that damage the long-term credibility of the political process, just for his own short-sighted gain. He’s ruined [EDIT: tried to ruin] journalists’ careers for criticizing him, and bragged about it. He’s talked explicitly about his intent to pursue “revenge” on people who crossed him, once he becomes president. He said he would try to jail Hillary. He clearly has little knowledge of, or respect for, the Constitution or international treaties.
And half of our country looked at all that, and either said “Awesome!” or simply shrugged.
Maybe you assume Congress or the courts won’t let Trump get away with anything undemocratic. But did you see the way the Republican leadership swallowed their objections to Trump once he became the nominee, in the name of party unity? Why should we expect them to stand up to him once he’s actually the most powerful man in the world, if they didn’t before (and see earlier points about his love of revenge)?
I really do hope the Trump presidency turns out, somehow, to be not as bad as it seems. But even if that’s the case… we’ve already learned that America cares so little about democratic norms and institutions that it’s happy to elect someone like Trump.
How can you NOT be worried and depressed by that?
OK, first off, this is a pretty sneering article for someone who’s condemning sneering.
Secondly… this is the kind of article I was responding to, in my angry post a couple of days ago.
(The point of that post got misinterpreted by a lot of people — which is understandable, because I was simultaneously trying to convey #1: a nuanced point AND #2: a lot of strong emotion at the same time. I still endorse both the point and the emotion, it’s just tricky to do both well at once. This post is an attempt to just focus on #1.)
What I was trying to say is that I think electing Trump was a very destructive and stupid thing to do. And that I reject the implication, from people like this columnist, that we have to pretend that Trump voters had sensible, well-thought out reasons for their choice, because I do not think that is the case.
I ALSO think that most voters in general, not just Trump voters, do not have sensible, well-thought out reasons for their voting choices, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. I think humans simply aren’t the kinds of creatures who are good at making sensible choices about complicated, ideologically-charged topics.
None of this means that we should give up on democracy, just that there are some serious risks that come with democracy. And I disagree with this columnist’s scorn for Andrew Sullivan’s suggestion that we should think about ways to mitigate those risks. Plenty of people over the centuries, including the Founders of the USA, have worried about the tyranny of the majority. That worry isn’t just an invention of the modern-day snotty liberal elites, as this columnist seems to think.
Finally, I just want to ask this guy: is there ANY candidate about whom he would allow us to say “Shit, the American voters really screwed this one up”, or is that not possible by definition?
Yesterday I argued that the worst thing about Trump was the harm he does to democratic norms and institutions.
From some of the responses, I don’t think I successfully conveyed why that kind of harm is *uniquely* bad — some people seem to think “harms democratic institutions” is just one item in the overall pro-con list, and it just gets tallied up with the other pros and cons, on equal footing.
Let me try to explain why I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.
There’s this scene in the movie 300, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, feels insulted by the demands relayed by the Persian messenger, so he draws a sword on the man.
MESSENGER (shocked): “This is blasphemy, this is madness! No man threatens a messenger!”
LEONIDAS: “Madness? This is Sparta!!!”
… and he shoves the messenger off a cliff.
I think Leonidas is meant to come off as some kind of heroic, rule-breaking badass. But I watched that and thought, “Jesus, what a shitty thing to do.”
Not just because murder is shitty in general, or because murder is a disproportionate punishment for a perceived slight.
No, it’s because the “don’t harm a messenger” norm is what makes it possible for armies to send messengers to negotiate with each other, to avert or end wars. Defecting on that norm is so much worse than harming a particular person, or army, or country. It’s harming our *ability to limit harm to each other* — a meta-harm.
Our species has worked SO. DAMN. HARD. to build up enough collective trust to be able to have working institutions like constitutions, and treaties, and elections, and a free press, and peaceful transitions. And basically everything good in our lives depends on us collectively agreeing to treat those institutions seriously. I don’t care what party you’re in, or what policies you support — that should all come second to warding off meta-harms that undermine our ability to cooperate with each other enough to have a working society.
I’m not going to claim that politicians were perfect at respecting norms before Trump came along. But Trump is unprecedented. Partly in how blatant he is about his lack of respect for norms in general.
But also in how *discrete* his defections are — he’s not just incrementally bending norms that lots of other people before him have already bent.
We used to be able to say “In America, presidents don’t threaten to jail their political rivals.” Now we can’t.
We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t sow doubts about the legitimacy of elections.” Now we can’t.
We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t encourage violence against protesters.” Now we can’t.
Even joking about those norms, from someone in a position of power, undermines them. If Trump was actually joking about jailing Hillary, I suppose that’s better than if he was serious, but it still deals a blow to the norm. The health of the norm depends on us showing each other that we understand it’s important.
And I just feel despairing that so many Americans don’t seem to feel the same. Like, I don’t expect everyone to have thought through the game theory, but I just assumed people at least had an intuitive sense of these norms being sacred.
… And most of all, I’m worried that those of us who *do* feel shock at those norms being violated will gradually lose our sense of shock, as the post-Trump era wears on.
Update (Nov. 12) Since I apparently wasn’t, let me be perfectly clear. The fact that Trump’s voters unleashed a monster on the world does not make them evil or idiots. It “merely” makes them catastrophically mistaken. Just as I did (and took a lot flak for doing!) before the election, I will continue to oppose any efforts to harass individual Trump supporters, get them fired from their jobs, punish other people for associating with them, etc. To do that, while also militantly refusing to normalize Trump’s autocratic rule over the US, is admittedly to walk an incredibly narrow tightrope—and yet I don’t see anything on either side of the tightrope that’s consistent with my beliefs.
Some readers might also be interested in my reflections on being on the “same side” as Amanda Marcotte.