A few days ago, Terry Tao, whose superb blog typically focuses on things like gaps in the primes and finite-time blowup in PDEs, wrote an unusual post, arguing that virtually everyone knows Donald Trump is unqualified to be President, so the challenge is “just” to make that fact common knowledge (i.e., to ensure everyone knows everyone knows it, everyone knows everyone knows everyone knows it, etc). Tao’s post even included the pseudo-mathematical
Proposition 1: The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is not even remotely qualified to carry out the duties of the presidency of the United States of America
together with some suggestions for how this proposition might be “proven” (e.g., using Hillary’s recent San Diego speech).
In thus speaking out, Tao joins Stephen Hawking, who recently called Trump “a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” Now Ed Witten just needs to issue his statement, and we’ll have a trifecta of “the three greatest geniuses.” This shouldn’t be a stretch: Witten started his career by campaigning for George McGovern, and has supported liberal causes for decades. I’m not expecting him to be seen around Princeton sporting a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.
Notwithstanding this site, I don’t belong on any list with Tao, Hawking, or Witten. Nevertheless, friends have expressed surprise that I’ve had almost nothing to say on Shtetl-Optimized about what’s already—regardless of what happens next—the most shocking US political development of my life. Of course, I’ve mined the subject for humor. When I gave the Strachey Lecture on “Quantum Supremacy” on a recent visit to Oxford, I started out by asking whether I should disavow support from quantum supremacists, before averring that I needed to research the subject more. (Get it? I need to research it more?)
I didn’t say more because … well, what could I possibly say that wasn’t being said 1010000 other places on the Internet? Shouldn’t some little corner of human discourse remain Trump-free, so that civilization has a base from which to rebuild after this is all behind us?
Against those considerations, I recently realized that there’s an argument for speaking out, which goes as follows. Suppose Trump actually wins (as of this writing, Predictwise still gives him a frighteningly-high 27% probability). Suppose my family somehow survives whatever comes next, and one day my daughter Lily comes to me across the rubble of the post-thermonuclear hellscape and says, “daddy, in the Good Days, the days before the War of the Small-Hands Insult, the days when there was plentiful food and water and Internet, didn’t you have what used to be called a ‘blog’? Then why didn’t you speak out on this blog, why didn’t you do whatever tiny amount you could to prevent this?” So, alright, this post is my answer to her.
Trump, famously, doesn’t even try to refute the ubiquitous Hitler comparisons; instead he sneeringly invites them, for example with the faux Nazi salutes at his rallies. Certainly with Trump, there’s the eerily familiar sense of how could this possibly happen in a modern country; and of a candidate winning not despite but because of his open contempt for Enlightenment norms, his explicit promises to elevate his will over the law.
At the same time, I think there’s a deep reason why Trump is not Hitler. Namely, Hitler believed in something, had a purity of conviction. Late in the war, when every available resource was desperately needed at the front, Hitler and his deputies still insisted that scarce trains be used to transport Jews to the death camps. To me, that shows some real dedication. I’m not convinced that an examination of Trump’s long career in bullshit artistry, or of his unhinged statements today, shows a similar dedication to any cause beyond his own self-aggrandizement.
Yet as many others have pointed out, “not being Hitler” is sort of a low bar for a President of the United States. If Trump were “merely” a Pinochet or Putin level of badness, I’d still see his election as a calamity for the US and the world—like, maybe an order of magnitude worse than the in-retrospect-mini-calamity of Bush’s election in 2000.
Since Tao was criticized for not explicitly listing his reasons why Trump is unqualified, let me now give my own top ten—any one of which, in a sane world, I think would immediately disqualify Trump from presidential consideration. To maximize the list’s appeal, I’ll restrict myself entirely to reasons that are about global security and the future of democratic norms, and not about which people or groups Trump hurled disgustingly unpresidential insults at (though obviously there’s also that).
- He’s shown contempt for the First Amendment, by saying “libel laws should be opened up” to let him sue journalists who criticize him.
- He’s shown contempt for an independent judiciary, and even lack of comprehension of the judiciary’s role in the US legal system.
- He’s proposed a “temporary ban” on Muslims entering the US. Even setting aside the moral and utilitarian costs, such a plan couldn’t possibly be implemented without giving religion an explicit role in the US legal system that the Constitution was largely written to prevent it from having.
- He’s advocated ordering the military to murder the families of terrorists—the sort of thing that could precipitate a coup d’état if the military followed its own rules and refused.
- He’s refused to rule out the tactical first use of nuclear weapons against ISIS.
- He’s proposed walking away from the US’s defense alliances, which would probably force Japan, South Korea, and other countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals and set off a new round of nuclear proliferation.
- He says that the national debt could be “paid back at a discount”—implicitly treating the US government like a failed casino project, and reneging on Alexander Hamilton’s principle (which has stood since the Revolutionary War, and helps maintain the world’s economic stability) that US credit is ironclad.
- He’s repeatedly expressed admiration for autocrats, including Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, as well as for the Chinese government’s decision to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests by arresting and killing thousands of people.
- He’s expressed the desire to see people who protest his rallies “roughed up.”
- He said that, not only would he walk away from the Paris accords, but the entire concept of global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese.
Would Trump moderate his insane “policies” once elected? I don’t know, but I’d say that electing someone who promises to ignore the rule of law, in the hope that they don’t really mean it, has one of the worst track records of any idea in human history. Like, I acknowledge that a Trump presidency has a wide distribution over possible badnesses: whereas a Ted Cruz presidency would be pretty much a point distribution concentrated on “very bad,” a Trump presidency would have appreciable probability mass on “less bad than Cruz,” but also appreciable mass on “doesn’t even fit on the badness chart.”
Anyway, for these reasons and others, Shtetl-Optimized unhesitatingly endorses Hillary Clinton for president—and indeed, would continue to endorse Hillary if her next policy position was “eliminate all quantum computing research, except for that aiming to prove NP⊆BQP using D-Wave machines.”
Even so, there’s one crucial point on which I dissent from the consensus of my liberal friends. Namely, my friends and colleagues constantly describe the rise of Trump as “incomprehensible”—or at best, as comprehensible only in terms of the US being full of racist, xenophobic redneck scumbags who were driven to shrieking rage by a black guy being elected president. Which—OK, that’s one aspect of it, but it’s as if any attempt to dig deeper, to understand the roots of Trump’s appeal, if only to figure out how to defeat him, risks “someone mistaking you for the enemy.”
I remember watching the now-famous debate in August, where Megyn Kelly confronted Trump with his long history of derogatory comments about women, and Trump replied with a smirk, falsely claiming that his comments were “only [about] Rosie O’Donnell”—bringing down the house (both men and women) in laughter. At that point, something clicked; I got it. From then on, Trump’s continuing rise often scared or depressed me, but much less about it surprised me.
I think people support Trump for the same reason why second-graders support the class clown who calls the teacher a fart-brain to her face. It’s not that the class literally agrees that the teacher’s cranium is filled with intestinal gases, or considers that an important question to raise. It’s simply that the clown had the guts to stand up to this scolding authority figure who presumes to tell the class every day what they are and aren’t allowed to think. (As far as I can tell, this has also been the central operating principle of right-wing shock artists over the decades, from Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter to Milo Yiannopoulos.)
Support for this thesis comes from r/The_Donald, the main online clearinghouse for Trump supporters. Spend some time there, and many of the themes will be instantly recognizable if you’ve followed the interminable controversies about campus political correctness over the last few decades. Perhaps the most popular theme is the self-referential one, of “refusing to be silenced” by the censorious Social Justice Warriors. Trump supporters, for example, gleefully share articles about the university administrators and students who’ve treated “Trump 2016” and “Make America Great Again” chalked on campus sidewalks as hate crimes to be investigated and punished.
(Every time I read such a thing, I want to yell at the administrators and students involved: how can you not see that you’re playing directly into the other side’s narrative, giving them the PR bonanza of their dreams? Actually, I’ve felt the same way about many left-wing campus antics since I was a teenager.)
I explained earlier how abysmally I think Trump comes across under the cold light of reason. But how does he look to my inner five-year-old, or my inner self-serving orangutan? Well, Trump’s campaign has attracted some noxious anti-Semites, who surely want me dead for that reason, but I see little indication that Trump himself, or most of his supporters, feel similarly. I can’t say that they’ve said or done anything to threaten me personally.
Meanwhile, many of the social-justice types who are Trump’s ideological opposites did try to destroy my life—and not because I hurt anyone, tried to hurt anyone, or said anything false, but just because I went slightly outside their Overton Window while trying to foster empathy and dialogue and articulate something true. And having spent a year and a half reading their shaming attacks, on Twitter, Tumblr, Metafilter, etc., I’m well-aware that many of them will try again to destroy me if they ever see an opportunity.
So on the purely personal level, you might say, I have a hundred times more reason to fear Amanda Marcotte than to fear Donald Trump, even though Trump might become the next Commander-in-Chief (!?), while Marcotte will never become more than a clickbait writer. And you might add: if even a nerdy academic in Cambridge, MA, who’s supported gay rights and environmentalism and Democrats his whole life, is capable of feeling a twinge of vicarious satisfaction when Trump thumbs his nose at the social-justice bullies, then how much the more might a “middle American” feel that way? Say, someone who worked his whole life to support a family, then lost his job at the plant, and who’s never experienced anything but derision, contempt, and accusations of unexamined white male privilege from university-educated coastal elites?
The truth is, there’s a movement that’s very effectively wielded social media to remake the public face of progressive activism—to the point where today, progressivism could strike an outside observer as being less about stopping climate change, raising the minimum wage, or investing in public transit than simply about ruining the lives of Brendan Eich and Matt Taylor and Tim Hunt and Erika Christakis and Dongle Guy and Elevator Guy and anyone else who tells the wrong joke, wears the wrong shirt, or sends the wrong email. It strikes me that this movement never understood the extent to which progressive social values were already winning, with no need for this sort of vindictiveness. It’s insisted instead on treating its vanquished culture-war enemies as shortsightedly as the Allies treated the Germans at Versailles.
So yes, I do think (as Bill Maher also said, before summarily reversing himself) that the bullying wing of the social-justice left bears at least some minor, indirect responsibility for the rise of Trump. If you demonstrate enough times that even people who are trying to be decent will still get fired, jeered at, and publicly shamed over the tiniest ideological misstep, then eventually some of those who you’ve frightened might turn toward a demagogue who’s incapable of shame.
But OK, even if true, this is water under the bridge. The question now is: how do we make sure that the ~30% probability of a Trump takeover of American democracy goes toward 0%? I feel like, in understanding the emotional legitimacy of some of the Trump supporters’ anger, I’ve cleared a nontrivial Step One in figuring out how to counter him—but I’m still missing Steps Two and Three!
In the weeks leading to the 2000 election, I ran a website called “In Defense of NaderTrading.” The purpose of the site was to encourage Ralph Nader supporters who lived in swing states, like Florida, to vote for Al Gore, and to arrange for Gore supporters who lived in “safe” states, like Massachusetts or Texas, to vote for Nader on their behalf. I saw correctly that this election would be razor-close (though of course I didn’t know how close), that a Bush victory would be a disaster for the world (though I didn’t know exactly how), and that almost any novel idea—NaderTrading would do—was worth a try. My site probably played a role in a few hundred vote swaps, including some in Florida. I think constantly about the fact that we only needed 538 more, out of ~100,000 Floridian Nader voters, to change history.
Is there any idea that shows similar promise for defeating Trump, as NaderTrading did for defeating Bush in 2000? Here are the four main things I’ve come across:
- Terry Tao’s proposal: All the respected people who think Trump is gobsmackingly unqualified (even, or especially, “normally apolitical” people) should come out and say so publicly. My response: absolutely, they should, but I’m unsure if it will help much, given that it hasn’t yet.
- Paul Graham’s proposal: Democrats need to turn Trump’s name-calling and other childish antics against him. E.g., if voters love Trump’s referring to Rubio as “Little Marco,” Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” etc., then why doesn’t Hillary start referring to “Baby Donald” or “Toddler Trump,” having another temper tantrum for which he needs a pacifier? My response: again I’m skeptical, since Trump has already shown an uncanny ability to absorb all ridicule and shaming without injury, like the giant saucers in Independence Day.
- Trump needs to be baited into more social-media wars that make him look petty and unpresidential. My response: while it’s obvious by now that he can be so baited, it’s unfortunately far from obvious whether this sort of thing hurts him.
- Hillary should hold debates against the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, thereby helping to shift conservative votes from Trump to Johnson, and also making an implicit statement that Johnson, not Trump, is her legitimate conservative opposition. My response: this is maybe the most interesting idea I’ve heard (besides the obvious one, of the so-called “NeverTrump” Republicans bolting to start a new party—which, alas, it looks less and less likely that they’re going to do).
If you have additional ideas, feel free to share them in the comments! As you work it out, here’s my promise to you. Just like I dropped my research in 2000 to work on NaderTrading, so too over the next five months, I’ll do anything legal if I become convinced that it draws on my comparative advantage, and has a non-negligible probability of helping to ensure Hillary’s victory and Trump’s defeat. Even if it involved, like, working with Amanda Marcotte or something.