Otto Von Bismarck is supposed to have said that there is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America. The people of the United States of America have repudiated that providence, in order to become a normal country. That protection has now been withdrawn.
It is a normal outcome for a presidential election in the Americas, with a constitutional system modeled after that of the United States, to empower an authoritarian strongman. We are, after enjoying more than two hundred years of our special providence, finally experiencing a normal outcome. This is bad news, but it is most likely not catastrophic news.
In my pre-election post, I outlined two main bad things about Trump:
- He is a threat to global political stability, might lead to a military conflict between great powers, and slightly increases the chances of a nuclear exchange.
- He is a threat to local political stability and might lead to the breakdown of civil order.
These things were real risks, and still are. They are very, very bad in expectation. But they are still fairly improbable. This is very bad news, but to run through the streets panicking would be committing a category error. To the extent that a Trump victory carries tail risk, we have already incurred that cost. We have already lost that measure. The only thing to do is manage the mainline scenarios.
(UPDATE: I basically endorse Paul Christiano's take on managing the tail risk.)
To respond reasonably to a Trump victory, we have to think clearly about the threats posed by a Trump regime, and the opportunities we have to change that.
I'm going to start by explaining why, while both those outcomes are real risks, the system is unlikely to suddenly collapse. Then I will explore what Trump's support means, and what we should do about it.
These are working hypotheses. I am not sure they are all totally true; evaluate them yourself, based on what you've seen and heard. But I am sure they are worth seriously considering. I think that part of the reason people on the left are freaking out right now is that Trump seems so transparently, obviously bad, that they have no really reasonable hypothesis for why people would support him. I'm proposing one.
- 1 Political freedom and Trump the negotiator
- 2 Nuclear war and Trump the conservative
- 3 All feels all the time and Trump the authentic politician
- 4 Threats and opportunities
- 5 Helping
Political freedom and Trump the negotiator
I wrote about how Trump is a threat to republican norms. But Trump does aspire to one very important virtue, and that is magnanimity in victory. His acceptance speech shows this:
Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country. I mean that very sincerely.
For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.
I'm reassured by this somewhat, but not as an isolated event; Trump can change on a dime. I'm reassured because this particular sort of graciousness is entirely in character for Trump. It's consistent with his response in the second debate, to the question of what he admires about his opponent. He praised Hillary Clinton for being a tough fighter.
Many people have criticized Trump for his zero-sum attitude towards negotiating, and towards life in general. He sees life as a series of fights to be won. But the flip side of this is that his apparent tendency towards vindictiveness is not due to the sort of extreme emotional disturbance it would signify in a normal person. If you mostly perceive negotiations as contests in which each side tries to gain leverage over the other, why would you hate people just for having been on the other side? To the extent that Trump has an ideal of emotional maturity, I think it is largely about not carrying over grudges from a single negotiation.
If anything, Trump has too much of an attitude that it's all part of the game. This means that he's more likely to cross red lines, whether on freedom of speech or the use of nuclear weapons, but we've already observed this. But it also means that he's unlikely to hold grudges, so long he doesn't perceive people as gratuitously attacking him, or threatening his status.
Trump's feud with Rosie O'Donnell is a bad sign – but I think that part of why he was so mad is that he perceived her as attacking him for no reason, and for things that are sore spots for him. From his perspective, she lowered his social status in an unprovoked, malicious attack, so he responded in kind.
This is bad. Trump won't distinguish between gratuitous attacks, and reasoned criticism outside the context of a negotiation. Other people will have to adapt to his style because he's too stupid to learn theirs. This is a standard negotiation tactic, and an extremely effective precommitment device. If you're focused on the zero-sum aspect of negotiations, it's an appealing one.
But, the magnanimity is real. As far as I know, he didn't make affirmative attempts to harm Rosie O'Donnell's interests, and he could have tried. This compares favorably to Peter Thiel's vendetta against Gawker for outing him as gay, in which he pursued subtle, indirect means of vengeance. I think that Thiel has a better-developed sense of objective justice than Trump does, and sincerely tried to act justly, to the point where I (weakly) approve of the way he pursued his vendetta. I think that some of the fear about Trump is based on a premise that he'll be as ruthless as Peter Thiel, with less justice. I think that for the same reason that Trump is less just, he is also less determined to seek revenge.
In Be Slightly Evil, Venkatesh Rao distinguishes between vindictiveness and revenge:
Revenge emerges when you add up two traits: an innate tendency towards vindictiveness and a capacity for long-range planning. Vindictiveness is simpler and much more fundamental. In tribal societies it leads to vendetta dynamics. In civilized societies, it leads to revenge dynamics. […]
Vindictiveness is a natural tendency to immediately and instinctively push back when pushed, as hard or harder than you were pushed. If you cannot push back immediately, you remember the slight for as long as it takes, and push back at the first opportunity. […]
If you suspend judgement and immediately start looking around to actually figure out what happened, you are assuming nothing. This is the apparently rational, data-driven way to proceed. In contexts where winning matters (honking matches on the road aren’t among them), it is also a way to lose.
The problem with the apparently rational response is that such situations are often fast-moving and ambiguous, and it is hard to tell who was in the wrong. Often there is shared blame as well as a role played by bad luck. If you don’t act immediately, your rational analysis will not matter. Inaction is loss.
So vindictiveness is a default tendency to blame others when you suffer a loss, and reacting by trying to get even. Getting even is the key phrase here. Vindictiveness is a status-leveling move. If somebody hurts you, it doesn’t matter what the reasons and backstory are. If you don’t hurt them back, you’ve lost status points. […]
Pushing back vindictively in a skirmish is the real-time equivalent of pleading “not guilty” in a courtroom. You create a raw story that’s harder for your opponent to spin in his favor. If you push back, the symmetry of the skirmish creates a record of facts that can be spun either way. If it comes to that, the he-said-she-said incident will be decided by a majority vote. Social proof of character and power, rather than material proof concerning the truth about the incident. […]
The tribal world is full of such ambiguous, adversarial skirmishes. Being very generous, always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, handing over information advantages regarding the material truth of a matter without a fight, and turning the other cheek without regard to the character of the opponent – all these civilized responses are recipes for getting killed very quickly. There is a reason prison cultures have the rule that you should beat up somebody on your first day.
Social Memory and Vendettas
When you cannot immediately respond to an attack (perhaps it was indirect, like somebody spray-painting insults on your door, or beating up an ally who couldn’t fight back), you have delayed responses. In tribal societies, this leads to long-running vendettas […]. This isn’t just a subjective sense of growing resentment. The status loss results in an ongoing series of real transactional losses until you correct it, since it will put you at a disadvantage in other transactions, with others who have heard the story.
A vendetta is not a revenge. There isn’t a whole lot of deliberation, planning or subterfuge. In fact those tend to make for ineffective vendettas, because the point of every move and counter-move in a vendetta is to demonstrate raw power and making a “not guilty” case in the court of public opinion. The point is not to demonstrate intelligence. In fact, it pays to make your vendetta move as visibly close to the original as possible. If they killed one of your sons, you kill one (or two) of their sons. Complicating the story with clever moves makes it much harder to read socially, and third parties are left feeling uncertain about what is going on. You want it to be completely obvious that you were responsible for the counter-move, and what motivated it. The symmetry in the stories cancels out everything except the raw status accounting. […]
There is only one way to resolve a vendetta, and that is to draw a dividing line and create a detente with occasional skirmishes to make sure everybody remembers the vendetta. Or one group moves away until old memories are forgotten.
That brings us to revenge.
[…] Vindictiveness though is not a carefully planned context-sensitive behavior. It arises out of instinctive status computations under the assumption of a tribal context. The push-back-when-pushed way of setting goals, and the compound-interest calibration of required magnitude continue to drive goal setting. If civilization gets in the way (your tribe dissolves around you, the other person moves to another city and starts a new life...), you bring all your rational powers to bear to engineer a payback opportunity.
The other thing that can happen to vindictive instincts unleashed in a non-tribal context is that you can develop a sense of injury and resentment against large and faceless institutions rather than individuals. If you were deeply screwed over by some bureaucratic process, but it is obvious even to you that the hapless clerk you dealt with is not culpable, you end up wanting to push back at the institution.
In the best case, this can lead to tough, assertive behavior when dealing with customer service centers over the phone.
In the worst case, it can turn you into the Unabomber.
Just how messed-up is revenge against institutions? About as messed up as revenge against wild animals. If your brother accidentally fall into the lion’s cage at the zoo and it eats him, you wanting to kill the lion is just plain silly. It was not playing status games with your brother. It was looking for lunch. Revenge against institutions is often equally silly. When they hurt you, it usually isn’t due to tribal status motives. […]
So revenge is obviously a deeply messed-up expression of vindictiveness. It is hard to even call it “evil.” It is just plain insanity. A result of deeply messed-up thinking.
If you don't believe in justice, Rao's view is basically sensible. If you believe in justice, then a certain sort of abstract revenge against institutions makes sense. The sort of revenge Martin Luther King Jr. took against the governments of the South: By making them better, registering African-Americans to vote. By correcting an underlying problem that caused them to wrong him. By forcing an even more powerful institution, the Federal government, to intervene. Thiel pursued his revenge by supporting lawsuits with real merit, using the civil justice system for its legitimate purpose, to force those who commit wrongs to compensate those whom they have wronged.
Trump is no Unabomber. Trump doesn't do justice – but he doesn't pretend to. He is vindictive and easy to bait. He remembers insults. His insistence on responding to Graydon Carter's "short-fingered vulgarian" comment is an example. He was probably baited into running for president by journalists who mocked him as not serious about it. He has even pursued public vendettas. But as far as I can tell, he has no appetite whatsoever for cold-blooded revenge. He agrees with Rao. Vindictiveness makes sense to him. Vendettas make sense. Revenge doesn't.
I think that his ongoing public feud with someone who annoyed him might be some sort of weird New Yorker thing. Working-class or outer-borough New Yorker, maybe. It totally seems like the sort of thing former mayor and Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani would do. So, that's a genuine bright spot. One of the best things about Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York is that he clearly really, really enjoyed being Mayor of New York. Trump is gonna enjoy the heck out of being President, and this will be obnoxious but also charming.
More seriously, Trump's lack of interest in extensively plotted revenge is a bright spot of light that suggests that perhaps he won't do all the things he threatened to do to his enemies. Perhaps it was just another negotiation ploy. This would not have been a reason to be complacent during this election – but it is a reason not to panic now.
Nuclear war and Trump the conservative
I wrote about how Trump increases the chances of a war between great powers, maybe even leading to the use of nuclear weapons. He has been cavalier about this, and uninterested in learning how to express consistent intentions in standard diplomatic code. He is also, as I said above, notoriously vindictive. He is good at getting offended at things and being unreasonable as a diplomatic tactic. His attitude that it's all part of the game means that he is more likely than a conventional establishment president to blur and cross red lines around the use of military force.
But lot of things have to go wrong to cause a nuclear exchange, and there are important mitigating factors. Trump is very openly friendly towards Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia is the main nuclear power we're likely to get into a military conflict with, so friendliness is a very good sign, and lowers the chances that we'll get into a real conflict with Russia, relative to Clinton's policy of gradual escalation in Syria and Eastern Europe. Trump's also not really interested in running the world, or military aggression towards China (another major nuclear power) as far as I can tell. That's not enough to overcome the effect of Trump being a thin-skinned, but it's definitely a mitigating factor.
It is not a normal thing for a country to stand colossally astride the world, with armies and aircraft carriers everywhere. To bear the financial burden of its commitment to guaranteeing the stability of the world geopolitical order. Trump wants to run America like a normal country. This might lead to more international conflict between other countries, and the expansion of the spheres of influence of rival powers like Russia and China, but Americans are no longer in the mood for this very expensive form of foreign aid. It's possible that this is even a good thing.
A nuclear exchange is very unlikely under Trump, I think. I think he raises the chances of a nuclear exchange during the next eight years by maybe a tenth of a percentage point. This is very bad when you think about the cosmic endowment, but it's a category error to conflate that with "panic and run through the streets" types of badness. This is not that.
All feels all the time and Trump the authentic politician
I mentioned above that Trump uses his own inability to understand others' different perspective as a negotiation tactic. Trump can do this because he has very strong feelings. He is good at being personally offended by things other people do, which is a good precommitment device for punishing them until they stop. This is the cognitive machinery of vindictiveness. Americans read this correctly as a sign of power in the modern world we've created, as a sign of a good negotiator, and decided to give the nuclear codes to the person with the strongest, most aggrieved feelings in the room. Why?
Because Hillary Clinton stood for a hollowed-out system that couldn't explain but could only insinuate that it was better, that it was respectable because it was right.
When I criticized Trump for his assaults, I said that Trump has probably done these things, which are wrong and also crimes, and it's a scandal that he's not in prison. I gave my reasons for believing so. Contrast this with the public discourse, which was mostly limited to either vague insinuations of scandal, saying that he made "lewd comments," and is a misogynist.
Trump called for the execution of four black men and one Hispanic man accused of rape in New York, even after they were decisively exonerated in court. He was sued for discrimination against black people by properties he owned. And yet what we most often heard The Establishment repeat was that Trump wants to restrict immigration, so he is a racist.
Not what he did and said and why it was wrong, but what bad sort of person he is, and what bad kind of things he said.
To be fair, a few, heroic, individual journalists did bother to articulate his specific misdeeds and words. And they were a breath of fresh air. By the time of the presidential debates, the system managed to cough up some semblance of its old integrity and directly challenge Trump on matters of fact. But this was not enough, and not often enough. And very, very few people seriously evaluated the question of whether he is fit for office on the merits. Whether his policies will be good ones. Better to focus on how bad, backwards a man he is.
A friend reports that multiple women called him a misogynist on Facebook, not even for opposing Clinton – just for being insufficiently enthusiastic about her because of her hawkishness. That sort of thing is why many people perceive the cultural forces of "political correctness" not as a force of reason against prejudice, but a force of cultural imperialism, requiring that people uncritically accept the opinions of the dominant elite, lest they be the wrong sort of person, the sort of person who can't see the emperor's new clothes.
Trump's supporters are not all nice, good people. I'm not naïve enough to believe that. Many of them really are overtly racist and sexist. But, they're tired of being shamed instead of argued with in terms they can understand, and I can't blame them for that. They're tired of self-styled right-thinkers who went to fancy schools, not arguing with them, but simply insinuating that they're bad, unenlightened people for not already agreeing with the new opinion.
Trump got away with these things, under whatever semblance of the rule of law we still have. When Trump further refused to accept the judgment of these insinuations, the system crumbled. The elites behaved as though they had the power to judge, and didn't need to persuade people who did not yet share their standards - but it turned out they had hardly any power at all.
To be clear, I also don't blame people for giving up on good faith interactions with people who refuse to be persuaded by argument and keep gratuitously trying to hurt them. This is a tough problem. It is not clear to me that the original problem here is with elites; just that the problem now is a breakdown of trust in honest discourse and common standards of judgment.
It shouldn't be about what you are. It should be about what is right. But that's not true anymore among the elites, and Trump's supporters know it. They called bullshit, and they were right. I wish they weren't right, because The Establishment took the right position on a lot of things, implying that it used to have real intelligence and morality. I also wish they hadn't called bullshit, because the system's momentum was still largely in the right direction. But they weren't mistaken. The Establishment really was full of it.
A friend told me about a simple a version of recent history that goes something like this: In the Enlightenment, we killed God. This worked out OK for a while, and we made some good stuff up, but without proper supervision, we ended up developing nationalism, fascism, and communism, and fighting two world wars. To prevent this from happening again, we constructed The Man. Then The Man died at about the time Richard Nixon resigned. Now people still work for The Man, but The Man has no ability to change or adapt to circumstances – because he doesn't exist.
I can't help but wonder whether, in a society organized around serving a gray impersonal thing that no longer exists, some of the hostility I've seen towards Trump isn't directed at his very real (genuinely quite bad!) vices, but at the fact that he has a discernible personality at all. That Trump support is some very real sense a reaction against the genuinely malign influence of Ra:
The Establishment is primarily an upper-class phenomenon, that it is more about social and moral legitimacy than mere wealth or raw power, and that it is boringly evil — it produces respectable, normal, right-thinking, mild-mannered people who do things with very bad consequences.
Ra promotes the idea that optimal politeness conveys as little information as possible. That you should actively try to hide preferences (because if you shared them, you’d inconvenience others by pressuring them to satisfy your preferences). That all compliments are empty pleasantries. There’s an interpretation of “politeness” that’s anti-cooperative, that avoids probing for opportunities for genuine mutual benefit or connection and just wants to make the mutual defection process go as smoothly as possible. Ra prefers this, because it’s less revealing, commits you less, doesn’t pin you down, allows you to keep all your options open and devote everything to the pursuit of Ra.
Almost no one seriously thinks that Trump is holding back what he really thinks, or shy about indicating what he wants, or unwilling to inconvenience people. He has a very strong, specific personality.
Hillary Clinton deserved to lose. She could have made a sincere effort to explain, on the merits, why her policies were better. Instead, she said that experts had said so. How is an open-minded voter supposed to evaluate that claim? I genuinely couldn't tell, watching the debates, why she thought she would do good things as president.
Bernie Sanders at least bothered to try and articulate his policy preferences in terms simple enough that ordinary voters could expect to be able to tell whether he'd kept his promise. Either college is free or it isn't.
Trump, of course, lied more blatantly and more often than Clinton, if by lying you mean making statements that are not factually accurate. But his supporters never expected everything he says to be literally true.
If you hold back on saying some things because you know they'll be unpopular, and selectively say technically true things that sound more like what the voters want to hear, that's dishonest, and in the long run, people can tell. And they can tell that Trump doesn't hold back, doesn't censor himself, says whatever pops into his head, even if the elites try to shame him into doing otherwise. They don't trust the legitimate authorities to disclose the most relevant information. They're desperate enough for honesty that they'll settle for poor impulse control.
When Trump promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, his supporters believed him – but not in the sense that they began to anticipate the construction of a literal wall across the entire US-Mexico border, and a payment from Mexico to cover they entire cost. What they perceived was that Trump, unfiltered, was willing to express a desire to do this. That meant that he was sincerely affiliating himself, in his heart, with the interests of the sort of person who thinks that a wall on the US-Mexico border is a desirable thing, whether or not it is feasible. That meant that Trump was likely to do more things to further their interests.
Past attempts at grand bargains on immigration have been stymied by justified distrust, among Republican voters, that promises to enforce immigration laws in exchange for liberalizing them will be kept. I think that if Trump endorses a grand bargain, they'll believe him. For the same reason, Trump seems likely to be able to get other policies through Congress, that a more traditional president would not – because his "conservative" base trusts him to look after the interests of non-college-educated white people. They aren't so certain that they'll be betrayed by Republican elites and insiders, as they were before.
Threats and opportunities
What problems come with a Trump presidency, that we should try to do something about? I don't think we can do much about tail risk due to Trump's personality, except by getting rid of Trump. There's not a feasible lawful way to do that, and doing so unlawfully would only further erode the legitimacy of democratic institutions. If we don't want to precipitate the collapse of the system, it would be a very bad idea to resort to violence. Please don't do that.
The problems I think we need to address are more revealed by, than caused by, Trump's popularity. Elite norms have lost legitimacy. This means that the continuity of Federal policy may be much more fragile than it used to look. Trump's popularity also shows that many Americans don't believe in truth-seeking or trust the established norms of public discourse to promote their interests. Finally, the system is set up to reward rent-seeking rather than creation of genuine value.
Federal policy continuity may be fragile
Policy elites have worked hard to keep our national laws and regulations largely consistent and predictable. They have enjoyed substantial success at this, especially on financial and narrowly technical policy. They have also, with mixed results, worked to keep government policy consistent with elite models of what policies are best. All these things have come at the cost of pretty much ignoring how voters feel about most things. Now that this has been exposed for all to see, it is much more likely to change than when it was an unexamined assumption of how we do things.
On current margins, civil order is still important. That means obedience. We should avoid actively undermining the parts of the system that are still working. Revolutions are hard, and mostly destructive.
On the other hand, putting your positive energy into the Federal system seems like a bad investment. I was skeptical of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), because it attempted to solve the health care affordability crisis through an institutionally fragile piece of financial engineering. The famous three-legged stool of guaranteed coverage, mandates, and subsidies, doesn't work unless all three components are working right. This is the sort of program that can work well if it has broad public support, and to some extent Democrats were counting on that once the program was in place. But if it's a barely-passed highly contentious measure, and one of the parts isn't working right, and meanwhile the legislature has turned over to the opposition, your chances of fixing it are not very good.
Since the program's benefits are linked to its costs in opaque, indirect ways that are hard for voters to understand, even if it lasts long enough to become something people are used to counting on, it would be easy politically to change it in ways that ruin it, especially now that everyone understands that "elites say so" is not very persuasive to most voters. Policies like this are not a good investment.
(As an aside, I think Trump is actually likely to do something sensible with this. His inclination to make the health insurance market national makes a lot of sense and fixed an important weakness in the Affordable Care Act, although it does exacerbate the dependence of the system on Federal policy continuity.)
People climbing the public policy career ladder in order to design fragile programs that depend on Federal policy continuity, like the Affordable Care Act, should consider either getting off the ladder and doing some more direct good, or switching to pushing for programs robust to radical discontinuity and maybe even federal collapse. Examples of such programs are:
- Enabling things like Uber and Lyft that make clear improvements, can be operated locally without global control, and create robust constituencies for things like them. Uber and Lyft have made changed transit folkways so robustly that when they pulled out of Austin, people didn't switch back to the old regime of taxis and public transit, but came up with ad hoc ways to arrange rideshares, such as a Facebook page. Advocating for policies friendly to self-driving cars seems relevant.
- Changing employment and licensing laws to shunt fewer people through the national education system and career tracks as generic office workers for The Man, and let more people do real things in the real economy.
- Actively promoting career tracks not based on fragile elite institutions. A more widespread version of the Thiel Fellowship would be an example.
- Directly creating new institutions, not via financial engineering, but via actually allocating funds and hiring people to do specific things that you can check.
- Create permanent infrastructure improvements that don't require intensive maintenance.
Outside of public policy, one can try to actually develop such things, including:
- Making things like cryptocurrencies more human-friendly.
- Developing new technologies compatible with local production, such as solar powered indoor farming.
I think of this as the 1632 plan. 1632 is Eric Flint's novel about a random West Virginia coal mining town sent back in time into the middle of Germany in 1632 – smack in the middle of the horrific Thirty Years' War. Once they decide not to try and stay isolated, they focus on downshifting their tech level to Victorian-era tech, which will be a more sustainable base for growth. The point being – we have an extremely precisely machined system, without the political technology to properly maintain it. We might not be able to keep it up, but it would be a shame to completely forgo the benefits of it. The solution is to downshift to something we can then build back up from, on a more solid foundation.
One important bright spot here is that Trump seems temperamentally inclined towards building things that are real and tangible, such as physical infrastructure. Trump seems like he would plausibly understand and endorse something like a plan to build state-run hospitals providing basic, minimal, proven services for free, with no financial shenanigans or bells and whistles. His base would trust that this sort of "socialism" would be for their benefit, and not just the benefit of coastal elites and racial minorities. And I think he'd be able to ram it through a Republican congress, now that they know their base hate them and love Trump. I could easily be wrong on this exact policy, but it's the broadly in the class of thing that could happen.
Our culture does not promote truth-seeking
While I think there's something important in the honesty Trump voters were looking for, it still shows that they think there's nothing exceptionally wrong with telling blatant lies, such as saying something on TV, and later directly denying you ever said it.
The support for an obvious, blatant criminal and con man who has run his campaign to personally enrich himself, also shows reduced respect for the rule of law. If his campaign conduct is any guide, Trump expects to personally enrich himself via the presidency. But, I do think he'll want to be seen as a good president.
I think the bigotry, such as it was, was mainly an expression of cultural affinity with his base - showing that he wasn't obeying the elites whom they perceived as largely hostile to their interests. It seems to me like he's basically pitched honest graft as superior to indirect and obscure self-dealing by the elite class. He'll boss people around and extract some money for his personal fortune and his friends', but not further his class interests as a member of the political and well-educated class. He loves the poorly educated.
The appeal of this pitch implies that people believe that laws and political norms are there to protect the class interests of elites, not the interests of all. And they're right. If you think you'd benefit from the rule of law – then you'll have to make some for yourself. It's not available from the Federal government anymore. And it hasn't been for quite some time.
Again, this does not mean revolution. This means setting up communities, and local mediation procedures, that respect and promote justice. This means setting up intellectual communities that reliably promote truth over falsehood, signal over noise, and don't simply use the tools of formal reasoning to justify power. Authority must, to be legitimately just, obey reason – not merely command it.
We need to bring up a new generation who do not worship authority. Children who empathize with strangers, argue with friends, thirst for and expect justice, and seek the truth as a dear friend.
Our culture does not promote value-creation
Trump's zero-sum attitude towards negotiation, and his debate style of focusing on nothing but asserting his dominance, are popular because they reflect the world-view of his supporters. Trump's white, non-college-educated supporters don't perceive efforts to create a more tolerant, diverse, inclusive society as compatible with their interests – they perceive it as a power grab, reallocating status from them to newcomers. Understandably they are unhappy with this.
Trump's opposition to trade and foreign competition reflects this world-view. Letting foreigners come take our jobs means that people currently assigned wealth and status based on their social role as, for instance, a factory worker, lose that.
But this isn't new. Even the Establishment tries to appeal to voters by talking about things like "creating jobs." Jobs are not seen as a way to make more stuff, but a way to allocate the stuff. If you have a job, you're entitled to eat, and to have a place to sleep, and claim a role in society. If not, not.
I don't think that there's a distinct class of bullshit jobs, as David Graeber suggests. Often what happens is that real work is divided among more people than necessary, and regulations and nonsense workplace rules and make-work gum up the works so we don't accidentally make more stuff than we know how to allocate.
However, it does seem like the system rewards people who are willing to participate in massive rent-seeking enterprises. If you're in the privileged classes – and I am, being college-educated, an American citizen, and analytically minded – then you may have even more opportunities to sell out under a Trump administration than before – so long as you're willing not to produce anything of real value.
If you want to help, you need to resist the temptation to optimize for receiving validation tokens. Some money is important, because it's hard to get some things without money. But money can't buy everything, unless mixed with other resources, like explicit knowledge about the world, and experience, and relationships.
If you want to do good, you can't just focus on "success"; you have to focus on whether what you're doing will get you the things you want.
On the plus side, Trump has no interest in interfering with people trying to improve the world, as long as they're not directly opposing him. He knows that he doesn't have to understand every con game. As long as you're not trying to con him or his friends, he'll probably just leave you alone.
Make things of real value. I'm talking with my housemates about planting some vegetables, since I know that if we plant them, then whatever happens in the next few years, if we're still living here, we'll get to eat the produce.
All that said, there are people who are really, legitimately afraid of what a Trump presidency means. Blacks and Hispanics who are worried about racial animus against them. Jews worried about the resurgence of overt anti-Semitism. Women unhappy about the renormalization of sexual assault.
What do we do?
For those who are personally afraid
This will be slow. The same advice applies with respect to investing in real capital. If you're a woman afraid that Republicans will take away access to birth control, invest in long-lasting methods. If you're part of an oppressed group that some parts of the country don't like, consider either taking the risk of being an activist locally – but making the attempt in a spirit of sincere cooperation, curiosity, and intersubjectivity, instead of appeals to a cultural authority that is no longer in power – or, if you're not up for that, relocating to communities and states more friendly to people like you. Federalism and local variation is still a thing, despite the efforts of the homogenizing liberal state to forge a single national character. This is an advantage as well as a disadvantage.
For those who are concerned for their friends
If you're not concerned with yourself, but your friends – help them. Ask them what they might need. You might not always be able to give it – and you should be ready to say no, painfully – but if it's okay to ask, let them know.
To help you think about what privileges you might have that could be useful to friends, here are some of mine:
- I am an unmarried, documented American citizen.
- I am an Ashkenazi Jew, so I generally pass for white.
- I'm a man.
- I am not afraid of phone calls.
- I am not intimidated by paperwork.
- I am acculturated into upper-middle-class mores, know about job searches and navigating elite social interactions, etc.
- I have excellent emotional regulation, and am not terribly thrown off by other people freaking out around me.
I am not sure how and in what ways this might be useful for people who might be harmed by a Trump regime, but it seems like at least some of it might be. Please let me know if you think I might be able to help you in some way.
For those who are concerned with the future
Tend your gardens, help your friends, and love the truth more than any friend.