Social vs objective respect

Does Donald Trump deserve our respect now?

"I support any president of the United States. It's very important that the American people coalesce behind the president," Buffett told CNN's Poppy Harlow in an exclusive interview from Omaha on Thursday.

"That doesn't mean they can't criticize him or they can't disagree with what he's doing maybe. But we need a country unified," Buffett added. "He deserves everybody's respect."

I hear others asking, how can we respect this man, given his obvious flaws? This question comes from conflating two very different notions of respect. One type is social respect, an acknowledgement of someone's social standing. The other is objective respect, an estimate of someone's character or ability.

When people with an affinity for hierarchical social structures say "respect my authority," they are explicitly talking about social respect. But in most cases, the two meanings are difficult to disentangle. Practical abilities really do help you win status games, feeling high-status helps you be better at things, and the halo effect is a thing. So people often verbally conflate these two things. They point to roughly the same cluster of things, but designate different parts of the cluster as the central case. The words can be the same, and used to describe the same things, but the concepts are very different.

I think that it is, right now, very important to have an accurate, uninflated view of Trump's character and ability. I also think that it is very, very important that Trump perceive governing by legitimate and lawful means as a feasible way to hold high social status. Unfortunately, much of the proposed resistance to a Trump presidency cuts exactly the wrong way.

Scott Aaronson correctly admonishes us not to normalize corruptions of republican norms:

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 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.

But I think that Aaronson gets one important thing wrong here. Trump has said things that violate democratic norms, and it was right for much of the Republican establishment to break with precedent and turn on him. Sadly, in part because too few people closed ranks against the threat, that holding action failed.

We lost, but Trump hasn’t yet abused his actual power as president. He hasn’t even been inaugurated yet, so he’s had no chance to do so. It’s possible that he doesn’t actually intend to be as bad a president as he’s said he’ll be. I consider it quite likely, given his attitude towards verbal consistency. Once Trump has the status of president, he doesn't seem to have a strong interest in vigorously expanding his own political power- he doesn't even seem to want to leave Trump Tower if he can avoid it. This does not look as though Trump is in any practical sense eager to set himself up as dictator.

Trump’s most likely going to respond strongly to his short-run perceived social incentives.  It’s crucial that our response make things worse for him, when he does worse things – and vice versa. Trump should have something to lose if he actually follows through on some of his rhetoric. "Gotchas" about how he is reneging on extreme campaign promises are counterproductive from this perspective. If Trump changes his mind, or turns out to have meant his words seriously but not literally, we should be glad, and say so. Please do not signal-boost such "gotchas" by sharing, retweeting, "liking," upvoting, or repeating them. At best, this will fail to persuade those who do not already agree with you, because they have not confused Trump's speaking from his heart (such as it is) with factual accuracy. At worst, it will persuade them to pressure Trump to live up to campaign promises that were spectacularly ill-advised if meant literally. Prioritize resisting bad actions, over trying to lower the status of a bad person.

We should be ready to resist power-grabs and illegal acts, if and when such resistance becomes desirable and feasible. Mass protests can even be valuable in showing support for such resistance. But, we only set up the right incentives if Trump retains his legitimacy so long as he acts lawfully. To chant "not my president" is to do exactly the opposite - to attack Trump's status, without any specific resistance to unlawful acts. If Trump perceives the status quo as a threat to his status - and authoritarianism as a way of restoring it - then we will have elevated the risk of a transition to authoritarianism. If not, not.

We should not naively give Trump the objective respect of believing that he is a wiser or better person than he is. We should not pretend that everything is OK. But we should award the customary social respect to the office and person of the President of the United States.

To the extent that recent events have lowered our confidence in the US federal government, we should put more energy into either reforming it, or improving the world in ways that don't depend on it. Specifically delegitimizing Trump in not an effective way to make things better. It will not persuade the half of the electorate who, despite all the publicly available negative information about Trump, voted him into office. It will not give Trump any incentive to behave better.

Mr. Trump, if the legitimate electoral process proceeds as expected, making you president, then I respect you as my legitimate president - so long as you behave like one.


2 thoughts on “Social vs objective respect

  1. DaystarEld

    Great article, largely agreed. One distinction I'd make though: pointing out to Trump supporters the way he ends up not fulfilling campaign promises, including the terrible ones, might help them recognize him for the conman that he is, which would undermine his power in the eventual 2020 election.

    Hence, it shouldn't be phrased as a "gotcha." People who were against Trump should refrain from saying some version of "Haha, you got swindled you idiot, told you so!" But I think it's important to not give up on Trump supporters as incapable of changing their mind on him. Some large portion, yes: maybe as high as 30% of them, or even 50% of them. But if we stop trying to convince Trump supporters how terrible a candidate/president he is (assuming he's anywhere near as bad as he so far seems he'll be), we've given up on inoculating tens of millions of people against a similar populist conman rising to power again with the same playbook.

    Also, quick typo:

    "then we will be have"

  2. Pingback: Be secretly wrong | Compass Rose

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *