Why I am no longer anti-Trump

The first time Trump was the Republican nominee for President of the United States, I strongly advised readers to vote against him in the 2016 election. I no longer think that there is strong reason to believe that he's an exceptionally bad actor or likely to be exceptionally harmful. Paul Christiano has asked via Facebook1 for the best arguments against Trump's exceptional criminality or destructiveness, and this seems a good time for me to render an account of how and why I changed my mind.

I cannot quite satisfy Paul's request for arguments that Trump is not so bad, since I continue to think that Trump intends to cause gross harm; but my impression of the establishment he threatens is significantly more negative than it used to be, to the point that in relative terms I see him mainly as differently bad, not obviously more bad, and quite possibly less bad, than the alternatives.

By my reckoning, the chief point against him in the 2016 election was the unprecedented consensus among conventionally validated national security professionals that he was exceptionally dangerous, e.g. this open letter. I have since learned that the US national security establishment engages in insane, reckless, dishonest, aggression, sometimes escalated to the level of serious operational plans for unprovoked genocide, as a routine matter of policy. The single book that changed my mind the most was Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine. Learning more about the content and context of the Pentagon Papers was also important; the 2017 film The Post did a good job with this.

The second point against him was his blatant disregard for liberal democratic rule of law. My opinion at the time was that while we did not in fact live under a system with reliable recourse to impartial standards, enough people were more or less honestly functioning under the impression that the system functioned that way, to realize many of its practical benefits. It now seems to me that for the most part people were not honestly fooled, but were imitating their prior behavior in a traditionalism born of fear and superstition. (The fact that Trump's performance in the election was approximately the same as that of an ordinary Republican, rather than either significantly better or significantly worse, was a clear intimation of this, but a great deal of private interactions have confirmed this.) So for the small minority of optimizing power that is pretty much honestly confused about such things, the information value of clarifying the situation far outweighs any damage to the legacy system caused by an information cascade about the absence of a lawful authority.

On the object level, I wish I had generalized sooner the insight that scapegoats from the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, like Bernie Madoff, while clearly criminal, aren't any more criminal - by a transcendent, objective standard - than otherwise similar behaviors that occur in a large enough, well-coordinated enough group that they become collectively "too big to fail." Likewise, things like fake private education that only cheats the minority of students who participate seem if anything less harmful than the increasingly fake and destructive educational establishment which much more effectively cheats our whole society, and distorts our idea of what learning even is in the process. Bryan Caplan's The Case Against Education and John Taylor Gatto's published work seem relevant here, though I came to my opinion mostly independently.

Trying unsuccessfully to work through our society's central legitimate dispute-resolution system to overturn the result of an election based on spurious charges of fraud (I haven't independently investigated whether the charges are in fact spurious) seems quite a bit less erosive of democratic legitimacy than the many well-documented successful efforts to alter the outcome of elections through voter suppression or outright fraud. Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson contains many examples. Bush v Gore is also relevant in this regard.

Personal, narrowly self-interested vindictiveness and corruption don't seem anywhere as important - or as potentially destructive - as the sort of narrative closure and corporate censorship we saw around things like the COVID discourse and the 2020 election. The Twitter Files seem relevant here. It doesn't make it any less harmful if you don't receive personal benefits from your bad behavior; if anything, it is less accountable and thus more potentially harmful, since it is not constrained by any one's interests, but only by the limits of memetic virulence.

The main thing that causes Trump's bad behavior to stand out is the extent to which it is different than the sorts of correlated bad behavior that powerful coalitions get away with. This makes Trump an appealing target for scapegoating, but unless we think that getting away with something makes it no longer wrong, we can't conclude that because Trump's bad behavior is unusual, it is therefore unusually bad. If we do accept the principle that it's not wrong if you get away with it, then it is up to the political process (and the politicized criminal and civil justice processes) to decide whether what Trump did was bad at all. I have no use for that sort of categorization.

  1. Text of the request:
    It seems to me like Trump consistently undermines the rule of law and democracy, that this pattern of behavior is severe enough that I'd consider it disqualifying regardless of how you feel about his policy positions, and that plenty of instances are blatant and legible enough that I feel like the overall assessment shouldn’t be too controversial.
    But I’m also aware that I talk overwhelmingly with democrats and my view of the world is inevitably biased by that. So I’m very interested in seeing more articles laying out the pro-Tump perspective by denying, justifying, or contextualizing some of Trump’s apparent worst offenses.
    Here is some of the behavior that seems beyond the pale to me (in rough order of importance):
    * It looks like he made a serious effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election based on overstated concerns about election integrity. Having exhausted or ignored the legitimate approaches to litigate or legislate those concerns, he turned to extreme constitutional hardball, making negligently false statements, probably committing fraud, and playing a large role in inciting supporters to storm the capitol. This whole affair seems really egregious, and it looks like many (most?) of the reasonable people remaining in Trump’s vicinity also found it unacceptable.
    * It looks like he attempted to use his power as president to pressure the Ukrainian government into making misleading statements that would be politically advantageous for him. In isolation this already seems pretty bad, but given the way Trump operates I would also guess that it’s an unusually easy to document example of a broader pattern.
    * More subjectively, it seems like he is unusually blatant and consistent about rewarding loyalty and retaliating against people who cross him. He seems to demand personal loyalty from staff and to fire government employees who disagree with him. He also appears to surround himself with unusually unqualified and unscrupulous people and this seems to be getting worse over time.
    * He appears to have a consistent pattern of illegal behavior and abuse of the legal system, and very often finds himself opposed to the vast majority of judges and lawyers on questions of law. It looks like he uses his power to appoint and pressure judges to try to undermine the law (e.g. by publicly insulting and threatening judges whose decisions are unfavorable for him, including his own appointees). He also makes misleading public statements about straightforward legal issues which reflect either severe ignorance or bad intent.
    * He repeatedly threatens private companies with government action because he doesn’t like their behavior, including media companies whose coverage of him is insufficiently favorable. He seems to have used his power to harass companies he doesn’t like, most overtly attempting to push the DOJ to block an acquisition involving CNN.
    I’m most interested in long-form articles that dig into the analysis and evidence, but absent that I’m also interested in anyone who can help me better understand the most reasonable pro-Trump positions. For example I would love to understand the extent to which smart Trump supporters disagree with the empirical claims about Trump’s conduct and intentions, or accept those claims but consider them par for the course for a politician, or accept that Trump is unusually bad for rule of law but consider it a reasonable tradeoff in light of the other issues at stake in the election, or something else. ↩︎

6 thoughts on “Why I am no longer anti-Trump

  1. Michael Vassar

    Surely regarding some sorts of behavior, such as revolutions, not getting away with it is at least the most central piece of evidence regarding badness.

    Those who think ‘the ends justify the means’ may usually produce bad ends, but on the occasions when they don’t they certainly have a point.

    1. Pie

      True as far as it goes but there are some means where the ends are just so reliably bad that they should universally be avoided. Overthrowing a formerly stable dictatorship in a poverty-stricken country? Risky -- you could get a civil war -- but who knows, maybe you get a democracy, or at least a Lee Kuan Yew.

      Overthrowing a formerly stable quasi-democracy? There is no world in which that produces better outcomes. If you think the national security establishment is bad now, just wait until their career incentives consist solely of sucking up to this one guy and murdering his enemies.

      All else equal, doing bad things that are not widely accepted is worse than doing bad things that are widely accepted (or at least should be punished more harshly), because it shifts equilibria. Lyndon Johnson's election fraud came in an environment where that was just what you had to do to win. Stevenson cheated, Johnson cheated, Johnson was just a bit better at it (or better at the legitimate parts of the election; you have to keep in mind that Caro hates Johnson and stick to the facts, not his opinions of them). The alternative to Johnson cheating is not a fair election; it's Stevenson cheating his way to a win. Whereas the alternative to Trump cheating is a fair (ish) election. Johnson, like Bush, was also apparently willing to abide by the will of the courts. Which is important not for naive reasons about the courts being impartial decisionmakers, but because that's the primary way you prevent violence from becoming the standard means of settling political disputes. The misbehaviors of Johnson and Bush could be reigned in without raw force, in a way that Trump's couldn't.

  2. Benquo

    Attempts at regime change always correspond, at least within the domain of the regime, to differences in the approval framework within which behavior can be construed as good or bad, right or wrong, righteous or wicked, just or unjust, fair or unfair, lawful or unlawful, pious or blasphemous, based or cringe, hip or square, naughty or nice, etc.

    Accordingly, when we reason about such things, we might have access to a shared framework of facts, conditional probabilities, and intentions (and if not, it’s always legitimate to try to interpret things in those terms within one’s own perspective), but not to a shared reference frame involving good or bad.

  3. Doug S.

    Trump is an aspiring fascist dictator. Sure, American democracy has Issues, but it's still better than the dictatorships. A second Trump term is likely to be much more damaging than the first was, because Trump has managed to find more yes-men who will do unreasonable things when he asks them to, instead of the "reasonable adults" who try to say no to him, because what he wants them to do is illegal or just a really dumb idea.

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  5. Douglas Knight

    In 2016 you did not say that the problem with Trump was the credentialed consensus. You made an object level argument and linked to the statement only as an outside-view check on partisan polarization. That the authors are evil at most screens off the statement, but does not address the actual argument. Maybe the national security establishment wants to destroy the world and Trump does not want to destroy the world, but the choice is not Trump vs establishment, but Trump+establishment vs Biden+establishment. If Trump were a step towards reforming that establishment, the improved long-term could easily overcome the short-term risk, but it is not clear to me that he is even a step forward. I guess you could argue that the status quo is so bad that we should increase variance, that even a small chance of reform is worth the risk. A different argument is that the national security establishment has taken the world hostage and arranged for Trump to be dangerous; that your 2016 argument was true, but should be ignored for decision theory reasons.


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