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Crazy Like a Fox
There are two possible approaches to explaining things Trump does. One is to assume that he is stupid, crazy, erratic. Early in the 2016 campaign that looked like a plausible explanation. After he twice won contests everyone expected him to lose, first the nomination and then the election, it was still possible — he could have been lucky — but less plausible.
Additional evidence against that theory comes from Trump's earlier history. His finances are not public knowledge and some have argued, for all I know correctly, that he would have done at least as well if he had invested his inherited wealth in low risk interest bearing assets. But he didn't. He engaged in a long and risky series of entrepreneurial projects. If he was as incompetent as many seem to believe, he would by now have lost most of his money.
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That suggests an alternative interpretation, that while Trump may indeed be impulsive and thin skinned he is not stupid, that the apparently stupid things he did were for the most part tactics that were intended to win and did win, that it was not Trump who did not understand what he was doing but his critics.
Hence the title of this post. How well does that fit what happened during his time in office?
Consider the apparently bungled initial executive order on immigration. Including green card holders made no sense in terms of the stated objective and was a considerable, and highly public, nuisance for those affected. The result was a lot of hostile criticism, greatly increasing the amount of publicity the executive order got.
Seen from the standpoint of Trump's base, he was doing something about immigration and terrorism, as he had promised, and it must be a substantial something if his enemies in the media were so upset about it. As Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and a Harvard Law School professor, put it:
“The president would get a huge symbolic boost with his base while not violating the law and while changing nothing of substance. He would get maximum symbolic value while doing nothing. Trump’s a genius at this.”
Or, as a commenter on my blog put it:
Imagine two possible worlds: In world #1, Trump's executive order was carefully thought out, gave 72 hours' notice to travelers so nobody got stranded at an airport in the US, and excluded green-card holders. There would have been about 1/10 the level of press coverage of the EO in that case, and it seems likely there wouldn't have been a successful court challenge. In world #2, Trump's executive order was what we saw — it caused a few days of confusion while the relevant agencies tried to figure out what it meant, it created a bunch of sympathetic victims who attracted press coverage, and it involved a lot of people who could plausibly get a federal court to listen to them.
My claim is this: Trump is better off politically in world #2. Voters who don't pay lots of attention to political news will vaguely remember that Trump tried to ban Muslims but was stopped by the ACLU and some liberal judges. They won't remember the details, or the poor planning involved in the EO. If there's a terrorist attack in the next year or two, they'll have it in their mind that Trump was trying to protect us but the liberal courts stopped him. It won't matter that the EO wouldn't have done anything to prevent the attack, or that the court challenges were largely self-inflicted, because those voters won't remember any of that.
The odd thing about the response of Trump's critics to his moves is their implicit assumption that his motives are benign. On the assumption that his objective was to make America better his actions look stupid. But not if his purpose was to promote his own power and status.
The theory I am offering also explains the accusation that Obama tapped Trump's phone. Obama, the New York Times and the rest of the opposition could have responded to Trump's charge by denying that Obama had tapped Trump while conceding that some around him had been tapped as part of a legal investigation, a fact that had been reported a month or more before Trump made his charge. They could even have suggested that confusing the two claims was evidence of Trump's weak hold on reality. Perhaps some did. But the overall impression of their response as I saw it and, I suspect, as most others saw it, was that it amounted to "That's absurd, Trump must be crazy, nothing of the sort happened."
At which point Trump's supporters could respond that something of the sort, even if not exactly the same thing, had not only happened, it had been reported in the New York Times. That might not convince someone paying close attention to the two claims and the differences between them but not many voters would be. Making people less willing to trust the mass media, especially when they are criticizing Trump, is a win for Trump.
When I offered arguments along these lines in a Facebook comment thread early in Trump’s term, the response I got implied that, by denying that Trump was incompetent I was defending Trump and that Trump defenders were not worth listening to. My response, that assuming your opponents are stupid when they are not is a very dangerous mistake, fell on deaf ears.
So far my examples are things that Trump did early on but the same approach can be applied to make sense of his tactics throughout his term and, at the end of it, his attempt to claim to have won an election that he had pretty clearly lost. The first step in understanding them is to understand how someone so unsuited to the presidency won one election and came close to winning another.
The term goes back well before Trump’s campaign begin. “Flyover Country” is everything between the east coast and the west coast, New York and San Francisco, as seen by the coastal elites — or, at least, as people who live there imagine the elites seeing it. It is only metaphorically a geographical term.
Part of the explanation of Trump's implausible success is the arrogance and condescension of the coastal elites towards the inhabitants of flyover country. In one online exchange someone responded to that point by explaining that they were acting that way because the people they treated that way were all racists and misogynists (by memory, so not verbatim), thus nicely illustrating the problem. That attitude left the inhabitants of flyover country favorably inclined towards someone the elites attacked, especially someone who went out of his way to provoke their attacks, thus creating the illusion that he was “us” not “them,” however implausible that was for a New York billionaire. Serving fast food in the White House helped.
With luck, Trump's victory in 2016 may have jolted at least some into rethinking their self-image as a cognitive elite free to ignore their moral and intellectual inferiors. For a first step in that direction, from just before the election, consider Cass Sunstein's proposed reading list for liberals, books intended to let them see that there exist serious critiques of their views. I will forgive Cass for not including anything of mine since he started the list with Seeing Like a State, a book I think highly of.
The danger is the opposite reaction — that people in flyover country are not only ignorant and bigoted but politically dangerous as well, hence the elite must do its best to reform them, or at least their children, and until that is achieved keep them out of power. An end so important appears to justify the necessary means — control over what information appears in the mainline press or is taught at all levels of the educational system.
I qualify as coastal elite both geographically and educationally, but am dubious of its claimed intellectual superiority. Arguing climate issues online I have been struck by how poor the scientific understanding is of most of the people on both sides of the argument, including ones who imagine that they are the upholders of science against the deniers thereof. It is true that some on one side argue implausibly that global temperature is not rising or that humans are not one of the causes, but the other side takes seriously an estimate of the cost of climate change summed from now to 2300 with the implicit assumption of technological stasis for the next three centuries. Some in flyover country reject Darwinian evolution but many on the other side reject one of its most obvious implications — that since we are optimized for reproductive success and males and females differ in their reproductive roles, there is no reason to expect males and females to have the same distribution of behavioral or intellectual characteristics. Very nearly everyone on all sides of the political battlefield supports the policies favored by his tribe with a mix of true, debatable, and false beliefs. That is an argument against attempts to control the flow of information.
For how that situation can be stable against the assaults of truth, see research by Dan Kahan on who believes what and an explanation of why. .
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