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November 11, 2016

On Trump

I dislike commenting on politics. I think it's difficult to contribute any novel thought - and in today's hyper-polarized world, stating an unpopular or half-baked opinion is a recipe for losing friends or worse. Still, with many of my colleagues expressing horror and disbelief over what happened on Tuesday night, I reluctantly decided to jot down my thoughts.

I think that in trying to explain away the meteoric rise of Mr. Trump, many of the mainstream commentators have focused on two phenomena. Firstly, they singled out the emergence of "filter bubbles" - a mechanism that allows people to reinforce their own biases and shields them from opposing views. Secondly, they implicated the dark undercurrents of racism, misogynism, or xenophobia that still permeate some corners of our society. From that ugly place, the connection to Mr. Trump's foul-mouthed populism was not hard to make; his despicable bragging about women aside, to his foes, even an accidental hand gesture or an inane 4chan frog meme was proof enough. Once we crossed this line, the election was no longer about economic policy, the environment, or the like; it was an existential battle for equality and inclusiveness against the forces of evil that lurk in our midst. Not a day went by without a comparison between Mr. Trump and Adolf Hitler in the press. As for the moderate voters, the pundits had an explanation, too: the right-wing filter bubble must have clouded their judgment and created a false sense of equivalency between a horrid, conspiracy-peddling madman and our cozy, liberal status quo.

Now, before I offer my take, let me be clear that I do not wish to dismiss the legitimate concerns about the overtones of Mr. Trump's campaign. Nor do I desire to downplay the scale of discrimination and hatred that the societies around the world are still grappling with, or the potential that the new administration could make it worse. But I found the aforementioned explanation of Mr. Trump's unexpected victory to be unsatisfying in many ways. Ultimately, we all live in bubbles and we all have biases; in that regard, not much sets CNN apart from Fox News, Vox from National Review, or The Huffington Post from Breitbart. The reason why most of us would trust one and despise the other is that we instinctively recognize our own biases as more benign. After all, in the progressive world, we are fighting for an inclusive society that gives all people a fair chance to succeed. As for the other side? They seem like a bizarre, cartoonishly evil coalition of dimwits, racists, homophobes, and the ultra-rich. We even have serious scientific studies to back that up; their authors breathlessly proclaim that the conservative brain is inferior to the progressive brain. Unlike the conservatives, we believe in science, so we hit the "like" button and retweet the news.

But here's the thing: I know quite a few conservatives, many of whom have probably voted for Mr. Trump - and they are about as smart, as informed, and as compassionate as my progressive friends. I think that the disconnect between the worldviews stems from something else: if you are a well-off person in a coastal city, you know people who are immigrants or who belong to other minorities, making you acutely attuned to their plight; but you may lack the same, deeply personal connection to - say - the situation of the lower middle class in the Midwest. You might have seen surprising charts or read a touching story in Mother Jones few years back, but it's hard to think of them as individuals; they are more of a socioeconomic obstacle, a problem to be solved. The same goes for our understanding of immigration or globalization: these phenomena make our high-tech hubs more prosperous and more open; the externalities of our policies, if any, are just an abstract price that somebody else ought to bear for doing what's morally right. And so, when Mr. Trump promises to temporarily ban travel from Muslim countries linked to terrorism or anti-American sentiments, we (rightly) gasp in disbelief; but when Mr. Obama paints an insulting caricature of rural voters as simpletons who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them", we smile and praise him for his wit, not understanding how the other side could be so offended by the truth. Similarly, when Mrs. Clinton chuckles while saying "we are going to put a lot of coal miners out of business" to a cheering crowd, the scene does not strike us as a thoughtless, offensive, or in poor taste. Maybe we will read a story about the miners in Mother Jones some day?

Of course, liberals take pride in caring for the common folk, but I suspect that their leaders' attempts to reach out to the underprivileged workers in the "flyover states" often come across as ham-fisted and insincere. The establishment schools the voters about the inevitability of globalization, as if it were some cosmic imperative; they are told that to reject the premise would not just be wrong - but that it'd be a product of a diseased, nativist mind. They hear that the factories simply had to go to China or Mexico, and the goods just have to come back duty-free - all so that our complex, interconnected world can be a happier place. The workers are promised entitlements, but it stands to reason that they want dignity and hope for their children, not a lifetime on food stamps. The idle, academic debates about automation, post-scarcity societies, and Universal Basic Income probably come across as far-fetched and self-congratulatory, too.

The discourse is poisoned by cognitive biases in many other ways. The liberal media keeps writing about the unaccountable right-wing oligarchs who bankroll the conservative movement and supposedly poison people's minds - but they offer nothing but praise when progressive causes are being bankrolled by Mr. Soros or Mr. Bloomberg. They claim that the conservatives represent "post-truth" politics - but their fact-checkers shoot down conservative claims over fairly inconsequential mistakes, while giving their favored politicians a pass on half-true platitudes about immigration, gun control, crime, or the sources of inequality. Mr. Obama sneers at the conservative bias of Fox News, but has no concern with the striking tilt to the left in the academia or in the mainstream press. The Economist finds it appropriate to refer to Trump supporters as "trumpkins" in print - but it would be unthinkable for them to refer to the fans of Mrs. Clinton using any sort of a mocking term. The pundits ponder the bold artistic statement made by the nude statues of the Republican nominee - but they would be disgusted if a conservative sculptor portrayed the Democratic counterpart in a similarly unflattering light. The commentators on MSNBC read into every violent incident at Trump rallies - but when a a random group of BLM protesters starts chanting about killing police officers, we all agree it would not be fair to cast the entire movement in a negative light.

Most progressives are either oblivious to these biases, or dismiss them as a harmless casualty of fighting the good fight. Perhaps so - and it is not my intent to imply equivalency between the causes of the left and of the right. But in the end, I suspect that the liberal echo chamber contributed to the election of Mr. Trump far more than anything that ever transpired on the right. It marginalized and excluded legitimate but alien socioeconomic concerns from the mainstream political discourse, binning them with truly bigoted and unintelligent speech - and leaving the "flyover underclass" no option other than to revolt. And it wasn't just a revolt of the awful fringes. On the right, we had Mr. Trump - a clumsy outsider who eschews many of the core tenets of the conservative platform, and who does not convincingly represent neither the neoconservative establishment of the Bush era, nor the Bible-thumping religious right of the Tea Party. On the left, we had Mr. Sanders - an unaccomplished Senator who offered simplistic but moving slogans, who painted the accumulation of wealth as the source of our ills, and who promised to mold the United States into an idyllic version of the social democracies of Europe - supposedly governed by the workers, and not by the exploitative elites.

I think that people rallied behind Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump not because they particularly loved the candidates or took all their promises seriously - but because they had no other credible herald for their cause. When the mainstream media derided their rebellion and the left simply laughed it off, it only served as a battle cry. When tens of millions of Trump supporters were labeled as xenophobic and sexist deplorables who deserved no place in politics, it only pushed more moderates toward the fringe. Suddenly, rational people could see themselves voting for a politically inexperienced and brash billionaire - a guy who talks about cutting taxes for the rich, who wants to cozy up to Russia, and whose VP pick previously wasn't so sure about LGBT rights. I think it all happened not because of Mr. Trump's character traits or thoughtful political positions, and not because half of the country hates women and minorities. He won because he was the only one to promise to "drain the swamp" - and to promise hope, not handouts, to the lower middle class.

There is a risk that this election will prove to be a step back for civil rights, or that Mr. Trump's bold but completely untested economic policies will leave the world worse off; while not certain, it pains me to even contemplate this possibility. When we see injustice, we should fight tooth and nail. But for now, I am not swayed by the preemptively apocalyptic narrative on the left. Perhaps naively, I have faith in the benevolence of our compatriots and the strength of the institutions of - as cheesy as it sounds - one of the great nations of the world.


  1. I'm all for giving everyone a chance, even repeat offenders.
    Still, a man's actions speak louder than his words. And at age 70, Trump has a lot of past to account for.

    I personally don't think that his presidency will bring apocalypse to the US - after all there are a great deal of laws and institutions in place that it is not possible to undo with a snap of fingers.
    I simply think that he stands for many principles that I am against, and vice-versa (freedom, equality, justice, globalization, and on and on).
    So, even if he manages get a lot of competent staff to support him, in the best case scenario he will bring the US further along from my ideals.

    The funny thing is that if it is very hard to tell what Trump will do this is in great part due to the fact that the whole campaign was focused on the candidate's personality and their past actions. At least in Europe, I have have a hard time finding any news report of something vaguely resembling a programme (and no, building a wall on the mexican border does not make one).

    But what I really wanted to say is: I recommend that you read up on the history of Silvio Berlusconi, both as an entrepreneur and head of government (for the wilfully ignorant readers: the Trump's ascent reads like a carbon-copy of the italian former prime minister. Occupying all available media space with wild antics is nothing new, really).

    Berlusconi was an extremely bad prime minister, and almost everybody now agrees that under his tenure as head of government all of Italy - except for his own companies - lost in competitivity and welfare. Regardless of the fact that he could not keep his most outlandish promises.

    1. While I'm no Trump apologist, I think you need to take into account that he was very viscerally hated by the press, to the point where the usual rules of objectivity did not seem to apply. So, he actually had a fairly coherent platform, say: Whether you like the platform, or think it's plausible, is another question.

      Perhaps Trump will be another Berlusconi; the country is probably strong enough to cope with that for four years. Perhaps he will be another Reagan - mocked back in the day, but now generally seen as one of the great presidents (although still hated by some folks on the far left). I doubt he will be another Hitler, though.

    2. Just sayin...

      Very similar contents of the 'platform', extremely simple to understand, extremely hard to achieve and almost completely failed

    3. Point taken, although in the US, many candidates publish lofty 100-day plans, so Trump's stuff isn't unusual (some of his proposals are). I'm pretty sure that Obama had something along these lines, too, although it was likely a lot more gloomy because of the ongoing recession.

    4. Looking at Poland, which since 2015 is being governed by a Trump-like party, leads me to profess one warning: do not underestimate how damaging incompetence of the government can be. Reagan was a professional politician for years before he became president. Trump is likely to make a lot of stupid mistakes which can cost USA (which losing its weight in the world as it is) dear.

  2. So this is excellent. Can I offer two small responses?

    I think Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is one of the best voices to tune into this year, and what she's been saying about the impact of our new media on our political cognition is important.

    In that spirit I'd ask that we consider that filter bubbles were in fact a powerful force in this election, but not the way liberals seem to think they were. It was not the fact (word chosen carefully) that Facebook was spammed with procedurally-generated Russian fakenews that influenced the election. Instead, it was the Democrats who were trapped in their own RT/share/like bubble, which refused to allow us to to consider any part of the Trump sales pitch that didn't involve an appeal to racism or misogyny. How many times did our Facebook feeds show us pictures of Trump supporters wearing "Grab Me In The Pussy" shirts? What did we learn from that? We spent the whole election rubbernecking at the lunatic fringe of the opposing party, while Trump made a sales pitch --- a specific, concise, 2 page bulleted sales pitch --- about "draining the swamp".

    I refuse to give Trump credit for this, but were this outcome intentional, it's political genius: jam the opposition's signal with scandal to coerce them into running, in effect, a pure negative campaign.

    Secondly, while this election surely revealed a prominent strain of racism in rural and conservative America, it also revealed an unproductive contempt urban professionals feel for rural America. The most startling moment I've had in this election was reading the Trump First 100 Days plan (it's terrible, but it sounds surprisingly reasonable). I compared it to both Sanders and HRC's pitches (which were sprawling!) and came to the following conclusions about my side's approach to the problems of middle America:

    * Free college for everyone, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries for such a policy would be wealthy urbanites, a policy more tilted towards our interests than even the mortgage interest deduction, and despite the fact that the fastest growing jobs available to LAS college grads (#1: HR rep) are available only in metro areas, and despite the fact that 40 year old former tool and die engineers don't want to and in many cases can't take 4-8 years (depending on if full time) of coursework to get there.

    * An end to income inequality, despite the fact that middle America isn't animated by a concern that rich people own too many houses and boats, but instead just want to be able to buy a damn house in a town, plant roots, and not be threatened with a forced move across the country in a few years --- put differently, the D's made an pitch about variance and the R's made a pitch about medians, and --- excuse sales language --- while a fix to variance is "nice to have", a fix to median is "must have".

    * An increase in the minimum wage, despite the fact that minimum wage employment is in the US a universal socioeconomic marker for "low status, financially threatened", and moreover is a policy that would benefit primarily teenagers and retirees, who make up the bulk of the minimum wage job rolls in middle America --- wages in middle America suck, but it's the job security, stupid!

    I wonder how much of Trump's effectiveness literally comes down to:

    Trump was selling "you will be able to retire in your hometown and see your grandkids", and Clinton was selling "your grandkids will be lawyers like I am".

    Anyways: Trump's election is likely to be a world-historical tragedy, and I remain shellshocked and despondent over it. At the same, in the past few days, I feel like my family and colleagues have come under fire from the Bay Area simply for living in the Midwest, and if you can make people like me who have started and sold tech companies feel dismissed and scorned, I can only imagine how many votes the Bay Area is costing us in Youngstown, Ohio.

    1. I think another factor is that the Democrats are linked to the idea of "we need to fix the world's problems" (NATO, climate change, containing Russia) while Trump said "we need to fix our problems". The left is rightly concerned about climate change (and Trump personally has been as well, as some leaked documents showed), but it doesn't sell it right to people who's lives are so hard that they cannot afford emotionally to worry about children starving in Africa because of draughts, or ice melting under a polar bear in the Arctic. Maslov pyramid etc.

  3. I had some interesting discussions with folks who pointed out that the under-$50k voters slightly favored Clinton, and that high earners slightly favored Trump, and asked if this invalidates my points. Their observation is true, but I think that the numbers do not tell us much.

    The under-$50k electorate is traditionally very pro-Democrat, in part because immigrants and minorities are disproportionately represented in this bracket, and in part because the voters immediately benefit from policies such as the expansion of entitlements or the increase in the minimum wage. Conversely, the wealthy are sharply pro-Republican, because they don't like taxes and restrictions on businesses.

    But what happened in 2016 is that compared to the previous election in 2012, a significant percentage of folks with no college degree or who earn under $50k have shifted to the right, giving a significant and unexpected boost to Mr. Trump. This is something that the liberals did not expect:

    On the flip side, in the $100k+ bracket, Mrs. Clinton posted solid gains; even though they normally lean conservative, people who are well off just did not want to rock the boat.

    1. Historically, the "under-$50k" demo has also been the province of union members, and the Democratic party of the 20th century was the party of labor unions. Private-sector unions are now, of course, much less a factor, and public-sector union employees no longer fall into the $50k bracket.

  4. There should be a lot to say, but I'm very convinced that at his worst Trump will be another Berlusconi and never (neither at his best nor at his worst) some kind of bloodthirst dictator. Disclosure: I'm Italian and somewhat socialdemocratic-leaning.

    At the moment, though, I'm just appalled by this idea of the filter bubble, to the angry feelings I have right now it seems that this is another scapegoat the dem supporters are clinging to, who knows if it's for denying they were wrong, or avoiding to shout they've been betrayed by their own party, or avoiding to see that they've been the first to see just THEIR problems in a gigantic nation like the United States. What isn't told in Berlusconi's history is that his opponents were and sometimes are disconnected from reality and from time to time showed no respect for sensible issues. And that in the aftermath of his political career we now have some new politicians who are kind of okay and manic ones who will probably never get to the higher chairs in the Italian state, so I'd say to a progressive American to resist these 4 or 8 years, change in your stupid stances and then you'll probably rise.