By Matthew vonAllmen
The election is over, and Donald Trump will be president.
I am inadequate. A more capable writer could put into words the emotions we all feel but cannot eloquently express—our shock, our emptiness, and our fear. I am not that writer, and cannot. Nevertheless, I will seek to do the subject justice.
Donald Trump is an authoritarian, a bumbling fool, and a disgrace to this country. This is common knowledge; what remains unknown is how these characteristics will manifest as he governs for the next four years. It is entirely plausible that Trump will enact his most damaging policies, disregard the constitution, and bring the nation to ruin. It is also entirely plausible that he will not, perhaps out of congressional restraint. No one knows. This is a cause for caution, not unconcern. What matters is the expected utility losses of all possible Trump presidencies multiplied by their probability; the probabilities themselves are not a useful metric.
For example, during his campaign Trump promised to loosen the country’s libel laws. These are important protectors of journalistic integrity, and serve as a safeguard against political interference with the press. Trump’s campaign promise runs counter to the First Amendment. Changing the US’s libel laws is a more complex task than Donald Trump would have you believe, but there is a small chance that he could succeed; should Trump begin to manipulate public information for his own gain, the results would be disastrous.
Will such a travesty occur? Probably not. Does its low probability of occurring lessen the magnitude of its negative impact? Not in the slightest. Both factors must be considered when evaluating a Donald Trump presidency. Humans tend to underestimate tail risks—a 0.0001% chance of loosened libel laws seems identical to a 0.000001% chance, at least to the layman. This means that with a high-variance president like Trump, we are cognitively under-equipped to anticipate how destructive—or harmless—he may be.
In the aftermath of this election, many will claim that we could have played our cards differently. Perhaps Democrats could have nominated Bernie Sanders; perhaps the popular media might have offered Trump less free advertising. In retrospect, all untried strategies seem appealing. I do not pretend to know what historical linchpins, when changed, would have denied Trump the presidency.
However, contra many political strategists, I am certain that discovering them would be unproductive. Those who analyze the Clinton campaign’s mistakes do so with an eye toward the future; the past may be fixed, they argue, but understanding it allows us to perform better in the next election. I see this approach as misguided.
Political strategists suffer from a degree of hubris—they believe that one can control the actions of entire groups with enlightened recommendations. This is impossible. Claims that the Democratic Party should “adopt a new strategy” presume that the Democratic Party is a collective, capable of listening to advice and modifying its actions accordingly. It can do neither. All groups are composed of individuals, most of whom have never listened to a political strategist in their lives. Even if one managed to communicate to every Democrat whatever vital political strategy he or she should adopt, that strategy might only succeed when coordinated among large numbers of Democrats. Coordination requires a mechanism. In capitalism, we use the price system. In politics, we use dumb luck.
This belief that we can control the behavior of large groups persists because we often identify as a part of those groups. If one is a Democrat, it becomes easier to claim that “we” will approach the next election in a different way. Membership in a group does not give one power over its other members, however. Democrats cannot influence the entire Democratic Party any more so than the average independent voter.
We are small compared to society, and it controls us more than we may control it. Political activism is intended to change that relationship, so that citizens might consciously shape the world around them. This is a better approach to effecting change, if imperfect. I am unsure as to the optimal method to fight back against a Trump presidency, but it must come from the actions of individuals who can easily coordinate with one another. It will not come from the ideas of a political strategist.
America will survive the next four years, if it is lucky. The same cannot be said so confidently of its people, and its most vulnerable groups. I cannot offer assurances that all will be well without displaying outright dishonesty. If this is the eschaton of our country, then it must be prevented at all costs.
Don’t give up yet. If we do, we’ve already lost.