What exactly is the risk of a Trump presidency? Beats me. But let’s talk about it anyway.
Your Abysmal Track Record
For starters, ask yourself how well you predicted the performance of past presidents. Have your psychic powers been accurate?
I’m not good at predicting the performance of presidents. I thought Reagan would be dangerous, but he presided over the end of the Cold War. And I thought George W. Bush would be unlikely to start a war, much less two of them.
But it gets better. Even AFTER the presidency, can you tell who did the best job? I can’t. You think you can, but you can’t. And the simple reason for that is because there is no base case with which to compare a president. All we know is what did happen, not what might have happened if we took another path. You can’t compare a situation in the real world to your imaginary world in which something better happened. That is nonsense. And yet we do it. Watch me prove it right now.
So, how did President Obama do on the job? Was he a good president?
If you have an answer in your head – either yes or no – it proves you don’t know how to make decisions. No judgement can be made about Obama’s performance because there is nothing to which it can be compared. No one else in a parallel universe was president at the same time, doing different things and getting different results.
I’m not a fan of everything our president has done, but I feel as if historians will rank him as one of our best presidents. Definitely in the top 20%.
Wait, what? Am I crazy?
Many of you think Obama nearly destroyed civilization. You and I can’t both be right. But both of us can be irrational in trusting our opinions. We are literally comparing Obama’s actual performance to imagined alternatives that exist only in our minds. Maybe you think the imaginary president in your mind is way better than the real one, whereas I think the real one did well compared to my imaginary alternative.
That isn’t thinking. Science is pretty clear on that.
And how about your ability to predict the future of your own relationships? Most relationships end badly, so we know that the majority of Americans are not good at predicting the future. Have all of your relationships worked out the way you expected? Mine haven’t.
I think you’ll agree that humans are terrible at predicting the future. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we think we are not terrible at predicting the future. Our certainty in the face of overwhelming uncertainty is irrational.
Do you think President Trump would be extra-dangerous to the world? If you have an opinion on that – either yes or no – you’re being irrational.
The FBI Profiler Approach
When FBI profilers are trying to figure out who perpetrated a specific type of crime, they can often narrow it down to people who have done the same sort of thing in the past. Arsonists have played with matches in their youth. Serial killers have probably been cruel to animals. Abusers have probably abused people before. Pedophiles have often been victims themselves. Patterns of this sort can be predictive, at least when viewed by experts.
Donald Trump has about five decades of track record in business that includes no violent acts whatsoever. Nor have we heard stories of any Trump temper tantrums in the business world that go beyond the scope of what any CEO does on a bad day. Somehow Trump built hundreds of business entities, amassed great wealth, and raised a great set of kids. And nowhere in the story is the part where he did something scary or dangerous. That sort of behavior doesn’t pop up suddenly when you’re a grandfather.
The Scary Talk
Trump does talk tough. He talks of expelling illegals from the country. He talks of waterboarding. He talks of bombing the shit out of ISIS. He talks about going after the families of terrorists.
But Trump also openly talks about the value of hyperbole (also known as bullshit). He wrote about it in The Art of the Deal. Trump tells us – in the clearest possible language – that he always sets the table for negotiating by making a big opening offer. If Trump is consistent with decades of history – and with what he says about his approach to negotiating – then his more extreme statements are just psychology. That’s what an FBI profiler would tell you. People don’t suddenly change their basic mode of operation at age 69, especially when it is working.
In my view, we are already in the Age of Cyborgs. You probably have a friend who has one kind of personality without drugs (legal or illegal) and a completely different personality when using drugs, including alcohol. Maybe the drugs are curing depression, or anxiety, or loneliness, or something. But people are different when they are on them. That’s the point of taking drugs.
Trump doesn’t drink. He never has. He doesn’t take illegal drugs either. He’s the same guy at night that he is in the morning. He’s not a chemical cyborg with a personality that is driven by big pharma.
Clinton, on the other hand, is part human, part pharmacological grab-bag. Her personality is at least partly determined by whatever cocktail of meds and wine are in her system at any given moment. In other words, she is just like most adults. Our personalities are the product of the drugs in our system, for better or for worse.
Do you make the same decisions when you are tired? Do you make the same decisions when you’re angry, depressed, or in pain? Probably not. So if meds are fixing those conditions, those meds are also controlling your decisions. And that introduces risk.
Trump brings with him all the risks of being Trump, but he does seem to be the same person every day. Clinton brings with her all the risks of being Clinton, plus any extra risks from a glass of wine or doctor-prescribed meds. That risk could be nearly nothing. Or not. We have no way to know.
Scaring Foreign Leaders
I hear voters say they worry about Trump offending world leaders and triggering wars. But keep in mind that world leaders have been putting up with dangerous and shitty U.S. presidents for hundreds of years. It hasn’t been a problem yet.
One of the things Trump has going for him is that he’s a well-known entity. People hate surprises. Any foreign leader would know exactly what they are getting with Trump. Like Reagan, a President Trump would talk tough – for effect – but he is likable in person, and he has a strong bias to avoid any problems that are bad for business. China would have no problem with any of that. Putin would have no problem with Trump either. They know what negotiating looks like.
Do foreign leaders WANT a President Trump? Hell, no. Trump says he plans to negotiate better deals for America, which means worse deals for everyone else. Of course foreign leaders are going to tell us Trump is risky, scary, and anything else bad, just to stop him.
I doubt any foreign leader is literally afraid of Trump. But they might want you to think they are afraid of him, so you won’t elect him. Foreign leaders are not idiots. To some extent, they are playing us.
What about all of Trump’s racism? An FBI profiler would assume a person’s pattern of racism would continue, maybe worsen.
But Trump’s racism exists solely in the minds of his opponents. He has proposed no racist policies and he has no racist acts in his past.
Trump opposes illegal immigration. But he loves legal Americans of every color and flavor. He says so often. That’s not racism. That’s more like the opposite.
Trump did say Mexicans are rapists. But you’d have to be dumb to think he meant every single Mexican coming into the country is a rapist. Literally no one – ever – has believed all Mexicans are rapists. If you think Trump believes it – or wants us to believe it – you have abandoned any hold on reason.
But we agree that Trump says outrageous things, because doing so gets him elected, apparently.
What about Trump’s idea to temporarily ban Muslim immigration until we figure out what the problem is? Isn’t that religious discrimination?
Yes, it is. But it is the legal kind because it would only apply to non-citizens trying to enter the country. And keep in mind that Islam – as commonly practiced in Muslim countries around the world – is not compatible with the Constitution of the United States. That’s different from the situation with Presbyterian immigrants, for example, whose beliefs fold neatly into the current system.
I don’t have an opinion on the best way to handle Muslim immigration because I don’t know how effectively we can screen people. But common sense says we should treat different risk classes in different ways. That’s the way we price car insurance, and it is the way we make all data-driven decisions. Ignoring risk is noble, but it isn’t always smart.
Trump also suggested creating a government list of which residents of the country are Muslim. That’s some scary shit. Until…you realize the government already has that list. You know they do, right?
And if they don’t, they can pull it together from existing Big Data any time they want. That risk is already baked into our current situation. The government knows what you are up to as well. They know your religion (with high probability), your spending habits, your porn preferences, and your health. Or at least they can know those things any time they want.
The privacy ship already sailed.
Trump famously suggested we use torture to fight terrorism. Torture is not legal. And he suggested going after the families of terrorists. That’s a war crime too.
Did he mean any of that?
Trump is always operating on the dimension of emotion and persuasion. He wants you – and the terrorists – to know he’s the most bad-ass player running for president. That gives him an edge in getting elected and it gives him a psychological advantage against ISIS. If you’re a potential suicide bomber, you don’t worry about President Obama killing your family. But President Trump? You’d better think this through.
Personally, I think it would be a terrible idea to torture terrorists (unless it works), and always a bad idea to target families. But saying you might do those things is effective both for winning a Republican primary and for keeping the enemy off balance.
I think I’ve mentioned that Trump says things for effect.
Risk of Business as Usual
Have you wondered why Republican Bill Kristol and others are looking for a third-party candidate who will guarantee a Clinton win over Trump? That’s probably because they know Clinton is in the pockets of the defense industry, and perhaps so are they.
The defense industry needs America to fight wars. History suggests Clinton will be a normal president who starts wars when the defense industry tells her to do so. Trump is less likely to play that game because he doesn’t need their money. That makes Trump the lower risk of starting a war. He has no profit motive.
When to Increase Risk
As a general rule, you want to keep risks low when things are going well and nothing is broken. But when things are heading in the wrong direction, sometimes the only way to fix the situation is to introduce a reasonable, entrepreneurial risk.
So, if you think the country is heading in the right direction, you probably don’t want someone like Trump as president. Trump is more likely to introduce change than Clinton. But if you think the government is broken, you might want some Trump-like entrepreneurial risk in your future.
Speaking of risk, my book doesn’t have any.