What I Got Wrong in 2016
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
As I may or may not have mentioned (I think it may have only been on the podcast feed) at some point my daughter was curious about what I all this was and so she and I started listening to past We Are Not Saved podcast episodes while I drove her around (school, percussion lessons, etc.) We started at the very beginning and just recently we’ve been listening to those episodes which came out in the few months before and after the 2016 election. It was interesting to hear what I was worried about at the time. While I am on record as making some very specific predictions (in fact that was the episode we just barely finished) I mostly avoided that when I was talking about Trump’s election and people’s reaction to it. Still, as I said, at the time I saw a lot of things that worried me, beyond that, many things that I thought we didn’t need to worry about, and finally a whole host of things I didn’t even consider which have ended up being extremely important. It occured to me that it might be interesting to revisit what I said in light of where things are now and see how prescient or foolish I was. (Confirming this feeling Mark suggested something similar in the comments.)
Of course, the fact that the Mueller report just dropped is also an excellent reason to revisit what my expectations were for a Trump Presidency.
August 6, 2016
I started things by talking about the difference between having a political view and having a historical view. The former being very short term and focused just on winning the next election, whatever it takes, with the latter being more long term and focused more on avoiding really catastrophic outcomes. My big worry was that things had gotten far too political, that all anyone could think about was beating Trump, if you were a Democrat, or beating Clinton, if you were a Republican. I think I was spot on with this worry, but also that it didn’t demonstrate any particular insight. Things have been getting more short term for a long time now, and it didn’t take a genius to see that. However that doesn’t mean this worry was unimportant, I would argue it’s only gotten more important, and that the candidates are more short-sighted than ever. This is perhaps what’s so appealing to me about Andrew Wang, he’s the only candidate who seems to recognize that we may be at a historical inflection point, and that we could be in for some radical changes regardless of who wins the next election.
One of the things I thought was being overlooked in the short-term political view was the fact that nuclear weapons are still out there, and that if one candidate was more likely than the other to do something which led to them being used, that this would overshadow everything else. At the time I was worried about how aggressive Clinton was being towards Russia and how committed she was to further NATO expansion. Which might have inclined me to support Trump except he was all over the place, as usual. Once again I think I was right, but I don’t think it showed any particular talent. Trump is still all over the place, and the Democrats are still fixated on demonizing Russia.
Though in both cases, it’s clear, I underestimated how bad it would be. Trump is talking to the North Koreans, which is something, I guess, though they clearly seem to be getting the better of those discussions. But then he seems to be going the exact opposite direction with Iran, cancelling that deal, and declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group. It’s hard to imagine some overarching strategy that encompasses both of those tactics. As far as the Democrats go, I assumed that once they lost the election and their influence over foreign policy shrank that Russia would fade into the background. I was definitely wrong about that. It feels like they’ve hardly talked about anything else.
August 13, 2016
I thought the topic of nuclear weapons was important enough that I dedicated the entirety of the next post to discussing them. This didn’t directly concern the election, but one of the points I made was how difficult nuclear weapons are to defend against. At the time I was not aware of the recent push to develop hypersonic missiles which increases that difficulty to the point where we might not even be able to rely on the deterrence of mutually assured destruction, to say nothing of things like lasers and ABMs. Consequently I’m going to say that this was something else I was right about, though I wish I wasn’t.
August 20, 2016
From there I moved on to full-throated defense of voting for third parties. I continue to think I’m right about that, though I guess you could make the argument that if everyone who’d voted libertarian in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin had voted for Clinton instead she would have won. Despite that I would still argue that this mostly goes to show that we need a better system of voting rather than that no one should ever vote for a third party. Also I’m still not clear that Clinton would have been all that better, but I’ll get to that.
October 15, 2016
We’re now only a few weeks before the election, and, as you may recall, at the time Trump was beset on all sides by accusations of sexual harassment, in particular the Access Hollywood Tape where he described grabbing women by there you-know-what. At the time I said, “I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.” Though I then went on to say, that I had “repeatedly been wrong about ‘Peak Trump’ so it was possible I was wrong again”. Indeed I was, very wrong. Moving forward two and a half years I am once again inclined to say that he is finally done for. Not that he will be impeached, I still think that’s unlikely, but that he has ruined his chances of re-election. Again, I could be wrong. I have been every other time.
October 29, 2016
Immediately before the election I was most worried about what I saw as a gathering threat to free speech, mostly occasioned by Trump’s success. In particular I worried about censorship on social media, which was assuming a dominant position as the outlet for speech, while also being able to use their technology to censor in subtle and insidious ways. The example I gave at the time was Scott Adam’s claim that he was being shadowbanned. Certainly, as I pointed out recently worries about tech companies becoming monopolies have only gotten more extreme. But what about censorship, what’s happened there? In short I would say that it’s gotten worse, but that, in addition, fewer people are willing to defend free speech.
This is a big topic and perhaps it deserves it’s own post. But to just point out a couple recent examples of what I’m talking about. First, there’s the recent decision by Facebook to ban white nationalist content, where previously they had only banned white supremacist content. This was almost certainly in part a response to the Christchurch shootings which were livestreamed on Facebook. And, to be clear, I probably would have done the same thing if I was Zuckerberg and responsible for the health of a half a trillion dollar company. Also I’m not necessarily arguing this is a bad thing (examining that would definitely require a full post) but it is an example of a certain form of censorship.
Second, and one of the more insidious examples of censorship is the recent trend of denying payment processing for ideological reasons. For example Paypal has lately been kicking a lot of people off of its platform for precisely this reason. Now of course this isn’t direct censorship, but if you understand anything about how the internet actually works, it creates a significant dampening effect on speech. Once again it would take more space than I have to dissect the morality and consequences of these actions. I mostly bring them up to illustrate both that my concerns in 2016 were valid and that people mostly don’t seem to care very much.
Though... I will finish this subject by pointing out that my views on free speech have also evolved since then, and I now worry, additionally, that an excess of certain kinds of speech can actually be used in a censorious fashion by drowning out “good” speech.
November 12, 2016
We’ve now finally arrived at the election, and the post I wrote in its immediate aftermath. Here I think it’s useful to quote from that post, because in a sense I nailed everything about the Trump presidency:
In the wake of the election Cracked had an article, titled Dear White People Stop Saying Everything Will Be Okay And in case you didn’t know it, I am white. And I’m going to follow this injunction. I’m not going to tell you that everything will be okay. How could I possibly know that? In fact the theme of this blog is that things are not going to be okay. If you want to be told that everything will be okay I would point you at the recent article from Wait but Why. If you’d rather stick with someone who has no illusions about his ability to predict the future you’re in the right place.
To be frank, Trump could end up being a horrible president. He could not only be as bad as people thought, he could be worse. He could be the person most responsible for the eventual destruction of the planet, whether through a full on exchange of nukes with Russia, or something more subtle.
We just don’t know. We guess; we estimate; we might even create models to predict what will happen, and coincidentally enough, we just got a great example of how models and predictions can be wrong, really wrong. So the first thing I want to talk about is the pre-election predictions, because everyone recognizes that they were wrong, and yet now, both people who are enthusiastic about the election and people who are devastated by the election are making pre-presidency predictions, without recognizing that these predictions are even more likely to be wrong than the pre-election ones. At least the predictions about who would win the election were based on lots of data and dealing with a very narrow question. On the other hand, how Trump will be as president is a huge question with very little data. So yeah, I’m not going to say that everything will be okay because I don’t know, and neither does anyone else really.
I know it’s something of a cop out to just say, “We can’t predict the future.” But a lot of people were attempting to do just that at the time, and at least I had the humility to say I don’t know what’s going to happen. Despite all this I did go on to make some vague predictions:
On immigration, I predicted that “his immigration policy may be less draconian than people fear”. Given that his proposed wall has turned into a joke, and that he’s deporting fewer people than Obama, I think I can say I was correct about this one.
On the subject of LGBT rights, I said I didn’t think he would or really could do anything, but that the justices he appoints might. He did reinstitute a ban on transgender people in the military, so I suppose I was at least a little bit wrong, but considering that he was reinstituting something that had only been eliminated a few months before the election, this mistake seems pretty minor. Beyond that I can’t think of much he’s done on this front.
Moving on to abortion and Roe v. Wade, I predicted that it wouldn’t be overturned, but that we would see a significant challenge, which would be enabled by his Supreme Court picks. So far this seems to be exactly the direction we’re headed, but we’re not there yet. I guess we’ll have to check back later to see if Roe v. Wade actually is overturned, but I continue to bet that it won’t be and that Roberts will save it.
I went on to discuss some things I thought were long shots. The first one I covered was the possibility of California seceding. Here I will admit that while I always considered such a thing an incredible long shot, I still thought the impulse/movement would be larger than it was and I ended up mentioning it in several different posts. As it was, it fizzled out pretty fast, and while I still think that it’s a potential black swan. I’d be very surprised if it ended up being of any consequence in the next 20 years.
There were two other longshots I discussed. To begin with, the possibility that Trump would end up hanging on to power through some vague dictatorial maneuver. Which I thought very unlikely. Specifically, I couldn’t see any viable path for it to happen. Then I discussed whether Trump might use nukes, which I also declared incredibly unlikely, though I did mention that if any president was going to use a tactical nuke that Trump was a good candidate.
November 26, 2016
I’m going to say that I was most wrong in the immediate aftermath of the election. I think it’s clear that while the election was acrimonious. (Maybe the most since 1912? 1876?) That in the end it was just another election. But at the time I started to wonder if it might be different, if we might be in for some real disruption. Now to be clear, even at the time, I was 95% sure that nothing outrageous would happen. Like 38 electors defecting to Clinton, or massive and sustained protests, or California voting to secede (this is another post where I brought that up). But 99% was probably closer to what my confidence level should have been. To be fair though, I did come across some interesting reactions in the wake of the election, to give just one example from my post:
The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”
Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.
As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.
As I said I was wrong, but perhaps you can see where I got the impression that things were different.
There were a few more posts that were similarly alarmist, again in the 95% rather than 99% category. Which is to say that I was too worried, though, as I keep trying to point out, being too worried is almost always better than not worrying enough. But it is interesting to look back over the last few years to examine the course of anti-Trump sentiment, since it was the extreme levels of hostility to Trump that made me believe the danger was greater than it turned out to be.
To begin with, you would expect feelings to run particularly hot in the immediate aftermath of the election. Especially one where Clinton was expected to win, and who did in fact win the popular vote. The sense of how close they were to victory had to give Clinton supporters and Trump haters room to imagine that it still might be possible to change the outcome, if only they protested vigorously enough or complained loudly enough.
Another factor has to be how relatively unsuccessful (outside of the judiciary) Trump has been as President. The sky did not fall; same sex marriage has not been overturned (yet); and the wall has not even been started, let alone built. To be sure there were still plenty of bad things for Trump haters to latch on to, there was the family separation crisis at the border, the Kavanaugh nomination, and the aforementioned renewal of the military transgender ban. In fact McSweeneys has a list of 546 Trump atrocities. But none of these things are uniquely bad or unique to Trump.
All this said I wonder if the biggest factor of all was the Mueller investigation? He was appointed in May of 2017. Is it possible that once that happened most of the anti-Trump rage got transmuted into pro-Mueller hope? That people, quite rationally, realized that Mueller had a much better chance of holding Trump to account than any protest? And accordingly that’s where all their energy went? I’m not sure how you’d test that theory, but it fits in with what I remember and matches my impressions.
For the moment let’s assume this is correct, then what happens now that the report has been released? Here, once again I’m telling you what my impression is, but my sense is that before the release most Democratic Senators and Representatives were saying that it would be a waste of time to try and impeach Trump, and this seemed to be their opinion even when it wasn’t clear what Mueller would uncover. Now that the report has been released and it was a lot better for Trump than most of his enemies expected, you would expect the representatives to be even less inclined to impeach, but instead impeachment seems more on the table than ever.
I’m sure part of this is that they now have concrete misbehavior that they can move on (though he misbehaved less than they thought he had) but I also get the feeling that some amount of anti-Trump pressure from the population at large was kept at bay by the report, leaving Senators and Representatives the freedom to act pragmatically, but now that the promise of the report is no longer doing that, everyone is once again forced to jump on the anti-Trump express, next stop impeachment town. All of which is to point out that while I may have been overly concerned about anti-Trump sentiment in the immediate wake of the election, that the end of the Mueller investigation could bring us a new round of it. And I’m guessing the upcoming election won’t help.
I’ll close on something of a tangent. I’m a big fan of the Revolutions Podcast and what comes up over and over again in that space is that no one really sees the tipping point into chaos in advance. It always seems like business as usual, albeit a particularly divisive example, until suddenly it’s not. Until suddenly people are dying by their hundreds and thousands. Maybe that’s not the sort of thing that happens anymore (though try telling that to the Syrians).
I will say that one advantage of the French Yellow Vest Movement is that it appears to be evidence that tipping into widespread violence in a modern society is actually pretty hard. I hope that’s the case, I hope that if we can survive Trump we can survive anything. But I’m also reminded of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author born in 1881 who went on to see both World Wars. He opens his book The World of Yesterday, by saying:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency…
We seem to be in a similar age of relative security and permanency, I really hope it lasts. Zweig’s didn’t. And I still think there’s a very good chance, that one way or the other, sooner or later, ours won’t either.
I’m going to try changing things and rather than have one post every week of about the same length I’m going to try and post somewhat shorter pieces more frequently. I’m also hoping to do the occasional long and really in depth post as well. This posting will happen whenever they’re done, so for those accustomed to the regularity of Saturday I apologize. It also means that the number of clumsy attempts to cleverly solicit donations will be going up as well. If you want to avoid any additional discomfort consider donating now. This is your chance to get in before the rush.