The End of Something

by Travis


I haven’t written much in the past year or so, because 1) I stay busy, 2) I realized transcribing my opinions on matters unsolicited was a colossal waste of time, and 3) I did not think we would be where we are today, with Donald Trump as the incoming President. If I had any idea we would be here now, though, I would have written more to try to do my part to prevent it – even if it were just one more Internet screed, one more voice in the abyss.

trump

In just a few hours, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. I have profoundly disliked the guy since his CPAC speech in 2011. I thought his proposals to build a wall on the Southern border, impede international trade through taxes and tariffs, and “take the oil” in Iraq and Libya were either some kind of Rorschach Test or a joke. So when he won on election night, I was floored – I mean literally, on the floor, trying to breathe. It felt like the end of something.

The election impacts our nation’s economy, increases volatility across the globe, and validates the worst impulses in our society. Trump’s threats to use government power to reward his perceived cronies in business and punish his perceived enemies – whether that’s a U.S. Judge of Mexican heritage or a Muslim Gold Star Mother – threaten to destroy American faith in free markets and our democratic values. He campaigned on threats such as these, including the promise to put his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail – and went so far as to make an off-the-cuff solicitation for her assassination.

The election also impacts me personally vis-a-vis my employment. I honestly considered moving the family out the country to avoid the fallout, but that’s not happening, at least not now. For now, I’m in the bunker with everyone else.

As the inauguration approaches, I hear a common refrain – both online and from certain family members – to “move on.” That position is represented here by the editors of the conservative paper, the Washington Examiner:

Trump is going to be president — everyone’s president — whether they like it or not. You can’t make a strong case when you try to build it on evident falsehood. Trump won. The country chose him. Only fools actually fail to believe it. Trump’s detractors need to accept that and figure out what to do next. So does Trump.

If “moving on” means accepting the outcome of the election: Then that notion is reciprocated. Trump’s supporters need to realize that – despite his claims otherwise – he didn’t win in a landslide. If “moving on” means accepting Trumpism as gospel: Not gonna happen. Herein, I hope to provide my reasons why ever supporting him or his agenda seems alien to me.

Part 1: The Electorate

Due to two of the weakest and weirdest candidates in modern history, 2016 turnout was at a 20-year low. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 2,864,974 votes – that’s 2.1% of the 136,628,459 votes cast in 50 states. In the end, the Electoral College system handed the victory to Trump by a slim margin: Only 77,744 people across 3 states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) delivered the Electoral College victory to Donald Trump – that’s 0.5% of the 13,233,376 votes cast in those 3 states.

However: The Electoral College system is legitimate, and therefore the vote is legitimate.

No system is perfect. After the 2000 election, for my undergraduate degree, I researched and wrote in favor of nationwide adoption of the Nebraska/Maine “congressional district method,” where the electoral votes are split throughout the state; but that system is also flawed, as the results are heavily influenced by gerrymandering.

These days, I think the Electoral College still makes the same amount of sense it always has. Our founders crafted the system to protect the republic from what John Adams called the “tyranny of the majority.” In the Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton states the Electoral College was established so “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Two hundred and twenty-nine years later, we have elected a man who is, arguably, the most unqualified and unpredictable person to ever hold the office, the first elected without having worked a single day in public service. It seems the Electoral College, a necessary evil intended as a means to protect the republic, will be a used as an instrument to test the republic.

All that said: I accept that Trump won, and everyone else should, as well. But he and his supporters need to realize he doesn’t have a mandate as President. Trump will enter the office with an approval rating of 40%, the lowest approval rating in four decades. That’s 44 points below that of President Barack Obama in 2009, so he doesn’t have a mandate, or anything like it.

A major factor in candidate support in 2016 was their dislike of the opponent. It was the primary factor for Trump supporters: Fifty-three percent of Trump voters said they were voting “against Clinton” while only forty-four percent said they were voting “for Trump.” Poll after poll proved this out.

This is consistent with what I saw both online and with family members: The profound dislike for Hillary Clinton overrode any concerns people had for Trump.

The primary concern with Clinton was her “dishonesty and secrecy.” While this concern has been a problem her entire public life, it was highlighted by the controversy surrounding her state.gov email server. The controversy was slowly fed by information deliberately leaked by Wikileaks in conjunction with the Russian government, and bolstered somewhat by FBI Director James Comey’s quixotic decision to reopen the case a few weeks before the election. Comey’s actions during the campaign are currently undergoing investigation.

We had a historically divided and pessimistic electorate, with Trump voters notably uninformed and willing to support quick and risky solutions. Interestingly, race, gender, and education divisions were not as stark as analysts thought they would be; but there was one socioeconomic factor that was a better indicator than the rest: The >2,600 counties that voted for Trump comprise about 36% of the U.S. economic output, while the <500 counties that voted for Clinton contributed 64%.

Said another way: While only sixteen percent of the nation’s counties voted for Hillary, they comprise nearly two-thirds of the American economy. This gives us a clue as to why Trump won, and what he represents. From the article:

Counties with higher GDP per capita were more likely to vote for Clinton over Trump, as were counties with higher population density. Counties with a higher share of manufacturing employment were more likely to vote for Trump.

“This is a picture of a very polarized and increasingly concentrated economy,” said Mark Muro, the policy director at the Brookings metro program, “with the Democratic base aligning more to that more concentrated modern economy, but a lot of votes and anger to be had in the rest of the country.”

So, when the political Right makes hay over the notion that our society is divided among “Makers” and “Takers:” They are correct.

We do, in fact, live in bubbles, with different sets of values. There was lop-sided enthusiasm among certain bubbles which Trump exploited, explicitly trying to draw lines between “us” and “them” – Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, and (somewhat odd coming from Trump) the elusive elite. Someone else was to blame for the feelings of social displacement and economic malaise, and Trump sold himself as the guy who could right those wrongs.

Within a partisan bubble, valid misgivings over the state of the economy coalesced with another kind of bubble. A segment of his supporters – the Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and the anti-Semites – were not insignificant in size. Knowingly or otherwise, Trump sent dog whistles their way throughout the campaign with repeated promises of a Muslim ban, a Mexican wall, and a return to colonialism with a seizure of oil in the Middle East. His first campaign ad reiterated each of those proposals, and our nation’s racists overwhelming backed him for those beliefs.

Let me be clear here: Not every Trump voter is a racist. As stated, most supported Trump due to their dislike of Clinton. But every Trump voter was on a bandwagon that supported a racist agenda. While they may not have been hate-filled themselves, Trump voters indeed self-identified not by their common ideas, but by their dislike of other ideas, and the other “team.”

We treat politics as if it’s a football game. The neuroscience associated with this kind of team identity is telling.

A 2010 study tested the empathy of European male soccer fans, where one subject would receive a shock on the back of his hand and then watch while another man received the same shock. When the shocked man was described as fan of the same team, there was an observable increase of neural activity in the anterior cingulate cortex – the region of the brain that generates an empathic neural response – creating an overlap in self-other pain, and an illusion of pain within the watcher. When the shocked man was described as a fan of an opposing team, however, that corresponding empathic pain the watcher had for the ingroup went away, he was less empathetic for the outgroup, and in some cases, derived pleasure from the other man’s suffering.

This is consistent with what I saw in 2016: Voters increasingly value party and polarity over common human decency and the consequences of policy. We have applied a professional sports mentality to politics, and many voters want to “sit in the bleachers and watch the reality show.” But this isn’t a football game. There are consequences.

Part 2: The Consequences

The day after the election, Trump communicated what he wants to get done in his first 100 days: Inhibit free trade through the renegotiation of NAFTA and withdrawal from TPP; block foreign travel; immediate deportation of 2 million people; build and pay for a wall on the Southern border; mandatory minimum sentences for illegal immigrants; and more.

These are all terrible ideas, but shouldn’t shock anyone. He was serious during the campaign. Everyone laughed. But this is real.

We have significant blind spots on the actual impacts of free trade and freedom of immigration. As President, Trump will have substantial influence over the conversation, so it’s a shame he gets so much wrong.

How much Trump can actually accomplish remains to be seen, but the normal checks and balances are weaker than ever. He now holds the majority in the legislative branch, and he’s about to have the Supreme Court, too. It’s up to party leaders like Mitch McConnell to stop him, but regarding the first 100 days agenda, he was quoted as saying: “I think most of the things that he’s likely to advocate we’re going to be enthusiastically for,” so I’m not hopeful.

Trump is poised to lead his party down multiple rabbit holes of bad policy, built on false assumptions. For instance, Trump’s belief – reiterated in his 100 days agenda – that China manipulates its currency is not true. It’s a mythical artifact from the last decade. This week, Trump stated that our own currency was “too strong” for US companies to compete with their Chinese counterparts, and as a consequence, the US Dollar retreated.

This election was considered a referendum on globalism, and nationalism won. In today’s economy, the rise of anti-trade nationalism will have a chilling effect on the business of global business, and could wreak havoc on the American economy, on the scale of Smoot-Hawley. Spooked by foreign competition, Trump threatens to upend global trade with promises to slash America’s trade deficit by tearing up international agreements with NATO and the EU and imposing massive new tariffs on imports from China (45 percent) and Mexico (35 percent).

What he doesn’t seem to understand is that in free trade, global competition is a good thing, and trade deals such as TPP and NAFTA encourage businesses to collaborate, innovate, and prosper. By contrast, protectionism is a recipe for recession, driving our allies into the arms of our primary competitors. Global trade is not a zero-sum game. From Scott Lincicome at the Cato Institute:

It’s crucial to remember the tremendous benefits of trade, particularly through NAFTA. About one-third of all U.S. merchandise exports are bought by Mexico and Canada, and exports from our service industries and from the agriculture sector have risen dramatically under the agreement.

Thanks to imports, American families effectively stretch their pay check by about $10,000 each year. Around 800,000 American auto industry jobs depend on a seamless North American supply chain to stay globally competitive. American-made raw materials constitute about 40% of the content of the products we import from Mexico, and almost 75% of all U.S. inputs that return here as finished goods come from Canada and Mexico. Undoing NAFTA would cause job losses, lower living standards and economic calamity.

Protectionism is no road to riches; it actually punishes American households. Bullying American companies such as Carrier and Ford into retracting dispossessed American jobs when economic reality does not support such a move is bull-headed. Unsurprisingly, Carrier has already cut some of the jobs Trump supposedly saved.

Trump’s empty promises to “Make America Great Again” by returning our manufacturing jobs underlies the support he had in the election, yet is woefully ignorant of the modern American economy. Today, manufacturing is more productive with far fewer people, and that’s a good thing:

manufac

In our modern era, it won’t be easy to bring yesterday’s jobs back. We will have to deliberately become less-efficient to do so.

Technology has always freed people to pursue other forms of employment. Technology enables innovation, research and development, thereby uncovering new markets while making the old ones obsolete. Technological changes beget labor market changes; this is nothing new. We (or more adeptly, our children) will move on. What makes our modern era any different?

The truth is, we are entering a period of post-scarcity, which I wrote more about here, and it will take sharper minds if we want to prevail through the transition rather than decline. R. H. Mabry and A. D. Sharplin made predictions about this period in their 1986 Policy Analysis:

Flatly in error are those that predict no more jobs for a very large sector of the population as a result of advancing technology, creating a massive problem of involuntary unemployment. It is not at all clear that a large number of jobs are about to be destroyed; even if they were, such long-run unemployment as would occur would certainly not be involuntary. Rather, it would take the form of even shorter workdays, shorter work-weeks, and fewer working members in the family, as it has throughout our history.

Moving on to Trump’s border wall: History tells us building walls precedes demise. From Rome through Britain with the Hadrian Wall, to the Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall, to the Berlin Wall of the Soviet Empire, border walls tend to accompany barriers to trade, and make a time capsule out of the country inside the wall. Border walls precede the decline of the empire.

Trump’s border wall was one of, if not the, campaign selling point. He said Mexico will pay for it, but it’s becoming more apparent they (of course) will not. If history shows it’s a bad idea, why do so many people support it? And what does that say about us?

Regarding immigration: Non-citizen immigrant adults and children are about 25% less likely to be signed up for Medicaid than their poor native-born equivalents, and are also 37% less likely to receive food stamps. We do not discuss the actual data available. Studies show immigration is a net-benefit for an area, particularly when second and third-plus generation families remain in the United States. From one particular study:

Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging work force and reduced consumption by older residents. In addition, the infusion of human capital by high-skilled immigrants has boosted the nation’s capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological change.

The George. W. Bush Center illuminates how the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs:

When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus.”

What’s more, those benefits are felt even if that immigration is illegal.

So, it seems obvious: Law-abiding immigrants should be able to become citizens as quickly as they can be vetted. They should become citizens, pay taxes when warranted, and get benefits when needed, just like poor white people do. Our country has voted against that notion, but it may not matter: Hispanics are leaving the United States faster than they are entering. Perhaps they know something we don’t.

Regarding foreign policy: We honestly don’t know what to expect. He might intervene more aggressively in Syria (or not), expand our footprint in the Middle East (or not), cooperate with the Russians and Turks there (or not), or pivot to Asia (or not). What we do know is that his threats to pull out of NATO obligations are already making our European allies nervous.

We also know that in the never-ending War on Terror, Trump’s support for waterboarding and intentionally killing civilian families cements the United States as a formidable enemy, which is why Trump was ISIS’ preferred candidate for the volatility he introduces to geopolitics. From Foreign Affairs magazine:

Jihadists are rooting for a Trump presidency because they believe that he will lead the United States on a path to self-destruction.

Ultimately, the 2016 election demonstrated that our nation’s divisions go beyond the water’s edge. In an effort to weaken the other party, Trump and his supporters aligned with a foreign country to intervene in presidential politics: Russia has admitted they were in communication with Trump campaign, as the electronic signatures show. His willingness to use a foreign power to disrupt the election – and his supporters’ willingness to follow him there – cuts us deep.

We are more divided than we’ve been since Watergate, but this divide has potential to go deeper than that. I am hoping we mend after the inauguration, because I believe this cut could prove to be fatal.

Part 3: The Person

What do we, as a nation, think of Trump as a person, his character, and his ethics? What does Trump’s character say about how he will govern? Who is he?

Trump often contradicts himself, confusing the breadcrumbs along the trail for anyone who wants to know what he actually believes. He’s been caught lying again and again and again and again. This election was overrun with fake news, some of which he repeated, such as: A claim that millions of illegals prevented him from winning the popular vote; a claim that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; a claim that a protester was connected to ISIS; and so on.

A better term for what he does is called “gaslighting,” defined as “persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying.” He tests the waters to see what he can get away with. Some examples would be: His claim that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters;” or telling his supporters to “knock the crap out” of protesters at his rallies, saying “I will pay your legal fees.” When confronted with the statement, Trump responded: “I didn’t say that.”

To get to the heart of who Trump might be, by his own testimonies, he enjoys discrediting his opponents – both political and personal – and is eager to punish his enemies. In his own words, from his 2007 book, Think Big:

When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get even!’ That is not typical advice, but it is real-life advice. If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck! When people wrong you, go after those people, because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I love getting even. I get screwed all the time. I go after people, and you know what? People do not play around with me as much as they do with others. They know that if they do, they are in for a big fight. Always get even. Go after people that go after you. Don’t let people push you around. Always fight back and always get even. It’s a jungle out there, filled with bullies of all kinds who will try to push you around. If you’re afraid to fight back people will think of you as a loser, a ‘schmuck!’ They will know they can get away with insulting you, disrespecting you, and taking advantage of you. Don’t let it happen! Always fight back and get even.”

Trump’s long history of sexual misconduct allegations and numerous settlement cases trail him as he enters the White House. During the campaign, a tape emerged where Trump was caught bragging about sexual assault. Twelve women accused him of exactly that, and he threatened to sue them all. He also bragged about walking in on underage girls dressing for the pageant he owned; first-hand testimonies confirmed his claim.

Trump’s words do not convey the values I wish for myself, or my children, or anybody to hold in high esteem. But his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said in December we shouldn’t listen to anything he says:

This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.

So if we shouldn’t judge Trump by the things he says, let’s look at some of the things he does.

Trump has quite the experience with lawsuits, with over 3,500 to date. During the campaign, he threatened antitrust lawsuits on businesses he doesn’t like, and libel lawsuits on politicians and press organizations he doesn’t like. Organizations that bear his name have recently settled major lawsuits, including the defunct Trump Foundation and the defunct Trump University.

The Donald J. Trump Foundation admitted to the IRS in 2015 it violated self-dealing practices, using Trump Foundation money to pay off Trump Organization lawsuits. It’s worth mentioning there were no employees of the Foundation, and all funding decisions were made by Trump himself. He shut the Foundation down in December 2016.

Then there’s Trump University, a fake training program that defrauded its students from 2005 to 2010 and finally settled various lawsuits for $25 million in November 2016, after Trump was elected President. Trump himself was found liable in the lawsuits.

With regard to the family business, Trump has multiple conflicts of interest with the Trump Organization’s numerous properties around the world which he still owns. If he cannot adequately divest himself of these business ventures, he may get snagged constitutionally by the Emoluments Clause. He has done little to guarantee those deals will not influence his presidency.

Trump’s answer? “The law’s totally on my side; the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That is, by being president, Trump thinks he will be above the law.

Summary

Trump has profited off the weaknesses of humanity his whole life, and now he’s moving on to the federal government. He has lowered our standards for public behavior, our decorum, our policy expectations, and our collective reading level. So if “move on” means jumping in the bandwagon with racists; if it means supporting anti-trade and anti-immigrant policies; if it means venerating a terrible person due to the office he is about to enter: Not gonna happen.

I do not want Trump to succeed as President if that means “succeed with his agenda,” because his agenda will damage the nation. I would prefer we reach that optimal point where he fails spectacularly with the least amount of damage done to the United States, so that we learn our lesson never to experiment like this again. In this way, I feel as if I’m watching a child climb something they were warned not to climb: I know that in some cases, the child must feel that pain themselves before modifying their behavior. We just hope they don’t lose an eye in the process.

Trump did one thing well: He was able to read the fears and frustrations of his fellow Americans, leverage them, and create “Trumpism,” a cult of personality unique in American politics.

His charisma is like a cloak only his supporters can see. I have never been able to understand it. He strikes me as too thin-skinned, unhinged, and unprepared for the office he is about to enter, and I think the aspects of humanity he represents, knowingly or otherwise, are much worse.

Some see through the bravado, straight to his authoritarian tendencies. His bullying of companies resonated with one Nobel economist as comparable to 1930’s fascist economic policies in Germany and Italy. Maybe that’s a bit much, but there is no harm in overestimating the danger of a political situation; whole civilizations have been lost to underestimations.

One positive aspect of the election is that any notion Republicans stand for “individual rights” and “limited government,” for anyone other than themselves, is dead. They could have stopped Trump, but chose not to. Moving forward, I think any attempts to work from within the political system to somehow reach out to Trump is a fool’s errand. The best his party can do is stall him and divert his attention, and try to redefine themselves in eight years or so, because they are welded to him until then.

As for me, I hope and pray I never bow down and accept Trumpism. That would mean I gave up, like many of my fellow countrymen already have.