Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 in review: Donald Trump-- Social science quasi-experiment

Well.  That's behind us.  We're all good now, right?  Uh...

Anyway, today may be a good time to write a little retrospective of 2017, from a social science-y point of view.  First, some definitions.  "Quasi-experiment."  An experiment actually does have a technical definition.  When the researcher randomly assigns subjects either to a treatment or control group, that's an experiment.  For example, if you are randomly assigned to get either a real drug or a placebo, that's an experiment.  A quasi-experiment is a study in which some external event creates some dramatic change in the condition of the world, and we do a before-and-after study.  The potential problems of a quasi-experiment come from whether or not the conditions that created the dramatic event are truly random.  They often aren't, and I'll address that.

So, it has been nearly a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as President in the GREATEST ELECTORAL COLLEGE LANDSLIDE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE!!!  [cough, cough] Sorry, must be contagious...  It is worth thinking about this in terms of what happened after the 2007-8 financial collapse.  This isn't quite going where you think.  We began instituting "stress tests" for the banks after the crisis passed.  What would happen if the economy underwent certain problems?  Would the banks be able to withstand those problems without bailouts?  If so... fine.  If not, they needed to adjust what they were doing.  We can think of Donald Trump's Presidency as a stress test for America.  What if?  What if we made the worst person possible President?  What would happen?  How bad would it be?  What does that say about America?

Let's start with the premise.  What would make someone the worst person possible to be president?  First, obviously, that person would have to know absolutely nothing about anything.  That's not enough, though.  An ignorant person, in principle, would be capable of learning.  So, you'd have to make that person stupid too.  What's more, you'd make that person anti-intellectual, and hence resistant to the concept of learning.

Even that isn't enough to be the worst case scenario.  Let's add a massive ego.  I write semi-regularly about the Dunning-Kruger effect, wherein inept people believe themselves quite competent.  Not all incompetent people do, but to make this a worst case scenario, let's take this stupid person and make it a stupid person who believes himself to be the greatest genius in history, so that he doesn't think he needs to listen to anyone about anything.

Even stupidity isn't quite enough, though.  If we are really pushing the stress test for democracy, let's make this idiot deranged too.  Let's make him prone to batshit crazy conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions and all sorts of other wacko shit.  Seriously, legit-crazy.

As long as we are pushing the "crazy" thing, let's make it beyond crazy.  As in, straight-up anti-social personality disorder.  Diagnosable.  Lack of empathy, no impulse control, pathological lying, the works.  Go through the DSM symptoms, and give him everything.

That lack of impulse control is important for our discussion here.

Hell, let's make him a rapist.  Let's make him someone who brags about committing rape.  Let's make him openly racist, cozying up to neo-nazis, and all that.

Fuck it.  Let's make him completely corrupt.  Let's have him running his own business while President, while hiding his finances from everyone, after his kids admit that he is in bed... financially speaking... with Russia, which intervened in the election to put him in office.

And with all of this, let's make him so wildly insecure that he can't take any criticism from anyone, so he lashes out in the most childish of ways at anyone.

A few things should be clear about this description.  First, I am writing about Donald Trump.  Second, it sounds too absurd to be plausible.  And that leads to my third point.  I wouldn't have even thought to go that far if it weren't for Trump (would you have imagined a president who bragged about the size of his dick on the debate stage?!).  Trump's Presidency, in a sense, is the ultimate stress test for America.  He isn't just a worst case scenario as President.  He is so bad that he would have been unimaginably bad at any point prior to Trump because this just sounds too ridiculous to be real.

Banks have been complaining about the stress tests to which we subject them on the grounds that the conditions of the tests seem implausible and unrealistic.

To which I say:  Donald J. Trump.

Is Trump's Presidency an accident?  Gotta say no, at this point.  He got the nomination of a party that has been heading in this direction for decades.  There is a clear line from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump.  Anti-intellectualism, nativism, authoritarianism, and insane lies... the Republican Party has been moving in this direction for years.  This is something beyond just a trend toward conservatism because Trump isn't even conservative.  He's just a twit and a fucking asshole.  John Boehner was a conservative, and the tea party drove him out of the Speakership, even though he was one of the all-time greats.  Trump is not an accident.  We, in political science, failed to see him coming for a long time because we failed to understand what was going on in the Republican Party.  That is part of why I started this blog (the Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead series).  Trump is not an accident.  He is not a random glitch.  He is the perfect embodiment of the direction the Republican Party has been heading for decades.  The movement has been slow, and many of us in political science have tried not to write about it, but Donald Trump is nothing more than the purest distillation of Newt Gingrich.  In 1998, the GOP still had it in them to sack Gingrich, but only after the Clinton impeachment cost them seats in a midterm election.  The Gingrich-ification of the Republican Party is now complete.  In the form of Donald Trump.

So, whatever happens now, is that a product of Trump, or a product of the circumstances that led to him?

That's the problem of the quasi-experiment.

Still, we can look at where things are, empirically.  Economically, things are pretty damned good!  I hate Trump, but I'm not going to change how I write this based on who is in power.  The economy is fucking awesome right now.  GDP growth in 2017?  Q1:  1.2%, Q2: 3.1%, Q3: 3.2%.  Nice.  Unemployment?  We're down to 4.1%.  That's probably "full employment."  Inflation?  Depending on your measure, we're either just above or just below 2%, which is on target.  The stock market?  Fucking awesome!  The S&P closed at 2673 on Friday.

There are a lot of decisions that are going to be evaluated on the basis of ideology.  I won't do that, 'cuz I don't do that.  There are some objectively stupid decisions, that I have evaluated, like the healthcare sabotage.  We'll have to see how things shake out with the elimination of the cost-sharing subsidies and the repeal of the individual mandate.  That will screw things up.  How badly?  Yet to be determined.  Remember, though, that neither are purely Trump.  The GOP had been suing for the elimination of the cost-sharing subsidies in the courts during the Obama administration, and "skinny repeal" was an idea pushed originally by McConnell.  Remember the problems of the quasi-experimental design...

That leads us to... foreign affairs.  Remember that impulse control thing?  I warned as soon as Trump was elected that the biggest danger was that Trump would do something stupid and start a war that would go nuclear.  Admiral Mike Mullen is now warning about the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea.  This is something we can attribute to Trump.  Kim Jong Un isn't behaving any differently from Kim Jong Il.  Trump is behaving differently from past presidents.  The escalation and the risk come from Trump and his reckless stupidity.

Where things are most complicated, though, is in the general erosion of checks and balances.  We have a President who is clearly guilty of obstruction of justice (the firing of James Comey), whose campaign was clearly coordinating with Russia over the DNC hacks (even though Trump still denies Russia even did the hacking!), who is still running a business that receives financial benefits both from the policies he is pursuing and from the individuals with whom he interacts, both domestic and foreign, as President.  Amid all of this, what does Congress do?  They stonewall any and all investigations.  Why?  Because the President is of the same party.  Devin Nunes, Tom Cotton, and plenty of others have taken it upon themselves to act primarily as protectors of their party, and to do so, they must act as protectors of the President.

The analogy I keep making is as follows.  Donald Trump has an electoral bomb strapped to him, with a dead-man trigger, and the entire Republican Party is chained to him.  If Trump goes down, the Republican Party suffers something as bad or worse than 1974-6.  They have decided, collectively, that the best way to protect themselves is to rally around their President, deny all charges, block all investigations and defend him from all accusations, regardless of what evidence surfaces.

As I keep writing, I do not think that there is any evidence that could possibly get the GOP to turn on Trump.  There could be a video of Trump promising Putin to do whatever Vlady wants, as long as the golden shower tape doesn't get released.  The golden shower tape could be real.  It could get released.  Trump's financial records could show him making a personal payment to Putin, the day before the DNC hacks were released, along with a phone record of Putin telling Trump that he would owe Vlady once in office.  None of this would get the Republican Party to turn on Trump.

None of it.

What would Trump say?

Say it with me:  "Fake news."  Fox would claim they're all forgeries, Hillary is behind it, and blah, blah, blah.

The economy will have its ups-and-downs.  It always does.  I can't predict when its next "down" will be.  What's going to happen in the health insurance markets?  It'll be bad.  How bad?  We'll see.  Will there be nuclear war?  I'd bet against it, but that's as fallacious as Pascal's wager.  If I'm wrong, we're fucked anyway.  Really, the odds are still against it, but they're way higher than they should be.

What is the real consequence of our worst-case-scenario president?  The complete and total erosion of all checks and balances.  Then again, the party that has decided to neither check nor balance him is the same party that nominated him, or at least, those who refuse to check or balance him are the same actors who failed to block him from the nomination.  Remember the problem with the quasi-experiment?  Yeah, there it is.  Is Trump the problem, or just a symptom?

Really hard to say.

But hey, the economy is awesome, the stock market is awesome, so far we aren't in a nuclear war...  All we have to worry about is the complete erosion of all norms and rules of democracy.


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