The morning after Trump was elected, people in my university class were crying.
Fair enough, you think: you’ve heard about the emotional fragility of today’s youth, and perhaps you’ve read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s great book The Coddling of the American Mind. If so, you’re not unfamiliar with youngsters overreacting to seemingly mundane and pretty inconsequential things. Strange to cry about a vilified political figure getting elected, but not unheard of.
The kicker? This was in the U.K., a literal ocean away.
Why did my fellow classmates, with no immediate connections to the U.S. or intentions to move to America, react like this?
I see at least two reasons. The first is the dominance of symbols and emotions over reason, part of which Lukianoff and Haidt have so expertly identified in their book and preceding articles. What matters to the most vocal of today’s campaigners is not actual impact, but feeling good – not doing good. It is of utmost importance that people of “your tribe” occupy the central megaphones of the world, and most certainly the seats of power.
The second is the mindset of a top-down central planner, thinking – erroneously – that all major changes in life and society happen because a politician (or at least bureaucrat) willed it into action. My classmate seriously thought that the wrong person in the White House translates into disaster even for her life, on a different continent.
The fabulous Deirdre McCloskey is, as always, wonderful on this: get out of your head. Warren Buffett, also; almost radically unconcerned with the latest political fads or stock market tantrums. They see the bigger picture: that changes in life, markets, and societies are subject to much longer trends and are much more pervasive than whoever happens to wield the powers of government in one country at any given time.
Besides, bar a complete corona collapse of the West, our political institutions work fairly well: checks-and-balances and all that. While not front-page stuff, a lot of controversial and aggressive political action in recent years have been struck down by judges. Trump puts on a big show – does a lot of “tawking” as Nicholas Nassim Taleb would say – but there’s isn’t much happening.
Almost nothing in the world happens because the tip of a political iceberg decides something one way or another. Almost everything that happens, good or bad, happens organically – decentralized, spontaneously, as the sum total of all our individual actions and beliefs. Politicians change things on the margin: tax rates a little bit up or down, this regulation or that changed a little bit, some policy covering more people or perhaps fewer people. With the reaction to the pandemic being a massive exception, political leaders don’t really do that much in the world.
But even that is not so clear. Those of us opposing the lockdowns are in the strange position of blaming the politicians for events that, at least to some extent, would have happened anyway. Early in the pandemic, for instance, Will Luther on these pages showed that many (if not most) of the behavioral changes we experienced in staying at home occurred before most lockdowns came into effect. We can police ourselves as well as an authoritarian regime can relegate us to our homes by force.
Even looking at relatively open societies like Sweden or Iceland, what American and British politicians can reasonably be blamed for is the overreaction compared to those baselines – not the full way down to zero in the Oxford Government Response index. Not all of what’s gone wrong in the U.S. or the U.K. is to blame on the unfortunate politician inheriting the situation – only the part of which they exaggerated, overdid, underdid, or botched.
Matt Yglesias, an always interesting writer, seems to believe that Trump “has changed policy in ways that affect the lives of millions of Americans.” Maybe, but isn’t this just present bias talking? We’re so wrapped up in the now that we forget to see the bigger picture – the long-run picture.
If we are to believe Yglesias (writing, in his defense, before the pandemic), the changes to American society that are associated with Trump include: some fewer people get to vote, some fewer white-collar criminals going to jail, some people having their health insurance coverage changed, and – ostensibly – packing the Supreme court with slightly-less-liberal judges which, in turn, will for the future affect the law of the land somewhat. Add somewhat laxer environmental protection rules, and easier lives for miners and frackers and that’s about it.
Depending on your degree of ideological hysteria, that might be “a lot” or “too much,” but in the grand scheme of things it’s hard to say that any of it is revolutionary – or something worth crying over, uncontrollably. And we don’t need a life-changing pandemic to remind us that changes elsewhere in the world (health, markets, innovations, fashion, trends, or beliefs among the rest of us) clearly outweigh anything that the so-called “Leader of the Free World” does.
Perhaps the President appoints a few hundred employees – or maybe he even fills a thousand positions during his term – but usually of fairly centrist people (the current administration being an exception). Or at least people who push power-wielding towards their ideological goal only a little bit in their small domains. In the big picture, that’s nothing compared to the millions and millions of people who are, directly or indirectly, already employed by states or the federal government.
Take the subject of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book: rapidly changing beliefs about free speech and allowable opinion among the college-educated young. We owe everything from “cancel culture” to “mansplaining” to “microaggressions” to intolerant political polarization to this decentralized change in how young people look at the world. I have a hard time believing that Trump’s (minor) changes in the tax code more fundamentally altered the lives of Americans than this.
Or, to take a literally more close-to-hand example: your smartphone. In less than a decade, smartphones went from exciting tech innovation to being everywhere. No government did that; no politician enacted laws for that; no President willed into existence all the massive changes to our lives that smartphones have permitted – for good and bad, of course.
But even the narrowly economic outcomes aren’t that affected by the latest flavor of political power. Caleb Silver at Investopedia reports that “the president’s ability to impact the economy and markets is generally indirect and marginal.” While presidents certainly “can impact the stock market, the President probably gets too much blame and too much credit when it goes down or up.”
Why would we ever think that the outcome of an election would be the literal end of the world – one old, silly, white man against another (or woman, in the case of 2016)? How one guy is Our Lord and Savior but the other one is, in my landlady’s words, “The most dangerous man alive?”
It’s a mistake to think that all this power over outcomes in the world accrue to the Presidency. This isn’t a binary world: it was never “Trump or nothing,” or “Trump or Utopia.” What can be reasonably ascribed to Trump is the minor difference between him and the next guy (who, in the grand scheme of things agrees with him on 95% of issues) – deflated by the sum of changes in technology, markets, finance, trends, fashion and even societal beliefs.
Crying about the outcome of an election, half a world away, is not only useless. It is entirely misplaced.