By Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter
Trump in the grand scheme of things: I just published a big piece in Wired—‘big’ in the sense of pretty long, but also ‘big’ in the sense of ambitious (and ‘in Wired’ in the sense of actually being in the physical magazine, just like in olden days). The piece aims to put Trump and Trumpism in cosmic perspective—to see them in the context of the full sweep of human history. I argue that if we understand where Trump fits into history, we can make something good out of what he leaves behind.
This piece captures a big part of my world view and a big part—a very big part—of why I started the Mindful Resistance Newsletter. Yet it’s a part of my world view that hasn’t been all that conspicuous in MRN; it enters the newsletter mainly in fragmentary and oblique ways. So I hope you’ll find time to read the piece. As I said, it’s kind of long. But here’s the first, not-so-long part—if you find it worthwhile, you can click and read the rest:
Make Globalism Great Again
By Robert Wright
A FEW DAYS before the 2016 election, journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote this about Donald Trump: “He has no concept of a nonzero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace.”
I’m not sure dominating other people is the only occasion when Trump feels at peace. Presumably there’s a moment during what is reportedly his standard McDonald’s meal—two Big Macs, two Filets-O-Fish, and a chocolate milkshake—when all seems right with the world.
Still, in Trump’s hierarchy of bliss, dominance does seem to rank at the top. “I love to crush the other side and take the benefits,” he wrote in a book called Think Big. “Why? Because there is nothing greater. For me it is even better than sex, and I love sex.” He went on to observe: “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win. That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”
So it makes sense that, two years after Trump entered office, Sullivan’s game theoretical framing has caught on. The zero-sum game—in which the players’ fortunes are inversely correlated, so that for one player to win the other must lose—has become a standard paradigm for the Trump presidency. If you Google “Donald Trump” and “zero-sum” you’ll get such headlines as “Trump’s Zero Sum Delusion,” “Donald Trump and the Rise of Zero-Sum Politics,” and simply “Zero-Sum Trump.”
Some of the articles attached to these headlines are about economics. They may lament Trump’s gleeful anticipation of “winning” the trade wars he starts—as if trade were a zero-sum game—and his seeming obliviousness to the fact that trade wars can have lose-lose outcomes. Other articles focus on world affairs more broadly. Nations come together to pursue win-win outcomes in the face of all kinds of problems, from financial meltdowns, climate change, and weapons proliferation to overfishing of the seas. And Trump’s attitude toward the institutions that embody such nonzero-sum engagement is notably lacking in warmth.
As journalist Jonathan Swan wrote on Axios this summer, “Trump has expressed skepticism, and in some cases outright hostility, towards NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Group of Seven.” Swan added that Trump has “already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran deal” and “announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
The zero-sum label applies not just to Trump’s policy preferences but to his political style. He’s expert at evoking reactions that seem to have been engineered by evolution for zero-sum situations, notably fear of, hatred of, and contempt for a perceived enemy. Bill Clinton presumably had Trump in mind when he said, five months into Trump’s presidency, “We’ve seen a resurgence in the oldest of all social reactions—the tendency to look at people first as the other, to think of life in zero-sum terms, it’s us versus them.”
I claim an increment of credit for Clinton’s conversance in game theory. During his presidency I published a book about human history and the future called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which he read and said some nice things about and assigned to White House staffers to read. Clinton even said the book had a big influence on his presidency.
As a result of all this, I once got some face time with Clinton. And when the subject turned to my book (which I made sure it did), he said what he had liked about it was that it was realistic—not naive—yet hopeful.
And it’s true that, after documenting humankind’s historical drift toward bigger and bigger cooperative networks—a process driven by technological change—I had sketched out a pretty sunny possible future.
It was a future in which the world’s nations grasp that they’re enmeshed in lots of nonzero-sum games and act accordingly: working together to solve various problems, gradually building the foundation of good global governance.
I even said this political progress could involve moral progress. People of different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, aware of their interdependence, of the correlation of their fates, could muster the tolerance that facilitates peaceful coexistence and active collaboration. We needn’t let our tribal impulses prevail over nonzero-sum logic, I opined 19 years ago.
That was then. Now we’ve got a president who not only resists playing nonzero-sum games but actively fans emotions that impede the wise playing of them. And as if that weren’t enough, the fanning of those emotions can recalibrate the games, making lose-lose outcomes even worse than they would be otherwise. The more tribalized the world is—the more antagonistically divided along national, ethnic, religious, ideological lines—the more danger there is in, for example, letting arms control challenges go unaddressed: The more nations will be in the mood to lob missiles, the more terrorist groups there will be that might get ahold of a nuke or a bioweapon. Trump’s policy instincts make good governance hard, and his political style makes the consequences of bad governance grave.
Still, hope springs eternal, and so does my belief that hope can be reconciled with realism. There’s reason to think that, in a weird way, the Trump presidency, rather than drag us into a death spiral of tribalism and lethal technology, could be a roundabout path to a higher plane.
You can read the whole piece in Wired here.
To impeach or not to impeach? This week’s BuzzFeed report that Trump suborned perjury led to a new wave of impeachment talk. Then, awkwardly for those doing the talking, the Special Counsel’s office said the story wasn’t entirely accurate.
But rest assured that there will be more impeachment talk. And I’m guessing that when all the evidence comes out, this talk won’t be wholly without foundation. Which raises the question: should you join in the talk? Should you urge your congressional representatives to impeach, and become an impeachment enthusiast, and click on so many impeachment-related headlines that Google starts mainlining impeachment news into your brain?
Your call. I’d just like to lay out some reasons it’s a tough call—why it’s not obvious to me that a drive for impeachment is a good move, and why getting too wrapped up in this issue could be a waste of time and energy.
Suppose, for starters, that impeachment results in Trump’s early departure from the White House. That is: either (1) not only does the House impeach Trump (which could well happen) but the Senate convicts him (much less likely, since that requires a two-thirds vote); or (2) Trump resigns under the pressure of impeachment, somewhat as Nixon did.
In these scenarios, we wind up with Mike Pence as president. Now, in many ways, I find the prospect of a Pence presidency significantly less horrifying than the reality of a Trump presidency. On the other hand, Pence’s governing ideology would probably be, basically, Trumpism—partly because of some of his natural leanings and partly because he would inherit Trump’s base and a GOP reshaped by Trump. Or, at least, it would be Trumpism with a few rough edges smoothed off.
Some of those edges are definitely worth smoothing off (e.g. Trump’s mindless violation of norms, and his mind-numbing day-to-day noise level). But precisely because Pence would in this sense seem like a breath of fresh air, he’d probably be more likely to get re-elected in 2020 than Trump would. So the impeachment of Trump could be good for Trumpism in the long run.
And in some ways Pence could be worse than Trump. Though Trump has largely obliged the GOP’s neoconservative foreign policy establishment, he at least has spasms of doubt about the value of prolific military intervention. These spasms aren’t shared by the establishment and probably wouldn’t be shared by a President Pence.
Don’t get me wrong: Like Resisters in general, I feel good when I hear of some new piece of damning evidence about Trump, or when I imagine him leaving the White House in disgrace. But part of the point of mindfulness is to not accept your feelings as guides to thought without carefully inspecting them. When I pause to think about it, I’m far from sure that Trump’s leaving the White House via impeachment in, say, January of 2020 would be better than his leaving via the ballot box in January of 2021 (though, of course, a January 2020 departure has the virtue of precluding a second term in office).
You can play this game of “what ifs” all day. The “What if the House impeaches and the Senate doesn’t convict and Trump doesn’t resign” scenario has all kinds of hypothetical branches emanating from it, ranging from “Trump is usefully chastened” to “Trump destabilizes the world via various gambits aimed at preserving the allegiance of his base during the impeachment drama.”
I hope all this explains why I’m an impeachment agnostic. Emotionally drawn as I am to the impeachment scenario, when I reflect on the matter I realize I just don’t know if impeachment would be good or bad.
Amid the uncertainty, I try to stay true to something I’m more sure of: The ultimate enemy is Trumpism, not Trump. So I shouldn’t let my loathing of the latter undermine, or even distract me from, opposition to the former. Which means, among other things, trying to reduce my loathing level. (And here, actually, Trump’s sheer clownishness can be an asset; I find it harder to hate a malicious buffoon than, say, a malicious mastermind).
I also try to think about what policies best combat Trumpism. If you want to get the biggest picture, longest-term view of what I mean by that, read my aforementioned Wired piece. (Sorry to keep flacking it, but I spent a lot of time on it, and it’s as close as I can come to a magnum opus on why Trump and Trumpism are here and what we should do about it.)
This week’s impeachment whipsaw—first the BuzzFeed story was billed as a nail in Trump’s coffin, after which the Mueller office seemed to put a nail in the BuzzFeed story’s coffin—is, if nothing else, a reminder of one thing: you can save a lot of time by not staying attuned to the ups and downs of the impeachment stock market. And maybe you can use that time wisely.
Each week, the Mindful Resistance Newsletter presents a calm and balanced summary of the news along with reflections and background reading about the problem of Trumpism and how to fight it intelligently.
Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Why Buddhism Is True.