Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Trump Is Like

I read a story a long time ago that I think captures my thoughts on Trump pretty well. I'll start with the pithy version of the idea, which is Sarang's description of Trump as an "idiot savant" who is masterful at certain kinds of communication but lacks practically any other skill, intelligence, or curiosity. This is clearly right, and in a sense it's all I need to make my point, but... you know me.

The longer version of the idea requires me to summarize the story, which I think is by Mark Twain, but in any case is one I read a very long time ago, and I'm probably misremembering much of it. (Update: It is "Luck," by Mark Twain. My memory was not so far off. You should read it!) Anyway, the story goes that the narrator knew a young man who was a hopelessly bad student at a military academy or something like that. Just hopeless. But the young man was facing his final exam (which might have been some kind of oral presentation), and the narrator agreed to help him prepare. The difficulty was that the exam would cover a very particular topic, but there was no way of knowing which one in advance. The narrator's solution was to train the young man extremely well in one narrow area and hope against hope that this would be the area tested.

And it works—by some miracle, the exam covers exactly the topic that the young man crammed, and he performs magnificently. He goes on to a successful career in the military despite being a complete fool.

The Twain story is probably open to different interpretations, including the possibility of an unreliable narrator. But the literal reading is how I think about Trump's success. It just so happens that he was bestowed with exactly the right attributes to appeal to the Republicans in 2016, as the Onion predicted.

And of course he was incredibly lucky in the way the general election played out—the hacking of the DNC's and John Podesta's emails, the Comey letter, etc. (including, yes, an opponent who turned out to be weaker than many of us had hoped and expected).

The key point here is that, just like the idiotic cadet in the Mark Twain story, Trump managed to pass through a sorting mechanism that should weed out people like him, but that didn't for reasons that were extremely unlikely ex ante. (I'm not saying his approach was unlikely to work ex ante, I mean that only his combination of racial resentment and boorish behavior, combined with bizarrely effective communication skills, could get such an incompetent man into the White House.) And the upshot is that he's vastly stupider and less disciplined than you would expect based on where he ended up.

This creates cognitive dissonance so strong that I usually can't override my disbelief. He can't be that stupid and undisciplined, can he? Yes he can. In fact probably the best mental model for Trump is "typical but mean-spirited deranged old white guy whose only pursuits are golf and watching Fox News." (There is also all of the self-enrichment and tax dodging and whatnot, but for functional purposes we can ignore that. If Trump actually becoming a billionaire is the worst thing that happens during his presidency, we will have gotten off light.)

And that's it, that's my point. Interpretations of Trump that turn on his intelligence or strategic insight are wrong. He is very good at a very narrow set of things, and by weird coincidence it landed him in the White House. His decision-making should be understood by analogy to, say, a dog that is easily distracted by squirrels, not a rational individual capable of anticipating the future or delaying gratification. (His advisers may have those attributes, but he seems to be unmanageable.) I'll have more to say about this, but for now I just want to take note of this basic fact about where things stand.