Roland Davidson: Treating Trump critically

Sunday, March 19, 2017 - 5:52pm

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Democracies need protections for political minorities; without them, society descends into mob rule. These protections are often formalized (e.g., the filibuster), but they’re also informally written into our legislatures’ codes of conduct. Compromise is essential to any functioning democracy. But with Trump, it’s a little bit different (just like everything with him is). 

The fundamental problem with negotiating with Trump is that he’s coming from such an extreme position that tactics to move him more to the center just leave you with a normal hardline position, rather than a moderate one. Consider Trump’s travel ban. Its initial implementation was an unmitigated disaster. Families were stranded in limbo at airports. Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives for a country they’d never been to were rejected at our border. There were no exemptions for travelers with green cards, which stranded international students from universities across the country. The order’s instructions to allow for expedited entry to Christians revealed its plainly Islamophobic nature. The ban was ultimately frozen by a federal court.

The newest iteration of Trump’s ban removed Iraqis from the ban, gave a 10-day warning before its implementation, allowed for green-card holders to enter the country and got rid of the religious exemptions.

In behavioral economics, there’s a concept called price anchoring, wherein your initial valuation of something acts as a reference point for all future valuations. For instance, if the first time you see a piece of jewelry and it costs $100, then you buy it a week later for $50, it’ll seem like a massive saving, even if the piece is typically only valued at $50.

The Trump administration’s new travel ban gets rid of the most egregious elements of the previous iteration, which, to the average observer, may make it seem much more reasonable. Never mind the fact that the executive order still prevents citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States or Rudy Giuliani's account of the first Muslim ban’s formulation: “(Trump) called me up, he said, ‘Put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally.’ ” In comparison, this order may seem much more reasonable than the previous one, which may limit public outrage. We can’t evaluate Trump in comparison to his hardline agenda but rather have to understand his policies as atomized units.

This lens is also useful to look at Trump’s comments about the mainstream media. Take the average citizen who doesn’t trust Trump or the media very much. When Trump claims that they're full of lies, someone may think that is taking it too far and instead opt to take a middle position where some of what the media says is a lie, or, since the media can never capture the full truth, everything they say is a half-truth. Most journalistic outfits have a well-documented slight bend toward the Democratic Party, but criticizing their integrity is taking things too far. While being moderate and judicious is frequently valorized, taking the middle-ground on the media’s honesty or Trump’s discriminatory travel ban is a dangerous game to play because the fundamental ideas themselves are so wrong.

Trump is also willing to leverage the extremeness of his policy stances to implement policies outside of the traditional Republican toolbox. A useful historical analog for this is Nixon’s détente policy with China. It took an avowed anti-Communist to open the door to negotiations with Communist China. If someone with weaker bona fides had gone, they may have been accused of being a communist sympathizer rather than a brilliant tactician.

Trump’s reputation as a successful businessman could make him the only person who can directly put pressure on companies to keep their jobs in the United States. If Obama had done the same, he may have been accused of interfering with the free market. The exact same thing is beginning to happen with Trump’s immigration policies. When he talks about creating comprehensive immigration reform, people normally against it will likely fall in line behind it, because Trump has been so anti-immigrant in the past. In other words, it takes someone who has spent almost two years denigrating Mexican immigrants to fix our failing immigration system. This last example is likely also driven by the previously discussed phenomenon of price-anchoring. If Trump does enact immigration reform, it’ll be in the context of his wall and hardline approach to immigrants, so any policy he proposes will seem comparatively less noxious.

Maybe this all seems like a stretch since so much of the White House seems to be driven by sheer incompetence (see: Kellyanne Conway’s claims that Obama could spy on Trump using his microwave), but I don’t think that’s a helpful frame. Ascribing actions to idiocy means that they can’t be countered. This strategy of negotiating from extremes is a proven one and has benefited far-right parties in Europe. Poland’s Law and Justice party was able to further universal health care using these tactics and shored up their electoral weaknesses, winning the largest electoral victory in Poland’s democratic history. As citizens, we have to resist the temptation for false equanimity, lest we let the far-right continue to control the United States.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.