Trump Rides the Black Swan

Trump's supporters already believe that America is in the throes of disaster — his rise is only understandable as a reaction to that belief.

By Berny Belvedere Published on June 2, 2016

On Thursday, May 26, the Associated Press reported that Donald Trump cleared the 1,237 delegate requirement to be the Republican Party’s nominee for president. This is the outcome that, during the primaries, much of the professional pundit class dismissed as extremely unlikely to happen. When it happened, these experts underwent a rare introspective moment — filled with mea culpas and self-flagellation — in the hopes of diagnosing what went wrong and correcting it.

One common resolution is that moving forward, electoral prognostications should guard against weighting past outcomes too heavily; results from recent history, however explanatorily powerful they seem to us to be, should not cause us to doubt what is happening right in front of our eyes. Embracing a theory, such as “The Party Decides,” is perfectly fine, so long as it doesn’t block what is currently happening from factoring into our analyses.

With that said, it’s understandable why experts got the Republican race so wrong. Although it would seem that an industry-wide inability to predict Trump’s victory constitutes a damning indictment of the state of our political analysis, the reality is that this year’s race really has been very different from past ones in key ways. Aside from the few Humean skeptics among us, we all expect the future to be like the past, until it isn’t, and then we formulate new projections based on the latest patterns that we observe. Put simply: it’s understandable to encounter a sui generis candidate like Trump and expect that he would fade away. Since that didn’t happen, there is a new normal we must take into account.

Now that Trump has won his Party’s nomination, will the lessons we’ve learned from the primaries help us predict the presidential contest more accurately? Even though a Trump victory in November seems improbable, perhaps in the same way that a Trump nomination seemed improbable during the primaries, how might he pull off another upset and take the presidency?

Gray Swan?

Ross Douthat thinks he could do so if enough mildly destabilizing, as opposed to catastrophically damaging, events take place during the next several months. This is the Gray Swan theory of Trump: his presidential path cleared not by an America in utter disarray, but by instances of minor disorder.

Douthat is alluding to the Black Swan theory, developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to refer to large-scale, unforeseen events whose consequences tend to be monumental in shaping world history. Douthat’s Gray Swan theory, by contrast, refers to disorder of a more controlled kind. Events “startling enough” to generate support for Trump, but not so devastating that they push people into the arms of a more composed candidate.

Douthat imagines what such a scenario might look like: “[Trump’s] ideal summer and fall would feature a new form of chaos with every news cycle: Zika in the summer months, a child migration crisis when the weather cooled, a European capital in lockdown every other week. He would want to campaign amid a persistent mood of instability, anxiety and dislocation, but one that didn’t make people so anxious that they started worrying about all the obvious ways that he might make things worse.”

I’m not so sure about this.

Black Swan on the Horizon?

Douthat is operating with a three-category framework: stability, instability and apocalypse. Trump can win, he claims, if voters sense America is unstable, but he will lose if voters believe either of the other two descriptions about the state of America heading into November.

We can eliminate “stability” right off the bat, since our highly-polarized and partisan-charged political atmosphere virtually guarantees that opposition parties will find enough destabilizing occurrences in the world to paint sitting governments as bad stewards of their offices. The real question, for this election and for all future presidential elections as far as I can tell, is whether the electorate comes to see America as enduring a wobbly moment or whether they take it to be free-falling in full, cataclysmic descent.

This summer, if the gray swans migrate to our news feeds, Hillary will win. Demographically, she has a significant advantage, and barring an exogenous shock, Trump will not be able to turn enough of these voters over to his side. But if the black swans come instead, Trump could ride them to victory. Why do I think this?

Because among those who are already supporting Trump there is a pervasive sense that America is in deep trouble. In other words, forget about the objective measures used to conclude that the economy is strong and that America’s position in the world remains unchallenged, the subjective — i.e. inner — experiences of Trump supporters is that America is in the throes of disaster. You don’t vote in the outsider when things are just sort-of bad; Trump’s rise is only understandable as a reaction to the belief among a segment of the population that America is on the brink. It’s not outlandish to think that we’re an event or two away from a far larger segment of the population feeling the same way.

Consider how Douthat characterizes Trump’s appeal, first as it relates to the economy, and then as it relates to a prospective terrorist attack. He writes that it’s not as if Trump has “been riding to victory amid a swooning economy, or even an economy with the high unemployment rates that prevailed in 2012.” But this confuses objective metrics with subjective impressions. Trump’s supporters see in his protectionism an antidote to the job-destroying cosmopolitanism of Washington’s political class. Unemployment statistics don’t matter to voters who believe the ladder to the American Dream has been kicked away by career politicians who serve their own interests and who are in the grip of ideologies which privilege others ahead of Americans.

Douthat also writes that Trump “is many things, but he isn’t a reassuring figure or a steady hand, and the prospect of putting him in charge in the midst of an enormous national security crisis might give many undecided voters pause.” But, again, this doesn’t fully grapple with the psychology of the electorate in our current political climate. If an Islamic terrorist attack were to take place on our home soil at some point in the next several months, who is likelier to suffer a boost in the polls — the candidate unwilling to characterize Islamic terrorism as “Islamic” or the candidate willing to deploy “enhanced interrogation” against the families of known terrorists?

I think Trump’s chances of winning are low. But here I’m just concerned with if he does win, how he might do so. On paper, it makes sense to think that Americans would favor the steadier hand during an economic or national-security crisis. But the clearest path to a Trump presidency, in my estimation, is one in which the full power of a crisis is harnessed toward giving Americans the sense that Trump is the only candidate willing to put their interests — be they economic or national-security-related — ahead of everything else.

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