As the world fumbles toward another world war, the U.S. fumbles toward a Trump presidency

After Donald Trump made a particularly egregious series of “fact-free” claims, the question of “truthfulness” in the Republican primary campaign for the presidential nomination has come to the fore. At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza worries about the implications of all this for “democracy”[1] (he means a “republic”). At the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib argues that Trump’s and Carson’s support comes from voters who are too angry to care about “facts.”[2] Indeed, Republican voters are reportedly three times as angry at government as Democrats.[3] Meanwhile, it is increasingly apparent, as I have previously remarked,[4] that Trump may well be the Republican nominee,[5] which if true, certainly raises questions about what happens when somebody who doesn’t care much for facts becomes president.

My first immediate response is that Trump would not be the first “fact-challenged” president. Ronald Reagan relied on such sterling sources as the Reader’s Digest and Human Events; he apparently cared more for the performance than the content, a concern that a “reality show” president might share. Some might say that Reagan cared more than Trump about avoiding nuclear war, even going so far as to offer to share “Star Wars” anti-ballistic missile technology with the Soviets.[6] But this was far from apparent when Reagan was elected; indeed, Reagan’s hard line attitude toward “communists” and his disdain for environmental protection were among my reasons for choosing and making a permanent decision never to have children.

But in fact, the United States has moved much farther and probably more dangerously to the right since the Reagan presidency. I also remember thinking when Reagan was elected that perhaps his presidency would discredit conservative ideology so that the U.S. might move in a progressive direction. Now, some have remarked that Reagan could not win a Republican primary contest, that he would be considered much too moderate. And, if this were the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up, the positions that Bernie Sanders advocates now would be far from “socialist” or “radical,” but rather entirely mainstream (figure 1). Which is all to say that comparisons between former President Reagan and a possible President Trump are of limited value.

Matt Wuerker, Politico, November 21, 2015, via GoComics, fair use.
Fig. 1. Matt Wuerker, Politico, November 21, 2015, via GoComics, fair use.

These days, we’re no longer accustomed to thinking in “cold war” terms, but the “proto-world war” in Syria,[7] the cold war in Eastern Europe, and the not-so-cold war in Ukraine[8] just became a whole lot more worrisome with a Turkish shoot-down of a Russian military jet,[9] which means we need to weigh the possibility of a Trump presidency all the more seriously. And while Nate Silver argues that poll results at this stage in the campaign don’t merit such concern,[10] political science professor Alan Abramowitz raises an important—and, to me, entirely unsatisfactorily answered—question of just how it could be that Trump does not become the Republican nominee.[11]

I’ve already written on multiple occasions that I regard Trump’s all-but-crowned opponent, Hillary Clinton, as unelectable in the general election. Progressives will only vote for her to the extent they fear a President Trump.[12] Many remain disgusted with her ties to Wall Street. Her presumed advantage going into a general election campaign may vanish as Republicans rally around a single candidate, whoever that candidate might be.[13] Given a new emphasis on so-called “national security” following the Paris attack and with the war in Syria going from bad to worse, Clinton will be squeezed from both sides: People who oppose war will also be reviewing Clinton’s relatively hawkish stances on so-called “national security.”[14] And even those who prioritize so-called “national security” will need to overcome Clinton’s dubious and almost certainly illegal use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State.[15] Making matters worse, Clinton attempted (and failed miserably) to rationalize her relationship with Wall Street by invoking the 9/11 attacks.[16] To put it mildly, a vote for Clinton will be a vote for cognitive dissonance. And when people are fearful, as they apparently are now both on the economy and on national security (table 1),[17] they are likely to turn right.[18]

Table 1. ABC News/Washington Post Poll via PollingReport, fair use. Nov. 16-19, 2015. N=1,004 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5.
“Which of these is the single most important issue in your choice for president? Is it the economy, health care, immigration issues, tax policy, or the threat of terrorism?” Options rotated
Economy 33
Terrorism 28
Health care 13
Immigration 10
Tax policy 5
Other (vol.) 1
Any 2 or more (vol.) 9
None (vol.) 1
Unsure 1

It’s true that in my analysis, I’m neglecting Trump’s weaknesses in a general election campaign, while emphasizing Clinton’s. The trouble is that what we’re seeing so far is that Trump’s purported weaknesses in fact appear to be strengths, while Clinton simply doesn’t have any strengths.

For folks on the left, the prospect of a Trump presidency will be extremely worrisome. And it’s possible to argue that they should be even more worried than they might already be. Because one of the issues raised by my dissertation is that many conservatives appear to share a profound epistemological difference from many others: They diminish or dismiss empirical evidence.[19] So when Seib argues that Republican voters are too angry to care about the “truth,”[20] what he’s really pointing to is an exacerbated but already existing prejudice. And as then-president George W. Bush demonstrated in invading Iraq, that information may be dubious was far from a reason for restraint; rather, false information was used as propaganda in support of aggression.

This prejudice may soon enjoy unimpeded control of the U.S. government just as the world may be fumbling toward another world war—one in which several players have significant stockpiles of nuclear weapons. And it would be doing so at the very time the world needs to be focusing on already manifest existential threats to human survival such as climate change rather than manifesting what has for many years seemed to be the latent threat of nuclear war. Those of us who remember the doctrine of mutual-assured doctrine may well believe this is something for the whole world to be alarmed about.

  1. [1]Chris Cillizza, “Donald Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign,” Washington Post, November 23, 2015,
  2. [2]Gerald F. Seib, “Why Donald Trump Survives the Waves He Makes,” Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2015,
  3. [3]Nick Gass, “Poll: GOP three times as angry at government,” Politico, November 23, 2015,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “The populist party in the U.S. is not Democratic,” Not Housebroken, November 22, 2015,
  5. [5]Paul Krugman, “Thinking About the Trumpthinkable,” New York Times, November 22, 2015,
  6. [6]Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  7. [7]Sergio Peçanha, Sarah Almukhtar, and K. K. Rebecca Lai, “Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War,” New York Times, October 18, 2015,
  8. [8]Max Fisher, “No, Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane will not spark World War III,” Vox, November 24, 2015,
  9. [9]Ceylan Yeginsu and Neil MacFarquhar, “Turkey Shoots Down Russian Warplane Near Syrian Border,” New York Times, November 24, 2015,
  10. [10]Nate Silver, “Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls,” FiveThirtyEight, November 23, 2015,
  11. [11]Alan Abramowitz, quoted in Paul Krugman, “Thinking About the Trumpthinkable,” New York Times, November 22, 2015,
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The populist party in the U.S. is not Democratic,” Not Housebroken, November 22, 2015,
  13. [13]Patrick Healy, “Wall St. Ties Linger as Image Issue for Hillary Clinton,” New York Times, November 21, 2015,; Albert R. Hunt, “Clinton’s Weaknesses Are Hidden by Republican Disarray,” Bloomberg, November 22, 2015,
  14. [14]Kelly J. O’Brien, “Answers to all the questions journalists might have about Hillary Clinton’s emails,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 5, 2015,; Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes, “Edging right, Clinton seeks distance from Obama on ISIS,” Hill, November 24, 2015,; Josh Voorhees, “Why Hillary Clinton Has Moved So Far and So Fast to the Left,” Slate, June 8, 2015,
  15. [15]Rachael Bade, “FBI steps up interviews in Clinton email probe,” Politico, November 10, 2015,; Rachael Bade and Josh Gerstein, “Hillary Clinton camp: Email ‘thumb drive is secure’,” Politico, July 30, 2015,; Bill Curry, “This is why Hillary’s losing: The issue Jeb Bush and Donald Trump understand, which may keep Clinton from the White House,” Salon, July 26, 2015,; Ken Dilanian, “Investigators found classified information in Clinton’s email, but what does that mean?,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 31, 2015,; Josh Gerstein and Nick Gass, “Clinton’s email woes deepen as classified messages pile up,” Politico, September 30, 2015,; Evan Halper, “Federal investigators want Justice Department probe of Hillary Clinton emails,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2015,; Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, and Carol D. Leonnig, “Tech company: No indication that Clinton’s e-mail server was ‘wiped’,” Washington Post, September 13, 2015,; Mark Hensch, “Poll: Majority believe Clinton lied about emails,” Hill, August 14, 2015,; Annie Karni, “Allies fault Hillary Clinton’s response on emails,” Politico, August 19, 2015,; Anita Kumar, Marisa Taylor, and Greg Gordon, “‘Top Secret’ emails found as Clinton probe expands to key aides,” McClatchy, August 11, 2015,; Trevor Timm, “Sorry, Hillary Clinton fans: her email errors are definitely newsworthy,” Guardian, August 1, 2015,; Jonathan Turley, “Clinton: ‘Pretty Clear’ No Emails Were Classified Despite Contrary Findings Of Inspector General,” July 26, 2015,; Jonathan Turley, “The State Department Flags More Than 300 Clinton Emails As Possibly Classified,” August 18, 2015,
  16. [16]James Downie, “Hillary Clinton’s unbelievable defense of Wall Street contributions,” Washington Post, November 15, 2015,; New York Times, “Hillary Clinton Botches Wall Street Questions,” November 15, 2015,; Janell Ross, “Hillary Clinton invoked 9/11 to defend her ties to Wall Street. What?” Washington Post, November 15, 2015,
  17. [17]PollingReport, “Problems and Priorities,” 2015,
  18. [18]Michael Lerner, “Why the Right Keeps Winning and the Left Keeps Losing,” Tikkun, November 10, 2014,
  19. [19]David Benfell, “Summary of dissertation work: For my oral examination (the defense),” November 17, 2015,
  20. [20]Gerald F. Seib, “Why Donald Trump Survives the Waves He Makes,” Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2015,

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