Trump’s nihilism of ideas

So, I just posted on what Trump “believes” about the economy (and, really, I’m pretty sure he believes these horribly misguided things), but this David Roberts piece on Trump’s lack of beliefs is simply amazing.  Honestly, one of the best explanations I’ve read for trying to understand the craziness that is the mind of Trump.  So deserves to be read in full.  But, since what I always do is excerpt my favorite parts after I say that…

What gets somewhat lost in the media coverage of this back and forth is that there is no answer to the question of whether Trump opposed the war in 2003. In fact, the question itself is a category error — one the media and political class cannot help making toward Trump.

The question presumes that Trump has beliefs, “views” that reflect his assessment of the facts, “positions” that remain stable over time, woven into some sort of coherent worldview. There is no evidence that Trump has such things. That is not how he uses language.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind… [italics in original; bold is mine]

It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed…

What he’s doing is trying to establish dominance — to win, in his words. That’s what he uses words for. That’s how he sees every interaction in which he is involved. He is attuned only to what the words are doing, whether they are winning or losing, not to what they mean…

This point helps explain why Trump cannot ever admit a mistake or an error. He can only process accusations — of dishonesty, of cruelty — as social gambits, not as factual claims. To him, the demand that he apologize or admit error is nothing more than a dominance play. Apologizing is losing.

It helps explain why Trump has focused so much on trade, and why he sounds so much stronger and more confident talking about it than on almost any other subject. It’s not that he knows anything about it. He doesn’t. It’s just that he sees all international relations — trade deals, climate deals, NATO, whatever — as zero-sum contests, negotiations in which the only relevant question is who will dominate, who will win. And he gets that. It’s his whole life!

You get the gist.  And let me know if you’ve actually seen a better explanation for Trump’s personality and beliefs.

Understanding Trump’s misunderstanding of the economy

Among the more damning indictments of public opinion and democracy (beyond the fact that Trump is polling over 30%) is the fact that Americans actually believe Trump would be better for the economy than Clinton.

Image result for trump economy

In truth, of course, Trump is an economic disaster.  Nothing could be more telling than the fact that not a single former member of the Council of Economic Advisers endorses him for president.

So, why is he so bad?  Lots of reasons, but I love this Bill Ayers post that absolutely cuts to the heart of it.  In Trump’s deal-making world, it’s always zero-sum.  In the real world, economies almost always perform better from mutually beneficial cooperation.  Ayers:

In her opening answer to the first [debate] question, Clinton talked about cooperation and sharing – investing in workers, sharing profits, working together. The how wasn’t there, but the basic idea was clear: economic progress comes from cooperation. Wealth is created by working together.

Trump’s answer to the same question was all about competition. He talked about losing, about winning, about fighting. He framed the economy as us (the United States) against them (Mexico, China). He talked about jobs being stolen. In his view, the economy is a zero-sum game: either we win or they win. Whatever they gain, we lose. Jobs are a fixed commodity. [emphases mine]

The thing about this contrast is that it isn’t just a matter of differing philosophies or differing ideologies. Economics may be derided as “the dismal science”, but a social science it is. Questions like, “what generates more wealth – cooperation or zero-sum competition?” are not philosophical quandaries, they are empirical puzzles with real-world answers.

In this case, in the broadest terms, the answer is clear. Zero-sum competition makes everybody poorer, both through lost opportunities (“opportunity costs”, to economists) and through wasted and inefficient efforts. Cooperation, by contrast, generates wealth…

Economists disagree on many things, but this isn’t one of them. There isn’t a single economist anywhere who thinks that an economy based on the competition of all against all is a good idea. Indeed, the very notion of economic growth belies the possibility of zero-sum economics. How can we create new jobs and new wealth if all we’re doing is passing the same jobs and the same wealth around?

On this issue, Trump is not merely misguided on policy, he’s fundamentally wrong. He’s like an astronomer trying to model the solar system with the earth at its center. The world just doesn’t work that way.

This is one dimension of the presidential campaign that has both policy and moral dimensions. Policy driven by zero-sum economics will make everybody poorer. Insisting that the world is a dog-eat-dog place will make us morally poorer as well. Small wonder the world’s markets regard a Trump presidency as a disaster of the first order.

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