First-Order Myopia: What Donald Trump Can Learn from Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith and his companions at Carthage Jail. Image obtained through Creative Commons.

Joseph Smith and his companions at Carthage Jail. Image obtained through Creative Commons.

Joseph Smith’s life was cut short because he failed to look beyond first-order consequences. Trump should learn from his mistake.

In the summer of 1844, the bustling new city of Nauvoo, Illinois, was a powder keg. Doctrinal disputes and personal feuds had birthed a state of heightened tension between Joseph Smith, the mayor of Nauvoo and founder of Mormonism, and certain Mormon dissidents. These tensions came to a head on June 7, when some of Smith’s detractors published the first (and only) edition of the Nauvoo Expositor, a four-page newspaper that featured diatribes against Joseph and other prominent Mormons. The paper’s denunciations were unrelenting – high-ranking Mormons were compared to the Spanish Inquisition, accused of being anti-democratic, charged with embezzling church funds, and saddled with the charges of adultery and polygamy.

Understandably, Joseph Smith and his fellow Mormon leaders, both civic and religious, were incensed by the accusations leveled against them. Their anger was only heightened by the history of the LDS Church – adherents of the faith had previously been subjected to murder, rape, and other forms of mob violence in Missouri. With the Expositor now publishing its critiques of the Mormon hierarchy, Smith and others feared that it would incite renewed violence against their co-religionists. Spurred on by this fear, they resolved that they must do something. But what?

The answer came on June 10, just three days after the publication of the anti-Mormon paper. In a meeting of the Nauvoo City Council, Smith and others decided that the Expositor was a public nuisance that must be shut down. To this end, they issued the following order to the city marshal:

“You are hereby commanded to destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor, and pi [scatter] the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the Expositors and libelous handbills found in said establishment; and if resistance be offered to your execution of this order by the owner or others, demolish the house: and if anyone threatens you or the Mayor or the officers of the city, arrest those who threaten you, and fail not to execute this order without delay, and make due return thereon.”

Most accounts relate that the Council’s order was executed in an orderly, peaceful manner. Accompanied by members of Nauvoo’s militia, the city marshal destroyed the Expositor’s printing press and scattered its type. No one was hurt in the process, and if any other property was damaged, it was only the door to the building that housed the press.

Despite the relatively serene way by which the Expositor was decommissioned, its shuttering incited outrage in certain quarters of Nauvoo and in surrounding cities and towns. Smith’s detractors claimed that he had sanctioned a “riot” in shutting down the newspaper, and charges were brought against him for violating Illinois state law. These charges would eventually lead to Smith’s imprisonment in Carthage Jail, where he was subsequently assassinated. His assassination would precipitate his followers’ flight from Illinois and exodus to the Salt Lake Valley.

The negative outcomes that resulted from the closing of the Nauvoo Expositor can be traced back to one fatal mistake: making a decision based primarily on first-order, as opposed to second- or third-order, consequences. Smith and other Nauvoo officials were so focused on undermining the Expositor’s supposed capacity to provoke mob violence that they ignored how their closure of the paper could incite the very violence they were trying to avoid. In effect, Mormon leadership engaged in myopic decision-making – they failed to consider that the effects of their actions wouldn’t just be the first-order consequence of a newspaper being shuttered. Rather, the paper’s closure would also trigger the second- and third-order consequences of inciting public rage, prompting a prosecution, and spurring an assassination.

Donald Trump would be wise to learn from the decision-making failures related to the Nauvoo Expositor. If the Trump White House can be characterized as anything (besides a chaotic, unmitigated disaster), it is an administration with a nearsighted focus on immediate consequences at the expense of contingent, future outcomes. Take, for example, Trump’s protectionist language about foreign trade. Granted, imposing tariffs on foreign goods could initially lead to more jobs for U.S. workers – a first-order consequence. But the second-order consequence of increasing tariffs would likely be the imposition of retaliatory duties by our trading partners, duties that would make our own goods less competitive and lead to higher U.S. unemployment. Similarly, Trump seems to think that imposing travel bans on people from Muslim countries will lessen the risk of terrorist infiltration into the U.S. – a first-order consequence. But he forgets that such discriminatory measures could radicalize Muslims who would otherwise possess favorable views of the U.S., creating even more of a terrorist threat. Basically, by focusing too much on “immediate” consequences, Trump is exacerbating the very problems that he is trying to fix.

Recently, Trump may have realized that focusing primarily on immediate consequences, at least with certain issues, is harmful. After his meeting with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Trump seemed to acknowledge that while labeling China a currency manipulator and imposing tariffs on Chinese goods would help America to “win” against its Asian competitor, such an action would make it harder to secure Chinese support for nonproliferation efforts vis-à-vis North Korea. Similarly, while Trump once denounced NATO as an “obsolete” drag on the U.S. military, he now seems to understand that any perceived “costs” of our NATO commitments are more than balanced out by the security benefits it afford us.

Hopefully, Trump will continue to realize the importance of peering beyond a decision’s immediate consequences. And if he is tempted to maintain or revert back to his decision-making myopia, he should remember the lesson of Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo Expositor.

About Gary Ashcroft

Gary works on national security issues for a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. He has a J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law and a B.A. in International Relations (with a Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic emphasis) from BYU. He is an active member of the LDS Church.