A while ago, I wrote on this blog that “Reason™ is not going to save the world.” I argued that a society based on pure rational principles, without any sacred beliefs or convictions – a society like Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Rationalia – would be a spectacular failure. It couldn’t solve the big problems, like climate change and sky-high economic inequality, that threaten society with destabilization and chaos today. Readers protested – why wouldn’t a society based on rationality and reason be preferable to unreflective tradition or sacred convictions? Well, I’ve got a really compelling answer for you: the man who’s about to be sworn in as president of the United States. Donald Trump is a perfect example of what happens when “sacred” values go out the window.
Before I go further into what I mean, let me make clear that I’m not opposed to Donald Trump in a giddy or hyper-tribal way. Readers of this blog come from all over the political or religious spectrum. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re reading something meant exclusively for the Other Team. There is no “Other Team,” as far as I’m concerned. If you voted for Trump, you’re not my enemy. I think you’re wrong, but it’s not personal.
I’m emphasizing this because a disturbing amount of the “resistance” to Donald Trump has all the signs of being tribal, not objective. Since the election, progressive fundraising emails and social media posts have gotten chock-full of shibboleths and moral signaling. Left-leaning thinkers have doubled down on the narrative that Trump-style populism is really nothing but white racism – despite the fact that many of the rural, white working-class voters in Great Lakes swing states voted for Obama twice before switching to Trump. Yes, racism is a real problem in the US. And, yes, it contributed to the Trump phenomenon. But more political tribalism is not what’s going to fix it.
So when I criticize Donald Trump and the populism he stands for, it’s not in order to advance some coy partisan agenda. It’s because all the evidence leads me to conclude that Trump is, literally, a walking historical-level disaster. I understand and agree with some of the frustrations that led people to follow him (although I think those people were deeply wrong to overlook flashing warning signs like his crass sexism, casual encouragement of racism, and apparent lack of personal ethics). But unless something big changes, the man himself is going to cause very serious problems for the United States and the world. Let me repeat myself: very serious problems. I mean, like, historical.
Now, let’s investigate what Donald Trump has to do with Reason™. You might think the answer is, clearly, nothing. Trump isn’t especially scientifically literate, he rejects climate change science, and many of his most enthusiastic backers were evangelical Christians who proudly believed, and continue to believe, some very scientifically…er, nonstandard things.
And in a sense, you’d be right. Donald Trump certainly isn’t a gleaming paragon of scientific virtue and reason. But he is a grand example of what happens when previously unquestionable values, morals, and norms come to be questioned. As such, he’s a sobering window into what a world without sacred beliefs would be like, politically and ethically.
What do I mean? As Politico recently put it, Trump’s presidential transition efforts are showing “how much of the American political system is encoded in custom and how little is based in the law.” For example, although most presidents-elect hold a press conference nearly immediately after the November election, Trump’s conference on Wednesday morning was the first in more than two months. He hasn’t released tax returns. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t plan on filing a personal financial disclosure during his first year in office. On Twitter, he caused an international incident by speaking directly with Taiwan’s leader and then publicly calling into question the “one China” policy, without coordinating with the current president.* To round it all off, he called for a return to a nuclear arms race – again, without notifying the current American government or president.
A nuclear arms race, people!
None of these things are illegal. There’s no law requiring presidents to file a financial disclosure or to avoid inflammatory international conversations that could, you know, accidentally bring about Ragnarök. Why? Because, until now, those standards for presidential behavior were conventions. They were norms. The only force they held was the sheer fact that everyone agreed on them. Politicians shared a tacit understanding that – whatever else Democrats and Republicans might fight about – there were some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Customs that shouldn’t be questioned. These customs were self-imposed restrictions on powerful people who wanted to play the political game. Just like soccer players who agree not to shoot from offsides – although they’re perfectly physically capable of it – presidents-elect agreed to abide by those customs, to stay within those lines.
But now those lines have been crossed. Again and again.
So we’re still playing soccer, but now with a bully. The bully keeps shooting from offsides, pushing over other players, kicking shins. Of course, we could just stop the game, collect the cones and ball, and go home. Or we could gang up and eject him from the field – a tactic used since time immemorial to punish would-be domineers. These consequences would show the bully in no uncertain terms that we won’t play with a compulsive rule-breaker. He either has to play by the rules – the conventional agreements that define the game – or go home.
But, inexplicably, we’re not doing that. Our foreheads wrinkled in confusion, our shins bruised and bloody, we’re still flopping around the field, hoping that if we keep gamely poking at the ball, avoiding direct eye contact with the bully, then at some point things will return to normal. When we see the bully galloping toward us we skitter away, leaving the ball wobbling in our wake.
But do you know what happens if the bully keeps breaking long-established rules? Pretty soon, we’re not playing soccer anymore at all. If he realizes he can get away with it, it won’t be long before the bully starts picking up the ball with his hands and hucking it straight into the net. At that point, the ball will technically have passed the scoring line, but the game will have long since ended. We will have moved into some sort of cruelly metastasized version of Calvinball, where the rules constantly change – but the bully always wins.
Like soccer games, societies need rules. Unlike soccer, the majority of social rules, even in the most hyper-regulated societies (say, Singapore), are informal. They’re not explicitly written down. They don’t have legal force. From the way we treat our neighbors to polite standards for introducing strangers, informal norms are what make civilized life possible.An example? Amazon delivery drivers regularly leave delivery boxes out on stoops on my inner-city Boston street. They can do this because, where I live, there’s an informal social norm against taking other people’s packages. Sure, there’s also a law. But the law is hard to enforce. If enough people started breaking the law and stealing packages – something easy to do, and easily imaginable – then delivery services like Amazon would have to switch to requiring signatures for all deliveries. This would make delivering packages more time-consuming, complex, and expensive. We’d all pay. But because most people currently respect the norm, deliveries stay cheap and convenient.
In the same way, when political norms are “sacred” – that is, respected by everyone and mostly unquestionable – then the government can function with relative ease. But as soon as people start questioning or breaking them, then those norms have to be laboriously coded into formal, enforceable laws. Things become a lot more complicated and expensive. Again, we all pay.
This is what Trump is doing to us. As The Week put it,
Much of what we expect the president to do and say is not grounded in any requirement more formal than longstanding practice — and that suits Trump just fine. “If it’s not written down, you can get away with it,” says Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. “That’s the new premise.
Importantly, this means that Trump isn’t a cheater. Cheaters pretend to follow the rules. They only break them when nobody’s looking. The Dutch historian and social critic Johan Huizinga argued that people like Trump – people who break the rules fragrantly, ignoring their very existence – were much, much more dangerous than mere cheaters:
The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport.’ The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter still pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle.…the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself.
In other words, the danger of a spoilsport isn’t that he’ll win the game unfairly. It’s that the game will completely disintegrate. Games only exist when players respect the rules – treating them as axioms that can’t be questioned, so long as the game is on. While the shot clock is ticking, basketball players agree not to travel. But as soon as they step off the court they’re free to sling the ball under their arm and lope away.
Politics only functions properly when people treat political norms the same way. When someone refuses to obey those rules, the game falls apart. Of course, unlike a basketball or soccer game, the American government controls trillions of dollars in spending and the world’s most powerful military. The stakes are just a teensy bit higher than a pickup game.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks we should live in Rationalia, an imaginary nation based on science and evidence. In Rationalia, no one would accept any claim that wasn’t objectively demonstrable. Policy would be based strictly on reason and rational argument. Tyson and millions of his followers think that Rationalia would be infinitely preferable to the reality-impaired, fantasy-addled world we’ve got now.
But they’re missing something. Human societies aren’t built on objective facts. They’re built on rules, conventions, and norms, which are constructs we agree to, not physical laws we objectively discover. When people agree to respect the constructs, then society functions, more or less. It functions imperfectly, but it functions. But when people – especially powerful people – start questioning the very validity of the conventions and rules, then things get messy, fast.
So, as the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out 70 years ago, the mental M.O. that works for doing science isn’t the one that works for keeping society together. The scientific instinct is to question arbitrary social norms and conventional assumptions in order to find out what’s really true. The social instinct to keep society going by respecting its conventions. Turn the dial to one extreme or the other, and you get real problems.
Of course, social rules are often harmful, such as laws that prevent women from participating in democracy. But when the suffragists of the early 20th century agitated for women’s right to vote, they were trying to change the rules. It was the equivalent of rulebook reviews in sports. The NFL changes some minor rule or other nearly every year. Bad or outdated rules are given the boot, and (hopefully) better ones replace them. But when the football rules change in this way, they change by agreement – and not during the actual play. When activists agitate for social change, they’re doing the same type of thing. They recognize that existing laws and norms exist. They just want to change them.
But Donald Trump sees social rules and conventions as non-binding, unimportant, and, worst of all, unreal. He doesn’t bother trying to change social rules through argument or protest. He just blithely disrespects and ignores them. They’re not sacred for him. They’re not unquestionable. He isn’t a rationalist in the scientific sense. But he does exemplify the consequences of assuming that nothing’s sacred.
Not much is sacred for a good scientist investigating her subject, either. There’s no question she refuses to ask, or experiment she refuses to run, to avoid offending society’s sensibilities. In science, this defiant resistance to sacred boundaries is an necessary virtue. In the political realm, it’s a one-way ticket to disaster. This is why a society based only on reason would fail: societies need rules to function. But those rules only hold when we agree to respect them – when we take them as axioms, set apart (the meaning of the word “sacred”) from everyday values. When nothing is sacred, when everything can and should be questioned, our rules revert to their origins: figments of our imaginations. And they take civilization with them.
* This isn’t to say that the “one China” policy is a good or moral policy. But it’s realpolitik to acknowledge that China is a massive, economic powerhouse country that owns many trillions of dollars of U.S. debt, has nuclear weapons, and is very touchy about Taiwan. Maybe we should challenge Beijing’s stance. But it’s not very smart to do so based on a momentary whim on Twitter, without alerting the diplomatic corps, and without carefully thinking through the strategic questions of what we should do next. Being president is like being the alpha human in a room full of very attentive dogs. Every little nod you make could start bloody dogfight, or it could calm everyone down. So if you’re in that situation, you have to be very careful – and very intentional – about the cues you send. Trump, true to form, is neither.