Future History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the best historical comparisons for Clinton and Trump as potential Presidents. For Clinton, I think it’s clear that she’d fit right into the legacy of Bill and Barack–the expected center-left progress characterized by a lot of little policy achievements, ordinary failures, and one or two big signature moves. At worst, I see her as someone like Jimmy Carter, well meaning and competent but stymied by forces outside the President’s control. At best, the guy who comes to mind is Teddy Roosevelt: Too hawkish (though, like her, also a better diplomat than he often gets credit for) and hilariously wonkish (he was so into managing everything that he got involved in arguments about new rules for football and the spelling of words in English), but a tireless worker, an advocate for fair play, and a brilliant politician and institutional architect.

teddyspelling
Where micromanagement leads.

For Trump, the ceiling and floor are somewhat difficult to imagine. For the former I guess I can see a case for a Coolidge-like Presidency, where his utter inattention allows things to just sort of chug along while people of color are the victims of constant terrorist violence and the economy careens toward the Great Depression. At worst I can see him incorporating a sort of greatest-hits of the worst things Presidents have ever done–Watergate is a nice model for his paranoia about election rigging; Wilson’s casual stance toward the re-emergence of the KKK is basically already underway at Trump Campaign headquarters; the Alien & Sedition Acts look like the basis for his position on freedom of the press and libel laws; Harding’s notorious corruption is low-hanging fruit for a guy who literally goes on trial for fraud later this month; and given Trump’s cavalier stance on nuclear weapons, he could end everything by revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis, except this time swapping out Robert F. Kennedy for Donald Trump, Jr.

If I had to tie Trump to just one President, though, I think I’d go with Andrew Jackson: A populist who combined violent racism with distrust of elites, financiers, and government involvement in the economy. The latter stuff led Jackson to cancel the central bank charter in the U.S. and generally issue policies now thought to have contributed to the Panic of 1837, one of the worst economic recessions in American history. The violent racism, of course, led to the Indian Removal Act, which in turn led to the Trail of Tears.

These kinds of things seem like they’re in play in a Trump Presidency. He rails against money in politics, corrupt insiders, and “this Janet Yellen of the Fed” in particular. It’s easy to imagine him deploying his angry incomprehension of economics to put his thumb on the scales (he has basically indicated that he would like to do this) and essentially wage a destructive war against the modern economy. Certainly his utterly indefensible use of anti-Semitism is partly about its historical role as the socialism of idiots. But it also points to Trump’s real campaign emphasis, the racism. He has based his career on a sort of modern-day Mexican Removal Act, with a Muslim ban thrown in for good measure. It’s important not to be too haphazard with a comparison like that; the Trail of Tears was a human catastrophe, an ethnic cleansing that killed thousands. I don’t think Trump is going to march immigrants through the snow until they die. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he advocates ethnic cleansing—the definition of the term varies depending on where you look, but it’s basically the removal of an ethnic or religious group from a territory with the aim of making it ethnically homogenous.1 Trump does not explicitly advocate for the violence that often accompanies ethnic cleansing, but the purging, deportations, and vision of purity are  right in his wheelhouse, and on a scale that our country has not seen in decades (perhaps a scale large enough that, practically, it would require Internment Camps, along the models pioneered by enthusiastic Trump supporter Joe Arpaio, thus checking off another of our Worst Hits).

I think America would survive a Trump Presidency; we survived Jackson’s, and that was in an era where a national collapse was much more thinkable than it is now. But I also think it would do lasting, terrible damage, to the white people duped by a man who understands their problems even less than he cares about them, and even worse to the people of color who would experience the worst of a history most of us thought we were done repeating. I used to wonder how on earth we still had Jackson on our money, given all that he did. I chalked it up to some combination of historical ignorance and apathy. I still think it was that—but, apparently, for a lot of people it was also a kind of aspiration.


Notes

1. It’s kind of chilling, when you read different definitions of the term “ethnic cleansing”, how closely they echo Trump’s ideas. On Wikipedia, it’s “the systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.” The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it, even more aptly, “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.”  In the Oxford English Dictionary (that link is behind a paywall), it’s “The purging, by mass expulsion or killing, of one ethnic or religious group by another, esp. from an area of former cohabitation.” Wikipedia has some more legal definitions here. It’s fair to say that Trump is not explicitly calling for terrorist violence, but he does favor ethnically and religiously targeted mass expulsions of people (especially Mexicans and Muslims), and I think it’s pretty clear that this is based on the misguided dream of homogeneous American whiteness that underlies his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

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Don’t Vote Third Party Unless You’re Comfortable Helping Trump

Even though Donald Trump is one of the least popular major party Presidential candidates in American history, a lot of people are still considering voting third party, probably because Hillary Clinton is also quite unpopular. I have some friends in that camp, people who can see that Trump is manifestly unfit to be President, but whose politics are just too different from Clinton’s for them to feel comfortable voting for her. But if the idea of Trump having the power to launch nuclear strikes genuinely bothers you, voting third party is a really bad idea, because in our political system these votes virtually guarantee that your least-preferred candidate will reap the benefits.

The basis for the claim here is pretty simple. Imagine there are three candidates running, and your order of preference for these candidates looks like this:

  1. Alice Good
  2. Bob Meh
  3. Carol Bad

In other words, you really want Alice to win, and you’d really like Carol to lose. We don’t know how you feel about Bob—maybe he’s an uninspiring technocrat, maybe he’s a corrupt tool of the system—but either way he’s better than Carol. If Alice has a shot at winning, this is an easy election; you just vote for Alice. But if Alice has no chance—in other words, if she’s like nearly every third party candidate in American history—then voting for her basically just makes it easier for Carol to win.

This quickly becomes obvious if you think about it numerically. Say there are 100 voters, 46 for Carol, 45 for Bob, and 9 for Alice—and the Alice voters all have the order of preference above. If they vote for Alice, Carol wins, netting them the worst possible outcome. If they compromise and vote for Bob, Bob wins, and they get a better outcome. And crucially, these are the only two possible outcomes: Either you get Carol, or you get Bob. There is no scenario in which Alice wins. It’s as though you’ve got an election between Bob and Carol, but instead of going to the polls, a lot of people who prefer Bob go watch a basketball game. Obviously this will help Carol, because Alice is essentially LeBron James—much more fun to support than Bob, but not capable of winning this election.

In short, voting for a third party candidate who cannot win inevitably ensures that your least-preferred candidate has a better shot at winning, because you would otherwise have distributed your vote to your second-most preferred candidate. Now, there are a few factors that could sway the math a little: If Alice and Bob have pretty even chances of winning, or if you dislike Bob and Carol equally, then a vote for Alice could still make sense. But in this election neither factor applies.

Third party candidates never win

The best performance by a third party candidate in U.S. history is probably Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912, when he ran with the idiosyncratic Bull Moose party. He managed to beat the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, but that was just good enough for him to lose to Woodrow Wilson by 14 percentage points and 347 electoral votes. Together he and Taft got just over 50% of the vote, but because they split it between them, Wilson won, even though he was in the Carol Position for a pretty large number of Americans. And this was, again, the best a third party candidate ever did.1

In that situation, voters really did have to deal with a difficult decision, since Taft and Teddy each had a strong claim to be the most electable candidate. But for most of American history, the choice has been pretty easy, because third party candidates don’t even remotely stand a chance. There have been 57 Presidential elections in U.S. history; third party candidates have won none. Most of the time third party candidates don’t earn any electoral votes; the last time it happened was 1968, when George Wallace got 46 (145 shy of the guy who came in second).2

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will not buck this trend. A few weeks ago when Trump seemed doomed, he was polling at about 36%; Johnson is currently at about 9%, and Stein has never been as high as 5%. FiveThirtyEight gives Johnson a <0.1% chance of winning the election; Stein is not even on the chart. When a race gets close, the calculus involved in the Alice/Bob/Carol scenario gets very complicated; you have to balance likelihood against preference, and it’s not clear how you should weight either. But in most U.S. Presidential elections, the race is not close, and it definitely isn’t in this one.

Trump can lose and still win

In an election where no candidate hits a majority of the electoral votes (270 these days), the House of Representatives chooses the President from the existing pool of candidates. The House is currently Republican, and has shown no courage or even really desire when it comes to breaking with Trump. And a third-party candidate wouldn’t have to do that well to create a scenario like this. This map shows an example:


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

 

This is basically the 2012 map, but Trump has picked off Florida and Ohio, which are currently fairly close. Johnson has won Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, three states where he’s doing pretty well at the moment. And as a result, Clinton falls just shy of 270 electoral votes, meaning the whole thing goes to the House, and Trump is our next President. This is not an especially likely scenario, since the best Johnson is doing in any of those states (as of this writing) is about 18% in New Mexico. It is also true that some states are more secure than others for Clinton, so if you live near enough people who do the right thing, your inaction will cause less harm. But the general point is that good electoral performance by Johnson or Stein—the purpose of voting for them—has a little extra capacity to help Trump become President, whether or not it gets them remotely closer to winning the election.

What about other reasons to vote third party?

My impression based on the people I know who are enthusiastic about Johnson or Stein is that they are well aware that neither candidate will win. Instead, they cite a bunch of other reasons to vote third party. These are often pretty compelling on their own merits: It’s important to qualify for federal matching funds.3 It’s also important to change the political discourse and introduce new ideas—I would consider Bernie Sanders’s primary run a major success for progressive politics even though he didn’t get the nomination, just because of how it changed the party’s discourse and policies. The question is whether these considerations outweigh the risks involved in giving Trump an easier path to the White House.  I say no, because I believe that the ethics of voting are almost entirely about outcomes.

In other words, I think the only ethical consideration you should make when you vote (assuming the election is more or less free and fair, like ours are)4 is the effect your vote will have on determining who wins the election. If your vote helps the better candidate win, it is ethical; if not, it is not. I’m not arguing that either candidate needs to be great, or even decent: Two terrible people might run, and in that case you just have to pick the one who is the least bad. One person will become President when the election is over, and if you used your vote on a doomed candidate, then you made it more likely that the President will be, by your own estimation, worse.

As you probably know if you’re this far into this piece, Trump is a uniquely terrible candidate for President. He’s the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace in 1968, and by any reasonable measure the least qualified major party candidate in the history of the country.5  Whatever you think about Clinton, this is not a case of “both are crooks” or “they’re all the same”.6 Clinton is basically a run-of-the-mill Democrat; we have those all the time, and things stay pretty ordinary. Trump is a vindictive, corrupt, violent, incompetent man with no knowledge of policy and no interest in anything but confirming delusions of his own greatness. If he ran against George W. Bush, I think we would have a duty to vote for Bush, whom I consider a war criminal. If he ran against Nixon, I think we’d have a duty to vote for Nixon, who was forced from office for criminal corruption. Whatever you dislike about Clinton, Trump is far worse, and that means there is a strong ethical imperative to keep him out of office—as only a lot of votes for Clinton can do.

You will still have a conscience on November 9

The phrase that really stands out to me in a lot of the pro-Stein and pro-Johnson rhetoric I’ve seen is “voting my conscience”. The idea is that if, like many people, you think both Trump and Clinton are bad candidates—or even bad human beings—then you can’t personally bring yourself to cast a vote for either of them.

I think this is an oddly solipsistic way to think about conscience. Your personal relationship to your vote will not affect anyone else in the world; other people won’t even know how you voted unless you tell them. But the winner of the election will affect a lot of people. Millions of people will be harassed and deported, or they won’t. NATO will collapse, or it won’t. The press will remain free from government crackdowns, or it won’t.

If you help the worse candidate win, everything that happens after election day is, in small part, on you. The ethical choice you make in the ballot box can only go one of two ways: You help Clinton or you help Trump. If you’re passionate about Libertarian ideas or Green Party values, you can advocate for those things for the rest of your life, but those parties are not going to win on election day. Johnson and Stein aren’t a way not to choose; they’re just the most active way to pretend that you didn’t. If you recognize that Trump should not be President, vote to keep him out of office.

 


Notes

1. Of course, I don’t actually know how voters would have ranked the three candidates, but since Taft and Teddy were ideologically similar (and had even worked together closely in the past) I think it’s probably fair to assume that a primary preference for one usually indicates a secondary preference for the other. In general terms, this is a major reason why the two party system is so stable in America: Anyone who runs third party basically ensures that the voters ideologically closest to him will lose, since that’s where he’s splitting the vote.

2. In a few scattered cases, people got one vote from a faithless elector. These include John G. Hospers (1972), Ronald Reagan (76), Lloyd Bentsen (88), and John Edwards (04). Of those, only Hospers was really a third-party candidate, but my strategic use of the word “earn” above was meant to exclude this weird, beside-the-point scenario. 

3. I hear people mention this a lot, but some cursory investigation shows it to be a little more complicated than it sounds—e.g., Jill Stein got matching funds during the primaries. 

4. I say “more or less” because of things like voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of felons. These are serious issues, but I don’t think they contradict the broader argument of this post. 

5. As far as I can tell, there are only two other candidates who were neither elected to any office nor held an important post in the military. One is Horace Greeley, who briefly held office in Congress by appointment, helped found the Republican Party, published Marx and Engels in America, and was a longtime activist. The other is Wendell Willkie, again a longtime activist. He’s probably the closest thing to Trump on a resume basis, but at least he had a law degree and was against the KKK decades before Trump created the coalition they currently enjoy. 

6. As you might imagine, I don’t think that’s ever true; one candidate is always at least marginally better than the other. This was a major talking point about Al Gore and George W. Bush during 2000—”What does it matter? They’re the same!”—and then one guy won a Nobel Prize battling climate change and the other started the Iraq War. Does anyone really think those biographies would simply have swapped if Gore had won Florida? 

Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the oldest battles in American political rhetoric is the one that pits bold outsiders against experienced statesmen. This election has taken that to such a ludicrous extreme that it put me in mind of a project I did back when I was first learning how to build network diagrams.1  The idea was to see Presidential employment relationships: Which Presidents held major jobs under other Presidents? Who employed the most other Presidents? The results tell us a little about the outsider/insider battle at the highest level of insiderness.

When you start to dig into this stuff, a lot of ambiguous situations arise. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was Commanding General of the United States Army under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but Johnson, characteristic of his usual interest in skilled governance, national unity, and racial progress, hated him and constantly tried to get him fired.2 Should that count? What about William McKinley, who was a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War? Technically that means he worked for Lincoln and Grant—should that count? In the end I settled on an imperfect but easy compromise: I took any job that got its own category in the sidebar of the President’s Wikipedia page. Grant’s has his Commanding General post; McKinley’s major post doesn’t make the cut.

Here are the results:

PresidentialEmploymentSimpler

The nodes here are colored by political party and sized by betweenness centrality.3 I’ve arranged everything here to show the major clusters. What immediately stands out is that the early guys are incredibly interconnected. John Quincy Adams worked for four different Presidents (ambassador for Washington, Adams with no Q, and Madison, and Secretary of State for Monroe) and hired another, Harrison, who had also worked for his dad. Recently a lot of people, including Barack Obama, have said that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for President, and while I think the basic gist of this is true (she’s as qualified as anyone in the last hundred years), you just can’t beat those early guys. They just insisted on hiring each other to do everything (and that’s before you factor in things like writing the Constitution).

Beyond that, you see a couple of other groups: The Lincoln Republicans, a group I call the Immigration Era Republicans,4  and then the American Empire guys—the WWI and WWII Presidents, followed by the Republican group that dominated the rest of the 20th century. It’s obvious that some things are off here; W. is clearly in the same political club as Nixon (who contributed a lot of his staffers) and George H.W. Bush (who contributed a lot of his DNA, education, baseball teams, etc.). And there are other, slightly more tenuous connections as well: The Harrisons are related, albeit separated by a generation; JFK’s dad worked for FDR; Taylor prosecuted the Mexican-American War for Polk.

Here’s another issue with this data: You may have noticed that the edges in that network are multicolored. That’s to show the nature of the job held, as detailed in this key:

EdgeKey

Most of these are probably fine (and note that “governor” only refers to appointed governorships, like when McKinley made Taft Governor-General of the Philippines), but ambassadorships are doing a ton of work here.5  Buchanan, for instance, was the ambassador to Russia under Jackson at the early stage of his bafflingly long (considering how it ended) career in national politics, which is the only reason the President in the late 1850’s is connected to George Washington. Arguably these aren’t substantial enough roles to be included in this kind of graph; that’s what happens when you let Wikipedia make the decisions for you. Still, in broad strokes, I think this really shows you something about the internecine operations of power at our highest level, and its capacity to reset every so often.

One last image: Here’s everything laid out chronologically. This time the edges are directed, so you can see, based on the arrows, who hired whom.

PresidentialEmploymentOrdered

Here the unending nature of that first group really becomes clear. If you worked for George Washington, you stood a surprisingly good chance of being in the same org chart as the guy who would one day lose seven states to secession at the start of the Civil War. You also see that the groups overlap chronologically, with Wilson and FDR crossing the 1920’s Republicans, and the Taylor/Fillmore pair interrupting the Founders’ lovefest. You also get the weird anomaly of Hoover hiring a guy who had already been the President; when he needed a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who better to choose than the man appointed governor of a territory by the man whose Vice President later appointed that same man governor of a territory? (Taft was also a judge and solicitor general under Ben Harrison—you just couldn’t keep Presidents from hiring him, even decades after he was done being President.)

The possibilities for describing these employer-employee chains are pretty fun. For instance, Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s Vice President’s general’s Vice President’s Vice President’s CIA Director’s running mate was Ronald Reagan (that’s Wilson-FDR-Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford-Bush-Reagan). Or, much weirder, Polk’s Secretary of State’s former boss’s former boss’s former boss’s Secretary of State’s UK ambassador’s former boss’s Vice President’s appointed governor’s Vice President was John Tyler, aka the guy Polk replaced. (That one goes Polk-Buchanan-Jackson-Monroe-Jefferson-Madison-JQA-Washington-Adams-Harrison-Tyler.)

In the recent past, we’ve had a lot more isolates than before, although, as noted, there’s a strong argument for connecting W. to the other American Empire guys. But if Clinton wins, we’ll have connections to Obama (who hired her as Secretary of State) and arguably Bill Clinton (it’s pretty odd to think of that as an employment relationship, but First Lady makes the Wikipedia sidebar—nothing I can do!). And if you’re willing to go along with all that, the only guy who would be left out of the loops in the past 120 years is Jimmy Carter, a mediocre President but arguably in the top three in terms of being a decent human being. It’s a little sad to think of him out there by himself; I think Clinton should appoint him Ambassador to Cuba for a couple days.6  It’s what the Founders would have wanted.

 

 


Notes

1. I did all of this with Gephi.

2. One strategy was to try and promote William T. Sherman ahead of Grant to dilute his power. For some reason Sherman preferred to side with Grant, which led to the odd situation of Sherman calling in political favors to battle his own promotion on the Senate floor. See Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, 452. 

3. Betweenness centrality basically measures how important a node is for connecting other groups of nodes to each other; so Jackson is big because he connects all those dark blues to the Founders. The parties here include Democrat (dark blue), Republican (red), Democratic-Republican (light blue), Federalist (yellow), Whig (green), and none (white).

4. Two reasons: 1. There’s not another good name for the period from the 1880’s-1930’s; it’s post-Reconstruction, much longer than the Gilded Age or Progressive Era, and doesn’t align well with any wars. But, 2. Tons of people immigrated to the U.S. over this period. The numbers really explode starting in the 1880’s (they double the 1870’s in the source in that link) and stay strong until the mid-1930’s.

5. In the old days they seemed to call ambassadors “ministers” (e.g., Buchanan was United States Minister to Russia). I’m assuming these jobs are close enough to the same thing for my purposes, though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that. 

6. First Provisional Governor of Cuba for the U.S.: William Howard Taft. Of course. And by the way, to answer the two questions I asked in the first paragraph and then forgot about: 25 Presidents worked for some other President; JQA and Taft each worked for 4 different Presidents, tying for first on that metric. Three Presidents hired other Presidents 4 times: Jackson hired Buchanan, and then Van Buren for three different things. Madison hired JQA and Monroe for two things apiece. And Washington hired Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and JQA, one time apiece.

Trump’s Favorite Joke

Recently I came across a trail of bizarre, hilarious campaign rhetoric from Donald Trump that leads right to two of the core questions about his whole political presence. These questions are as fascinating as they are profoundly disturbing:

  1. Does he actually mean the things that he says?
  2. Does he know the answer to question one?

I’m afraid that I have not reached a conclusive answer to either question; as a society, we may never get there. But this is a pretty illuminating glimpse beneath the hood.

It all started with this Tweet, which I saw on Friday (June 17):

Click through and you’ll see a transcript of a speech Trump gave in Texas. Like most Trump transcripts, it gives you plenty to think about, but the highlight is this:

But we’re gonna start winning again. We’re gonna win so much, you people are gonna get sick of it. You’re gonna come up and they’re gonna call me up from Texas. “Mr. Trump, sir, you have thousands and thousands of calls from Texas. They’re all your friends. They heard you speak one night. Mr. Trump! They’re very upset. President Trump, they’re very upset.”
[APPLAUSE]
They’re gonna walk in and they’re gonna say – go ahead, what the hell –
[“TRUMP!” CHANTS]
They’re gonna walk in. They’re gonna say, “President Trump! Thousands and thousands of calls from Texas – they are so upset with you, Mr. President. They can’t stand the amount with which you’re winning by.

He goes on in this vein for a long time, detailing the many ways he will win (“on trade”, “at the border”, “with your military”, “on health care”, “with Common Core”, and by having “saved the Second Amendment 100%!”).1 The imaginary Texas public keeps begging him to stop, and he refuses.

Of course, this is bizarre stuff. On the one hand, he develops this id-driven, parodic version of a platform consisting of simply listing policy areas, announcing that he will win at them, and moving on. On the other, far more confusing hand, he goes to great lengths to describe the people pleading with him to stop winning so much. This is a man who, again, is running for actual President of a country, so the amazement in that Tweet seems warranted. But oddly enough, Trump’s routine rang a bell for me.

This might be because Trump has done this before. People who are plugged in to conservative media may know this already, but this idea that the American people will beg Trump to stop winning is one of his favorite bits. A little research shows him using very similar rhetoric at an NRA rally in Louisville on May 20, in Billings, Montana on May 16, in Syracuse on April 16, in South Carolina on February 19, at Liberty University on January 18, and in Reno on January 10. My favorite write-up is probably this one by Jack Moore in GQ (describing a speech in Albany on April 12). Like me and other liberal elitists, he mistakenly interprets what he’s seeing as a one-time meltdown, where a Trump voter would likely recognize it as the reliable, beloved bit of rhetorical gold that its constant reuse shows it to be.  But Moore also goes on to say (correctly I think ):

But if it’s possible, the weirdest part of the rant wasn’t the fact that the TrumpBot4500’s wiring short circuited leading him to just repeat the words “win” and “winning” so many times that they began to lose all meaning. No, the weirdest part of the rant was the picture it painted of a world, where Trump is President and he makes America win so much that the American people actually beg him to stop winning.

I guess what I’m really noticing here is that simply offering a straightforward description of this speech act is fascinating.2

But the use on the campaign trail wasn’t what I was remembering. With some modest additional research, I suddenly remembered that Trump did nearly the exact same thing in a sketch on Saturday Night Live (here’s a Hulu link if that works for you).

Winning

For most of the sketch, various characters just tell Trump how well things are going; Putin has backed down, the economy is in great shape, etc. It’s not great comedy: The actors seem uncomfortable, the audience isn’t laughing much, and, as we’re about to see, the whole thing feels way too much like Trump’s actual campaign rhetoric, because at around 2:55 Taran Killam’s character enters and says:

“We have got a big problem. It’s the American people, sir. They’re just sick of winning! They’re winning so much! It’s just too great, sir.”

As he did in Texas, Trump insists that people are just going to have to accept the winning. The sketch ends with a direct address to the camera in which he insists that his actual Presidency will be even better.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think Trump completely stole this whole idea from Saturday Night Live. He hosted on November 7, 2015, and he was talking about people begging him to stop winning at least as far back as September, 2015. As far as I can tell, this is the first time it goes on at this length, or where various policy areas are mentioned as areas where he has won without any specifics (if anything, SNL has more policy detail than the bit in his Texas speech). So it is certainly possible that some of his favorite campaign lines were actually written by comedy writers who were making fun of him.

Still, we don’t necessarily need to ask whether a man running for President of the United States has based a key part of his campaign speeches on a lightly plagiarized version of a comedy sketch.3 The important thing, the part that no one can argue, is that a key part of his campaign speeches appeared in a comedy sketch, where it was a joke; and furthermore, he clearly knows about this, because he was there, helping make fun of it.

The rational explanation for the appearance of this routine in so many of Trump’s later speeches is that he’s joking; it’s hyperbole for comedic effect, just something to amuse the crowd. I want this to be true, because he might be the President someday. But I can’t quite believe it.

For one thing, the crowd doesn’t treat it like a joke. If you listen to that speech in Texas, they aren’t really laughing; they’re cheering. For another, there are way too many platform-style talking points in these moments, things that you’re not supposed to turn into a big joke. His constituents don’t think it’s funny to say that you’ve eliminated Common Core or “saved the Second Amendment 100%”. Those are genuine policy goals that they take seriously. Politicians don’t make jokes about that stuff—you didn’t see Obama working the crowd by saying, “You’ll all say, Mr. President, how’d you get us out of Iraq so fast?” The basic reason you don’t do that is that it’s only a joke if you obviously won’t achieve those goals—it’s not a joke to just list stuff you think will happen. So does he really expect to get rid of Common Core, or is this something like the idea of people begging him to stop winning—funny only because it’s clearly absurd?

This brings us back to the two questions at the top of the post. For question one, we would seem to have an obvious answer, at least in this one little corner of Trump’s speeches. Does he mean what he says? Surely not, since: 1) These things are flagrantly absurd, and 2) He appeared in a show making fun of these things as obvious jokes.

Yet we also know that 1) He keeps mixing this obvious joke with his actual policy, 2) The crowds cheer rather than laughing. And all of this is made only more confusing by the fact that the reality appears to be warping to fit the TV comedy show—the bit just keeps getting longer and more absurd, to the point that in Texas Trump was performing lines for both himself and his fictional exhausted public.

I think we also have to add one last consideration: Do we have any evidence, from any point in his history, that Trump ever didn’t think he was going to win? However you define winning, doesn’t it seem like he genuinely believes (this may be his most genuine belief) that he is going to triumph? This is where we get back to Question 2. What does Trump think he’s doing up there on stage? He was in the sketch, but does he know it’s a joke? Did some part of him doubt it was truly a joke even when he was on the show? Is he able to hold both beliefs at once, simultaneously knowing that he’s repeating a joke, and truly believing that everything he’s describing will come true in real life?

In the end, I don’t think we can ever know. Is he joking, lying, or just wrong? The answer requires a journey into the mind of Trump. It’s a journey only he can make; but I’m not sure even he knows if he ever has.


1. Also like most Trump transcripts, this one contains a lot of phrases that sound like bad machine translations. On Common Core, for instance, he says, “You’re gonna end it and bring education local”, and again, that other one is “they can’t believe you’ve saved the Second Amendment 100%!”

2. Marlow, in Heart of Darkness: “There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

3. I haven’t seen him credit the SNL writers/cast in his speeches, for what I take to be obvious reasons, but I don’t want to accuse him of anything—maybe he has (this would be kind of incredible).

The Trump Minimum

Now that Trump has essentially won the GOP nomination, those of us who live in the U.S. have to confront a deeply troubling reality: At some point in the near future, tens of millions of our fellow Americans will have voted in favor of Donald Trump becoming President. This seems destined to go down in history as a fascinating combination of shame and idiocy.1 But just how bad will it be? How many of us are going to officially register our opinion that Donald Trump is not only acceptable but also preferable to another human being as a candidate for the world’s most powerful job?

In this post I attempt to find the Trump Minimum, the absolute best case scenario for this nation as it attempts to live with itself from 2017 on.2 The question: What is the lowest possible number of people who will wind up voting for Trump?

I’m ignoring two possibilities here. First, that Trump won’t run—either he’ll suddenly realize that he might actually have to do the job, and panic and quit; or he’ll run out of money because he has been a secret poor person this whole time; or Paul Ryan will decide that he’d like “history” (one year from now and after) to remember him kindly and will orchestrate a convention coup. In that case Trump will only have his primary votes; these promise to be pretty substantial, already topping 10 million as of this Washington Post article from April. I’m not sure primary votes matter in quite the same way, though. The stakes are just lower in those contests; some people might be voting tactically without hoping for the candidate to win, and others might just be gambling.

The second possibility is that Trump wins. Recent polls do show the field narrowing. Personally, I don’t think this is very likely.3 But if he does win, we’re going to have way more important things to worry about. (Also, I suspect that if he does win we might be more angry at the people who failed to vote against him—who knew he was bad and let it happen anyway. But that’s just a guess.)

My Method

This is all going to be pretty straightforward. I take a margin of victory for the Democrat—I’m just going to say Clinton from here on out, since she’s more likely to win the nomination—along with the third party vote and use that to figure out what percentage of the popular vote Trump receives.4 I’m going to ignore the electoral college as well as demographic breakdowns; both are important and interesting, and the latter affects the overall popular vote, but I really just want big-picture numbers here. I’ll leave the story behind the numbers to the reader’s imagination.

I also estimate overall turnout, which tells me how many people are voting in the first place. I found it pretty tough to find a good source for how many eligible voters there are in the USA, so I used this reliable-seeming Wikipedia page on Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections, which shows this trend:

EligibleVoters

That’s not the world’s worst trend line, so I just used it to predict that there will be 240 million eligible voters this year. That feels like kind of a strange method, and definitely not like very good social science, but there were 235 million eligible voters last time, so it seems like as good a guess as any.

Scenarios

We’ll start with a pretty plausible, and therefore slightly depressing scenario. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has the race essentially tied as of this writing, so we’ll use a previous close election as our Sad Baseline: In 1960 JFK defeated Nixon by just .17% in the popular vote. That’s perfect for a sad winning margin.

Since 1932, which is when my data starts for this, turnout has ranged from 49% (in 1996) to 62.8% (in 1960—so not only was the result a dead heat, but tons of people weighed in on it). In the past few elections turnout has hovered in the low to mid 50’s. Since this is the Sad Baseline, we’ll assume decent turnout of 55% (thus boosting the raw numbers of Trump voters). And finally, we’ll assume that third party performance is just under the historical median—call it 2%. All together, this gives us:

Percentage Voters
Clinton 49.09% 64,792,000
Trump 48.92% 64,568,000

That’s over 64 million votes for Donald Trump. Thanks to historic population growth, only Barack Obama has ever received more votes in a real Presidential election (though he did do it twice).

Those assumptions were about as pessimistic as possible—good for figuring out the top of the range, but otherwise counter to the spirit of the Trump Minimum. So let’s consider a Plausible Good Baseline. In 2008 Obama beat McCain by 7.27%. That might be about as strong a margin as you can hope for in an era this partisan, so let’s steal that. Let’s also gamble that the historically bad favorability ratings for both candidates will depress turnout to a tie with its worst level in the last 80 years—49%. Those adjustments to the previous scenario lead you to just over 53 million Trump voters.

We’ve still got one powerful lever, though: Third Parties. These have had a pretty substantial spoiler effect in U.S. History; it was only 24 years ago that Ross Perot pulled 19% of the vote. So far there’s no indication that anyone will come close to matching that, but there’s some evidence that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could reach as much as 10% of the vote. If we bump our third party cut up to that, and keep everything else the same, we arrive at a Plausible Gary Scenario wherein Trump receives just 49 million votes.

All of this is well and good, but what if we ratchet the numbers up to a historic disgrace? Is it really so implausible that Trump will do or say something that loses him the votes of 9 out of 10 women? Or that he will quit the race and return to it the next day, on multiple occasions? Or insist that Donald Sterling be his Vice President? In hypothetical times like these, we really ought to turn to the biggest margin of victory in modern U.S. Presidential election history: Warren G. Harding’s 26.17% blowout of James Cox.5

Let’s also start thinking outside the box about voter turnout. Sure, 49% is bad, but what about the examples of other nations? Surely some of them care even less than us. I looked into it and, no, they really don’t, at least not in countries that are doing pretty well.6 Among OECD nations, only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland are more apathetic about voting. Only 40% of Switzerland’s voting age population votes, so let’s just take that as a worst-case-scenario number for U.S. turnout, too.

Finally, we’ll ratchet Gary up to 15%. Why not? After all, in this scenario Trump keeps quitting and promoting a man who was banned from the NBA.

With these parameters, we have reached the Trump Minimum, the absolute lowest number of votes that he could reach if we hit historically plausible extremes. The final count: 28 million votes.

So there you have it. Donald Trump is virtually guaranteed to get at least 28 million votes in November. A minimum of ~30 million people living in this country will choose to place Donald Trump in charge of maintaining the nuclear arsenal, repairing our broken justice system, and engaging in diplomacy with leaders who often are not old white men.

I’ll admit I wanted that number to be lower. I even played around with one last scheme: The Return of Teddy Scenario. In this one Teddy Roosevelt returns from the dead along with his former opponent Eugene Debs, and together they replicate their record-setting third-party performances in the 1912 election to steal 33.4% of the vote. Gary Johnson still runs (nothing has stopped him so far in real life), though he only adds 10% to the third-party haul, since some of his coalition prefers the Bull Moose charisma. Most voters are turned off by the prospect of voting for a reanimated dead person, so turnout dips to 30%. And as a hyper-masculine old-money white man with century-old values, Teddy pulls disproportionately from the Republican vote; Debs does pull some Bernie supporters out of Clinton’s coalition, but her margin still improves to an even 30%. In the Return of Teddy Scenario, which is not likely, Trump receives just 13.3% of the vote, losing to both Clinton and a long dead park enthusiast. But he still pulls 11 million votes.

There’s just no way around it: The man is going to get a lot of votes. Realistically closer to 60 million, but at the very least about 30 million. We’re all going to know someone who voted for him; we’re all going to go into future elections with hard evidence that people who like him are out there voting again. But there’s still the possibility that, like Barry Goldwater or Walter Mondale, he’ll lose badly enough that we can think of ourselves as the country that overwhelmingly rejected him. We just have to hope he’s less like Richard Nixon and more like James Cox—his electoral performance remembered mainly for how thoroughly he was defeated.


1. I used to say this about re-electing George W. Bush, too, so it’s possible that I’m either overreacting or underestimating what’s next. Also, I was originally calling it one of our most shameful and idiotic moments, but then I thought about things that happened before 1950.

2. To be fair, we often don’t seem to have a problem hanging around with evidence of our worst moral failures. Strom Thurmond, who ran for President in 1948 on a pro-Jim Crow platform, only left office in 2003—and he wasn’t even voted out; he just died.

3. Anything can happen, and major party nominees always have a decent enough shot at the White House that it makes sense to worry about the dangerous ones. But speaking purely subjectively, I just don’t see how he overcomes demographic reality. Women and people of color hate him even more than they hated Romney and McCain, who both lost. The theory behind his winning rests on activating enough “missing white voters” (read: racists) to overcome this, but I don’t see how enough of them are A)  still alive, B) eager to vote now, despite having sat out two elections featuring a black candidate.

4. I don’t allocate the third party vote to one party or another, but it shouldn’t really matter for these purposes. If you thought a Libertarian, for instance, would take many more voters from Trump than from Clinton, you could just change the Clinton margin of victory; but I’m just making up that margin in the first place, and why complicate a made up number? We don’t care why people are or aren’t voting for Trump—we just care how many of them there are.

5. I don’t know why the 1920 election in particular. It’s interesting that it’s the first one in which women could vote, and the second biggest margin was in the very next election. Maybe only one party appealed to women voters? Three other things I want to put in this footnote: 1. I’m saying “modern” elections because my data only goes back to the 1820’s. Before that Monroe and Washington essentially ran unopposed, which screws up projects like this one. 2. Kind of funny that the VP on Cox’s ticket was FDR—guess he made up for it later. 3. I thought of Donald Sterling as a joke and was immediately convinced it was plausible. What better choice for Donald than, essentially, himself: a racist real estate billionaire named Donald.

6. I submit this as a replacement phrase for “developed countries”.