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.

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.


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.

Tremendous Disaster

For Donald Trump, much of the world breaks down into two categories: Things that are tremendous, and things that are disasters. In total, he used these two words 65 times over the course of his three debates with Hillary Clinton.1 By comparison, Clinton said “disaster” once, and never called anything tremendous.2  Political writers have spent a lot of time trying to hash out the tenets of Trumpism (“Surely it’s not just the racism and sexism”), so it can’t hurt to try and see the world according to the terminology preferred by the man himself.

Let’s begin with the more straightforward category, the disasters. I went through all three debates and did my best to figure out what exactly he found disastrous. Table 1 shows the results, organized first by things that were mentioned more than once, and then by the order in which they were mentioned. For future convenience (you’ll see), I have also numbered the disasters, in that column on the left.

Table 1

Row Thing Mentions as a disaster Debate
1 Obamacare 5 2,3
2 NAFTA 4 2,3
3 Clinton as a senator 3 2
4 Clinton’s tax plan 2 2,3
5 Libya (specifically Clinton’s role) 2 1,2
6 the Iraq War 2 1,2
7 our inner cities 2 2,3
8 Aleppo 2 2,3
9 a government investment in solar energy 1 1
10 our energy policies 1 1
11 Clinton’s regulations 1 1
12 the way the U.S. left Iraq 1 1
13 a theoretical single-payer plan 1 2
14 “almost everything she’s done in foreign policy” 1 2
15 education in the inner city 1 2
16 jobs 1 2
17 Clinton’s plan to give amnesty 1 3
18 Clinton’s trade plan 1 3
19 Clinton’s open borders plan 1 3

Most of these are fairly comprehensible, if not exactly accurate or defensible. He’s hammering a policy unpopular with his base, one of the only famous deals in one of his only core policy areas (trade), and Clinton in general. At times he arguably overreaches, as with Disaster 14. He also likes to describe hypothetical disasters, as in Disasters 4, 11, 13, and 17-19, which refer to his understanding (to put it generously) of Clinton’s proposals; none of these things are actual disasters, because they haven’t happened (and, like 17 and 19, are not always real proposals), but he emphatically believes that they would be disasters, if they existed. This arguably describes his relationship to “the inner city” as well: I would be surprised if he were thinking of any actual places when he used that term, but then again, what could possibly be more frightening—more disastrous—than whatever inner city lives in Trump’s imagination? Still, overall this is a pretty coherent realm of political belief—these are more or less the things any Republican candidate would criticize, if not always this aggressively.

Now here are the things Trump described as tremendous, laid out the same way:

Table 2

Row Thing Mentions Debate
1 the hate in Clinton’s heart 3 2
2 the impact of stop and frisk on NYC 2 1
3 our budget deficits 2 2
4 our economic machine 2 3
5 his tax reductions 1 1
6 new jobs (from his tax cuts) 1 1
7 jobs created by the wealthy 1 1
8 the job the wealthy will do creating jobs 1 1
9 his own income 1 1
10 our country’s problems 1 1
11 the money saved building his post office hotel 1 1
12 the success of his club in Palm Beach 1 1
13 the “service” we’re providing our military allies 1 1
14 the stamina needed to be President 1 1
15 Clinton’s commercials about him 1 1
16 our country’s potential 1 2
17 his respect for women 1 2
18 the numbers of taxes he pays 1 2
19 the success we could have if we did a sneak-attack on Mosul 1 2
20 how he’s doing on the small donations 1 2
21 the wealth under our feet (from natural gas) 1 2
22 the number of people offended by Justice Ginsburg’s statements about Trump 1 3
23 the respect of the people he’d nominate as judges 1 3
24 gun violence in Chicago 1 3
25 the numbers of nuclear warheads in Russia 1 3
26 the money Clinton takes (“from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly”) 1 3
27 the jobs he’ll create 1 3

The first thing you’ll notice is just that this is a much longer list—which is even more surprising when you consider that Trump actually says the word “disaster” more often than the word “tremendous” (33 and 32 times, respectively). The difference is that while the disasters are reasonably coherent, allowing the word to collect around a few key areas, the tremendous things are all over the place. Even those top few items typically reflect instances where Trump happened to say the word a few times in quick succession—the three mentions of Tremendous 1  (T1) occurred within the same few sentences, and include basically a stutter (“She’s got tremendous — she’s got tremendous hatred”). In fact, I’d say that everything in the top four is essentially an instance of meaningless repetition:

  • “But stop-and- frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City. Tremendous beyond belief.”
  • “They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”
  • “Because we have a tremendous machine. We will have created a tremendous economic machine once again.”

When you hear a word as idiosyncratic and exaggerated as “tremendous”, you might expect it to play a part in Trump’s standard hyperbole, like in the first bullet point. “Tremendous beyond belief”is just the kind of absurd overreaching that he loves; it fits nicely with another of his rhetorical tics, the claim that various things are “like we’ve never seen”. But I think the other two examples may be more telling, in the sense that they are incoherent nonsense. “Our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous”—this is not the statement of a man who knows how high the budget deficit should be, or has been, or is right now. This is not even the statement of a man who can think of a second adjective on the fly.

On that front, the beginning of the third bullet point is incredible: “Because we have a tremendous machine”.3 Trump, as if becoming cognizant of this statement only after it leaves his mouth, quickly amends this tremendous machine we have to a tremendous economic machine that we will have. But why did he say it in the first place? After all, he never said “machine” at any prior point in any of the debates, and it is not exactly a germane or meaningful word here. In fact, the only time the word came up at all in the debates was earlier on the night of this weird sentence, when Clinton mentioned that Trump called Machado “an eating machine”. But I think that’s just it: He’s saying “machine” more or less out of nowhere because someone else said “machine” earlier on.

As David Roberts has pointed out, it’s important to understand that Trump doesn’t really use language to communicate existing ideas that he has; instead, he simply “riffs until he finds the word strings that get cheers and shouts.” I think Trump has a stock set of words that come tumbling out almost at random, albeit often centered on some broad theme (trade, or hombres); Trump then becomes aware of these words at the same time we do, and begins to try and wrestle them into some sort of coherence by cobbling them together using some of his other words, or perhaps simply repeating the same ones (“our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”) It makes sense that he would mix his own language with random words and phrases from others (like the time Clinton said, “If Trump was talking, he’d probably say something like ‘repeal and replace'”, and then Trump finished his very next turn with the phrase “So I think we’ve got to repeal and replace”). It’s all just stuff he’s hearing.4

This explains some of the difficulty of parsing the list of tremendous things. For one, they’re so repetitive that they accidentally become recursive. After saying that his tax cuts will create tremendous jobs (T6), Trump later argues: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.” (T7-8) Here are the word “tremendous” and the word “job” used not only to describe the thing that will be created (“tremendous jobs”) but the quality of the creation (the wealthy will do a “tremendous job” creating “tremendous jobs”). And tremendousness may have a positive connotation, but it’s also just an intensifier, so in T10 our country’s problems are tremendous, but in T16 our country’s potential is tremendous. Trump is pretty frequently tremendous (T9, T11, T12, T20), but so are Russian nuclear armament (T25) and gun violence in Chicago (T24). And as this last one shows, the tremendous can intersect with the disastrous—after all, Chicago has an inner city.

So what does this tell us about Trumpism? I think, like every other deep dive, it doesn’t give us any new clarity about his political commitments, because those have been flagrantly obvious from the outset of his political career—xenophobia, sexism, nationalism, and self-aggrandizement. But I think digging into his language even just a little reveals something we tend to gloss over too easily: Trump is a profoundly stupid man. This is not his most problematic feature; the bigotry, narcissism, short temper, and mean spiritedness are much more alarming. But he also does not know how to produce coherent sentences or express his ideas with more than two overlapping, imprecise, hyperbolic, occasionally self-contradictory terms. Smart, well-informed people can generally do that. You don’t need a tremendous intellect to be able to string together a few dozen meaningful sentences; you just can’t be a disaster.


1. I got these counts by looking up transcripts and performing simple word searches. I include the word “tremendously” in the count for “tremendous”. I did all of the counting/searching in this post by hand, so it might be a little off here and there, especially because Trump’s language is often pretty difficult to parse.  

2. She said, “When President Obama came into office, he inherited the worst economic disaster since the great depression.” 

3. Reading this, I was reminded of a strange anecdote I once read about a woman whose corpus callosum had been severed. When this happens, the right and left halves of the brain can’t communicate with each other. A doctor showed her left eye a picture of a nude woman, and she laughed, even though she said she couldn’t see anything; the issue is that the half of the brain that can see out of the left eye was no longer connected to the half that produces language, so she couldn’t express what she had seen. The doctor asked her why she had laughed, and her answer was, “Oh doctor, you have some machine!” I’ve always remembered that sentence, because it’s so strange, a snap response from a brain in which the function of language has literally been severed from certain kinds of perception and self-knowledge. I’ve never heard anything like it, until now. 

4. This might also explain the only other use of the word “machine” during the debates—later in the same turn, Trump said, “But that being said, we will create an economic machine the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.” Now that he himself has said “machine” a couple of times, this appears to him to be a term people use to describe the economy. Once uttered, his own words simply enter the universe of stuff he has heard and can now repeat.  

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.



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?