Disqualification Round – GO!

Now that primary season is de facto over, it’s time to start making peace with the Trump nomination – and by "making peace" I don’t mean approving of it so much as letting go of my (largely negative) emotions about it and thinking it through. Because whatever else it is, Trump’s nomination is a significant and interesting political development likely to have lasting ramifications for the republic.

To pick a cute term to describe my allegiance here, I’m "anti-anti-#NeverTrump" – probably meant in a negation of negation sense, I haven’t really decided. The reason I won’t just call myself a #NeverTrump-er will have to wait for another post, but the short version is that I think Trump is something like a nation-as-organism immune system reaction to the (identity) politics of namecalling that’s slowly taken over the polity over the last 20-ish years. I’m very much against a Trump presidency, but this is one of those situations where why you advocate a thing is almost more important than what you advocate. If you’re against Trump just because you’re anti-bigot, then you’ve missed the point and are perpetuating the problem. What we’re – "we" being people who oppose Trump for the "right" reasons – fighting here is the politics of simplistic labeling, and hashtags like #NeverTrump are nothing if not a simplistic label.

So, it’s important to get this right. You can’t just denounce Trump. You have to show your work, and your work has to be fair.

It’s in that spirit that I want to complain about a section of Scott Aaronson’s thought-provoking piece on Trump. Aaronson has a section where he lists out all the reasons that Trump is not qualified to be president. As it happens, I agree with the conclusion, but not all the reasoning he used to get there. Point-by-point, then:

  1. He’s shown contempt for the First Amendment, by saying “libel laws should be opened up” to let him sue journalists who criticize him. – AGREED.

  2. He’s shown contempt for an independent judiciary, and even lack of comprehension of the judiciary’s role in the US legal system. – AGREED.

  3. He’s proposed a “temporary ban” on Muslims entering the US. Even setting aside the moral and utilitarian costs, such a plan couldn’t possibly be implemented without giving religion an explicit role in the US legal system that the Constitution was largely written to prevent it from having. – AGREED, but not for this reaosn. It’s not clear to me that this would "[give] religion an explicit role in the US legal system." For one thing, religion already has an explicit role in the US legal system. People are given exemptions from legal obligations all the time based on religious objections. Most recently, the Hobby Lobby case presents such an example, but conscientious objectors and pot protestors are others. I suppose Aaronson could draw a distinction between expanding someone’s legal protections based on religion and denying them, but it’s not clear that leads anywhere, really, since people without religion are automatically excluded from the expansions. Second, there is no right to immigrate to the United States (or any country), and we impose all kinds of criteria on immigration, including job skill level and nation of origin. Does Aaronson really want to go down the rabbit hole of explaining why national origin can and does play a role in immigration law but religion doesn’t and shouldn’t? I very much doubt it. He’s a freakishly smart guy, but no amount of intelligence is going to square that circle. There is nothing legally objectionable about Trump’s proposed ban. So, the reason to oppose it isn’t legal. For me, it’s simply that Trump’s policy is bigoted, counterproductive and not based in fact. If nothing else, we can argue against it on the factual basis that there’s no reliable correlation between being a muslim and being a terrorist. If there were, the ban might be justified. As it stands, it’s not. If Mr. Trump would care to indicate something that does reliably single out terrorists and propose a ban on that, I’d be willing to consider it. But he hasn’t, so I don’t need to. Look, it’s true that terrorists wanting to harm the US are more likely than not to be muslims. As far as I know, that’s the single most threatening group we’re currently dealing with. It’s just that it’s crude to lump all muslims in with that. There are a lot of particulars you can add to the mix to get MUCH more accurate results than just banning all muslims. If you want to confine it to muslims who are (a) male, (b) young, (c) from certain regions (partciularly parts of the Arabian peninsula) and (d) heavily religiously-identified (e) not particularly gainfully employed and (f) unmarried, then you have a subgroup we can work with. But to say that a muslim woman from Indonesia is a terrorist threat is just sort of silly. She’s less of a terrorist threat, demographically, than I am (white, male, middleaged, American, southern). And even if we could pick out a group that includes "muslim" as a feature that were highly predictive of "terrorism," it would still be the case that the overwhemlming majority of members of that group would fail to be terrorists. So, the proposal is just not very practical. It would cause a lot more harm than it would solve problems, mostly by alienating muslims who are otherwise not US enemies. But if proposing demographic immigration bans "disqualifies" someone from the presidency, then anyone who has supported the total ban on immigrations from North Korea, to name one example, is implicated. Which would be, at last count, every post war president. Aaronson needs to try harder. He’s fallen for Trump’s trap. Demographic-based immigration bans are within the purview of legal acceptabilty, so if you want to oppose this one, you need to do it on its merits. Which is actually pretty easy, since it doesn’t have any that I can see.

  4. He’s advocated ordering the military to murder the families of terrorists—the sort of thing that could precipitate a coup d’état if the military followed its own rules and refused. – AGREED.

  5. He’s refused to rule out the tactical first use of nuclear weapons against ISIS. Why not? I haven’t ruled it out either, and neither should you. ISIS isn’t an existential threat at the moment, but it seems like it really wants to be one. If it ever manages to become one, then I’m not sure why nukes should be off the table. Using nukes against credible existential threats is always on the table.

  6. He’s proposed walking away from the US’s defense alliances, which would probably force Japan, South Korea, and other countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals and set off a new round of nuclear proliferation. This is another one of those that sounds fun to say but implicates a lot of previous presidents that Aaronson probably doesn’t want to implicate. For example, Jimmy Carter, who actually started going about withdrawing from South Korea until his advisors insisted he not do that. More to the point, though, one could argue that if the US is somehow responsible for stopping nuclear proliferation then most postwar administratons have failed by simply failing to prevent the development of nuclear programs – you know, in China, Pakistan, India, France, Israel, North Korea, Iran, etc. And indeed, from a certain point of view, US intervention causes nuclear proliferation as well. That’s certainly the reason Iran and North Korea cite. I don’t mean to say that preventing nuclear proliferation isn’t an important priority for a US president. It’s more that this issue is too diffuse and contentious to function effectively as a blanket disqualifier.

  7. He says that the national debt could be “paid back at a discount”—implicitly treating the US government like a failed casino project, and reneging on Alexander Hamilton’s principle (which has stood since the Revolutionary War, and helps maintain the world’s economic stability) that US credit is ironclad. – AGREED.

  8. He’s repeatedly expressed admiration for autocrats, including Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, as well as for the Chinese government’s decision to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests by arresting and killing thousands of people. – Agreed, sort of. Again, it’s not clear that this doesn’t disqualify a lot of other past presidents that Aaronson presumably doesn’t want to disqualify.

  9. He’s expressed the desire to see people who protest his rallies “roughed up.” Meh, OK, if you twist my arm. But again, we’re wading into territory that isn’t clear cut enough for a blanket disqualifier – at least not as long as large seguments of the population continue to think that disrupting political rallies is a legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression. It would be a lot easier to blame Trump here if, say, Black Lives Matter were pariahs for disrupting that Sanders rally. But they’re not, and so I’m afraid we have to give some leeway for the kind of environment Trump is operating in. Is it enough leeway to justify what Trump said? No, probably not. The point here, again, is that this issue isn’t clear enough to operate as a blanket disqualifier.

  10. He said that, not only would he walk away from the Paris accords, but the entire concept of global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese. I have no particular problem with walking away from the Paris Accords, and it would be wilfully ignorant to think that nations don’t exploit overblown fears to their geopolitical advantage, or that they don’t cynically exploit well-intentioned initiatives to their geopolitical advantage. But yeah, the crudity of the tweet is totally indefensible for someone aspiring to the highest office in the land, so AGREED.

So, there’s a lot of solid points in here, but again I want to stress that I think the absolute wrong reaction to Trump is to treat him like a pariah. He’s only here because we’ve been acclimated to responding to political dissent with smug dismissals. Trump really is like the disease that mutated beyond our ability to fight it with antibiotics. So, if we’re going to recover from this – and I think we are – it’s important to start by not overindulging in ruling people out of bounds. Some of these reasons are good – but a lot of them aren’t. And yeah, that matters now. It’s actually sort of the main issue of our time. I think this would be a more effective list if whittled down to essentials. The nature of a disqualifier is that you don’t really need more than one, after all.

One thought on “Disqualification Round – GO!

  1. I’m glad that, by my count, you agree with me about 6.5 of my 10 disqualifiers! (Counting your three “sort ofs” or “yes but not for that reason” for half each.) In which case, I guess we agree about the high-order bit: since, as you point out, even ONE disqualifier would suffice, he’s clearly disqualified. :-)

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