9 min read

Trump’s History-Making Trial, What Happens When Things Suck and Nobody’s Happy, Plus, Is a Better Economy Worth…Giving Up On Democracy?

Trump’s History-Making Trial, What Happens When Things Suck and Nobody’s Happy, Plus, Is a Better Economy Worth…Giving Up On Democracy?

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. The World Is Still on Fire (Project Syndicate)
  2. Gordon Brown: ‘I really didn’t think we could go as far backwards as we’ve gone’ (FT)
  3. The nightmare of connecting war fronts in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific (El Pais)
  4. Democracy Dies Behind Paywalls (The Atlantic)
  5. Have Voters Really Forgotten Trump’s Presidency? (NYT)
  6. Trump trial turns ordinary task of jury selection into the extraordinary (The Guardian)
  7. Why most people regret BrexitThe Economist)
  8. ‘End crippling debt’: Calls mount for global financial reform to tackle debt and climate crisis (Euro News)

Trump’s History-Making Trial

Today, history was made. Here’s how the Post puts it:

A half-century after President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, Donald Trump is poised to become the first former U.S. president to stand trial on criminal charges.

Trump’s trial in New York this week is tied to one of four cases in which he faces criminal charges. The cases raise broader questions about the durability of the American justice system and the public’s faith in democracy, particularly with Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, barreling toward a November rematch with President Biden.

That’s an apt summary. The first criminal trial of a former American President. A dark day, if it needs to be said, for democracy. 

We’re now hurtling towards the nightmare scenario: Trump, ahead in the polls, is poised to be the next President. But he’s also poised to be..convicted. And that raises the specter of all kinds of mind-boggling possibilities, which you’ve no doubt tried not to think about, as I have: a President…governing from a jail cell? What even is that—a constitutional crisis?

So much more’s going on here than meets the eye.

How We Got to “The Trump Years Were Halcyon Days,” Or, Yes, The World is Going to Hell

Right about now, Americans have something like Trump nostalgia. They seem to think of the Trump years, many of them, as veritable halcyon days. That’s why Trump’s barreling right back towards the Oval Office. 

It’s crucial, in a way, to put that in context. After he finally lost the last election, and the coup attempt of Jan 6th failed, Trump was considered out of the game, for good, by America’s elites, its power figures, from columnists to pundits right down to politicians. And yet here we are: just a few short years later, and Trump’s bringing American to the absurd brink of being the first President to possibly govern from a jail cell, and at the very least, even if you think that’s a slender possibility, the first President likely to be criminally convicted.

That’s a remarkable turnaround—it’s kind of like white noise now, we take it for granted, but it’s one of modern history’s great comebacks. 

Or is it? Was it a comeback at all? Even then, as Trump was counted out, I warned, and maybe you did too, that it wasn’t going to be so simple. Because the deeper problems producing the explosive surge of Trumpism hadn’t gone anywhere, and were only, in fact, getting worse.

Why do so many American think of the Trump years as halcyon days? The truth is that in retrospect, the world has gotten much, much worse, much faster. And it’s easy to pin this blame on the nearest sitting President—even if it has little to do with them.

When I think about how fast the world has gotten worse in the last few years, I shudder. Prices have exploded, of course—and the “cost of living” crisis isn’t going anywhere. Social contracts are coming undone, as governments have limited “fiscal space,” thanks to sky high interest rates. People are stressed, depressed, and enraged, negative sentiments surging off the charts. Inequality’s reaching proportions that go well beyond absurd—this decade, we’ll see the world’s first trillionaires, even while we can’t raise a few hundred billion as a world to fight climate change. Meanwhile, its mega-scale impacts have arrived with a vengeance.

The world really is getting worse, incredibly, shockingly fast. I try to highlight this for you when we discuss macro trends. And leaders in different arenas are waking up to it, suddenly, too—the mood at the World Economic Forum was despondent, or check out Zurich’s latest risk report, or McKinsey’s new sort of alarming work on falling cooperation. That stuff is all the equivalent of a nine-alarm fire in the world of leadership, and those are some of the world’s most influential organizations.

The Fundamental Attribution Error of Politics, or the Age of the Idiot

So what does all that have to do with Trump’s resurgence? Everything. You see, people these days are committing what you might call “the fundamental attribution error” of politics.

What’s that? Here’s what the “fundamental attribution error” means in psychology—it’s sort of a Big Idea that everyone should know, because it explains a lot.

In social psychology, fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is a cognitive attribution bias where observers underemphasize situational and environmental factors for the behavior of an actor while overemphasizing dispositional or personality factors. In other words, observers tend to overattribute the behaviors of others to their personality (e.g., he is late because he's selfish) and underattribute them to the situation or context.

So. This is exactly what voters are doing. They’re underattributing situational and environmental factors, and overattributing personality factors. And that’s creating this sort of wave of irrationality where people think of the Trump years as halcyon days.

In other words, they’re saying to themselves: “Things were better back then. Must be Trump!” When in fact, nothing of the sort’s the case. The world’s gone to hell, and that’s neither because of the lack of a Trump, or the presence of a Biden. It’s just…gone to hell…for far, far bigger reasons—civilizational ones, like a lack of investment, a failure to develop systems, crumbling institutions, an imbalanced capital to labor income ratio (meaning: the rich are getting way, way too rich, too fast), all at the largest level. 

See what I mean? Overattributing personality factors. The world was better because…Trump fixed things. Underattributing situational and environmental factors. Things weren’t better even a few short years ago…for the simple reason that…the world’s gone to hell, not because a demagogue or authoritarian was around to yell and shout and scream.

The fundamental attribution error is a mind-killer. It’s been studied in plenty of context, from relationships to culture. But it’s rarely more damaging than in politics, because what it’s doing is warping people’s perceptions entirely, making them irrational—as all cognitive biases do—and leading them to make the wrongest choice in modern history.

Americans are poised to put Trump back into the Oval Office for a very simple reason: things suck. Especially the economy. Nothing’s more maddening than hearing tone-deaf politicians cry “the economy’s great!,” when the average person can barely make ends meet, when credit card balances are skyrocketing, when debt’s soaring off the charts, and when living standards are plummeting.

Things suck.

But they don’t suck just because Papa Trump isn’t in charge. They suck because we are failing at a much, much bigger level. They suck because we’ve reached the greatest turning point in human history, all 300,000 years of it, and we’re paralyzed, and beginning to turn backwards, They suck because we’ve failed at our major civilizational challenges, from peace to prosperity to climate to justice to equality and beyond. 

And so people around the world are putting lunatics in charge because they’re making this fundamental attribution error.

Things suck, and nobody’s happy

In that state of mind, you can see how the average person’s process of thinking clearly shuts down, and they just retreat into infantile narcissism, meaning, Papa Trump alone can Save Me, because things were better back then. Things suck because the world’s gone to hell.

That seems to be a tough lesson for people to grasp, or at least hold. I get it, in a way. History teaches us, sadly, that in hard times, scapegoats and finger-pointing and rage are far more seductive than thinking clearly about problems, and how to solve them. It took us millennia to really get anywhere as humanity for just that reason—we were mired in an endless cycle of war, conflict, blame, retribution, and vengeance. 

But now we have to think clearly. If we go right back to destroying democracy, how much of history will we lose?

Things suck, and nobody’s happy, but not thinking about them clearly is only going to make them suck even more.

Americans Want a Better Economy, But They’re Going to Get Something a Lot More Like Dictatorship 

Americans are poised to re-elect Trump because things suck, especially the economy. But what they’re going to get is a big surprise. They’re going to get something very much like dictatorship.

I don’t have to tell you why by now. The thousand page plan to purge government and install loyalists. A Supreme Court that’s more interested in taking rights away. Laws being resurrected that back to centuries ago. The open championing of retribution and violence. The proclamation of dictatorship. On and on it goes. I know you know, but the average person isn’t taking any of this seriously.

Their reasoning appears to go like this. Things suck now. Things better back then. Must be Papa Trump. Vote for Trump. Things better when Papa Trump around. They don’t notice the attribution error, which is that the world’s gone to hell. Nor the conclusion that follows from it: keep on electing fanatics, and of course, the world will keep going to hell.

Americans—leaving aside the MAGA fringe—who vote for Trump, expecting a “better economy,” aka things not sucking, are going to get, instead, a taste of dictatorship. We should all know what’ll follow: rights will be severely curtailed, crackdowns will follow, opposition figures will be pursued, and the government itself will become a kind of agent of the mission of purifying society. 

All of that’s going to be very, very ugly. Much uglier than last time, and Americans, at least those remembering the Trump years as halcyon days, appear to have forgotten entirely about all that. And in that regard, Trump’s constant noise-making works: it drowns out the memory of how disturbing the abuses of power then really were.

Yet here we are. Trump’s cruising back to power, right on the cusp of being the first criminal President of the United States, because people remember his first Presidency as a better time, than now—and it was, but only because the world was in a far more stable place, not quite openly hurtling towards multiple mega-disasters like it is now. 

We’re Underestimating the Risk of Another Trump Era

Where does all that leave us? Emphatically not…in a good place. See how Brits massively underestimated the damage Brexit did? It destroyed their futures. Americans are making exactly the same mistake now, when it comes to re-electing Trump. 

I get it, by the way. Biden…problematic. We’ll discuss that tomorrow, because this is already getting too long.

What else would the consequences of re-electing Trump be? A criminal in the Oval Office would absolutely shred America’s reputation—and it’d send what’s left of global diplomacy and order into freefall, from defense treaties to economic ones. The financial system would (will) melt down, because no matter how brave a face they’re putting on it now, the prospect of the almighty dollar and America’s treasury in the hands of Trump, again, this time—risk explodes, and it’s already cascading. And you might as well write an epitaph for poor democracy, which is already at just 20% of the world now, and would hit about 15%, and then crater much, much lower, lunatics and demagogues of every stripe inspired, empowered, and armed to win the battle.

It’s an earth-shaking and history-making mistake. And yet here America is, about to make it. Like I said, sadly, weirdly, I even get it. Even I have trouble, after the last few months, really stomaching the idea of more Biden, more Democrats. Who doesn’t feel betrayed and abandoned by them? Certainly, their coalition’s in deep, deep trouble, because it’s key constituencies, from young people to minorities to women, increasingly do. Uninspiring is putting it kindly—maybe insipid is better. So I understand the feelings. But is regret a greater evil than the satisfaction of walking away from the lesser one?

It is, but it’s hard for the human soul to really stomach all this, to make sense of it, and the mind to grasp it and grapple with it. So here we are. Watching history being made—and not in a good way, but in a startling, tragic one, which is the hallmark of this troubled age.

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