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Is the Trump Presidency at a Tipping Point?

A friend posts the following observation on Facebook: With multiple stories breaking about Trump-Russia, we may have hit a tipping point, from which the meltdown of the 45th presidency accelerates.

Part of me wants to think it’s true—the sooner the presidency is transferred to competent hands, the better—and part of me is worried about the meltdown. But let’s step back for a second and ask a basic question: What is the game being played, and why might this game feature a tipping point?

From a game-theoretic perspective, a game with a tipping point has the feature that players are more likely to take one action over another, the more that other players do the same. This herd tendency might arise from safety in numbers (protesting a repressive regime is safer in a crowd) or the belief that others have information about the “right” course of action. A tipping point occurs when enough players take some action (e.g., because they have outlier preferences or information) that this behavior becomes mutually reinforcing: others take the same action, which encourages still others to do so.

If you’ve seen a few of these models, it’s easy enough to tell stories in which players have the sort of incentives that lead to tipping points. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four, each involving a group of actors on which the Trump presidency depends.

Disaffected insiders: This is a classic case of safety in numbers: it’s harder to get caught leaking if everybody around you is also talking to the media.

The media: No legitimate news organization wants to get scooped. The more news organizations are investigating a story with legs, the more that others want to jump in.

Republican policy experts: Well-connected Republicans smell scandal and failure, discouraging them from taking positions in the Trump administration. This in turn discourages other potential nominees from seeking out such positions.

Republican members of Congress: Trump is still quite popular among Republican voters, so cutting loose the White House—say, by calling for an independent investigation of Trump-Russia ties—poses a political risk. That risk, however, may be smaller if other Republican members take the same position.

See, that was easy. It’s even possible to rank the four stories by distance to the tipping point. My rough sense is that disaffected insiders have already tipped, that the media are in the process of tipping, and that Republican members of Congress have a ways to go; I’m not sure about the Republican policy experts. (It’s hard to tell from the outside how much the historically low rate of presidential appointments is driven by lack of interest among potential nominees, versus the fact that Trump is not of the Republican Party and therefore has little base on which to draw.)

We can take this one step further, noting that there are likely spillovers from one “game” to another: The more leaks there are, for example, the more incentive for the media to invest in the story, which in turn affects the incentives of Republican policy experts and members of Congress. Maybe we’re headed for the mother of all tipping points.

The problem, as Paul Krugman observes, is that this sort of storytelling is “too easy and too much fun.” Once you start thinking about tipping points, you see them everywhere. But for each of the four cases above, I could just as easily tell a story in which the relevant actions are strategic substitutes rather than strategic complements. Perhaps leaking is a volunteer’s dilemma, for example, whereby each potential leaker hopes that somebody else will do the job (though, if so, there is some serious miscoordination, as the White House has sprung a thousand leaks).

Moreover, some of those around Trump may be playing a game in which it doesn’t really matter what anybody else does. Consider a last key group of actors: Trump associates under investigation. Here, the best metaphor may be the prisoner’s dilemma, whereby cooperating with investigators is the best action, regardless of what the accused expect their collaborators to do. Assuming that those under investigation have something to hide, this may be the game that poses the greatest threat to Trump’s presidency.


Hannah Chapman (Ph.D. student at UW) observes that Trump’s news conferences look a lot like Putin’s:

Under Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer, the near-daily White House news briefings have changed from routine interactions with a professional press corps to a high-profile media spectacle. The briefings frequently beat soap operas in daytime TV ratings and have been immortalized on “Saturday Night Live.” While that’s a shift away from normal U.S. politics, it resembles Russian President Vladimir Putin’s media strategy.

How does Putin’s strategy work?

The Kremlin keeps the appearance of a free press while actually reducing transparency. It does this by oversaturating the arena with pro-government reporters, keeping the focus on showmanship instead of content, and limiting opportunities for challenge and dissent. All this makes it harder for the press to hold the government accountable.

I’d give my eye teeth to know if Putin’s press conferences are an explicit model for Trump’s or if this is simply an example of convergent evolution.

Donald Trump as Lightning McQueen

Watching Donald Trump struggle to make good on his extravagant campaign promises, I am reminded of the opening scene in Pixar’s Cars. Hot rod Lightning McQueen attempts to win the Dinoco 400 by ignoring the advice of his “expert” pit crew, who demand that McQueen change his tires. Announcers Darrel Cartrip and Bob Cutlass describe the situation as McQueen pulls out of yet another pit stop with only a fill-up:

Darrel: Looks like it’s all gas-and-go for McQueen today.

Bob: That’s right. No tires again.

Darrel: Normally I’d say that’s a short-term gain, long-term loss, but it sure is working for him. He obviously knows something we don’t know.

But he doesn’t. McQueen blows first one tire, then another, and bounces to the finish line on his rims. He finishes in a three-way tie, which sets up the rest of the film. But for the rookie mistake, McQueen might have driven away with the Piston Cup.

Not changing your tires in an auto race is like not hedging your campaign promises in an electoral contest. You can say you are going to build a beautiful wall and have Mexico pay for it, impose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” or whatever you think the people at your rallies want to hear. Doing so may give you a lead, and even win you the race. But unlike the Dinoco 400, the contest doesn’t end when you cross the finish line. Voters expect you to actually deliver on your campaign promises.

Seasoned politicians understand this and try not to make high-profile promises they can’t keep. But Trump’s a rookie, and either because of his ignorance of how government works, or because he didn’t do the backward induction, he created expectations among his supporters that will be very difficult to meet. It may have looked like he knew what he was doing, but we’re now three weeks into the Trump presidency, and the wheels are already coming off.


Postscript: There is a moral for political economists in this story. The typical model in the Downsian tradition assumes that the “platform space” and the “policy space” are identical—candidates can (indeed, are assumed to) implement any promise they make. To me, that seems like equilibrium behavior masquerading as an assumption. On the equilibrium path, politicians don’t make promises they can’t keep, presumably because voters punish politicians who don’t keep their promises. Anticipating that, it is reasonable for voters to infer that any promise a candidate makes is one that he can keep. Donald Trump is way off the equilibrium path.

Imagining Trump’s End

I’m teaching Socialism and Transitions to the Market this semester, and we’re reading Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. Here he is on Khrushchev’s end:

[H]e was starting to frighten them…He had made alarmingly specific, alarmingly verifiable economic promises…He had tried to stick his thumb in the scales of the strategic balance by putting the missiles in Cuba; and the world had nearly burned. He was getting angrier and angrier, more and more impatient, more and more puzzled. “You’d think as first secretary I could change anything in this country,” he told Fidel Castro. “The hell I can! No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia’s like a tub of dough…” The yeasty mass kept pushing back, and all he knew how to do was to keep trying the same methods, more and more frantically, more and more frenziedly, announcing new policies, rejigging the organisation chart, tinkering and revising…Meanwhile, he listened less. He mocked his colleagues to their faces. He sent Mikoyan to Cuba while his wife was dying, then failed to turn up to her funeral. He absent-mindedly alienated supporter after supporter, till by October 1964 there was a solid majority around the Presidium table for replacing him.

Which left the question of what to do about his promises.

Ah, yes. We’re going to have to worry about the promises.

The Parable of Vladimir Meciar

I received a message this morning from a friend unable to start the day, so in despair was she over recent events. My response was curt: “Get out of bed and write a check to the ACLU. Then find a protest to join or a refugee center where you can volunteer. This is no time to be defeatist. This is a fight we can win.”

That’s how I feel, but I owe my friend a justification for my optimism (and an apology for my curtness). As others have noted, what we have seen over the past eighteen months fits the pattern of creeping authoritarianism. The systematic violation of basic democratic norms—this is how democracies die. Those who do not yet see this as an existential threat (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan) do not know their history.

But there is an important point missing from this discussion: Not every would-be authoritarian is successful. Consider the story of Vladimir Meciar: three-time nationalist prime minister of Slovakia, a populist with authoritarian tendencies…in short, the Slovak Trump. I lived in Prague for two years in the mid-1990s, when the papers were full of horrifying stories from neighboring Slovakia. There seemed to be little hope that Slovakia would soon join the community of Western democracies and every reason to suspect that Slovakia was sliding into tinpot dictatorship.

It didn’t happen. Vladimir Meciar is today the former leader of the former ruling party of a democratic Slovakia fully integrated into the EU and NATO. Meciar failed because of democratic institutions that proved surprisingly capable of accommodating opposition to his rule. He retained a base of support well into the new millenium, but by 1998 he had been cast out of polite political company; he could no longer build a ruling coalition.

If the Slovak public, less than a decade removed from communism, could defend their young democracy, then should not we be able to do the same? For all the problems with American democracy, the opposition to Trump possesses structural advantages of which dissidents in other countries can only dream: subnational governments firmly in control of the opposition party, media outlets that are privately owned and thus harder to fully capture, a dense organizational life to support collective action…It’s going to be a fight, but it’s a fight that America can win.

Sean Spicer is no Joseph Goebbels

Donald Trump’s first full day in office was marked by an all-out assault on the press. Standing in front of the CIA’s memorial wall, the president called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and made false claims about the size of…um, the crowds at his inauguration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued the theme, telling reporters that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever (not true) while supporting this statement with easily refutable lies about floor coverings and magnetometers on the Mall.

This is all profoundly discouraging, though not especially surprising, given Trump’s behavior at his press conference on January 11 and talk among Trumpists about “closing down the elite press.” But it is also encouraging. Effective propaganda requires mixing enough fact with fiction to keep viewers guessing. Sean Spicer did nothing today but peddle fiction. If this is the best that Trump’s propagandists can do, they will not be persuasive.

It is worth putting this into context. Trump needs to discredit the elite press, as he cannot easily shut them down or replace their management. This is a critical difference between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. When Putin took power, the broadcast media were already substantially state-owned, if not fully under state control. Trump does not have this luxury. Instead, he and his minions need to convince Americans that the press is lying while he is telling the truth. Saying that the sky is green when photos show it to be blue won’t do the trick.

(H/t to Lucan Way, who got this ball rolling on Facebook.)

Update: Saturday Night Live nails it. In last night’s cold open, Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin chides Trump: “Today you went to the C.I.A. and said one million people came to see you in Washington D.C.? If you’re going to lie, don’t make it so obvious. Say you are friends with LeBron James, not that you are LeBron James.”

Lin-Manuel Mayakovsky

Blogging took a back seat over the holidays, but I’m back and ready to talk…Hamilton. I’ve been hooked since hearing the soundtrack for the first time last summer, and earlier this week we saw the show in Chicago. Seeing Hamilton on the stage definitely brought out a few elements not obvious from the cast recording (and man oh man, did Alexander Gemignani as King George steal the show), but there is a reason that kids everywhere are memorizing the lyrics—the songs are the essence of the work.

My wife is a particular fan. Having been raised on Russian poetry, she has never quite understood English-language free verse. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are oddly more familiar. Hip-hop is street verse with a beat, not unlike the work of Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Compare this couplet from one of Mayakovsky’s better-known poems:

Svetit’ vsegda, svetit’ vezde, do dnei poslednikh dontsa,
svetit’—i nikakikh gvozdei! Vot lozung moi—i solntsa!

with this rap from “My Shot”:

Scratch that, this is not the moment, it’s the movement
where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went.

You can snap your fingers in 4/4 time to Mayakovsky as easily as you can to Miranda. In each case, you have a surprising, almost outrageous, street rhyme: “svetit’ vezde” (everywhere) and “nikakikh gvozdei” (no nails, i.e., no questions), “movement” and “prove went.” Not least, there is the attitude: Mayakovsky raps that his slogan is “shine to the last days,” just like the sun; Hamilton will not throw away his shot.

Want to learn more? Get the fabulous book Hamilton: The Revolution by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, which among other gems notes that the “general” / “men are all (lining up)” rhyme in “Right Hand Man” is an improvement on “general” / “mineral” in The Pirates of Penzance. Hamilton is a revolution—but as revolutionary poetry, it echoes an earlier master.

How Propaganda Works, U.S. edition

The New York Times reports that Rush Limbaugh and company have decided to turn the label “fake news” against the mainstream media:

Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.

This may be effective, but it’s not particularly clever. It’s just an old Soviet trick—still used in contemporary Russia, as Konstantin Sonin and I recently described. When Russian media say that U.S. elections are “rigged,” the goal is to debase the term so that allegations of (real) election rigging in Russia seem unexceptional. Similarly, when professional propagandists in the U.S. claim that mainstream media are peddling “fake news,” the aim is not to discredit CNN and the New York Times—that was done years ago—but to convince listeners that any claim of “fake news” is partisan.

Is there a how-to manual that all propagandists read, or does any reasonably competent practitioner just figure out what works through trial and error?

The Illegitimate President

Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election is the stain on Donald Trump’s presidency that will not go away. Trump will emerge from January’s inauguration viewed as an “illegitimate” president by large segments of the American population. But what does it mean to lack legitimacy? And does it matter?

Any discussion of legitimacy begins with Max Weber, of course, and his ideal types of legitimate rule: legal, traditional, and charismatic authority. Legal authority underpins the right to rule in the American system. The perception that the electoral process may have been hijacked by a foreign actor undermines this authority.

So what? Birtherism led many to view Obama’s election as illegitimate, but he was nonetheless able to implement much of an ambitious agenda during two terms in office. The key, it seems to me, is that the “administrative staff” (i.e., the executive branch of government) never viewed Obama as an illegitimate president: they knew that Obama was a natural-born citizen.

The situation with Trump is different. As with any president, Trump needs at least some cooperation by the bureaucracy to get things done. But the bureaucracy will be at least as inclined as the general public to believe that Trump was illegitimately elected. This is especially true of the foreign-intelligence community, through which any evidence of Russian meddling will pass.

Now, the combination of professional socialization and career concerns will ensure that civil servants show up to work and do a good job. For some, however, “good job” may come to be defined as resistance to the agenda of what they view as an illegitimately elected president. Trump will push back, but civil-service protections will limit the coercion that he can apply. He may find that he is pushing on a string.

Watch the Borders (GIS pro tip)

img_0095Speaking of the countryside, Evgeny Finkel, Dmitrii Kofanov (UW grad student), and I are writing a short paper on peasant unrest in 1917 for a special issue of Slavic Review on the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There are limits to what you can do in a 3000-word essay for an interdisciplinary audience—data description, a couple of maps (the figure here illustrates disturbances, March–October 1917, using one Soviet-era data source), and a few statistical comparisons. We’re especially interested in the impact of soil fertility and the legacy of serfdom on unrest in 1917. But there is a lot of unexplained variation, and what we don’t observe is likely spatially correlated—what drives unrest in Tambov, or reports thereof, may be similar to that in Penza. So, spatial regression.

There’s more than one way to run a spatial model. A key choice is the type of weighting matrix to use. One such matrix is a “contiguity” matrix, which assumes similarity among immediate neighbors only: Tambov and Penza but not Tambov and Simbirsk. An easy way to generate such a matrix is to run a GIS shapefile through the appropriate routine in Stata or R. And in our case, the resulting matrix was wrong: for many regions, some but not all neighbors showed up in the matrix. Look at the map: Archangel has two neighbors, only one of which is recognized by Stata.

My best guess is that there is an infinitesimally small “demilitarized zone” that runs between many of the regions in our data. You can’t see it on the map, but it’s messing with the identification of neighbors.

Anybody looking for a class replication project? Take a paper with spatial regressions and reproduce the spatial-weighting matrixes by hand. And let me know if you find anything. My hunch is that this is a common problem.