The Danger of Worst-Case Scenario Thinking about Trump

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In the months prefacing the election we proved our human predisposition towards worst-case scenario thinking. It caused a lot of people to draw parallels between Trump and Hitler—his rise to power, the populist movement, white supremacy, German exceptionalism, etc. Other more rigorous articles have claimed that his rise has more in common to Mussolini’s. But during the election process, it was only abstract political posturing. Now it’s real. Trump is elected. And people’s projections (both liberals and conservatives who opposed him) have become real anxieties and authentic fears.

One of my conservative friends reacted to Trump’s election with this heart-felt question: “Advice on how to face a class of beautiful, undocumented 6th graders??” People responded, some encouraging her panic and others with an attempt towards attenuation. I have other liberal friends who have woven a worst-case scenario narrative where any non-white-cis-gendered-Christian male is now in eminent danger of discrimination or deportation. They substantiate their narratives by citing The New York Times exit polls which demonstrate that Trump was principally favored by older, white, straight, Christian men as well as citing the many rude things Trump has done and even proposed. 

But before we go about arguing the specifics, we have to admit that if Clinton had won, other worst-case scenario stories would have been multiplied. These ones favoring dystopian depictions of governmental control, conspiracy theories, and an ever growing national debt. It’s just a human tendency to jump off the deep end and swim around in our deepest, darkest fears. Perhaps it’s a self-inflicted exposure therapy meant to help us acclimate to the situation. But if these fears are left unchecked, they can become paralyzing.

It is true that Trump may end up being remembered as negatively as Hitler. It’s a possibility. No one knows. He could lead us into a world war as another of my friends suggested: “Global warming may be solved by nuclear winter. #silverlinings.” But there is another World War story that suggests an alternative.

This story is one we all know thanks to Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. The film depicts a man who has many similarities to Donald Trump. He was a womanizer and egoist who pumped large sums of money into various business ventures only some of which were successful. From what I can tell, not just based on the movie, but various articles written about him (and of course Wikipedia), he was that shrewd businessman who no one likes but everyone knows: loud, sharp, and individualistic.

These are qualities I find common in many of the successful business men I know. They often have an inexplicable self-confidence and bravado that makes them at once offensive and admirable. It makes them abrasive but also efficient. It hinders personal attachment while inspiring confidence.

As with all of us, our weaknesses and our strengths are often two ends of the same trait. Oskar Schindler was a man of many weaknesses and it was because of his weaknesses (which were also his strengths) that he was able to perform one of the greatest acts of heroism the world has known.

Before the invasion, it was his knack for networking which allowed him to be a valuable spy for the Nazi party in Czechoslovakia. And that same weasel mindedness allowed him to make deals with influential people in order to preserve the life of his workers at the end of the war. He bribed SS officers, Gestapo agents, and government officials. He had mastered the deal and while the deals were not always straightforward and honest, they were invaluable. He bribed himself broke. By the end of the war, he had nothing left to give.

We all remember the masterful scene from the movie, as Schindler looks at his only remaining possessions of value—his car and a golden pin—and weeps for the fact that they could have been leveraged to save more people. So what’s the message? It’s that you never really know what someone will do. Sometimes people surprise us.  Sometimes “bad” people do good things.

You have already made the analogy in your head. The thing is that many of the traits that make Trump repulsive have other ends to them. And there is a positive scenario where Trump doesn’t become a Hitler but a Schindler. Morally suspect people have done great things before when they have obtained, by whatever coincidence ordains it, remarkable circumstances and great power.

The future is unknown. Of course there is danger in assuming Trump will generate positive change, but there is also danger in assuming he cannot. Personally, I wish we had not elected him. Many feel as I do and some feel it much more potently than I. But many others did vote for him. And they have hopes that are no less of a possibility than our fears.

There are two dangers we need to be aware of. We are at risk of a republican majority doing great damage by enacting vengeful policies. And so we should keep watch. But we are also in danger of our predisposition towards worst-case scenario thinking getting in the way of a more positive and optimistic reality.

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3 thoughts on “The Danger of Worst-Case Scenario Thinking about Trump

  1. Excellent! It has been a most disgusting campaign, but it is over and we need to let it be over and we
    need to give Trump a chance. New beginnings are exciting, even while they are also frightening!

  2. [The full comment:] Thank you, Josh. This is wise and well expressed. I’m grateful for your generous and hopeful attitude. My greatest hope for every human being, including myself, is that we can change–and I believe we can. But of course when choosing a president, we need to take into account a candidate’s current character as well as his or her potential for change. And we should hope that the gap between the two is not too wide.

    I am concerned about a Trump presidency in part because of his character, but also because he is exceptionally underqualified, ill informed, and troubling in his approach to many issues. (And his style continues to be divisive.) But I have never felt he is as dangerous as the great dictators of the twentieth century, or even the second-rate ones of the past and present whose temperament and style resemble his. For one thing, though his instincts are authoritarian, I don’t believe he has any malicious designs aiming at dictatorial rule.

    In addition, we have a wonderful system of government (along with a diverse culture) that offers many protections. Though having all branches of the national government in the hands of one party presents some concerns, the fact is that many Republican leaders are much more sensible than Trump. The Senate is evenly enough divided that, especially with a sizable group of Republican Senators who are moderate on some issues (for instance, immigration), it’s unlikely any initiatives that are terribly destructive will make it through the process.

    Nevertheless, given some of what has happened since the election, I believe we have reasons for both hope and concern. Since the election took place less than three weeks ago, it’s too early to tell what a Trump presidency will be like. But I believe we’ve already seen both some positive and some negative signs.

    I’ve just written a blog post of my own that details some of those positives and negatives (8 positives and 7 negatives) and what I think we should do in response, including trying to be a source of positives ourselves. You can find the blog post here: http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2016/11/17-days-later-some-reasons-for-hope-and.html

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