Belmont Club

Too good to be true

AP Photo/Yavuz Alatan/Sozcu

News that “Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general … long … a liberal Democratic champion of women’s rights, and recently … an outspoken figure in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment” may himself have been an abuser is a reminder that public virtue may conceal private vice.  If the accusations prove true his fall from a height will make the disappointment of former admirers all the greater.

It is human nature to fear unseen danger more than one in plain view. Nothing is more feared in military strategy than the surprise attack. Horror movie writers know that by concealing rather than openly depicting the villain the sense of fear can be heightened. Especially when special effects were crude directors knew to keep the monster offscreen or in shadow lest the audience see a man in a rubber suit and lose all terror of it.

What could explain the relative durability of Donald Trump in the face of the 24×7 media denunciation of his peccadillos is the fact that he, like the man in the rubber monster suit, is too front and center to be genuinely frightening. It is not that the public has ignored his shortcomings or faults so much as they have made adjustments for them. Trump is a definite quantity and many prefer him to what they imagine to be worse.

While Trump’s defects have been “priced in” to the political equation by contrast the liberal heroes are often pitched too high.  The future villains,  ignored or flatteringly covered by the media until the moment of their sudden exposure, prove psychologically more menacing because they were supposed to be the Good Guys. Portrayed as kindly television personalities, avuncular talk show hosts, square jawed news anchors, patrons of feminism or crusading district attorneys until exposure they fulfill the condition of betrayal and a surprise of the classic horror boogeyman. They are the tigers who stalk us from behind, the anacondas that wait coiled in ambush from an overhead branch, or little old ladies quietly eating at a diner who turns out to be possessed.

The almost cartoonish media caricature of Donald Trump can be considerably less frightening than these bent liberal heroes. The rational explanation for this phenomenon is variance. The public has a much more tightly bounded idea of what Donald Trump’s faults are, knowing the worst to as excruciating a degree of accuracy as the media and Robert Mueller can make it. By contrast the public is only vaguely persuaded it knows even the half of what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did.

This explains why counterintuitively, Donald Trump can be perceived as less risky than the Special Prosecutor. The estimate of Trump by his supporters is tightly distributed around a known mean whereas the accepted character of the true Robert Mueller can vary from hell to breakfast. It also explains why the “Resistance” strategy has been so singularly ineffective at moving the idea of Trump’s ouster into the Overton Window. What has been described as the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” has had the simultaneous effect of reducing the region of uncertainty around the Donald while increasing it around his foes. The more the Resistance shines the spotlight the less we fear the man in the rubber suit. The more fawningly it describes its flawed heroes the more we suspect some treachery is afoot.

This suggests that as a practical matter the Special Counsel will never generate enough steam to dispatch an elected president by itself. Mueller’s investigations can at best have the preparatory effect of pushing the Congress into Democrat hands and from there into the impeachment process. As matters stand the president’s foes are having too much trouble playing the Good Guy.

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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).

Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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