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Getting Trump Wrong

Posted on January 23, 2021
Tags: politics, Trump, predictions, error

I’m sort of amazed at how badly I misunderstood Trump’s behaviour between the election and January 6th, even after years of watching him closely. Of course I always understood that he would deny that he lost the election whatever of the result. But I also thought that he would better appreciate his consolation prize, a lucrative post-presidency that could more than make up for the financial and legal challenges he now faces. Indeed, I expected him to look forward to years of milking grievances over the election and to his continued grip on the party via his familiar pattern of lies, endorsements, and threats.

Trump’s initial fundraising seemed to bear this out. He raised an enormous sum of money for his PAC, money that would be crucial to keeping a lock on the party, and that mostly seemed unrelated to concrete steps to overturn the election result. And at first, he seemed to be walking that fine line between allegations of fraud and hints here and there that he understood he had lost the election. But at least as I write this everything seems to have fallen apart.

I did also underestimate the difficulty of the grift itself. Stoking outrage about an election is tricky because if you stress your victimhood too much you look simply weak—not good if your appeal was always as a strong and savvy leader—and if you push your rhetoric of illegitimacy and crime too far you encourage violent insurrection. The best way to manage this would have been to keep it really vague at first and then start fabricating nonsense after the transfer of power, when you could hardly be expected to do anything concrete about it beyond raising money. In any case, a lucrative post-presidency required Trump to thread this needle. He failed and somehow ended up with the worst of both worlds: now he looks weak and he inspired a violent insurrection. Whoops!

Trump is only two things, in constant tension: lizard brain and grift. An interesting bias I have discovered in myself is to overstress the latter when attempting to predict what Trump will do. But he is not driven solely by the desire to swindle others. He’s also frequently dominated by irrational overreactions that complicate or ruin his various scams.

So I think my main mistake throughout the post-election period was to assume that grift was running the show, and to draw a bitter comfort from it. It turns out that (as Mary Trump and others warned and as should have been obvious in retrospect) it’s been pure lizard brain since the election. I’ve adjusted my mental model accordingly, and will try to remember in the future that narrow self-interest is usually a poor guide to behaviour. If Trump had only been greedier, he might have been able to focus on the magnificent opportunity in front of him. But it turns out that Trump just didn’t love money enough to get it right.