Even if you despise President Donald Trump, you can’t deny he’s certainly got our attention. I’d be hard put to name a single Press Secretary who served under Obama. There was a chubby guy called Gibbs, but I might be guessing. As for his Chief of Staff, or members of his cabinet… Only Hillary Clinton. But with Trump I know the names of his inner and outer circle. Rex Tillerson, Betty Devos, Mattis, Nicky Haley, Jeff Sessions, Pruit at the EPA, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, alas. Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci was press secretary for a mere ten days but his name is neon-lit in my memory and as Morrissey might drone: ‘it’s a light that never goes out’. Even the supposedly sober restraint of General John Kelly, a man who looks like he hankers for anonymity, has become flecked with fluorescent-coloured scandal.
Trump’s presidency is a noisy presidency. One is tempted to quote Macbeth — ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ — but under the noise significant things are happening. The news website Politico has a regular feature entitled ‘5 Things Donald Trump Did While You Weren’t Looking’ which makes for exquisitely depressing reading. From lifting environmental protection to the dropping of transgender protections in colleges, the deregulation of financial services to the filling of judicial positions throughout the country, as much as big pieces of legislation currently remain out of reach, the drip-drip-drip of activity inches the country further right even as the country and the media are distracted by kneeling football players in the NFL, the hurling of insults at North Korea, and the disrespecting of Gold Star families.
It is this background noise that is one of the forces keeping the GOP largely on Trump’s side. They see a genuine advantage in having all the courts lean rightward, especially when gerrymandering becomes a legal tussle. They see an opportunity to win on a variety of battlegrounds even where public opinion is overwhelmingly against them. And Trump makes for a very good shield against flack. Does it matter that in doing so they are undermining the very institutions that make American democracy possible? As they bide their time, the political discourse coarsens to the point of utter vulgarity and their so-called family values are touted by a “pussy grabber”. Some moral cost-benefit calculations are taking place; a future Damascane revelation is pencilled in. But all the while we are sailing full steam ahead into unknown waters and the icebergs are drifting further south these years.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb came up with the idea of the Black Swan in 2007 in his book of the same name. It was an ingenious idea that was also very much of its time. Post 9/11 being blindsided by an unthinkable event — a Black Swan — started to look not so much like an anomaly as the way the world works. But like many nifty ideas, the satisfaction the pattern recognition software we call our minds derives from it can lead us to over-apply it. The financial crisis of 2008 was not a Black Swan for instance. Nor was the rise of ISIS, the Brexit vote, or Donald Trump’s victory…
Rather, these were icebergs. They had accumulated over the years from lots of frozen sea water, small ice crystals and snowflakes. The most famous iceberg in the world was the one which sank the RMS Titanic in April, 1912. As with many disasters, it wasn’t one whopping error that did for the ship, but a series of misjudgements, miscalculations, and mistakes which built up as inexorably as the chunk of free floating glacier it ran into that night. All of these mistakes were made by people who were looking at them, considering the options, working out the cost-benefit, calculating the risk, and then making the wrong decision. Icebergs are never likely but they are also possible. And given enough time, anything that is possible becomes inevitable.
And so what is the iceberg floating towards us as we consider the cat. 4 Trump presidency?
Several news items struck me this week. One was a study that showed the antibiotics aren’t working anymore. Millions of preventable deaths are projected in the relatively near future. Another study reported the fall in winged insect populations by 75%. The big drama of extreme weather makes for Roland Emmerich style excitement tinged with fear, but the real existential threat is going to happen with soil exhaustion, the elimination of one of the main motors of pollination and the sudden immunity of harmful bacteria and virus to our medicines. This is the environmental iceberg that is being built right now in a story tucked away below the fold of our newspapers and page two of our search engines.
Trump has already pulled out of the (already insufficient) Paris Climate accord and Europe’s attention has drifted as it deals with the turmoil of Brexit and Catalan identity politics. The exhausting noise of politics is having an anti-political effect, so that matters of real urgency are left behind. Time is ripe for one of Taleb’s black swans, but the fact of the matter is even 9/11 was more an iceberg than a black swan. A black swan, when it comes down to it, is simply an iceberg we notice too late. It’s right there – huge and destructive and drifting in our direction, but it is quiet, almost impossible to hear over the racket of the deckchairs being rearranged.