The proper way to start a conversation in San Francisco during the past couple of weeks has been to ask "how are you holding up?" A palpable sense of pain, disbelief and fear has captured the city since the recent and historic upset in the presidential election. To those outside the city this may seem like an excessive comparison, but I honestly haven't felt a sense of shared loss and mourning like this in the 15 years since the national tragedy of 9/11.
I knew this outcome was a possibility, especially given the trends of the previous few weeks and the dangers of voting between such deeply unfavorable candidates. On the trading floor, you have to develop a healthy appreciation for clear signals that "the market" is trending away from what you consider to be "the fundamentals". In this election, it felt like sentiment was divorcing aggressively from fact but, until the very end, it still seemed like the results would be forgotten as just a painful close call.
Now we've entered a new world and it looks like the greatest con of our lifetimes has achieved fruition. This isn't just the election of Trump (the "Great" con) but also a confluence of factors that have been in operation for decades on almost every front (the "Long" con).
The Long Con
The Long Con is the self-reinforcing power structure under which we've lived. Somehow, the global corporate and political elites have gotten the little guy to buy promises of betterment while they deliver chiefly for themselves. We've heard decades of buying votes with short-sold promises that haven't been followed through, of passing mounds of bullshit to the public while crafting reality in back rooms with green handshakes.
Does anyone believe the system hasn't been set up and perpetuated to enrich those in power and their surrogates while only paying the minimum of service to the electorate on whose backs they build?
Unfortunately, such a greedy system is only sustainable as long as it can convince the people to support it. This con becomes unstable when the system's fetid foundations are exposed to a critical mass of victims who have been boxed out in increasingly obvious ways. We've entered such a period now.
The Great Con
The Great Con arrived atop the cracks of the Long Con's instability and its name is Trump.
He was able to tap into the massive distrust of and disgust for our system and fan the resulting anger hot enough to overwhelm any questions about his moral fiber or desire to follow through on his promises. No candidate has ever lied as much as he did but that didn't matter because he told voters not what the establishment believed they wanted to hear but the truth about how they were getting screwed (and a series of laughably absurd but emotionally attractive paths to fixing it).
He conned his voters into putting him in power based on a bunch of feel-good crap about making America great again because it was so much more palatable than the endless spew of disingenuous bullshit coming from traditional politicians. He may be lying through his teeth, but he admitted that there is a problem instead of trying to tell a decaying factory town that everything is good for them because unemployment nationally is falling.
It's a con because the reality of Trump is as bad as everything that his voters claimed to dislike about Hillary and more (oh, the irony). The conflicts of interest, corruption and perpetuation of a power structure. Look at what's happened in the beginning of his transition -- he's filled key appointments with cronies and insiders who further his interests, not those of the country. I pity any voter who believes that Trump holds their best interests first at heart or that he'll be their champion to bring the Long Con to its demise.
Why has Wall Street rallied so strongly? Because they know that a future of increased corporate power in politics means reduced tax burdens and less oversight. That's never good for the little guy. How do you think Putin feels now that he knows America will have an easily manipulated president who is unlikely to challenge his dominance on the world stage due to an isolationist bent? How much like wolves at the feast do you think Washington insiders feel as they line up to populate an administration who has no political experience?
Is this a mandate for actual change?
The Great Con is that we, as an electorate, fell for this solution to the problems of the Long Con and it looks like we're all going to suffer for it.
Immediate Fears of a Trump Presidency
I believe that Trump never really wanted the job of being president but he's here now so he's likely to focus on using it to serve his own interests. If we're lucky, it's just going to be 4 years of the Trump Kleptocracy where he and his cronies pillage the country for their own ends. But it could be a whole lot worse.
Trump is a man with no attention span (he can't hold together for even 10 minutes on stage or survive a single issue meeting for more than 5) and no appreciation for history (he's bragged about how little he reads). That means that he's likely to delegate significant amounts of his authority to his handlers rather than dealing with the over-complicated job of actually running the country.
Corruption is a simple and logical outcome here but, in the process, they are likely to heavily destabilize our political structure and, worse, to repeat some of history's major mistakes through willful ignorance. Some of the most immediately attractive solutions ("intern the muslims", "start a trade war" or simply isolationism) have the most terrifying (and historically obvious) consequences.
I fear for immediately tangible things like social rights and longer term problems like the environment. But well beyond this, I fear for the system. Given his history, I see major problems with:
- Trump shutting down communication channels with the press and curbing press freedoms significantly, resulting in reduced checks on his power. He's been highly antagonistic towards the press in the past while craving its adulation. Now, he will have the power to manipulate that press significantly through both explicit and implicit means and don't believe for a second that he won't explore how to use it. He already has.
- Global bad actors (particularly Russia) will run rampant with no checks from NATO and other preventative organizations. Rather than increase our stability, this will be highly destabilizing and could escalate sharply towards war.
- The Supreme Court. The current vacancy plus the risk of an additional vacancy (the existing court is not getting any younger) will affect our lives for decades beyond the end of this administration. What criteria will they use to find candidates to fill it? In a game that will be dominated by crony relationships, the unpredictability here is alarming.
- The vengeance Trump promised to wreak on his political opponents. He's always been highly vengeful and litigious but now he has real power to destroy lives and, in the process, opposition. Again, don't think that a man will change after 70 years of being a petty, malevolent ass.
Slow Burn Fears
I'm scared of the above-mentioned things on a short-term basis but others are potentially more potent on a longer timeline.
The Opportunity Problem is Getting Worse
Trump's victory has nakedly exposed a number of harsh truths that media and liberal echo chambers kept subdued because they are inconvenient to hear for people who feel secure and upwardly mobile. The fact is that the American system isn't helping everyone right now. Americans whose lives are worse off than those of their parents, who feel disenfranchised by the current political system or whose economic prospects are nonexistent have made their voices loudly heard in this election.
Not only do I not expect Trump to do anything useful about this (even if he were to honestly try), but the underlying problem of lacking opportunity is going to accelerate in upcoming years (and elections). The trend of technology and environmental concerns displacing workers has been undermining jobs for decades. You can agree or disagree with the reasons why this is justified or not, but you can't ignore its effects on opportunities in many areas of the country. It will only accelerate.
What's the biggest profession in most states? Truck drivers. Over 3 million of them. And we're rapidly reaching a level of automation that will put significant numbers of them out of work or forcing the to seek less lucrative employment. This isn't decades away... it's just years. And that's just one vertical where technological advancement is capable of rapidly making long-time careers obsolete. Look at the 5-year plans of Uber and Lyft and how many human drivers they expect to need by that point.
This all means that some of the major forces guiding this election will get worse, not better, in future elections. The underlying fundamentals are shifting in ways that are likely to continue destabilizing the country. That isn't specific to Trump but I sincerely doubt his commitment or ability to change it in any meaningful way.
The New Normal of Dialogue
This election was a race to the bottom for American discourse. We've normalized racism and demagoguery, sexism and anti-intellectualism, bias and the justification of fake information. With a bigot in the most influential office in the country, that normalizes this level of thinking in a way that sets back decades of social progress and discourse for the next generation.
This damage will be felt for a long time by some of our most vulnerable communities and the children whose growth will be forever altered by such negative influences on their childhoods.
Trump Supporters will Entrench
What happens to cults when Doomsday doesn't actually occur on Friday? Do they, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the fallacy of their beliefs, repent and seek truth?
Absolutely not. They double down or revise history to account for this new reality.
Trump supporters have shown a remarkable resiliency in the face of facts (that's not intended to whitewash flaws in the support for the other side, by the way) and it's not likely that facts about his failures as a president will convert his followers to seek a more "true" candidate. If history is our guide, they'll double their fervor.
The partisan divide that's broken our political process will get worse.
We'll All Let Our Guard Down
Much of the anti-Trump rhetoric demonized him as aggressively as it's possible to do in the modern age. He's certainly deserved much of it but it's also set expectations so low that it's almost inevitable that there will be signs of normalcy and even some good that squeaks out through the cracks as his administration begins to pick up.
As stated by Masha Gessen, to survive an autocracy you can't ever let your guard down. Most of the major breaking changes that might undermine our institutions and republic will not be the headline-grabbing ones that the media will ravenously report on. They'll be the obscure policies buried in the fine print of legislation, the shifting of norms for oversight, the subtle changes in our foreign policy, the bias of appointed leaders trickling through organizations.
Like a pack of dogs put off the scent by a hunk of meat, the media seems likely to be easily manipulated, suppressed and distracted from bringing these changes to light. I fear that, amidst all the headline-grabbing stories, the meaningful ways that our freedom and government are suborned will never reach the light of day (and the voters who can lobby to stop them).
Not that I have high hopes for the media anyway -- their credibility was lost in the race for clicks and selling ad units. Should they find the diamond of true scandal amidst all the easy clickbait that comes their way, their ability to effectively bring it to light and create meaningful responsive action in the electorate has been hamstrung.
This Cycle Ends with War
The geopolitical instability will be one ingredient, a volatile and vengeful president will be another. At some point, the gridlock of trying to actually get something done in Washington will stymie the Trump administration's efforts at change. The people will wonder where their jobs are. Then a match will strike somewhere innocuous -- some third-world battlefield, whether physical or political, will escalate rapidly.
Trump has always been exceptionally good at finding scapegoats and marshaling nationalist and authoritarian tendencies. I don't even know how consciously he does it, but it doesn't actually matter. There is nothing more unifying and distracting than a good, old-fashioned war. And all of the ingredients are there.
The easiest solution for a failing ruler with an authoritarian bent and a hostile base is a broad war against a foe sufficiently different to be demonized. Bring out the flags! Fire up the manufacturing! Isolate and entrench! You can't say no to war bonds, right?
God help us if it gets to that point. We lose if it's a war between two nuclear powers and we lose if it's a war against our own citizens.
I desperately hope it doesn't come to that but I doubt we've ever had a man in the presidency who was more susceptible to this particular outcome.
We Fucked Up
You can't post-mortem this election without exploring a bit of what happened and there is plenty of blame to go around.
Politicians on both sides have been shoveling a bunch of pandering bullshit and selling snake-oil to voters for years while serving their own interests and now they've lost credibility. Voters are waking up to the Long Con.
The mainstream media refused to listen to influences outside of their own echo chambers and embraced infotainment in place of real news. In the process, they lost all credibility with a large swathe of the country, opening the door to media sources with far lower standards and more poisonous messages.
All of us have been safely ensconced in our bubbles and echo chambers. Liberals have become comfortable smugly castigating people who don't think exactly like them while ignoring their very real cries for change. Conservatives have whipped up emotion-driven politics and opened the door for the "post-truth" world. Both sides have become far too complacent with these changes while it was serving their ends and now we're sharing the bottom of the barrel together.
Where Do We Go Now?
My wrestling coach in high school used to say that you get 24 hours to feel sorry for yourself after a lost match before you have to look ahead to the next one. I've always been uncomfortable highlighting problems without seeking solutions.
This election has done irreparable harm to our country on a lot of levels but it's also served as a wake-up call for the importance of empathy, dialogue, and understanding of the political process. In SF, there is a significant level of political mobilization and dialogue right now and I'd like to be a part of helping it grow.
As an engineer and analyst, step one has always been figuring out the system. It's silly to apply force to a particular location just because it feels good. To change something, you have to understand it. So I'll be spending the next few months exploring the bounds of the system as it stands today and figuring out how high leverage forces can most effectively be applied to it.
In the process, I expect to find like-minded individuals who will pool knowledge and skills to begin taking concrete steps forward. We have a major advantage in the tech and entrepreneurial community because our lifesblood is understanding users and building systems that are designed for rapidly creating and delivering value to them. That makes us a potent force... we just need leadership and a direction.
So there are many reasons to be pessimistic and I expect that we'll suffer a long series of setbacks and humiliations in causes that have taken decades to reach their current places. There are many reasons to be afraid. But nothing is so fragile as it seems in its darkest moments and we will find a way forward which carries our will and our voice, newly educated in the humility of defeat, towards the light of the inclusive and meaningful change that we will never stop fighting for.