I thought long and hard about the theme of this edition of Sendero, for the simple reason it touches the highly charged third rail of US politics.
In the end, I decided to go ahead in the hopes that the underlying message transcends the strong likes or dislikes of current political players and makes people think about the importance of critical thinking.
To wit, the process we should deliberately subject ourselves to before coming to important decisions, or forming strong opinions.
Other than, perhaps, brief encounters with Socrates -- considered the parent of the idea of a somewhat formal process of processing information before coming to a decision -- critical thinking has now been largely lost in the halls of academia.
The Socratic method revolves around asking questions to gain facts, nuances and, ultimately, clarity before forming a firm opinion on any topic. Of course, it only works if you are willing to suspend personal biases and to fully commit to trying to ascertain the truth.
If you can’t do that, if you can’t commit to the quest for real knowledge, then the whole exercise is a waste of time.
As we move on, I’m listening to a rather strange musical genre for me… Swing. At the moment I’m listening to an odd looking duck by the name of Taco, singing Putting on the Ritz.
I have to warn you, whether you like the music or not, there’s a good chance you’ll find the invigorating beat putting a snap in you step as you go about your day. It’s actually kind of annoying.
With that introduction, I would like to ask you to try to put your biases aside for a moment, and read on.
The Trump Question
In past editions of these musings, I have touched upon the reality that I am something of a political fish out of water in Vermont, site of our summer home.
In Dinner Party Disasters, for instance, I shared a few shining examples of my failings at integrating in local society.
As I have no desire to further alienate myself from the community, I studiously try to avoid political discourse. In this era of extreme political passions, no easy thing.
“So, what do you think about Trump?’ Comes the inevitable question.
“Don’t have much of an opinion, I live in Argentina and don’t really follow US politics,” I reply in the scant hope the conversation will move on to the weather or pretty much anything else.
That line of response works for some, but invariably one meets someone so positively bursting with the need to expose their opinion, they won’t be denied.
“No, really. You MUST have some opinion on Trump, come on!” Which, around here, can typically be translated as…
“You MUST have some opinion on THE PIECE OF CRAP WHO SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ELECTED IN THE FIRST PLACE, come on!”
It was thus that a few weeks ago, when visiting a good friend - “good” because we normally avoid political topics - we found ourselves alone with a bottle of wine while our wives went off on a short hike, and he really wanted nothing more than to talk about Trump.
For five or so minutes I dodged, parried and all but stuffed my fingers in my ears while humming in an attempt to avoid the topic, but in the end, back against the wall as he drilled in, I realized there was no escape.
To properly set the stage, by “drilled in” I mean that my friend had just unleashed a diatribe that included comments like, “If someone near Trump was to pull out a gun and kill him, everyone I know would think the shooter was a hero!”
So, basically, his level of dislike for the president goes so deep that he would like to see him murdered. A pretty strong opinion.
Cornered as I was, I fired off the line of questioning I always use when confronted by someone with such a strong personal opinion.
“So, what is it, specifically, that makes you hate Trump so much? What has he done that has so negatively impacted you, your family or your friends… or anyone, for that matter?”
In the twenty minutes that followed, my friend literally couldn’t come up with a single tangible reason why he viscerally hates Trump.
“Oh, and what politician doesn’t? But could you give me one example of where he lied on anything important?”
“But, like every other country in the world, for a century or more the US has always required people follow some form of process to immigrate. All he seems to be asking is that people follow those processes. I couldn’t just walk into Argentina and demand to be allowed to stay, let alone to receive government benefits. And don’t you think that the government should have some screening process in place to try to keep bad people out?”
“Okay, then maybe not immigration, but we have to wonder if the Russians were involved in bailing Trump out in his last bankruptcy!”
“Hadn’t heard that one, but that’s seems to be conjecture. So, really, what is it that Trump has done that makes you wish him dead? Surely, there must be one tangible reason you have such strongly negative feelings.”
I could go on, but the long and short of it was, he didn’t.
Finally, exasperated, he made a final attempt at salvaging an answer to my question.
“Well, I hate him because he has been so divisive for the country! The president should pull people together, not push them apart!”
“Okay,” I responded, “But don’t you think the media has equal or even more blame for that then Trump? Imagine if instead of his every move being met with derision and accusations of treason and whatever, they actually gave the guy a chance? Or, at the least, didn’t go out of their way to pull him down?”
He shrugged, a resigned look on his face, nothing left in the ammo bag.
Fortunately, at that time our wives reappeared and the conversation ran happily towards more pleasant topics.
Regardless, I am pretty sure he won’t be pushing me on a political opinion again any time soon, so we will probably remain friends.
A week later I met with another person during which the topic of politics again breached my barriers.
The tete-a-tete came about as a result of a complicated situation having to do with something that occurred in our family history some seventy years ago.
This person and I, while clearly political opposites, get along quite well. We typically will have a glass of wine or two and chat about a wide range of topics over the period of about 90 minutes, then go our separate ways for another year.
In this year’s meeting, after the usual pleasantries, the conversation turned to politics.
Again, I tried to avoid it, but in the end told my companion the story I just related above. Specifically, how I had spent time with someone who would frankly love to see Trump dead, but couldn’t articulate why.
“Well, I can tell you why I hate Trump,” she said firmly.
“Oh, pray tell,” I responded.
“For two reasons. The first is Global Warming.”
“But what does Trump have to do with global warming, if that is actually a thing? I mean, he’s only been president a couple of years so if there is such a thing, why is it his fault?”
“He’s not doing enough to stop it!”
She then went on to list things he could be doing, like introducing a punitive carbon tax, banning fracking, etc., etc.
Showing a decided lack of critical thinking on the extent of global warming, she referenced how warm it has been this summer in the Northeast United States, and how during the last winter some ski race had to be cancelled because of lack of snow.
I acknowledged it’s been a pleasant summer here in Vermont, but didn’t mention that this summer Greenland set the record for the coldest July day in recorded history - minus 27.4 F.
In my opinion, you would have to actively ignore the views of a large number of serious climate scientists to believe the human impact on climate is anything more than minimal. If it was the carbon dioxide humanity puts into the atmosphere causing more agreeable weather, how to explain the Medieval Warming Period when scientific proof exists that the climate was warmer than it is today?
Oddly, given that she is apparently adamant about the climate, my companion had never heard about the Medieval Warming Period. One can only surmise it is because she deliberately screens out any views that contradict her own.
But I digress. As for the second reason she dislikes Trump so strongly, it is because she is against the idea that people display a valid I.D. before casting a vote.
“As far as I understand it, all Trump and others are asking for is that voters present some sort of identification, you know, to prove they are actually eligible to vote. Certainly you can’t be against that?” I asked without guile, seriously not understanding what the objection could be.
“I am absolutely against that! No one should have to show I.D. to vote, it’s an American right!”
“But in every other country in the world you have to show identi…”
“I don’t care about every other country in the world!”
“So, as far as you are concerned, anyone can walk off the street and just vote, even if they might not be legally entitled to. And what about felons?”
“I don’t care if immigrants vote. I don’t care if felons vote. Everyone should be entitled to vote.”
“But what about voting fraud?”
“The studies show there has been no voting fraud, none.”
While I haven’t studied the topic at any length, a cursory search turns up what appear to be valid exposes of voter fraud. Certainly enough that one can’t dismiss concerns about voter fraud out of hand.
Hell, if people are willing to wish bodily harm on the president, might one speculate they would also be willing to countenance some less than above board voting to assure he and his followers don’t win re-election?
“But what’s the big deal?” I tried again, seriously trying to understand the point. “Everyone has some form of I.D., or can easily get one.”
“Maybe not some elderly couple living on a farm in the countryside, for them it would be difficult!”
Again, as I think we both genuinely like each other, we let the conversation drift back to safer waters.
Can't Handle the Truth?
Everyone, on both sides of the political spectrum, is susceptible to professional attempts to influence them.
Which is why teaching critical thinking in schools is so important, yet it is almost entirely lacking in the modern curriculum.
Instead, far too many teachers, who play such an out-sized role during children’s most gullible years, are targeted by the influence campaigns and become helpful fools in spreading propaganda.
Maybe the reason the educators no longer teach critical thinking, is that they are afraid of having to deal with an actively questioning student body?
If you, dear reader, truly hate Trump - spend some time trying to figure out why. Is there really anything he has done that has so wrong-footed the country, or you personally?
Likewise, I know a lot of people who viewed Obama in a similarly dim light. Again, if you are one of those, ask yourself the same questions… and try to answer them honestly.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you aren’t entitled to dislike Trump, or any politician. Simply trying to make the point that you may have fallen victim to the determined - and effective - media campaign to create a narrative around Trump like I have never seen.
And the media is not alone. Obviously the prosecution team led by Mueller are out to get Trump, and are using every possible coercive tool at their disposal to bring him down.
If you’ve watched the Billionaires television series, and you should, you’ve seen this show before. The overreaching prosecutor, determined to be proven right, will do literally whatever it takes to get at the ultimate target of his investigation. In this case, Trump.
The traditional news media, always happy for “breaking news” to draw eyeballs to their fading franchises, bathe themselves and their readers in the latest revelation, willingly overlooking the facts that this is all just political theater and they are merely paid claqueurs for the anti-Trump side.
In the end, the media and social networks really do have a huge influence over what people think, which is why the shadow banning - and now actually banning - of certainly conservative media platforms should be so concerning to us all.
However, it seems to only be of concern to conservatives and libertarians.
But what if the shoe was on the other foot and Huffington Post and the Washington Post were banned? How much of an uproar would there be then?
We live in a dangerous time. Dangerous because it seems as though the geographical boundaries of the United States are now populated by two different cultures, diametrically opposed on almost every social construct.
With so few even willing to hear arguments from the other side, I simply do not see how this schism can be healed.
While it will seem a bit warped, I do see a silver lining in all of this, having to do with the American economy which is, IMO, hopelessly broken.
While one could go into great detail as to why - and I won’t - the reality is that over the two-plus centuries since the American experiment began, it has increasingly become entangled in bureaucratic red tape and the mousetraps of crony capitalists working hand in glove with Washington.
So much so that, per the latest edition of Sendero, On Average, most people just aren’t making ends meet. At least not without a healthy dose of government money.
Once Trump is out of the way, and the millennials take the reins and turn the ship of state left, the country will invariably enter a dark period. Perhaps even something approaching the collapse that was just barely avoided in 2008.
It could be a very difficult period - at least for those whose lives are so completely invested in the status quo. But it seems to me that only the equivalent of a raging economic forest fire can wipe away all the debt and malinvestment and return the country to a more sustainable path.
As for the trigger, consider this...
Historically the President’s party has lost an average of 32 seats in the House, and two in the Senate, in the mid-term elections.
If that happens this November, the Democrats will take control of the House and leave the Republicans a razor-thin one-seat hold on the Senate, where there are any number of sitting Senators that positively detest Trump.
In which case the Trump administration will become even more bogged down. While no one can predict these things, that election outcome alone could serve as the starting gun on the next economic crisis.
Which, when you get right down to it, invariably starts as a crisis of confidence and then spirals out of control from there. Despite his real and perceived flaws, the market sees Trump as solidly business-friendly... very much not the case with his opposition.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest you take this opportunity to review your portfolio and lighten up on anything other than your highest confidence positions, raising cash so that if the stock market tanks you'll be ready to buy more of what you want to own for the long-term.
Tomorrow we return to our home in the middle of nowhere Argentina, a small town in a remote country with a population that, due to a long history of crises, are about as resilient as it gets.
Thankfully, no one there has more than a passing interest in American politics, and the concept of a 24/7 news cycle is nowhere to be seen.
As you might be able to guess, I am eagerly looking forward to being several large steps removed from the currently poisonous political environment in the United States. Just the thought of it calms the mind.
Immediately upon return I will begin training pretty intensively for a two-hundred mile ride into the Andes, and in my spare time I will continue working with the team to complete the build-out of RiskHedge.com, our new disruption research organization. Therefore, I probably won’t be posting again for some time.
In the interim, don't forget to enjoy the best things life has to offer. Politics definitely doesn't make that list.