Trump’s latest hastening of the apocalypse

Plus: Empathy’s tribalizing side, a theory about conspiracy theorizing, Bloomberg doom, etc.

Welcome to another NZN! This week I (1) assess Trump’s recent contributions to the approach of the apocalypse, and put them in historical perspective; (2) take a deep dive into a new study which suggests that empathy (yes, empathy) is deepening political polarization; (3) steer you to readings about such things as: the (posited) human instinct to conspiracy theorize, the futility of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential aspirations, Mike Pence’s meddling in foreign aid, Turkey’s forever war, and the “good internet” of yore. Special bonus: how to cope with alligators and killer bees on the golf course.  

Apocalypse approach update

Keeping track of Donald Trump’s contributions to the coming of the apocalypse is a job too big for any one person. The best I can do is check in every month or so and list a few of the latest highlights. 

During the past 10 days: 

(1) The Trump administration notified the UN that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in a year, the earliest withdrawal date permitted by the accord. (2) A Russian arms control official warned that the prospects for sustaining the most important US-Russia arms control treaty after its expiration date in February of 2020 have been dimmed by Trump’s refusal to discuss the matter. (3) Iran announced that, as a result of Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, and his ensuing imposition of draconian sanctions, it has reactivated centrifuges in a uranium processing plant that lies deep underground, resistant to military attack (but perhaps not resistant to the bunker-busting megabombs that President Obama gave Israel and that Israel may now be tempted to use).   

There’s a unifying theme here, and it isn’t just the increasingly plausible end of Planet Earth as we know it. It’s Trump’s apparent aversion to playing non-zero-sum games with other countries—that is, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome (such as, respectively, avoiding a nuclear war or having one). Or at least, it’s his failure to play them well, to get win-win outcomes—and sometimes, it seems, his failure to even see that such outcomes are possible, that we live in a non-zero-sum world. 

This is no news flash. Ever since the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, he’s been referred to by some as “the zero-sum president.” The label has its merits (I’ve riffed on it myself), but it has one important, even dangerous, downside.  

To call Trump “the zero-sum president” makes him sound close to unique in his failure to play this country’s non-zero-sum games wisely. But in truth he is part of a long and proud American tradition of bad non-zero-sum game playing. In realms like arms control and global environmental policy, Trump is just the latest (and, yes, the loudest and most grating) expression of longstanding tendencies in American politics. Seeing those tendencies clearly is a prerequisite for formulating a sound apocalypse-avoidance strategy. 

There was a powerful anti-environmentalism lobby long before Trump showed up, and plenty of people in Congress happy to do its bidding. That’s one reason Barack Obama couldn’t get the Senate to ratify the Paris agreement and so had to sign onto it via executive order—which, in turn, is one reason it’s so politically easy for Trump to exit the agreement with a wave of his pen.  

And remember the Kyoto Protocol, the previous big climate change accord, signed by the US during the Clinton administration? That, too, lacked Senate ratification, a fact that made it easy for George W. Bush to announce two months into his tenure that the US wouldn’t implement it. 

And as for the nuclear arms control treaty with Russia that Trump may let expire next year, the New START treaty: though it did win ratification in 2010, that required a grueling political effort by the Obama administration, and half of Senate Republicans still voted against it. Eight years before that, Republicans had taken a bigger toll on arms control. Under George W. Bush the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which had been one of the great diplomatic feats of the Cold War era. 

I don’t want to make it sound like Republicans are the only problem. Lots of Democratic senators joined Republicans in resisting the Kyoto Protocol. And Chuck Schumer, leader of Senate Democrats, opposed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Or, as Trump put it in a tweet after Schumer criticized him for abandoning the deal: "Senator Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fought hard against the Bad Iran Deal, even going at it with President Obama, & then Voted AGAINST it!" 

So true. Except for the Bad Iran Deal part.

I also don’t want to make it sound like no Republicans have ever lifted a finger to save Planet Earth. The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that George W. Bush trashed had been signed in the first place by hippie peacenik Richard Nixon. And the predecessor of New START—the original START Treaty—was the older President Bush’s achievement and had been advocated by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Reagan also, by the way, helped bring us the 1987 Montreal Protocol on fluorocarbons, which protects the ozone layer and may well be the most effective truly global environmental accord ever. 

And then there’s the Open Skies Treaty—which reduces the chances of war by facilitating mutual aerial surveillance among the US, Russia, and their allies. It, like START, came to fruition under the older George Bush—and was initially floated by President Eisenhower. 

Oh, which reminds me: Trump is reportedly planning to abandon that treaty, too. 

You may sense a pattern here: For decades, Republicans joined Democrats in supporting sound international agreements. But things started changing in the 1990s, especially on the Republican side. I don’t know why exactly, but it was around then that you started to see a couple of relevant and now-familiar themes in some conservative circles: 

(1) A fear of infringements on national sovereignty that bordered on the paranoid. And, actually, it sometimes crossed that border, featuring, for example, sightings of “black helicopters” from the United Nations. These fears were sometimes bound up with anticipation of a literal, biblical apocalypse. Some people believed that Kofi Annan, secretary general of the UN, was actually the anti-Christ. (I can think of a politician who’s a better candidate for that title… but I digress.) Testament to what a pivot within the Republican party this tendency would wind up abetting is that the bete noire of these sovereigntists was “the new world order”—a phrase that had been popularized, and embraced, by George H.W. Bush in heralding an age of post–Cold War international cooperation, sometimes pursued via the UN.   

(2) Populist antipathy toward coastal elites. You know, the kinds of effete cosmopolitan elites who would forge environmental accords with their fancy French friends. But back in the 1990s, the “cosmopolitan” part didn’t get as much rhetorical emphasis in the revolt against elites as it does now. The epithet popularized in 1992 by Vice President Dan Quayle (who aggressively fomented the Republican populism that would eventually make his boss Bush look like a quaint relic) was “cultural elite.” And the term’s main connotation was an alleged contempt for Middle Americans and their family values. But maybe the “cosmopolitan” part was latent in this stigmatization all along. In any event, that part is now salient.

And it does a lot of work. Branding elites as cosmopolitan makes them easier to resent and helps cast them as agents of the new world order—or, in the current and less fringy phraseology, of the dreaded “global governance.” In other words, it bridges these two big themes—sovereigntism and anti-elitism—and creates a kind of synergy between them.    

Obviously, these two themes are a big part of Trump’s brand. But the point of this historical digression is how far he is from having invented them. In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say that they invented him. They rendered his political career viable and helped shape some of the unformed parts of his ideology. If he hadn’t come along, someone else would have been their torch bearer, and might well have gotten elected president.

So this is another reminder that much of Trumpism isn’t about Trump. When he passes from the political scene, there will be someone to take up the torch he was handed. For example: Would a President Mike Pence be any less an enemy of global governance than Trump? He might even be a more effective enemy; he shows no signs of being a political mastermind, but exceeding Trump’s level of competence isn’t a very tall order.   

So an all-out multi-front apocalypse avoidance campaign will entail continued efforts to understand, at the deepest possible level, the forces that created this president—political forces, economic forces, cultural forces, whatever. Because they’re not going away soon, and they’re currently being harnessed to the long-term disadvantage of just about everyone. Lose-lose on a very big scale.

How empathy intensifies political polarization

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.

This study is urgently important—though not because it’s a paradigm shifter, shedding radically new light on our predicament. As the authors note, their findings are in many ways consistent with conclusions reached by other scholars in recent years. But the view of empathy that’s emerging from this growing body of work hasn’t much trickled down to the public. And public understanding of it may be critical to shifting America’s political polarization into reverse somewhere between here and the abyss.

Like many past studies, this one gauges people’s level of “empathic concern” by asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of seven statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” If it seems strange that people who identify with this statement might find amusement in someone’s being injured at a protest, maybe putting the paradox in a more extreme context will help.

Imagine these avowedly empathetic people hearing about the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month. There’s no denying that on the day of his death, Baghdadi was in some sense “less fortunate” than they—but do you expect them to have “tender, concerned feelings” for him? And would you be surprised if they reported that, actually, they got a bit of a lift from his demise?

What seems obviously true in the Baghdadi case—that people don’t deploy empathy indiscriminately—turns out to be true in less extreme cases, too, ones that don’t involve terrorist masterminds. Various scholars have found, in various contexts, an “empathy gap” between “in-group” and “out-group.” In one study, soccer fans showed more concern over pain felt by fans of their favorite team than over pain felt by fans of a rival team.

Of course, this new study does more than find meager empathy for the out-group. It finds that high-empathy people view the out-group more unfavorably (relative to their own group) than low-empathy people; and that they may even take more delight in the suffering of some out-group members. Here, too, the Baghdadi case is illuminating.

After all, high-empathy Americans presumably felt more acutely the suffering of the in-group members who were beheaded, on camera, by the out-group that Baghdadi led. And this could translate into more antipathy toward the out-group and its leader. (In President Trump’s colorful ramblings about the special forces raid, he peppered his fond reminiscences of Baghdadi’s death with vivid references to the beheadings, as if trying to make the death feel more gratifying to his audience. Whether consciously or not, he was harnessing the fact that in-group empathy can elevate ill-will toward the out-group.)

The authors of the APSR study—Elizabeth Simas and Scott Clifford of the University of Houston and Justin Kirkland of the University of Virginia—have this kind of dynamic in mind when they write, “Polarization is not a consequence of a lack of empathy among the public, but a product of the biased ways in which we experience empathy.”

Or, in the more general formulation favored by the late American scholar Richard Alexander: the flip side of “within-group amity” is “between-group enmity.”

Alexander was a biologist…

To read the rest of this piece, go to Wired, where it was published earlier today.

In Aeon, Dutch psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen argues that the tendency to build conspiracy theories is rooted in our genes, and had survival value in the social environment in which human evolution took place. 

On Stratfor Worldview, journalist Charles Glass writes that Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention in Syria—which started with the arming of proxies and now features Turkish troops in Syria—is turning into Turkey’s forever war. Glass writes, “When President Barack Obama considered the covert operation to train and equip Syrian rebels in 2013, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, he said to his aides, ‘Tell me how this ends.’ As Turkey is discovering, it doesn't.”

A ProPublica piece by Yeganeh Torbati shows how Vice President Mike Pence has been steering foreign aid to Christian groups and away from non-Christian groups that had been designated for aid by career USAID officials.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman riffs on the empathy study that I riff on above—the one which found that empathy exacerbates political polarization. Scott has a pretty consistently different perspective from mine—his glass is half full and mine is half empty—so his take on things is often a good complement to mine. (But trust me: the glass is half empty.)

In the wake of the recent implosion of the edgy sports website Deadspin, Phillip Maciak, writing in The Week, offers a requiem for "the good internet"—websites that emerged from the blogosphere a decade ago, created a home for sharp and sometimes strange writing, and then met the fate of all things mortal. 

Tweet of the week: After former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed this week to enter a Democratic presidential primary, GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted a graph that would seem to spell Bloomberg doom. It arrays 2016 voters along two dimensions—their position on economic issues and on social/identity issues. And the lower-right quadrant of the graph, where Bloomberg would seem to belong (being  progressive on social issues but not so much on economic issues), is pretty much devoid of voters. (For elaboration on the meaning of “social/identity,” see this interesting 2017 analysis by Lee Drutman, who created the graph that Ruffini tweeted.)

This week, after a black cat entertainingly intruded on Monday Night Football, the Atlantic promptly trotted out a photo spread of animals that have shown up, uninvited, at sporting events. It’s entertaining, and it includes the requisite alligator-on-a-golf course shot, but I personally prefer the video of a professional golfer manually expelling an alligator from the course—to say nothing of the video montage of 10 great golf course animal encounters, which features killer bees

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading, or at least scanning, this far. Feel free to email us at And feel at least that free to post on social media about anything you liked in this week’s newsletter—we need and appreciate this kind of help. And if you’re not feeling proactive enough to formulate a whole social media post, you can just follow us on Twitter at @NonzeroNews and honor us with the occasional retweet. 

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