12 March 2020

COVID-19 is upon us, and panic is setting in as many Americans assimilate the following stylized facts:

  1. Containment has failed and the virus is now present across the country.

  2. US healthcare and emergency response systems are critically under-prepared.

  3. Many important political, discursive, and generalized institutional actors across the political spectrum were either in denial of the threat or are still in denial of it.

  4. The President is unwilling to take the situation seriously, incapable of taking the situation seriously, and preventing other people who could take the situation seriously from acting effectively.

Item 4 on this list is, in contribution with many other factors, terrifying financial markets. It is also causing analysts that normally downplayed President Donald J. Trump’s erratic and self-aggrandizing personality and dysfunctional administration to begin to fear the worst. Unfortunately this is the least surprising aspect of this affair. By mid-2017, it had become apparent that the President was incapable of handling a serious crisis. I am not going to rehash all of the reasons why, I have dealt with them at length in my post on the confrontation with Iran earlier this year (which by the way is still ongoing).

I had been mulling a follow-up to my prior post for a while. But I wasn’t sure what to put into it. After all, the actual decision the prior post discussed looks just as ambiguous today as it did months ago. New information further complicates rather than resolves the ambiguity. And trying to explain how any of this works skates awfully close to justifying it. Venkatesh Rao summed things up well by saying the following:

Post hoc arguments justifying market outcomes are eerily similar in structure to arguments justifying Trumpian outcomes. Like they believe in some sort of efficient Trump hypothesis… Looking for causal models here, let alone exclusively determinative one, is as misguided. The market and Trump do not work on mechanistic causation but via emergence from information pricing… hurricanes are not “caused” by individual gusts of wind lining up but heat and now pressure regions. In a way, Trump is the notional “rogue field commander” envisioned in brinkmanship scenarios. He just happens to be at the top.

For it to add value, any new post would have to talk about how to analyze the risk of a major disaster caused in large part by Trump either generating a crisis situation or reacting to a crisis situation. And I admit that I found this very difficult to talk about. Analysts mostly alternated in the past between cycles of raw panic and false security.

During crisis events, they would suddenly and viscerally realize that the President was acting in the exact opposite way they would expect someone to manage the situation. And they’d predict the worst. But then the President would find some way to return back to a slightly worse version of the status quo prior to the crisis and spin it as a win. And then analysts would conclude that there had been little danger all along or just rush to forget about the entire thing. I have lost count of all of the major and minor things like this that have occurred since January 2017. Each one memory-holed, forgotten as soon the immediate news cycle ended.

None of these events were costless. The costs just happened to be mostly be visited on non-Americans (the Kurds that died in last year’s Turkish invasion), Americans that don’t vote (the Puerto Ricans the administration left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Maria), or small pockets of Americans (the farmers that took the hit from the bungled trade wars). And this lulled analysts into a false sense of security. Maybe they deliberately acknowledged the instability of the administration, they just failed to intuitively feel it. Maybe they thought that all of the bad things would happen to other people.

In particular I’ve noticed that even people that are normally very “real” about the political situation at home and abroad fashionably dismissed warnings of Trump’s behavior or suggested that other people around him were somehow able to make good decisions even if he could not. Some even wistfully suggested that, even if the situation was entirely screwed up, good things could still come out of it accidentally. There was a time when I was more amenable to this viewpoint but today any trace of agreement with it is gone. I don’t think they understand what has been happening and what very well could happen over the near future as COVID-19 and other crises challenge the Trump administration.

Maybe those people in particular just didn’t want to wake up the next morning and suddenly feel the constant sense of low-level anxiety that people who do worry about the administration’s decision behavior feel. The anxiety of never knowing which crisis would spiral out of control. And never being able to fully feel safe after disaster somehow didn’t strike this time at least. I don’t blame them. It’s not a great feeling. But we do not have this luxury anymore. This time the costs of Trump’s leadership are hitting America hard and there is nowhere left to run or hide from them. The virus is present everywhere from the District of Columbia to South Dakota.

But the question remains: how did so many people collectively fail to acknowledge the nature of what the administration was, even as the evidence continued to pile up? Why did so many people keep forgetting the events of even the recent past in expecting Trump to suddenly turn the corner? And what drove so many people to even implicitly or explicitly invest hope that Trump could implement their policy agendas?

Do not get me wrong. I am not talking about fanatical Trump fans, 4chan shitposters, or partisan Republicans. I am speaking of a large swathe of people that either bought into a “Trump has been tamed” narrative or simply kept on telling themselves that somehow, some way, everything would turn out to be OK. Many of these people – and by extension, financial markets – had no ideological, political, or personal interest in doing so. Why?

Enter the crackhead Uber.

A while ago, I came up with a recurring metaphor for Trump’s relationship with “serious” people that I used to entertain my friends and the assorted people that follow me on social media. It was bizarre and disturbing to me and so I struggled to find the right vocabulary to describe just how grotesquely absurd it was. So I invented the crackhead Uber. It’s not exactly as polished and sophisticated as the Trolley Problem or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But neither is the nature of what we’re dealing with right now anyway.

Suppose that you want to go somewhere. You open your cell phone and hail an Uber. Unfortunately for you, the driver is an obvious crackhead. But you really want to get into that Uber. Maybe you’re late and you really need to get somewhere. Maybe he’s the only driver in the area that can pick you up. And maybe you just aren’t willing to wait because you don’t know how long it will be until someone else picks you up. At worst, your phone’s battery could be dying and it could be much harder to get there without at least giving this a try. So you tell yourself that it will be fine to get into the Uber.

You’ve gotten into cars driven by other shady people and nothing bad happened. He doesn’t even pick his own routes, the Uber app is making all of the decisions for him. It’s not really that far of a drive, isn’t it? Other drivers are just as bad, there’s nothing exceptional about this one. It’s not like you’re going to get a better deal if you wait for a bit. Other people you know got into the car and gave him decent ratings so it can’t be all that bad. Maybe the crack in his system will make him more alert on the road, even.

You are compensating for your lack of control over the situation. By assuring yourself about all of the ways things could work out for the best. And assuming that you or someone else in a position of authority has more control than the situation warrants. You are trying to convince yourself that you might as well get in. This is the car that picked you up. You might as well deal with it.

In fact, you have zero control. You are in the passenger’s seat. He is in the driver’s seat.

He could wrap the car around a telephone pole. He could pull a gun on you, take you to the ATM, and force you to get him more crack money. He could drive somewhere totally different than you intended – and the results could be anywhere from amusing to nightmarish. He might get to the destination eventually but not before running over two elderly gentlemen, a pregnant woman, and several elementary school children.

Whatever happens, he is the one driving the car and you are not. This is how things will work. This is the only way they can work. Maybe you tell yourself that if things go haywire, you’ll jump out of the car or take control of the wheel like an action hero. Bruce Willis, Ah-nuld, or Jason Statham, or whoever else you imagine yourself to be.

But you are not an action hero. In convincing yourself that everything will be OK, in downplaying or dismissing all of the things beyond your control, you’ve in fact revealed a lot about how profoundly passive you are. All things being equal you’ll be flipping through Tinder on your iPhone – swiping right and left in blissful ignorance of what is going on – until you feel the car seize up and you realize too late that your journey is going to go very differently from how you planned.

What kind of normally intelligent and competent person gets into the crackhead Uber? Sadly, the answer is “far more people than you might think.” People that consider themselves to be savvy insiders. People cynical enough to downplay what Trump uniquely contributes to particular crises. People that alternate between “there’s nothing to worry about” and “there’s nothing that can be done” when it becomes clear that there was something to worry about. People that fashionably look down on others with sincere object-level political opinions. People that, when faced with an alarming and disturbing situation with lots of uncertainty and free parameters, tell themselves pleasant little fictions about what could happen next. The resemblance to people that downplayed the virus is not accidental, because the cumulative errors of critical reasoning are very similar.

It would be unfair to blame everything on the President, as unfortunately its rare to find any prominent figure in this particular crisis that has covered themselves in glory. I have, in fact, been quite scathing about the way many of his opponents have reacted to this mess as well. And quite frankly a lot of other things have to go wrong for Trump’s bad leadership to be as consequential as it is in many of these crises. But Donald J. Trump is the President. His political party has never really decisively broken with him. He has immense power to either handle or hinder this situation. Since 2017 we’ve gotten a good picture of how he deals with crises and emergencies. Virtually nothing about how he has reacted to COVID-19 is novel or surprising. You can’t keep putting someone like this in high-risk situations and expect that you can perpetually avoid the consequences or divert those consequences to other people.

I honestly wish that things weren’t this bad. Any pleasure I might have in being (semi)-vindicated is dwarfed by dread and anxiety. I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want people I know to get sick. I don’t want any of the people reading this to get sick. There’s nothing about this that I wanted to happen, no matter my personal feelings about the President. But here we are nonetheless. Moreover, I’m not telling you to panic. The world isn’t going to end. America can and will survive and one day will move on.

That being said, just as people are panicking because they downplayed the severity of the virus, they’re also panicking because they’re only realizing – today – what it means to get into the crackhead Uber. Hope you buckled your seatbelt.