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Making Sense of Donald Trump (part 1)

Donald Trump has been president for a few days now, and people all over the world are trying to figure out what this means. A lot of focus has been put on Trump the person, trying to understand who he is, how he thinks, and what he’ll do. But I largely think this effort is misdirected. It treats Trump as a cause of recent events, and shifts the focus away from the context in which Trump is operating. What we should really be focusing on is Trump as a symptom. There have always been people like Donald Trump around. What is truly new is that the United States has allowed a man like him to become president.

You can think of this as the germ theory model of social analysis. The germs are always there. Sometimes they cause illness. The illness is not primarily due to the presence of germs, but rather due to the weakness in the defenses. So we can dig down into the particulars of Trump’s biography and psychology, debate the finer points of various personality disorders and otherwise focus myopically on the individual. And this will yield some insight. However, I would argue that by this point (and even really before the election) Trump was a known quantity. Part of what everyone knew about him is that he is fundamentally unpredictable, and for very clearly demonstrated reasons. So we don’t really know what a Trump presidency will actually look like. But we are not going to figure that out by trying to analyze Donald Trump any deeper. Because Trump himself doesn’t know what he’s going to do. And in part this is because Donald Trump reacts to his environment, making an analysis of that environment even more important if you want to understand the situation in the United States and may be in store for the future. I’ll dig into this in a series of posts to follow in the coming weeks.

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