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Assuming a Spherical Cow


Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum”.

I belong to a school of thought in the social sciences that downplays the importance of understanding the motivations that drive political decision makers. In most cases, we will never really understand why people choose to do one thing and not another. Even if we can ask them, and they’re inclined not to provide self-serving answers, the chances are that much of their own account will be a post hoc rationalization.

As Andrew Abbott puts it, “The real question is not why it was that Elizabeth Tudor chose not to marry, but rather how it came to be that there was a social structure in which her refusal to marry could have such enduring political consequences.” The same idea applies to Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. It will be of limited significance for future analysts trying to understand dynamics in the Middle East during the Trump administration.

But the question why it was that Trump ordered the assassination does matter for American politics in a least two, related ways. First, it bears upon Trump’s fitness for office. Second, arguments about his decision are active interventions in the political debate about the quality of his presidency.

The problem, as I’ve argued before, is overwhelming evidence suggests that Trump does not make policy decisions – whether trivial or consequential – in ways that fall within “normal” bounds (or, if you will, informal models of presidential decision making). This is true whether we’re talking about the information he uses – which more resembles that of a replacement-level FOX News junkie than someone with access to the most extensive intelligence capabilities in human history – or the “deliberative” process he follows.

This patterns seems to have continued with the targeted killing, where reports suggest that officials are retconning ‘legitimate’ justifications for Trump’s actions. Analysts defending Trump in light of these reports, predictably, start from two flawed premises: 1) that the administration lacks an extensively documented record of lying and 2) that we can adjudicate between accounts by asking which one fits with a more ‘rational’ decision-making process. Heck, it’s just as likely that Trump was motivated by right-wing mythology about the Benghazi attack or his desire to overshadow Obama’s order to raid Bin Laden’s compound. Or because he was craving a “decisive action” that would play well on cable news, and that he could boast about to his paying guests as Mar-a-Lago.

Adam Elkus has a really good post about all of this (and more), which you should read. One way of understanding his broader argument – and I borrow this phrasing – is that we’ve finally succeeded in making the postmodernist diagnosis of the contemporary condition a reality. And that’s not a good thing at all.

My excavation of the al-Solomeini affair’s context is only the backdrop for my underlying gripe: that we are analyzing any of this with the pretense of seriousness when we have known for some time that President Trump is pathologically unserious. His psychological profile – known to all of us prior to him becoming President – suggests he is incapable of being constrained by reality and will not take responsibility for any of his behaviors. His political profile – evident from the 2016 presidential campaign onwards – suggests his primary aim is to dominate the domestic public space in American politics and by design will tolerate or even cause frequent instability, abrupt policy shifts, baroque palace intrigues, and other quirks of his unique combination of reality TV politics and personalist governance. This has significant domestic consequences, but in the realm of foreign policy and national security it has far more sweeping implications. You see, Trump has a reality distortion field (RDF) that allows him to skillfully shape events in American politics. You do not have to like him to respect his ability to do so. It is what allowed him to become President despite the opposition of both the Republican and Democratic party establishments, even if that opposition was also inept, inconsistent, and weak. You do not have to approve of his actions to understand that something within him made him the man of our particular hour or note that the unique species “Homo Trumpicus” seems to be well-adapted to our current political ecosystem.

Still, it must be said: Trump’s RDF only operates domestically. The farther away one travels from American borders, the weaker the RDF gets. By the time one reaches the assault rifle or IED of a Middle Eastern militiaman, the RDF is nonexistent. But the Middle Eastern militiaman’s behavior is an nonetheless an input to the American domestic system that Trump lords over. And we know that the President and his men are unlikely to respond to such inputs in any way other than what we have repeatedly seen since January 2017. That is, sheer pandemonium. Its impossible to fully enumerate why but I will again make the futile attempt to provide a partially useful summary. The White House is a pirate ship of feuding personal and bureaucratic factions, all of which leak sensitive information promiscuously to the mass media. The President, primus inter pares among his collection of warlords, bandits, and princelings, presides over the chaos when he is not watching TV and shotgunning 12 cans of Diet Coke a day. Typical bureaucratic structures designed for national security policy decision have been hollowed in favor of personal channels, often corresponding as much to the President’s personal financial interests as they do to any publicly declared goal he ostensibly pursues. And as demonstrated by the case of the unfortunate General Flynn it is clear that a good portion of his aides are similarly freelancing, perhaps for multiple foreign and domestic interests. The President hires and fires key cabinet officials like a Hollywood starlet picking up and discarding boyfriends, preventing the building of long-term rapport with any one particular figure. Perhaps foreshadowed by his notorious habit of not paying contractors in private life, the President ultimately owes loyalty to no one but expects absolute loyalty and deference in return. Impulsive decisions by the President – often announced via social media – send his subordinates scrambling to adjust policy and implement them, only for the President to often forget them later and move on

This, I should note, is the least depressing part of Adam’s piece.

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