Tragedy Is Only Certain After It Happens

By Rob Cohen

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, for which the plausible consequences range from great to catastrophic, anyone who prefers not to live through tragedy should consider whether the alarmists could prove right.  From a probabilistic perspective, all of the dire predictions for a Trump presidency may not come true, but some probably will.  Since we have enough data and historical experience to project a range of scenarios under which the future could unfold, we should turn to an apolitical field of threat mitigation, such as my field of public health, for how to prepare for the range of possible outcomes.  Human behavior travels in epidemics, and a big enough fire will engulf everyone, whether we voted for Trump or not.

In public health, prevention is inherently challenging because disaster is only certain after it happens.  Diseases such as mad cow disease and bird flu come under control quickly because their biology limits their transmissibility and their symptoms sufficiently scare the public to action.  Other diseases cause local destruction before they attract sufficient control efforts, like Ebola in 2014 or SARS in 2003. Still others, usually those of more insidious onset, are ignored or denied until they run completely out of control, like HIV and Zika.

At the start of any epidemic, some in affected areas may raise alarm, but most people remain ambivalent because they remain unaffected, in denial or optimistic by nature.  Optimism is fine if it inspires endurance against long odds, but unfounded optimism courts danger and risks letting an outbreak reach a tipping point, after which control becomes exponentially harder.

The rise of President Trump has so many concerning historical analogies that any honest person must admit the need to hedge with preventive measures, but for those who remain skeptical let us consider three.  

First, ancient Rome’s most glorious century occurred under the “five good emperors,” who ruled from 96-180 AD (roughly the same duration as the period of global American dominance since World War II).  During this period of peace and prosperity, the Roman Empire reached its geographic zenith, and Romans could be forgiven for believing that exceptionalism would forever be their birthright. Emperors were selected largely based on merit, rather than bloodline.  Yet in 180 AD when Commodus succeeded his father, Rome quickly descended “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.” To distract the population from his mismanagement of state affairs, which included devaluing the currency, intense political intrigue and eventually civil war, he increased gladiatorial spectacle, his bloodlust horrifying even his contemporaries.  Rome never regained its full glory, and the next century was rife with civil war.

Second, white Nationalist and populist Andrew Jackson, openly admired by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, ascended to the Presidency in 1828 by campaigning against the corruption and elitism of both major parties at the time.  Two years later, with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Jackson unleashed a genocide and deportation of all Native Americans in the Southeast United States. Showing disdain for any check or balance on his authority, when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled the law unconstitutional, Jackson famously replied, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”  Jackson’s economic nationalism benefited his supporters, namely white cotton farmers, but they murdered an entire civilization.

Third, in 1933, a narrowly-elected race-baiting nationalist used a fire in the Reichstag to convince the German Parliament to suspend civil liberties and grant him dictatorial powers.  You don’t like the Hitler analogy, despite the myriad parallels? Fine, but just consider when the first terrorist attack occurs, staged by Russia or not, if President Trump uses it as pretext to crack down on his political opposition and obtain emergency powers.  He might progress incrementally, first with a Muslim registry, then internment, then worse, each action an insidious step followed by normalization.  His spiritual kinsmen Presidents Putin, Erdogan and Assad have contemporary blueprints for such actions. History rhymes, and today it is deafening.

We can hope that Trump surprises his detractors.  We are all lucky that the 2009 flu pandemic was relatively mild, unlike its predecessor in 1918, the single deadliest event in history with 50-100 million deaths.  But because hope is not a strategy, the principle of prevention suggests we must prepare to stanch the range of possible bad outcomes before they get out of control.  An ounce of prevention costs less than the certainty of calamity.

The danger can still be stopped before it begins.  Alexander Hamilton states in Federalist 68 that the purpose of the Electoral College was to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.  Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”   Trump’s actions since the election have only reinforced his character and associates as the types of demagogues that threaten our Republic. If not now, electors, then when?

If the Electoral College abdicates, then outbreaks of malice must be quickly identified and stanched before they become unstoppable epidemics.  An opposition leader will emerge. All who wish to not be complicit or victim in a nightmare must quickly coalesce and stand behind them, rather than let them get Bannonized.  Despite the inconvenience to those with careers, families or stomachs prone to nausea, concerned citizens must unite, protest, vote, call, donate, write, and run for four years.  Many European Jews, Southeastern Native Americans, and their neighbors preferred inertia to the inconvenience of organizing and resisting, hoping talk was just talk. It wasn’t.

If any nation can resist the worst impulses of human nature, it is America.  The free press remains; the pen is still mightier than the sword. Mr. Trump lost the popular vote, and his opposition retains enormous power if it unites.  He and his team will try as their historical antecedents did to divide and crush the opposition, and he has emboldened thugs and propagandists in his arsenal.  A principled, determined, large and united opposition is the only realistic prevention strategy. The opposition should not unite behind leftists, identity politics or elitist disdain for Middle America, as these sins helped generate the backlash  in the first place. But those who voted for Trump likewise bear a moral imperative to not tacitly endorse his ugliest instincts.

Whether we voted for Trump or not, the path down which he threatens to lead our country is historically undeniable.  As the historian Arnold Toynbee noted, “Great empires do not die by murder, but suicide.” Darkness fell in Rome, Germany, the Southeast United States, and countless other places and times.  We have no idea how bad this epidemic could get. Let’s not find out.