[T]he swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.
So writes Tom Pepinsky , citing this as an example of “observational equivalence”:
“We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe.”
Hum, hum, hum. A certain fellow called Quine comes to mind. Quine was a philosopher who studied indeterminacy, particularly in matters of language translation–which is to say, in areas that can only be understood by reference to human intentions. Daniel Dennet used the example of a triple agent as an illustration of Quine’s ideas.
Imagine a mole planted undercover in a foreign spy agency. The mole’s duty is to spy on the foreign government for the benefit of his countrymen. However, to spy effectively he must seem to be spying on his countrymen for the benefit of foreigners–otherwise he will he discovered as a mole, and his mission will fail.
But it’s quite possible that this spy has turned traitor, and that his pretense is actually sincere: he not only seems to be spying on behalf of a foreign government; he really is spying on behalf of a foreign government. But what’s to say this appearance of tripled loyalties isn’t itself part of the original plot? It may be that the spy is only pretending to be a triple agent for the sake of deceiving the foreign government in which he has been embedded, thereby gaining the trust of his enemies, making him a more effective spy for his allies.
And so on, indefinitely. We can never arrive at a certain interpretation of the spy’s loyalty by observing his behavior, since the spy’s duty, as a spy, is to dissemble. We can even imagine a scenario in which the spy wavers in his loyalties without ever changing his actions. At one minute he feels loyal to his countrymen; at the next feels loyal to their enemies. Yet he goes on acting the same way, spying on both countries even while his allegiance oscillates. Until the spy takes some definite action that makes questions of loyalty pragmatic rather than notional, there’s no way for anyone else to know whom he truly serves.
This is the scenario that John Le Carre made famous in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and that David Foster Wallace spoofed in his footnote on Rodney Tine in Infinite Jest:
(Rodney Tine, Sr., Chief of Unspecified Services, acknowledged architect of O.N.A.N. and continental Reconfiguration, who held the ear of the White House of U.S.A., and whose stenographer had long doubled as the stenographer-cum-jeune-fille-de-Vendredi of M. DuPlessis, former asst. coordinator of the pan-Canadian Resistance, and whose passionate, ill-disguised attachment (Tine’s) to this double-amanuensis–one Mlle. Luria Perec, of Lamartine county L’Islet, Quebec–gave rise to these questions of the high-level loyalties of Tine, whether he ‘doubled’ for Quebec out of the love for Luria or ‘tripled’ the loyalties, pretending only to divulge secrets while secretly maintaining his U.S.A. fealty against the pull of an irresistible love, it was said.)
Chief of Unspecified Services: not a bad title for Steve Bannon.
So we come to the question on everyone’s mind: whether the Trump administration intends to wreck our government as part of a plot to seize power, or will inadvertently wreck our government out of administrative incompetence.
I think it’s clear where consensus lies. Pundits always gravitate to the argument that Trump is clueless and doomed to fail, their reasoning being roughly as follows:
Trump doesn’t do what we, the opinion leaders, believe he ought to do, and even when he does, he doesn’t do it in the way we believe he ought do it.
We, the opinion leaders, have come to be successful because we are reasonable and well-informed; what’s more, being reasonable and well-informed, we deserve our success.
Because Trump doesn’t do what we wish him to do, Trump must be unreasonable. Because Trump is unreasonable, he neither deserves nor is likely to find success. Ergo, Trump will fail.
This is essentially the attitude that prevailed during the election, when every reasonable observer came to believe that Trump’s campaign was a garbage fire that had scorched and scotched all conventional rules, and that therefore Trump was doomed to lose. Now the same experts assure us that while they were wrong about Trump’s campaign management, they’re right about Trump’s presidency, because after all, holding office is very different from seeking office.
Fair enough. But imagine the following. Say Trump destabilizes the world order and makes a mess of the U.S. government. In a time of destabilization and messy government, people naturally gravitate to strong leaders. This gives Trump more power, which he uses to spread further destabilization. The cycle repeats until it reaches some decisive crisis–a war, a legal battle, a systemic collapse–or some externally conditoned terminus, like Trump’s death or a scheduled election.
In that case, we’ll never be able to say whether Trump’s destructive actions were devious or clueless, whether he planned to spread disorder as a means of gaining power, or merely acquired power as an ironic consequence of incapacity. Indeed, we’ll never be able to determine in what measure Trump’s actions were guided by idiocy versus strategy, since both lead to the same result.
What we will be able to describe–what we can already describe, I think, with reasonable confidence–is the general pattern of Trump’s behavior, which is the praxis of demagogues everywhere. He rails against corruption and disorder. He presents himself as the only solution to corruption and disorder. He attributes corruption and disorder to vice and weakness, and associates vice and weakness with foreign threats and local scapegoats. Finally, he acts in such a way as to spread corruption and disorder, which keeps the whole cycle spinning round.
Does Trump believe any of this stuff? Does he have a long-term plan? Who cares? This is his modus operandi.
The pundits wring their hands and screw up their faces, asking in the pained voices of intellectuals pinched between two historic epochs, “Will our institutions save us?” Are they nuts? Our institutions have already failed. That’s how Trump got to be where he is.
In his current position, Trump is ideally positioned to A: cause disruption and B: profit from disruption. We’ve seen that he excels at both.