Trump produces enough real risks, so stop imagining fake ones

You’ve probably seen it passed around Twitter and Facebook: A new poll finds 52% of Republicans would support postponing the 2020 election if President Donald Trump proposed doing so until alleged voter fraud could be addressed.

Be smart before you share. It’s a poll explicitly designed to produce an alarming result and get you to talk about it.

And it worked.

Natalie Jackson, a pollster but not the pollster who commissioned this poll, notes the poll included a series of questions about the prevalence of voter fraud immediately before the question on the theoretical Trump proposal. This is a technique known as “priming”: posing lead-up questions that put respondents in a mindset where they’re more likely to give you the answer you want on the question you plan to report.

If you ask people a series of questions about terrorism risks before asking about Trump’s travel ban, they will be more likely to tell you they favour it. If you ask people a series of questions about federal budget deficits before asking about a new spending program, they will be more likely to tell you they oppose it. If you ask people a series of questions about the dangers of obesity before offering them an ice cream sundae, they will be more likely to decline it.

So, when this pollster asked respondents whether they believed Trump had really won the popular vote, whether millions of unauthorised immigrants had voted in the 2016 election, and whether voter fraud was prevalent, the likely effect on Republican respondents was obvious: To make them more inclined to support the (entirely invented) Trump proposal to delay the 2020 election on account of vote fraud.

“So what?” you might say. “It’s alarming enough that half of Republicans can even be talked into wanting to postpone the election!”

I’d say a few things about that.

One is that answering poll questions is cheap. People often just give the response the think indicates they are on the right “team” or that will annoy the other side.

The political scientist Brendan Nyhan has found that responses to factual questions change significantly when respondents are paid for getting them right: They become less likely to give the answer that corresponds to their “team” and more likely to give the one that gets them paid. It follows that, on opinion questions about hypothetical proposals, some respondents are giving cheap, red-team/blue-team answers only because the stakes are low.

Another is that hypotheticals create authority: Most likely, nobody had floated the idea of postponing the 2020 election to these respondents before, but some pollster has bothered to spend time and money asking them about it. And in the hypothetical, President Trump is for it, so how bad an idea could it be?

In the real world, if Trump proposed to postpone the election, he’d do so in an environment where he’d get pushback not just from the media but from other Republican officials — who, contrary to the popular narrative, have been largely been supporting Trump on policy issues where they agree, but resisting him fairly effectively on his ham-handed efforts to exempt himself from legal and democratic institutions.

Robert MuellerAlex Wong/Getty ImagesRobert Mueller.

Trump can’t even gather the political capital he would need to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, an action he probably has the legal authority to take. He’s not going to manage to delay an election.

This brings me to my last point on the poll, which is that democratic institutions are not upheld because of overwhelming willingness of partisan voters to be subjected to them even when they lose.

What would you have found if you had polled Democrats, in December 2016, about a hypothetical Obama proposal to postpone Trump’s inauguration pending an investigation of irregularities in the 2016 election?

I am old enough to remember when liberals spent months urging then-candidate Trump to respect the outcome of the presidential election, and then spent weeks searching for One Weird Trick to overturn the election’s result. I am old enough to remember grassroots Democrats sending $US7 million to Jill Stein in pursuit of some cockamamie vote audit in Wisconsin.

I recall at least one Democratic congressman urging that the Electoral College vote be delayed on grounds of Russian interference during the campaign.

And I am old enough to remember that the popular agitation to set aside the results of a democratic election didn’t come close to mattering, and that our democratic institutions held up so well that Hillary Clinton was there on the Capitol steps for Barack Obama to hand power to Donald Trump as George W. Bush observed that this was “some weird s—.

The United States held a presidential election during the Civil War. If Trump actually makes some dumb proposal to postpone the 2020 election, that election will go ahead, too, the opinion of some fraction of Republican partisans (less than the 52% found in this poll) notwithstanding.

There are some things that are genuinely alarming about the Trump presidency. I have written in the past about Trump as the tail-risk president. The likelihoods of nuclear attack and of great-power war, while still low, are substantially higher under him than under a normal president — and are unacceptably high.

Presidents have great unilateral authority in foreign policy, and Trump could make mistakes that would kill millions of people. This worries me a great deal — and given what has been happening in North Korea, it worries me more this week than it did last week.

But there is an ethos that has developed in a certain kind of liberal — often, the kind that unironically uses hashtags like #TheResistance and #NotMyPresident — that requires alarm about everything.

The ethos requires inventing new and specious reasons to panic — He deleted all the LGBT content from the White House webpage! Half of his supporters would cancel the 2020 election! He’s inevitably going to undertake a coup! — as though the actual reasons weren’t enough.

“Don’t normalize this!” they warn, repeatedly, until I worry they will faint from exhaustion.

It is unsustainable for people to maintain a constant state of panic for four years, unless they are willing to panic as a hobby. And large parts of #TheResistance are eager to do exactly that.

This is showing up in the turnout in special elections — Democrats are scoring great turnout with the demographics most likely to be interested in political hobbyism. Turnout is not as good with the demographic groups you’d think of as most substantively imperiled by the Trump presidency.

Perhaps this can be fixed by spending more time on real problems and less time on imagined ones for people who perversely enjoy constant feelings of panic.

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