The moments after your first child is born are humbling and overwhelming, the emotional equivalent of staring directly into the sun. You realize that you are suddenly responsible for a human life that you helped create, a sliver of two souls smuggled into another body, a person you will love and protect desperately for the rest of your life.
Shortly after Donald and Ivana Trump’s son was born, however, the future president had an unusual concern for a parent: What if this kid grows up and embarasses me?
“What should we name him?” Donald asked, according to Ivana’s memoir, Raising Trump. When Ivana suggested Donald Jr., the real-estate heir responded, “What if he is a loser?”
That anecdote helps explain one of the more memorable exchanges in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, as well as Trump’s approach to governance. The president’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, sought to criticize Trump’s remarks about U.S. service members being “losers,” as first reported by The Atlantic. In doing so, Biden brought up his late son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor after earning a Bronze Star in the Army National Guard.
“My son was in Iraq and spent a year there,” Biden said to Trump, raising his voice. “He got the Bronze Star. He got a medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes.”
In an attempt to neutralize the attack, Trump changed the subject—to Biden’s other son, Hunter. “Hunter got thrown out of the military; he was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use,” he spat out.
To a person who feared sharing his name with his son at the moment of his birth, because the child might turn out to be a “loser,” that attack must have seemed devastating. But normal parents don’t stop loving their children because they do bad things. They love them anyway. That’s what being a parent is.
Biden responded by reaffirming his love for his surviving son. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Biden is a mediocre politician. His two prior presidential runs were failures. He has a tendency toward exaggeration to the point of dishonesty, whether overstating his role in the mid-century civil-rights movement or the struggle against South African apartheid. Before becoming vice president to Barack Obama, Biden backed some of the worst policy decisions of the past 30 years—including the 2005 bankruptcy bill, the 1994 crime bill, and the invasion of Iraq.
But when Biden speaks of loss and pain—of Beau, or of the car accident that killed his wife and daughter—he becomes deeply compelling; as Fintan O’Toole wrote, Biden’s grief is “real and rooted and fundamentally decent.” After eight months of funerals, for hundreds of thousands of American families, the kind of grief that Biden speaks of, the kind that accompanies the loss of a loved one, is no longer distant. The president stood in front of that grieving nation, and taunted a father while he was speaking of his lost son. Before the eyes of a nation struggling with an opioid epidemic, he mocked a dad for having a kid with a drug problem.
More than any other moment of the debate, Trump’s response to Biden’s invocation of his dead son—attempting to make him ashamed of his surviving one—threw the dispositions of the two men into sharp relief. I wondered how Hunter must have felt to see his father speak of his pride in his brother, only for his own name to be brandished as a weapon to inflict shame on his father. And I thought about Biden’s response, which was to reaffirm his pride in Hunter, the troubled son living in the indelible shadow of a departed war hero. In the midst of being attacked by a president trying to wield his own family against him, Biden’s instinct was to reassure Hunter that he is also loved, that nothing could make his father see him as a loser.
Biden acted like a father, doing what almost any parent would have done. And yet because Trump is the kind of man who wonders at the moment of his child’s birth whether the child will someday mortify him, he did not anticipate that response. He did not expect that, instead of embarrassing Biden, he would merely advertise the callousness that has made him unable to govern the country with any sense of duty or responsibility, the narcissism that makes him see those concepts as foolish and naive.
All things in Trump’s world revolve around him, and are a reflection of him. The president evaluates everything—even his own children, even at the time they enter this world—by how they might make him look, and he is incapable of imagining that anyone else would do differently. When he was a reality-show celebrity, this trait was minimally damaging to society; now that he is a president, it has proved catastrophic.
Because Trump is a con artist whose inflated reputation as a businessman is built on an enormous inheritance and tax fraud, he is less concerned with fixing problems than with convincing others they do not exist. The economy remains in a crippling recession, but rather than urge his party to do what is necessary to recover, Trump seethes in private about the pandemic destroying the “greatest economy.” The more than 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus are distressing to Trump not because of the sheer scale of preventable death, but because they make him look bad, which is why he baselessly questions the coronavirus death count, and insists that his response is somehow better if you don’t count “the blue states,” as though the people who live in them are not also his constituents. When Trump briefly wore a mask publicly in July, his advisers flocked to social media to offer outsize praise of his appearance, understanding that simply modeling responsible leadership that could save American lives—particularly those of his own supporters—was not enough of a motivation for the president. He whines to confidants not about the injustices that Black Lives Matter activists are protesting, but that “some stupid cop in Minneapolis kneels on someone’s neck and now everyone is protesting.”
As The Washington Post reported in July, when speaking with advisers, the president talks about himself as a “blameless victim—of a deadly pandemic, of a stalled economy, of deep-seated racial unrest, all of which happened to him rather than the country.”
This perilous narcissism also explains Trump’s worst moments in the debate. Trump cannot bring himself to condemn his white-supremacist supporters not only because of his ideological sympathies, but because he sees such condemnations as apologies for his own conduct, which he cannot countenance. Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, because he fears the narcissistic injury of an election loss. So he not only baselessly undermines confidence in the process to save face should he lose, but urges his supporters to flock to the polls to intimidate other voters, and openly hopes that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will reverse the electorate’s decision if given the opportunity.
There is nothing that the president treasures more than his own ego—not defeating the pandemic, not lifting the country out of the recession that followed, and not American democracy. If all of those things must be sacrificed to shield the president’s pride, then that is a price he is willing to make Americans pay.
Jacob Blake is a father. He has, perhaps, a growing collection of dad jokes, a birth story for each of his three sons, and, most important, a deep reservoir of Black family history to pass down to them. He likely had a gift picked out for his eldest son’s August 23 birthday celebration, which should have been the highlight of the weekend. Maybe Blake even had a bedtime tuck-in routine that would have ended that Sunday on a loving note.
This is what I thought after I viewed the now-viral smartphone video, which depicts police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting Blake in the back multiple times as his children watched from the back seat of his car. Once again, the nation has seen ghastly bystander footage of state violence. And, once again, the video has eclipsed the most essential thing to remember about this story: that this latest incident of police brutality happened to a human being.
On one hand, bystander video can provide striking visuals for stories of police misconduct that might have otherwise gone unreported or been outright fabricated. Smartphone footage from brave witnesses has given Black families evidentiary proof of excessive police force against Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many others. On the other hand, these same videos have performed a sinister function. When police in these clips go unpunished—and when news media fail to humanize Black victims adequately—this footage reaffirms the continued, centuries-long annihilation of a people. The imagery, then, feels sacrilegious to watch.
When there is video of violence against a Black person, their abuse or their killing—and not their life—often becomes the central narrative. This past May, in the case of George Floyd, I watched with the rest of the world as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, suffocating and killing him. After viewing the video, I became appalled by its ubiquity. Many news channels and websites repeatedly aired or embedded it in its entirety. Very few outlets blurred his face. There was scant mention of who Floyd was as a person.
With Blake, this cycle played out again with excruciating certainty. I watched as Twitter users posted unedited versions of his shooting on the site. A slew of tweets from distraught Black people followed, chiding those who caused the video to trend on the platform. Television news outlets picked up the video, further amplifying its traumatic effects. By Monday morning, tweets from Black people in mourning declared that they could not—and would not—watch the video.
One of the Black Lives Matter movement’s crowning achievements is that it has pushed for journalists and media consumers to go beyond the hashtags, to see Black people in all of their complexity amid systemic, and often deadly, racism. America no longer needs visual proof that its citizens continue to be brutalized and killed. Instead it needs fuller pictures of the victims as human beings. As a journalist and journalism professor, I have urged fellow reporters to stop looping images of Black people’s deaths with the casual air of a sports highlight: Handle the footage with care. Avoid showing the exact moment of death. And retire these videos as quickly as possible, to show respect for the dead and to help shield families from stumbling upon the devastating footage online.
Widening the news coverage beyond the videos also would help undo centuries of biased reporting, which has typically cast Black people as aggressors and the police as wranglers of the unruly. A central piece of Blake’s narrative, for instance, has to do with the environment in which he lived, because none of these incidents of police brutality occurs in a vacuum. Many American cities have long legacies of systemic racism, which cause Black people to come into deadly contact with their local police more often than any other ethnic group. The towns that neighbor Blake’s Kenosha community—Milwaukee and Racine—were rated the No. 1 and No. 2 worst places to live for African Americans in 2019; up from the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in 2018. This matters. Black Americans in those two cities make half the median income of white residents. They are also 12 times more likely to be put in prison than their white counterparts, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Focusing on facts such as these would offer a look into the broader culture of policing in Blake’s area, spotlighting the interlocking forces of disparity, right alongside the victim.
Not relying on a traumatic smartphone video to do the heavy lifting of in-depth reporting may seem antithetical to some, who could argue that the public needs to see these videos to be able to exact justice. I was an early supporter of this line of thinking, and had high hopes that visual proof would help stem the tide of police brutality. With every new video though—and every officer’s acquittal—I worry about the traumatized children who have to live with their parents entombed online. I remember how 4-year-old Dae’Anna Reynolds also watched from the back seat of a car as Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot her stepdad, Philando Castile, in July 2016. Or how one month later, little Kodi Gaines, then 5 years old, witnessed police fatally shoot his mother, Korryn, in their kitchen. I will never forget how Kodi recounted the standoff from his hospital bed as he healed from bullet-fragment wounds to his cheek. And I think about the Blake boys now, ages 3, 5, and 8—and how their screams were muted by the blare of the car horn as their father lay slumped upon it.
It is for these children that I urge people not to reduce this movement to overplayed police-brutality videos. This summer’s nationwide protests in reaction to those videos were no doubt effective at drawing attention to what many have called America’s other pandemic. But the long-term success of Black Lives Matter will rely on substantive policy change. And policies change for marginalized people only when their whole personhood is acknowledged. Thus, this work is unfinished. The next high-profile case surely will come, and it is up to news media and media consumers to honor the victim’s full life story more humanely. The children, as always, are watching.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “Young Goodman Brown,” an upright citizen of 17th-century Salem journeys into a New England forest on a dark night and finds himself among fellow Puritans—“faces that would be seen next day at the council board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land”—who are summoning Satan himself to bless their revels.
When the Prince of Darkness appears, he tells Brown that he will at last learn the truth about his neighbors:
how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral … It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.
Brown’s wife, Faith, is led to Satan’s altar. Brown cries out in despair, “Faith! Faith! … look up to heaven and resist the evil one!”
Brown wakes to find himself alone in the woods. But from that day forward, he is never sure whether the demonic sabbath was an evil dream, or whether the placid and pious life of his neighbors is merely a pretense.
Hawthorne is appropriate Halloween reading, and especially this year: American society is living through its Goodman Brown moment, a moment when many of the norms we have been taught to admire have been revealed as a shell game for suckers. As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.
Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies.
The last incident, I think, sums up the horror of what the nation has learned about many of its leaders. It seems likely that Kavanaugh’s self-abasement was not the impulse of a desperate man, but a conscious choice made because, unless he showed himself willing to fight back viciously, he risked losing the support of the president. That choice had the desired effect. Trump embraced Kavanaugh, and used his tirade to move supporters to the polls that November.
This is the point. These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
One by one, they have bent the knee.
This episode, as all things must, will someday end. It may even do so without the erection of a full-blown autocracy on the grave of the American republic. Trumpism may be rejected in a fair national vote, and Trump may in fact leave office. A semblance of rule of law may be preserved.
What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?
Trump has, one way or another, changed our national life irrevocably. When one side of a political struggle has shown itself willing to commit crimes, collaborate with foreign powers, destroy institutions, and lie brazenly about facts readily ascertainable to anyone, should the other side—can the other side—then pretend these things did not happen?
Some Democratic leaders are proclaiming that we can go back to the world before Trump—and before Brett Kavanaugh and Mitch McConnell, before Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani, before an invasion of a secure facility at the Capitol, before babies were torn from their mothers and caged, before racist rhetoric from the White House and massacres at a synagogue and an El Paso Walmart—to a world of political cooperation, respect for norms, and nonpolitical courts.
Assume new national leadership in 2021. What leader worth voting for would negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy and believe either will keep his word; what sane president would turn over sensitive documents to Republican-led committees; what Democratic president would simply accept that the federal courts are now the property of the opposition, and submit issues of national policy to them, in the confidence of receiving a fair shake? After this night in the forest, can I, or any sane person, ever believe in these people and institutions again?
For Hawthorne’s young Goodman Brown, the vision in the woods came to define his life. “And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
Our republic may not be in its dying hour, but if it awakes from its nightmare, the knowledge Americans will have gleaned from these years is gloomy indeed.
What’s the point of higher education? When college leaders are asked that, they have a set of familiar answers: Students learn skills that employers want; community colleges provide a pathway to the middle class; giant public universities produce research in the public interest. They might even add that at places such as Harvard and Yale and Stanford, the reasons for attending are quite clear—connections, prestige, and support for low-income students, among them. Absent from this case for higher education, however, are America’s small private institutions—places such as Nichols College or the recently closed Newbury College, where the cost of attending is enormously high, and where officials have struggled to fill seats.
Of course, these sorts of small private colleges have benefits: They tend to have lower student-to-teacher ratios. They also tend to have the kind of physical environment—the picturesque liberal-arts campus—that many students romanticize. But many of these colleges are struggling. Finding students who are able to pay the full cost of attendance is difficult, so the schools discount their tuition, even as they have become more tuition-dependent. That has led several experts to predict that a lot of these colleges will face serious financial challenges in the years ahead, and that many will even close.
Even compliments of the sector finish with the caveat of declining viability. “The higher-ed ecosystem is comprised of many different kinds of institutions,” Janet Napolitano, the chancellor of the University of California system said onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. An audience member had asked about the praise for the success stories provided by the public colleges represented onstage, and whether any of those onstage could make the case for small private colleges. One panelist jokingly passed on the question. Napolitano fielded it. The ecosystem includes “lots of very high-quality private institutions,” she said. But she acknowledged that their tuitions are higher—sometimes much higher—and that “they are going to have to use a variety of techniques to try to survive.”
These days, seemingly everyone wants to fix higher education—particularly the Democratic candidates vying for the 2020 nomination. They have offered a slate of proposals, from debt cancellation to tuition- or debt-free college, that could fundamentally change the landscape of student debt. But typically left out of these free-college proposals are private colleges—the small schools with low enrollments, high tuition, and little endowments to fall back on.
Both Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have built support for private historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions into their free-college plans because of the missions these institutions have carried out. But other institutions will likely struggle to compensate if such a free-college model becomes law. As my colleague Alia Wong wrote of Newbury College, which wobbled, trying to find steady footing, before closing, “Institutions like Newbury simply struggled, then failed, to adjust—or just didn’t want to adjust in the first place.”
The question posed from the audience was elucidating: People are doubtful whether the full-freight cost of private college can be justified. Costing tens of thousands of dollars a year, the schools have a tough sell to make, especially when public universities and community colleges can offer so much—for so much less.
American citizens had their introduction to the Trump-era immigration machine Wednesday, when Customs and Border Protection agents met an airliner that had just landed at New York’s JFK airport after a flight from San Francisco. According to passenger accounts, a flight attendant announced that all passengers would have to show their “documents” as they deplaned, and they did. The reason for the search, Homeland Security officials said, was to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a search for a specific immigrant who had received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions. The target was not on the flight.
After days of research, I can find no legal authority for ICE or CBP to require passengers to show identification on an entirely domestic fight. The ICE authorizing statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1357, provides that agents can conduct warrantless searches of “any person seeking admission to the United States”—if, that is, the officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the individual searched may be deportable. CBP’s statute, 19 U.S.C. § 1467, grants search authority “whenever a vessel from a foreign port or place or from a port or place in any Territory or possession of the United States arrives at a port or place in the United States.” CBP regulations, set out at 19 C.F.R. § 162.6, allow agents to search “persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof.”
I asked two experts whether I had missed some general exception to the Fourth Amendment for passengers on a domestic flight. After all, passengers on flights entering the U.S. from other countries can expect to be asked for ID, and even searched. Barry Friedman, the Jacob D. Fuchsberg professor of law and affiliated professor of politics at New York University, is the author of Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, a new book-length study of intrusive police investigation and search practices. “Is this remotely constitutional?” he asked. “I think it isn’t. We all know generally the government can’t come up and demand to see identification.” Officers need to have statutory authority to search and reasonable suspicion that the person to be searched has violated the law, he said. Andre Segura, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told me that “I’m not aware of any aviation exception” for domestic passengers.
An ID check is a “search” under the law. Passengers on the JFK flight were not “seeking admission”—the flight originated in the U.S. CBP officials told the public after the fact that they were looking for a specific individual believed to be on board. A search for a specific individual cannot include every person on a plane, regardless of sex, race, and age. That is a general paper check of the kind familiar to anyone who has traveled in an authoritarian country. As Segura told me, “We do not live in a ‘show me your papers’ society.”
I asked a CBP spokesperson what legal authority the agency could show for the search. In response, the spokesperson said:
In this situation, CBP was assisting ICE in locating an individual possibly aboard the flight that was ordered removed from the United States pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act. To assist ICE, CBP requested consensual assistance from passengers aboard the flight to determine whether the removable individual in question was in fact aboard the flight. In the course of seeking this assistance, CBP did not compel any of these domestic passengers to show identification. With much-appreciated cooperation from these passengers, CBP was able to resolve the issue with minimal delay to the traveling public.
It's quite legal for law enforcement to ask for “voluntary” cooperation. Anyone who follows criminal-procedure cases, however, knows that “voluntary” in legalese does not mean what ordinary people think it means. Supreme Court caselaw makes clear that officers may block an exit and ask for ID or permission to search. They aren’t required to tell the individual stopped that he or she may refuse, and they have every incentive to act as if refusal may result in arrest. The Supreme Court held in 1984 that “while most citizens will respond to a police request, the fact that people do so, and do so without being told they are free not to respond, hardly eliminates the consensual nature of the response.” Passengers deplaning after a long flight might reasonably fear they will be “detained” if they anger the law enforcement figure blocking their exit. That officer is under no obligation to tell them they can refuse.
I am a white, English-speaking law professor, affluent, privileged, articulate, and a native-born citizen. Such hair as I have is white and I can hardly seem like a threat to anyone. I have researched the matter, and feel reasonably confident that an agent would have to let me pass if I refused the demand for my papers. If not, I can afford counsel and my family knows excellent lawyers to call.
I am vowing here and now not to show papers in this situation. I know that it will take gumption to follow through if the situation arises. What will be the reaction of ordinary travelers, some with outstanding warrants or other legal worries? Should we expect heroism of people who just want to get off an airplane?
Justice William O. Douglas once wrote that a regime of liberty includes “freedom from bodily restraint or compulsion, freedom to walk, stroll, or loaf.”
A shadow is falling over that freedom, both for aliens and for citizens. Its loss will be devastating.
Despite recent setbacks — from video of Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assaults, to increasing concerns regarding his preparedness and temperament, to the unprecedented pace at which high-profile Republicans are pulling their support — polls show that approximately 40% of likely voters continue to support Trump. On the one hand, this is good news for Clinton supporters who foresee a comfortable margin of victory. On the other, unless Trump loses by historic margins, it is bad news for America.
When Americans wake up on November 9, we will need to reexamine how we can work with and live with each other. We will have to re-learn how to respect and listen to one another. It’s never easy after a national election, but it has also never been more difficult. There is one simple reason for this. While presidential candidates of both parties, throughout American history, have often relied on fear and anger to boost their electoral odds, Trump is the first major party candidate to have relied so intensely on hate.
Hate is unique in its ability to spare neither perpetrator nor victim. It’s very hard to hate without inspiring hate in others. Hate is not easily contained. Fear can grow or shrink, anger can escalate or subside, but hate sinks in. It becomes a part of us. It even begins to dictate what is to be feared, why we should be angry, and who is good or evil. Fear and anger might make it difficult for us to work with each other, but hate strips away our willingness to even try.
It’s normal—and okay—for some people to be jubilant and others to be upset after an election. It’s okay for fear and even anger to linger in the wake of a national referendum. There is a lot at stake. But hate is not normal, and it cannot be allowed to gain legitimacy. If it does, it can irreparably rend the constituent fabric of a country.
If this ends up being a close election, it will allow hate to retain the foothold it needs to survive. That is why, for the first time in U.S. history, Americans need one candidate—in this case, Donald Trump—to lose decisively. A loss of historic proportions is the only way to ensure that future candidates are never again tempted to consort with the politics of hate. It is the only outcome that will allow Americans of tomorrow to peer into the reflecting pool of history and say “that is not who we are.”
So how do we get there? Is it really possible to change the minds of those who continue to support Donald Trump? In some cases, almost certainly not. But in others, I am confident that it is. More generally, how can you nudge someone to reevaluate a deep-seated belief? How do you make progress when people are entrenched in their positions? How can you convince someone to abandon a course of action to which they are emotionally, ideologically, or publically committed?
In my research, consulting, advisory work with businesses and governments, and in my book Negotiating the Impossible, I focus precisely on situations that seem hopeless. One of the problems that we regularly face in these environments is how to get someone to challenge a long-held belief or preference. As it turns out, having facts and data on your side is not enough. If someone’s ego or identity is on the line, overwhelming them with evidence will do little good.
If you want people to change course, you have to create an “exit ramp” for them. This entails creating the space and safety they need to acknowledge and pursue a better way forward. Here’s how you might go about doing that when the situation is emotionally or ideologically charged.
- Don’t force them to defend their beliefs. Whether you’re having drinks at a bar or scrolling through your Facebook feed, when you come across someone whose views you find abhorrent or absurd, it’s tempting to engage them in a debate. After all, it seems like a reasonable way to get someone to change their mind. The problem is, when you tell people they are wrong, stupid, immoral or irrational, they simply dig in and get more entrenched in their views. This is because no matter how confident you are that they are misguided, they will always be able to find at least one line of defense. All they need is one reason that you might be wrong, one weakness in your argument, or one factor that supports their position—and then they can claim it is the most important factor in the entire debate. When your “discussion” is over, they are more firmly committed to their position than they were before.
- Provide information, and then give them time. When dealing with someone who passionately disagrees with you, a more effective approach than debating is to provide information without demanding anything in return. You might say (or post on Facebook) something along the lines of: “That’s interesting. Here’s some information I came across. You might find it useful given your interest in this topic.” Or, “when you get a chance, I’d appreciate you taking a look at this.” You’ve done about as much as you can for now. If they can consider what you’ve said without carrying the additional burden of having to agree with you, it is more likely it sinks in a little bit. This is why, over weeks and months, polls do change. Trump has lost ground as additional information about his behavior and temperament and weak grasp of issues has come to light. But the change doesn’t tend to happen during a heated argument. It doesn’t happen immediately.
- Don’t fight bias with bias. If you do end up debating an issue, protect your legitimacy at all cost. If they are making a completely one-sided argument with selective (or misleading) evidence, don’t retaliate with a similarly biased or flawed argument to defend yourself. If there is some merit to their argument, acknowledge it. If you fight fire with fire, it will cost you the one thing you can’t afford to lose if you want to one day change their mind: their belief about your integrity. They will not acknowledge or thank you for your even-handedness at the time they’re arguing with you, but they will remember and appreciate it later, behind closed doors. And that’s where change happens.
- Don’t force them to choose between their idea and yours. “Clinton is better than Trump” is not an argument that is going to win the day with someone who has been a long-time supporter of Trump, or someone who has learned to hate Clinton. Once disillusioned, as a number of Trump supporters are becoming, they are much more likely to vote for a third party, or not vote at all, than to completely switch their allegiance and vote for Clinton. More generally, you will be much more effective if you encourage people to reconsider their perspective without saying that this requires them to adopt yours.
- Help them save face. Just because you’ve finally convinced someone that they were wrong, or that they should reconsider their point of view, doesn’t mean they will actually change course. People won’t change their behavior if they can’t find a way to do it without losing face. The question we often fail to ask is: have we made it safe for them to change course? How will they change their mind without looking like they have been foolish or naïve? If you can’t find a way for them to change their attitude or actions without being able to save face, you still have a problem.
- Give them the cover they need. Often what’s required is some change in the situation—however small or symbolic—that allows them to say, “That’s why I changed my mind.” For example, a former Trump supporter who is looking to abandon Trump might find the excuse they need to do so after a poor debate performance (“It showed me he is not prepared for the job”), a new allegation of sexual assault (“It’s now too many for them to have all been made up”), or a recent Trump attack on other Republicans (“Going after Paul Ryan shows that he really isn’t a conservative”). For most people, these events are just “one more thing” that happened, but don’t underestimate the powerful role they can play in helping people who, while finally mentally ready to change their position, are worried about how to take the last, decisive step.
- Let them in. If they fear you will punish them the moment they change their mind, they will stick to their guns until the bitter end. This punishment takes many forms, from taunts of “I told you so” to being labeled “a flip-flopper” to still being treated like an outsider or lesser member of the team by those who were “on the right side all along.” This is a grave mistake. If you want someone to stop clinging to a failing course of action or a bad idea, you will do yourself a huge favor if you reward rather than punish them for admitting they were wrong. You can’t ask them to leave the comfort of their own tribe and then abandon them once they do. You have to let them in and give them the respect they want and need just as much as you.
Some of the above advice requires that we temper our natural inclinations for how to behave when someone is yelling and screaming or pushing and shoving. It is well worth building this discipline. Of course, not everyone is ready to change their mind. Equally, not all minds can (or need) to be changed. But you will have a much greater likelihood of navigating the path to change if you invest in building an exit ramp. The election of 2016 is as important a time as any to do it.
When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.
And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.
The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.
Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. Moreover, current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the U.S.-China relationship contribute greatly to those hazards. A risk associated with Thucydides’s Trap is that business as usual—not just an unexpected, extraordinary event—can trigger large-scale conflict. When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.
War, however, is not inevitable. Four of the 16 cases in our review did not end in bloodshed. Those successes, as well as the failures, offer pertinent lessons for today’s world leaders. Escaping the Trap requires tremendous effort. As Xi Jinping himself said during a visit to Seattle on Tuesday, “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
* * *
More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.
In the case about which he wrote in the fifth century B.C., Athens had emerged over a half century as a steeple of civilization, yielding advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval prowess. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the leading land power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens’s position was understandable. As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.
Thucydides chronicled objective changes in relative power, but he also focused on perceptions of change among the leaders of Athens and Sparta—and how this led each to strengthen alliances with other states in the hopes of counterbalancing the other. But entanglement runs both ways. (It was for this reason that George Washington famously cautioned America to beware of “entangling alliances.”) When conflict broke out between the second-tier city-states of Corinth and Corcyra (now Corfu), Sparta felt it necessary to come to Corinth’s defense, which left Athens little choice but to back its ally. The Peloponnesian War followed. When it ended 30 years later, Sparta was the nominal victor. But both states lay in ruin, leaving Greece vulnerable to the Persians.
* * *
Eight years before the outbreak of world war in Europe, Britain’s King Edward VII asked his prime minister why the British government was becoming so unfriendly to his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, rather than keeping its eye on America, which he saw as the greater challenge. The prime minister instructed the Foreign Office’s chief Germany watcher, Eyre Crowe, to write a memo answering the king’s question. Crowe delivered his memorandum on New Year’s Day, 1907. The document is a gem in the annals of diplomacy.
The logic of Crowe’s analysis echoed Thucydides’s insight. And his central question, as paraphrased by Henry Kissinger in On China, was the following: Did increasing hostility between Britain and Germany stem more from German capabilities or German conduct? Crowe put it a bit differently: Did Germany’s pursuit of “political hegemony and maritime ascendancy” pose an existential threat to “the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the existence of England?”
Crowe’s answer was unambiguous: Capability was key. As Germany’s economy surpassed Britain’s, Germany would not only develop the strongest army on the continent. It would soon also “build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” In other words, Kissinger writes, “once Germany achieved naval supremacy … this in itself—regardless of German intentions—would be an objective threat to Britain, and incompatible with the existence of the British Empire.”
Three years after reading that memo, Edward VII died. Attendees at his funeral included two “chief mourners”—Edward’s successor, George V, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm—along with Theodore Roosevelt representing the United States. At one point, Roosevelt (an avid student of naval power and leading champion of the buildup of the U.S. Navy) asked Wilhelm whether he would consider a moratorium in the German-British naval arms race. The kaiser replied that Germany was unalterably committed to having a powerful navy. But as he went on to explain, war between Germany and Britain was simply unthinkable, because “I was brought up in England, very largely; I feel myself partly an Englishman. Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country.” And then with emphasis: “I ADORE ENGLAND!”
However unimaginable conflict seems, however catastrophic the potential consequences for all actors, however deep the cultural empathy among leaders, even blood relatives, and however economically interdependent states may be—none of these factors is sufficient to prevent war, in 1914 or today.
In fact, in 12 of 16 cases over the last 500 years in which there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a ruling state, the result was war. As the table below suggests, the struggle for mastery in Europe and Asia over the past half millennium offers a succession of variations on a common storyline.
Thucydides Case Studies
(For summaries of these 16 cases and the methodology for selecting them, and for a forum to register additions, subtractions, revisions, and disagreements with the cases, please visit the Harvard Belfer Center’s Thucydides Trap Case File. For this first phase of the project, we at the Belfer Center identified “ruling” and “rising” powers by following the judgments of leading historical accounts, resisting the temptation to offer original or idiosyncratic interpretations of events. These histories use “rise” and “rule” according to their conventional definitions, generally emphasizing rapid shifts in relative GDP and military strength. Most of the cases in this initial round of analysis come from post-Westphalian Europe.)
When a rising, revolutionary France challenged Britain’s dominance of the oceans and the balance of power on the European continent, Britain destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet in 1805 and later sent troops to the continent to defeat his armies in Spain and at Waterloo. As Otto von Bismarck sought to unify a quarrelsome assortment of rising German states, war with their common adversary, France, proved an effective instrument to mobilize popular support for his mission. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a rapidly modernizing Japanese economy and military establishment challenged Chinese and Russian dominance of East Asia, resulting in wars with both from which Japan emerged as the leading power in the region.
Each case is, of course, unique. Ongoing debate about the causes of the First World War reminds us that each is subject to competing interpretations. The great international historian, Harvard’s Ernest May, taught that when attempting to reason from history, we should be as sensitive to the differences as to the similarities among cases we compare. (Indeed, in his Historical Reasoning 101 class, May would take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle of the page, label one column “Similar” and the other “Different,” and fill in the sheet with at least a half dozen of each.) Nonetheless, acknowledging many differences, Thucydides directs us to a powerful commonality.
* * *
The preeminent geostrategic challenge of this era is not violent Islamic extremists or a resurgent Russia. It is the impact that China’s ascendance will have on the U.S.-led international order, which has provided unprecedented great-power peace and prosperity for the past 70 years. As Singapore’s late leader, Lee Kuan Yew, observed, “the size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.” Everyone knows about the rise of China. Few of us realize its magnitude. Never before in history has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many dimensions of power. To paraphrase former Czech President Vaclav Havel, all this has happened so rapidly that we have not yet had time to be astonished.
My lecture on this topic at Harvard begins with a quiz that asks students to compare China and the United States in 1980 with their rankings today. The reader is invited to fill in the blanks.
Quiz: Fill in the Blanks
The answers for the first column: In 1980, China had 10 percent of America’s GDP as measured by purchasing power parity; 7 percent of its GDP at current U.S.-dollar exchange rates; and 6 percent of its exports. The foreign currency held by China, meanwhile, was just one-sixth the size of America’s reserves. The answers for the second column: By 2014, those figures were 101 percent of GDP; 60 percent at U.S.-dollar exchange rates; and 106 percent of exports. China’s reserves today are 28 times larger than America’s.
In a single generation, a nation that did not appear on any of the international league tables has vaulted into the top ranks. In 1980, China’s economy was smaller than that of the Netherlands. Last year, the increment of growth in China’s GDP was roughly equal to the entire Dutch economy.
The second question in my quiz asks students: Could China become #1? In what year could China overtake the United States to become, say, the largest economy in the world, or primary engine of global growth, or biggest market for luxury goods?
Could China Become #1?
- Trading nation:
- Holder of U.S. debt:
- Foreign-direct-investment destination:
- Energy consumer:
- Oil importer:
- Carbon emitter:
- Steel producer:
- Auto market:
- Smartphone market:
- E-commerce market:
- Luxury-goods market:
- Internet user:
- Fastest supercomputer:
- Holder of foreign reserves:
- Source of initial public offerings:
- Primary engine of global growth:
Most are stunned to learn that on each of these 20 indicators, China has already surpassed the U.S.
Will China be able to sustain economic-growth rates several times those of the United States for another decade and beyond? If and as it does, are its current leaders serious about displacing the U.S. as the predominant power in Asia? Will China follow the path of Japan and Germany, and take its place as a responsible stakeholder in the international order that America has built over the past seven decades? The answer to these questions is obviously that no one knows.
But if anyone’s forecasts are worth heeding, it’s those of Lee Kuan Yew, the world’s premier China watcher and a mentor to Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. Before his death in March, the founder of Singapore put the odds of China continuing to grow at several times U.S. rates for the next decade and beyond as “four chances in five.” On whether China’s leaders are serious about displacing the United States as the top power in Asia in the foreseeable future, Lee answered directly: “Of course. Why not … how could they not aspire to be number one in Asia and in time the world?” And about accepting its place in an international order designed and led by America, he said absolutely not: “China wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.”
* * *
Americans have a tendency to lecture others about why they should be “more like us.” In urging China to follow the lead of the United States, should we Americans be careful what we wish for?
As the United States emerged as the dominant power in the Western hemisphere in the 1890s, how did it behave? Future President Theodore Roosevelt personified a nation supremely confident that the 100 years ahead would be an American century. Over a decade that began in 1895 with the U.S. secretary of state declaring the United States “sovereign on this continent,” America liberated Cuba; threatened Britain and Germany with war to force them to accept American positions on disputes in Venezuela and Canada; backed an insurrection that split Colombia to create a new state of Panama (which immediately gave the U.S. concessions to build the Panama Canal); and attempted to overthrow the government of Mexico, which was supported by the United Kingdom and financed by London bankers. In the half century that followed, U.S. military forces intervened in “our hemisphere” on more than 30 separate occasions to settle economic or territorial disputes in terms favorable to Americans, or oust leaders they judged unacceptable.
For example, in 1902, when British and German ships attempted to impose a naval blockade to force Venezuela to pay its debts to them, Roosevelt warned both countries that he would “be obliged to interfere by force if necessary” if they did not withdraw their ships. The British and Germans were persuaded to retreat and to resolve their dispute in terms satisfactory to the U.S. at The Hague. The following year, when Colombia refused to lease the Panama Canal Zone to the United States, America sponsored Panamanian secessionists, recognized the new Panamanian government within hours of its declaration of independence, and sent the Marines to defend the new country. Roosevelt defended the U.S. intervention on the grounds that it was “justified in morals and therefore justified in law.” Shortly thereafter, Panama granted the United States rights to the Canal Zone “in perpetuity.”
* * *
When Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s fast march to the market in 1978, he announced a policy known as “hide and bide.” What China needed most abroad was stability and access to markets. The Chinese would thus “bide our time and hide our capabilities,” which Chinese military officers sometimes paraphrased as getting strong before getting even.
With the arrival of China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, the era of “hide and bide” is over. Nearly three years into his 10-year term, Xi has stunned colleagues at home and China watchers abroad with the speed at which he has moved and the audacity of his ambitions. Domestically, he has bypassed rule by a seven-man standing committee and instead consolidated power in his own hands; ended flirtations with democratization by reasserting the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power; and attempted to transform China’s engine of growth from an export-focused economy to one driven by domestic consumption. Overseas, he has pursued a more active Chinese foreign policy that is increasingly assertive in advancing the country’s interests.
While the Western press is seized by the storyline of “China’s economic slowdown,” few pause to note that China’s lower growth rate remains more than three times that of the United States. Many observers outside China have missed the great divergence between China’s economic performance and that of its competitors over the seven years since the financial crisis of 2008 and Great Recession. That shock caused virtually all other major economies to falter and decline. China never missed a year of growth, sustaining an average growth rate exceeding 8 percent. Indeed, since the financial crisis, nearly 40 percent of all growth in the global economy has occurred in just one country: China. The chart below illustrates China’s growth compared to growth among its peers in the BRICS group of emerging economies, advanced economies, and the world. From a common index of 100 in 2007, the divergence is dramatic.
GDP, 2007 — 2015
Today, China has displaced the United States as the world’s largest economy measured in terms of the amount of goods and services a citizen can buy in his own country (purchasing power parity).
What Xi Jinping calls the “China Dream” expresses the deepest aspirations of hundreds of millions of Chinese, who wish to be not only rich but also powerful. At the core of China’s civilizational creed is the belief—or conceit—that China is the center of the universe. In the oft-repeated narrative, a century of Chinese weakness led to exploitation and national humiliation by Western colonialists and Japan. In Beijing’s view, China is now being restored to its rightful place, where its power commands recognition of and respect for China’s core interests.
Last November, in a seminal meeting of the entire Chinese political and foreign-policy establishment, including the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, Xi provided a comprehensive overview of his vision of China’s role in the world. The display of self-confidence bordered on hubris. Xi began by offering an essentially Hegelian conception of the major historical trends toward multipolarity (i.e. not U.S. unipolarity) and the transformation of the international system (i.e. not the current U.S.-led system). In his words, a rejuvenated Chinese nation will build a “new type of international relations” through a “protracted” struggle over the nature of the international order. In the end, he assured his audience that “the growing trend toward a multipolar world will not change.”
Given objective trends, realists see an irresistible force approaching an immovable object. They ask which is less likely: China demanding a lesser role in the East and South China Seas than the United States did in the Caribbean or Atlantic in the early 20th century, or the U.S. sharing with China the predominance in the Western Pacific that America has enjoyed since World War II?
And yet in four of the 16 cases that the Belfer Center team analyzed, similar rivalries did not end in war. If leaders in the United States and China let structural factors drive these two great nations to war, they will not be able to hide behind a cloak of inevitability. Those who don’t learn from past successes and failures to find a better way forward will have no one to blame but themselves.
At this point, the established script for discussion of policy challenges calls for a pivot to a new strategy (or at least slogan), with a short to-do list that promises peaceful and prosperous relations with China. Shoehorning this challenge into that template would demonstrate only one thing: a failure to understand the central point I’m trying to make. What strategists need most at the moment is not a new strategy, but a long pause for reflection. If the tectonic shift caused by China’s rise poses a challenge of genuinely Thucydidean proportions, declarations about “rebalancing,” or revitalizing “engage and hedge,” or presidential hopefuls’ calls for more “muscular” or “robust” variants of the same, amount to little more than aspirin treating cancer. Future historians will compare such assertions to the reveries of British, German, and Russian leaders as they sleepwalked into 1914.
The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition—a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation. Success will require not just a new slogan, more frequent summits of presidents, and additional meetings of departmental working groups. Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries. It will entail a depth of mutual understanding not seen since the Henry Kissinger-Zhou Enlai conversations in the 1970s. Most significantly, it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/
More than 46,000 of you have completed this assessment to identify your personal productivity style. The questions sought to help users understand how they think, learn, and communicate best. In analyzing the data, I’ve noticed some interesting trends.
So far, most of the people taking the test have been Priortizers (47%) and Planners (37%). These work styles (analytical, linear, data- and detail-oriented, organized, committed to honoring deadlines) align with the expectations and key drivers of performance in many of today’s leaner, more streamlined organizations. Indeed, the three statements that prompted the highest number of people to respond “always” were: “When I plan a project, I first think about the goal to be achieved,” “I honor deadlines,” and “I analyze a project before I start.” These findings reflect what I’ve seen in my consulting work: Prioritizers and Planners constitute the majority in my client organizations too; they seem to be most likely to be recognized and get promoted.
Only 19% of the assessment takers to date have been Arrangers, while 18% have been Visualizers. (Important note: Some respondents tied for two or more types, so these percentages add up to more than 100%.) People with those styles enjoy working with a fluid schedule and daydreaming to solve problems, which is frustrating to Prioritizers and Planners, who prefer a clear path to execution.
But companies need people of all types to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Arrangers and Visualizers, for example, are supportive, expressive, and emotionally intelligent big-picture thinkers. They generate ideas and take risks. If you cannot connect with your customers and continue to create break-through products, no amount of prioritizing or planning is going to ensure the long-term viability of your organization.
As a leader, it’s important understand your work style and those of your employees to ensure a balance of thinking and approaches. Realistically, you probably won’t have a team in which Prioritizers, Planners, Arrangers, and Visualizers are all equally represented. But you can certainly try to bring on new people or call in outside experts to bridge the gaps. Even easier, work to “channel” missing styles by asking some of the following questions:
Faced with a new project, for example, Prioritizers would ask:
- What is the goal?
- What is the deadline?
- What data or facts are necessary?
- What metrics will be used to evaluate success?
Planners would ask:
- How will the project be delivered?
- How will the project be completed? Is a project plan necessary?
- How will information about the project be communicated?
Arrangers would ask:
- Who are the project stakeholders?
- Who else needs to be involved?
- Who can support you in achieving the goals of the project?
Visualizers would ask:
- What are the gaps between where you are today and where you want to be at the end of the project?
- Why does this project matter to the team and the organization?
- What barriers can you foresee that will need to be addressed as you implement this project?
If you’re leading a team that is — like the HBR assessment audience shows — heavily weighted toward one or two work styles, recognize the value in rebalancing it. Work style diversity ensures that you’ll have people focusing on both the big picture and the details, both ideas and execution, both purpose and profits.