Donald Trump Is a Black Swan
The most interesting aspect of Trump's rise is its unpredictability.
Posted Mar 25, 2016
The ascendency of Donald Trump as a Republican candidate for U. S. President is a Black Swan. According to Nicholas Taleb, who invented and developed the notion, a Black Swan (note the capitals) is an unpredictable event (given accepted parameters) that has huge consequences. Taleb offers a precise definition: A Black Swan is an event that (1) is a far outlier (far outside the realm of expectations), (2) has huge consequences, and (3) seems in retrospect to have been completely predictable (see Taleb’s well-known 2007 book The Black Swan). Taleb summarizes these three as “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective . . . predictability” (p. xviii). Trump’s ascendency squarely has all of these.
Before going further, let’s look at some other Black Swans. Here’s a short list in temporal order (the 4th and last 4 of which are from Taleb): the extinction of the (nonavian) dinosaurs, the evolution of humans and human-level intelligence, the rise of the U.S. and democracy, the rise of Hitler, the Beatles, the rise of the personal computer, the spread of the Internet, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the attacks of September 11, 2001. These are clearly important events in our history. There are many more. Taleb suggests that most of history is driven by Black Swans. He seems right about this.
Now back to Trump and his ascendency. Let’s briefly analyze Trump's rise with respect to (1), (2), and (3), above.
(1) No one predicted the robustness of Trump’s ascendency. This is why there is a large and frantic industry trying to explain said ascendency — scrambling after the fact. An important aspect of this property, unpredictability, is that Black Swans lie far outside the realm of expectations because, for them, the past is not a guide for the future. We see this with Trump’s rise. For many years, Trump had explored running for various offices; those explorations always revealed that his chances were very slim. So, his success now was not predictable given the past (which is all we have to go on). The success of his run now is in fact deeply puzzling, on all sides.
(2) Trump’s ascendency is redefining the Republican party, what it means to be a candidate and run for office (any office), how many conceive of the U. S. presidency, the nature U.S. society, and what it means to be a patriot. At least.
(3) Everyone seems quite bent on pointing out that “Of course Trump’s ascendency makes sense. He’s so successful because of X.” However, there are dozens of wildly varying fillers for X. The large industry mentioned in (1) has produced many explanations of Trump’s ascendency. Those for Trump perhaps seem to have one kind of explanation: roughly, “disgust with career politicians who never accomplish anything important.” Those opposed to Trump perhaps seem to have another kind of explanation, roughly: “the dangerous rise of the far right.” But these are glosses that don’t do much to really explain his rise. Specific explanations not only vary from each side but also vary considerably from pundit to pundit, citizen to citizen. There is no way to test most (any?) of these, so there is no way to know which, if any, are correct.
The truth of (3) should not be ignored. And its truth is deeply about our human psychology. The drive to explain Trump in such a way that his ascendency should now strike us as obvious is not just strong; it is a necessity for our well-being. This sort of thing is completely wrong-headed, according to Taleb. To see this, suppose some explanation, E, for Trump’s ascendency was in fact correct. However, since his ascendency is a Black Swan, we couldn’t have known E ahead of time, in spite of the strong illusion to the contrary — and that’s what it is, an illusion. We couldn’t have discerned E ahead of time primarily because we couldn’t have picked out or recognized E from among the other causal forces, F through Z, at work at the time.
The fact is that humans hate surprises — especially big ones. And in order to hang on to their felt sense of control and understanding, Black Swans must be explained. And note, this explaining is really a kind of explaining away.
Here’s another example that makes this point clearer. Many think that the September 11 attacks could have been predicted had the FBI and other agencies communicated better, or had upper level managers listened to their field agents. President George Bush thought this — that’s why he created the Department of Homeland Security, a sort of clearing house of intelligence. But this is incorrect. (I’m purposely excluding here all conspiracies stories (note: the term “conspiracy theory” is always inappropriate since no conspiracy story is a theory.)) First, intelligence agencies receive hundreds of very serious notices and alarms per day. It is well-known and understood that the vast majority of these are false alarms. This is good, since with the numbers of personnel available, only a few of these notices can be acted on. Second, the relevant managers did take the notice seriously. It was acted on to the extent that it could be along with the many others notices that cleared the relevant threshold during the relevant time frame. The brute fact is that serious men and women (and computers) did the best they could working with the huge welter of intelligence information that was available before September 11, 2001. At the time, the impending attacks simply couldn’t be picked out against the background of other similar information. Finally, the “upper managers didn’t listen to their field personnel” explanation really does work sometimes: this explanation is correct for the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. But this explanation is not correct for the September 11 attacks.
For those interested in what humans know and how they know what they know, the Trump ascendency specifically, and Black Swans in general, are fascinating. Black swans show that what we don’t know is more important than what we do (Taleb makes this point). But more interesting than these, is the Black Swan’s “retrospective predictability.” This, as I said above, is pure human psychology at work: humans don’t like puzzles; puzzles must be solved. And, frankly, this aspect of our psychology also lies at the root of all conspiracy stories. Humans need to live in a well-regulated world. We have to have order. And we will defy the immutable laws of nature to have that order. We will explain Trump’s rise as an “Of course . . .” even if it kills us. Likewise, conspiracy stories supply security, which is necessary to almost all life. “Retrospective predictability” makes us feel good in the same way. We have to feel that Trump’s rise is explainable, had we but paid better attention. But this is all wrong. Trump’s rise is a Black Swan. And no amount of paying attention would have allowed us to predict it.
Does something explain Trump’s stunning rise? Maybe. We all side with Leibniz and his Principle of Sufficient Reason: “For everything that happens, there is sufficient reason explaining why it happened.” So, we have trouble with the "maybe." But suppose there is an explanation. Do we know what that explanation is? Again, maybe. But we don’t know that we know, and that’s what’s required.
So, what should we do? Three things. One, it would be most helpful if all the talking heads would shut up and let social psychologists and political scientists, like Marc Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, do their work. These two are the authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, a book I recommend, that is relevant to Trump's rise. Secondly, by definition, the Black Swan that is Trump’s ascendency is history in the making. Perhaps, whether for or against, we could take a moment and appreciate this. It is not every day that history on such a scale is made. And third, it would be best if we somehow came to accept that our world is governed by Black Swans -- governed by the wildly improbable. Of course, human psychology being what it is, we will do none of these three.