Godwin’s Law, Normalcy Bias, And Donald Trump


“The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside nontotalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges also in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity just as much as the masses do in the face of the normal world.”

— Hannah Arendt, 1951

We are a nation of Godwin’s Law (or at least some distorted version of it). Any time someone invokes an analogy to Nazi Germany, no matter how educated the person or how salient the similarities, we collectively and summarily dismiss the argument. The analogy always strikes as a form of intellectual and rhetorical laziness. It is viewed as a fear tactic, and thus anyone who proposes it, at best, need not be taken seriously or, at worst, is a hyper-partisan crackpot. Surely it can’t happen here.

The dismissal is itself lazy. People who invoke the analogy are not actually arguing that the systematic execution of Jewish people in camps is on America’s political horizon. Rather, most are warning us about more abstract similarities. Those similarities are worth considering carefully since, as the analogy suggests, something abstract and implausible can lead to concrete atrocities. And when they do, people wonder how it happened and search for a definitive point at which their world crossed over from demagogic threats to real horror. Was there a single moment of moral choice in which one of the options was pure moral depravity? What we learn from Nazi Germany is that there is no definitive point. There were people sounding the alarm from the beginning. Unfortunately they were viewed as hyper-partisan crackpots.

The dismissal is also a ‘hasty generalization’: it draws a broad conclusion from an insufficient set of evidence. There are plenty of weak Hitler analogies. They are easy to parody in conversation (“ya know, the Nazis had pieces of flare that they made the jews wear.”). But it is gross illogic to leap from the weak analogies in conversation to the conclusion that we can dismiss all Nazi Germany analogies. If an American politician proposed making America Judenrein, wouldn’t Hitler analogies be an acceptable part of our condemnation of this person?

Why do we dismiss the analogies? The answer perhaps has to do with some form of pride. We as a nation are too good to fall into such evil. America would never kill large numbers of innocent people on the basis of race or religion! Those actions are relegated to the barbaric ancient times of the 1940s. Or the pride might be personal. I myself am too good and reflective. Surely I wouldn’t stand by and watch (let alone participate) in killing or harming innocent people. For instance, I would never be a slave owner, a segregationist, or someone contributing to mass incarceration! The philosopher Hannah Arendt suggested that personal confidence in one’s probity is usually never tested in ways that could lead to the type of condemnation we give the Nazis. We are simply lucky not to be given historically significant moral choices. We know from history that when faced with those choices, many normal and decent people fail. We might well be facing those choices now. Time will tell. But while we wait for history to judge us, perhaps we can fill our time with some honest moral self-reflection.

Another way to explain the dismissal of the analogies is through a common cognitive failure: the normalcy bias. We underestimate the possibility of disaster, especially when the disaster is unprecedented. The normalcy bias comes through in our “normalizing.” If you suggest that America qua stable democracy is facing an existential crisis, you immediately place yourself on the crackpot fringes. Keith Olbermann, who is consciously trying to overcome normalcy bias in “The Resistance” video series, is being placed in the looney bin. If something has never happened before, we wrongly assume that it will not happen. When it does happen, we contort it into something normal. We normalize it by explaining it retroactively, by making it an effect of a familiar cause, a past that, in hindsight, holds still long enough for us to conjure up a rationalization of how we got here from there. We do not do it intentionally or consciously. Even when we recognize that we have done it, we continue to do it. The future will be like the past. The sun will rise tomorrow because the sun has risen everyday so far. If I predict that the sun will not rise at some point in the future, even if I have fairly compelling evidence, the initial epistemic urge is to dismiss me. We trust that urge (and label it ‘conventional wisdom’) within the realm of politics. If a US president has never become and authoritarian in the past, then it will not happen in the future. Q.E.D.

When we state it explicitly we see how absurd it is. The normalcy bias has been on display all throughout the campaign.

“Trump won’t be taken seriously as a candidate.”
“There is no way Trump will win a primary state.”
“He couldn’t possibly win the nomination.”
“He couldn’t win the general election.”

Why did so many people say these things? Typically they had no reason other than the fact that something like it had never happened before. They knew on some rational level that it was possible, but that possibility was not reflected in their thinking, speaking, and writing. The past was meant to be a good guide to the future. The sun always rises.

There is another possible psychological explanation: perhaps people discounted the possibility of Trump’s rise because the potential reality of an avowed pussy-grabber becoming president was so disturbing that they could not countenance the thought. They assigned it a lower probability as a defense mechanism. But again, we have a responsibility—if at least to ourselves alone—not to believe what soothes our sensibilities or aligns with our preferences. It is more comforting to believe that the sun will rise, and so we have a temptation to ignore evidence to the contrary. Wishful thinking is dangerous, especially in the realm of politics, where it is people fighting to prevent the worst from happening that prevents the worst from happening.

It is time to start thinking clearly and honestly. Our inductive inferences need to be based on a broader conception of the past, one that includes atrocities and pogroms, even if our pride tells us to ignore them.

We have opportunities to improve each day. What are the new predictions?

“Trump cannot severely undermine American democracy.”

“Trump will not transform America into a Russia or the Philippines.”

“Trump will not start a devastating war through his stunning ineptitude.”

“Trump will allow the 2020 election to take place.”

Surely he will, right? But we must ask ourselves why we believe it. When we reflect honestly we find no good answer. We find assumptions that American traditions hold with unbreakable strength. Traditions, we must ask, like not insulting respected war heroes? Like not mocking a reporter with a disability? Like not releasing any tax returns whatsoever for no reason whatsoever? Like not admitting to and bragging about sexual assault? Like not saying that a sexual assault accuser is not attractive enough to be assaulted by him? Traditions and customs like a respect for facts and reality, respect for national intelligence agencies, respect for the democratic process, and respect for the press have been attacked and undermined by a man who is now the most powerful person in the world.

We must stop basing predictions on these traditions. They are comforting and it is nice to believe that they are ironclad. But they have been slipping away. What justification do we have to think that our most cherished traditions will remain? our most cherished institutions? democracy itself? Our answers, so far, are rooted in cognitive biases.

We should adopt a precautionary principle:

Since Trump’s presidency may lead to unacceptable and unprecedented damage that is plausible but uncertain, actions should be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

In other words, where there are threats of serious and unprecedented damage, lack of conclusive reasons to think Trump will not cause such damage should itself be a reason to fight to prevent the damage. (My phrasing is parallel to the UN’s Rio Declaration.) If the reasons are not forthcoming, we must take the abnormal and destructive possibilities very seriously. We cannot continue to close our eyes and hope for the best. We cannot wait for the damage before acting. Do we have good reason to think that Trump will allow the 2020 election to take place? The answer is no. So we must fight adamantly to ensure our tradition of regular and binding elections stays in place. Important American institutions, as we have seen, survive largely through convention and the respect leaders have for convention. In the absence of that respect, we have no reason to believe that the institutions will survive. The principle tells us to be proactive, even if it makes us look like crackpots.