John Bolton, public menace but useful expository device

Sep 14 2019

Thanks to President Trump (and I don’t often start a sentence that way, believe me), it’s an auspicious week to rechristen a newsletter as the Nonzero Newsletter. 

For a long time now, a huge part of my worldview has been the belief that, as technology marches on, the world’s nations are playing more and more non-zero-sum games with one another—games that can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they’re played. On Tuesday Trump fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, who perennially fails to play such games wisely, or for that matter to even recognize that they’re non-zero-sum. More than anyone else—more even than Trump himself, which is saying something—Bolton epitomizes the zero-sum world view this administration has become famous for.

To list big non-zero-sum opportunities in the world is to list the kinds of opportunities Bolton has made a career of sabotaging: treaties for controlling nuclear weapons, bioweapons, weapons in space, cyberweapons; accords that address climate change and other environmental threats; international tribunals for peacefully settling border disputes and trade disputes; and the whole overarching project of nurturing global governance and the various multilateral institutions that mediate it. Bolton once said that if the United Nations building in New York “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (So, naturally, George W. Bush later made Bolton America’s ambassador to the UN.)

If you can convince Bolton that a game is zero-sum—that his team can win and the other team lose—he’s all in. The game of war, for example. Bolton was a big and influential champion of the Iraq War of 2003, and he has advocated the bombing of (to take the two most topical examples) North Korea and Iran. (As it happens, wars can wind up being bad for both countries and in that sense non-zero-sum, but Bolton is as oblivious to lose-lose possibilities as to win-win ones.) 

It may sound crazy to say that Bolton is a better icon for zero-sumness than Trump. But Trump’s saving grace—well, potentially saving grace—is that his ego can be manipulated to non-zero-sum ends. Get him to dream of a Nobel Peace Prize and he’s on the next plane to Korea. Get Bolton to dream of a Nobel Peace Prize and he wakes up in a cold sweat.

Of course, Trump’s ego more often aligns with belligerence than with peacemaking. His most finely honed political skill is to exploit the part of human psychology triggered by perceptions of zero-sumness—to make one group feel threatened by another group, feel that only one of the two groups can win. When Trump wants attention—which is to say, when he’s not eating or having sex—this is his go-to move: he gets attention, (and, from his base, adulation) by stoking our zero-sum instincts, deepening fault lines in the country and the world. In an age when the psychology of tribalism is widely seen as a national and planetary peril, Trump sees it as a critical resource.

Bolton, on the other hand, isn’t so much a cynical exploiter of tribalistic psychology as a near-perfect embodiment of it. He’s sure his team is right, and that rightness justifies pretty much anything, and that an adversary’s perspective isn’t worth serious investigation. He doesn’t use tribalism to pursue power so much as use power to pursue tribalism. That’s why his departure from the administration offers at least a ray of hope for some win-win outcomes. Trump’s nihilistic ambition is open-ended in a way that Bolton’s Manichaean fervor isn’t.   

All told, then, there are at least two links between the old name of this newsletter—Mindful Resistance—and the new name, Nonzero: (1) Trump warrants resisting because, like Bolton (if for different reasons), he is sabotaging so many urgent global non-zero-sum opportunities; (2) One way Trump is doing this is by energizing the zero-sum part of mass psychology—a tactic that, even aside from the intrinsic grossness of fostering hatred, further complicates the challenge of nations playing their non-zero-sum games well enough that they come to form a true global community and quit wasting so much time and so many lives on petty bullshit. 

So much for the linkage between Nonzero and the Resistance part of Mindful Resistance. As for the Mindful part: 

As regular readers know, my view is that the anti-Trump movement known as The Resistance has too often been counterproductively reactive—and so needs to be more mindful in the plain-English sense of the term: more careful, circumspect, objectively attentive. (Mindfulness in this sense of the term isn’t just for meditators, but I do think meditation—and cultivating mindfulness in the full-fledged Buddhist sense of the term—can help you exemplify the plain-English sense of the term.) It follows that mindfulness, by making The Resistance more effective, could help overcome Trumpism and so help our species play the many non-zero-sum games that will shape the fate of Planet Earth. Mindfulness, I believe, is conducive to win-win outcomes.

One final link between mindfulness and non-zero-sumness: 

Even after Trump passes from the scene, it will be a big challenge to play all these critical non-zero-sum games wisely. The psychology of tribalism is built into us, and it can impede wise action by, for example, warping our conception of the perspectives and motivations of people on the other side of a tribal divide, whether the divide is national, ideological, religious, whatever. And I believe that one—not the only, but one—powerful tool for counteracting that psychology is mindfulness meditation. 

So I hope you can see why I’ve long felt that resisting Trump was a battle in a larger war—and, that, moreover, some of the psychological resources that help us resist Trump effectively are the same resources we need in order to fight the larger war. 

I also hope you can see why I view that larger war as in some ways a spiritual endeavor. It calls for us to transcend parts of our evolved psychology—notably the cognitive biases that constitute the psychology of tribalism—in ways that bring us a truer, less self-centered view of reality, a view conducive to wider community. And this endeavor has long been part of great spiritual traditions. 

My interest in (or, some might say, my obsession with) this larger war is the reason that much of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter didn’t have an obvious connection to resisting Trump or his policies per se. Newsletter items were often about American foreign policy blunders, or Trumplike politicians elsewhere in the world, or tribal psychology generically. (And occasionally they weren’t about resisting Trump or fighting the larger war, but were just about things that interest me—something that will continue in the new newsletter.)

So rechristening the newsletter is among other things a way to bring its name into closer alignment with its spirit. And into more direct opposition to the spirit of John Bolton. Which is good, because, though there aren’t all that many purely zero-sum games in life, the relationship between the John Boltons of the world and the welfare of the world comes pretty close to that. 

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