How to stay sane until the election’s over

By Robert Wright, Oct 30 2020

My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:

Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.

When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”

So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”

But then, as I continued to ponder the malorum, it started to have a calming effect. And it was profoundly calming—not in the sense that I achieved profound calm but in the sense that the source of what modest calm I achieved was a deep truth. And it was a truth that, by virtue of its depth, can be applied to various kinds of destabilizing apprehensions as you go through life.

That deep truth is: You never know. In case that sounds cryptic, and of unclear relevance to this year’s election, let me try to contextualize it, after which I’ll spell it out in more detail.

The path to this deep truth begins with my belief that Donald Trump represents a deep problem. He is an existential threat at two levels.

First, Trump is an existential threat to American democracy. I don’t mean that four more years of him—four more years of numbing norm violation, of expressed contempt for the rule of law, of incendiary rhetoric that inspires armed and dangerous men, all in an administration increasingly staffed by mindless Trump flunkies—is certain to bring authoritarian rule or devastating civil conflict. I just mean it holds a non-trivial chance of doing that.

If an asteroid big enough to wipe out our species were headed in the general direction of our planet—with, say, a 20 percent chance of hitting it—we’d treat the asteroid as an existential threat even though there was an 80 percent chance of survival. Trump is an asteroid headed in the general direction of American democracy.

Second, Trump is an existential threat to the world. Not in exactly the sense the asteroid is—there’s almost no chance he’ll extinguish the human species. But there’s a real chance that he could send the human species into a downward spiral toward chaos and mass suffering, from which it would recover only slowly if at all.

One reason Trump has this potential is that he’s basically opposed to (and probably incapable of) the kind of politics required to address various planetary problems whose solution requires international cooperation. And I’m not just talking about climate change. There are also arms races—both the old-fashioned kind (nukes) and the kind that are just getting underway (weapons in space, cyberweapons) or in danger of getting underway (bioweapons)—that could have catastrophic outcomes.

I could go on. (The perils of unconstrained genetic engineering in a context of headlong international competition go beyond bioweapons.) But the main point is that technological evolution is impelling us toward lots of high-stakes non-zero-sum games with other countries. And Trump is much better at lose-lose outcomes than win-win outcomes. Indeed, he is openly contemptuous of global governance generically—the very idea of building international institutions to address international problems.

So Trump is a deep problem in two senses. He’s an existential threat to our democracy and to our planet. And there’s one other thing I mean when I call the Trump problem deep: the roots of the problem are deep.

Trump isn’t just some clown with bad hair who showed up for the Republican primaries and used his reality TV skills and bizarre persona to captivate a big chunk of the audience. He’s a clown with bad hair whose reality TV skills and bizarre persona happened to position him to harness powerful undercurrents of American political sentiment. The roots of the Trump problem lie in the conditions that have strengthened those undercurrents.

Testament to the depth of these roots is their global reach. In numerous countries there is now a version of Trumpism: a sizable ethno-nationalist reaction against various aspects of globalization (mainly liberal trade and liberal immigration), often along with a polarizing coarseness, bigotry of one kind or another, and an authoritarian vibe. In some cases the ethno-nationalists are running the government, in others they’re just jockeying for power. But all these movements reflect the fact that the forces that brought us Trump won’t magically vanish—not abroad, and not here at home—even if Trump, God willing, leaves the White House this January.

Here is some good news: the challenge posed by transnational ethno-nationalism can be met in a way that moves us toward both national and international concord. There is such a thing (in principle, at least) as a kind of progressive internationalism that, like the neoliberalism it would replace, recognizes the importance of building strong international institutions but, unlike that neoliberalism, does two things: (1) shapes those institutions to address some of the discontents that drive people toward ethno-nationalism; (2) shapes those institutions to creatively meet the aforementioned kinds of high-stakes non-zero-sum challenges.

If you want to see that last sentence unpacked, feel free to tackle this long piece I wrote for Wired (the actual physical magazine!) in 2019. But for present purposes all you need is this takeaway: If we want to get rid of Trumpism, and not just Trump, we need to be willing to think radically, to fundamentally reform both domestic and foreign policy.

In fact, I’d go further and say we need to work at becoming better human beings—better at transcending the perceptual and cognitive distortions that have helped polarize politics, making it hard for us to think clearly and dispassionately about the kind of reform that’s needed. You can call this critical upgrade self-help or moral edification or spiritual progress or whatever, but in any event what’s needed is substantial change on a large scale. Radical change.

All of which leads us back to how I found at least a small measure of equanimity in my premeditatio malorum. In scanning my most feared scenario—four more years of Trump—in search of consolation, I finally came upon this: Sometimes the only way to get radical change is for things to get even worse than they are. You hear this from former alcoholics, former heroin addicts, and various other authorities on successful radical change. Maybe it holds in this case. Maybe it will take another four years of Trump for us to take seriously the need for deep, transformative reform.

To look at the other side of the coin: A Biden administration would be, in my humble opinion, an epic improvement over the Trump administration in terms of tenor and policy. But there’s no evidence that it will be visionary, or that it will revisit fundamental assumptions that have guided America’s domestic and foreign policy. So a Biden era could turn out to be an insidious reprieve, during which our continued neglect of the roots of Trumpism allows authoritarian American ethno-nationalism to come roaring back—but this time, unfortunately, with someone competent leading it.

That’s what I mean by you never know. We spend much of our lives labeling developments as good or bad, but when we look back at them later we can often see how the bad led to something good or the good led to something bad.

I don’t think this means we should stop the labeling. That would mean abandoning one of our species’ most distinctive pastimes: consciously, reflectively, trying to make things better—which has on balance, I think, been a success, working out well more often than not. We have to keep making our judgments, choosing our goals, and pursuing them with energy and dedication. (So vote!)

Still, when you’ve made a judgment, and defined a goal, and the fear that you may not reach it is starting to drive you crazy, it’s good to remind yourself: you never know.

Notwithstanding that adage, there is one thing I know: Whoever wins the election, our work will be cut out for us. The struggle to make things better will continue, with higher stakes than usual.

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