Who is the Most Trumpian Character in Literature/Popular Culture?

As we slip further into this timeline, I’ve noticed that both fictional dystopias and real-life accounts of authoritarian regimes are doing a good job at pointing at both specifics (the denial of reality) and general trends (people falling for a fake populism out of fear and uncertainty. However, I’m not sure there is a figure who quite matches Trump.

While the USA has a long way to go before it meets the full horrors of 1984’s Oceania, people are still managing to find many active parallels with Orwell’s political horror story. The Fox News Right have already nominated George Soros to be their Emmanuel Goldstein for example. Indeed, I can imagine in a century hence, when post-WW2 history is seen as all sort of smooshed together as one time period (as we tend to now with the Victorian/Edwardian periods), that people might anachronistically think Orwell’s invention was based on the panicked hatred of Soros rather than Trotsky. But while 1984 allusions are handy, Trump is no Big Brother.

440px-dictator_charlie2Perhaps some of this is time. Charlie Chaplin’s portrait of Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel is an absurd man with an over-inflated ego. While searing satire at the time, our full understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany make Chaplin’s film seem understated – almost trivialising of the brutality. Not Chaplin’s fault (and still a magnificent film) but The Great Dictator was overtaken by history. Chaplin does neatly capture though the need for self-importance and constant praise of the would-be authoritarian.

For a recent post, I’d dug out my copy of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man which is bound with the sequel The Truce, which describes his survival and journey home after surviving Auschwitz. In The Truce there is a magnificent description of the self-appointed leader of the Italian section of a Soviet refugee camp in Poland:

But the camp leader of the Italians, to whom I was directed to be ‘enlisted’, was very
different. Accountant Rovi had become camp leader not by election from below, nor by
Russian investiture, but by self-nomination; in fact, although he was an individual of
somewhat meagre intellectual and moral qualities, he possessed to a notable degree
that virtue which under any sky is the most necessary to win power — the love of power
for its own sake.

To watch the behaviour of a man who acts not according to reason, but according to his own deep impulses, is a spectacle of extreme interest, similar to that which the naturalist enjoys when he studies the activities of an animal of complex instincts. Rovi had achieved his office by acting with the same atavistic spontaneity as a spider
spinning its web; like the spider without its web, so Rovi did not know how to live
without his office. He had begun to spin immediately; he was basically foolish, and did not know a word of German or Russian, but from the first day he had secured for
himself the services of an interpreter, and had presented himself in a ceremonial
manner to the Soviet Command as plenipotentiary for Italian interests. He had
organized a desk, with official forms (in beautiful handwriting with flourishes), rubber stamps, variously coloured pencils and a ledger; although he was not a colonel, in fact not even a soldier, he had hung outside his door an ostentatious placard ‘Italian Command — Colonel Rovi’; he had surrounded himself with a small court of scullions, scribes, acolytes, spies, messengers and bullies, whom he paid in kind, with food taken from the rations of the community, and with exemption from all jobs of common interest. His courtiers, who, as always happens, were far worse than he, ensured (even by force, which was rarely necessary) that his orders were carried out, served him, gathered information for him and flattered him intensely.

Levi is a powerful observational writer both in this pair of harrowing memoirs but also in his science & science-fictional writing. We’ve never met ‘Colonel Rovi’ but he is instantly recognisable: the man who acts not according to reason but to his deep impulses. As it happens Levi goes on to describe how Rovi’s quasi-authority was relatively benign. Yet, in his description, there is the notion of a man who seeks power for the sake of sycophancy rather than the sycophancy being a by-product of a quest for power.

blazing2bsaddles4Moving rapidly from great literature to low comedy, I find myself frequently reminded of Blazing Saddles over the past few months. Of course, this is in part due to the sad death of Gene Wilder but also Mel Brook’s unsubtle side character Governor William J. Le Petomane. Brook’s himself is no stranger to portraying Nazism as absurdity but the Governor in the film is far too self-absorbed to be a tyrant. Instead, Brook plays a lecherous, racist, incompetent politician, who sees himself as a great popular leader but is actually little more than a puppet for the Machiavellian Hedley Lamarr. The Trump/Bannon parallels write themselves.

Brooks and Chaplin have both attempted, to varying degrees of success to capture the inherent comedy of the absurd trumped up figure – the spectacle of extreme interest of the man who acts not according to reason but according to his own deep impulses. I’m not sure either work in general or capture what we have in Trump.

The comedic quality to Trump was employed long before his campaign for the presidency was taken seriously (John Oliver, infamously pleading with Trump in 2o13 to run for president http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/john-oliver-donald-trump-president-944682 ). What Brooks fails to manage and which Chaplin captured better was the mix of both menace and absurdity. Le Petomane, not distracted by a paddle ball but by Tweets that might crash the stock market or start a war. Confronting the abuse of power with its absurdity hides that part of the horror is the absurdity. Closest to this is Chaplin’s dance in character as Hynkel with a globe that is also a balloon.

For awhile Hynkel has complete control of the world until…it bursts and  Hynkel is left with a childish expression of disappointment. The burst balloon is most obviously his ambitions but there is a horrific element of world destruction equally in the image.

When I think of that combination of horror from absurdity, that encompasses both the denial of reality forced upon people in 1984 *and* this notion of the dictator as childishly self-absorbed I can’t help but think of the Twlight Zone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_a_Good_Life_(The_Twilight_Zone)

In this episode, a town is controlled by a child (Bill ‘Lost in Space’ Mumy) who, for reasons unexplained has extraordinary powers. The horror is absurd and it is horrific because it is absurd and because fear prevents the adults from acknowledging the absurdity.

“You’re a bad man. You’re a very bad man and you keeping thinking very bad thoughts about me.”

I’ll stop there I think.


Yeah, but we aren’t Americans, what can we do?

Back in December, then President-elect Donald Trump established a forum “composed of some of America’s most highly respected and successful business leaders” https://www.blackstone.com/media/press-releases/article/president-elect-trump-establishes-the-president-s-strategic-and-policy-forum

The members of the Forum include:

  • Stephen A. Schwarzman (Forum Chairman), Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder of Blackstone; [Gateway One Macquarie Place, Suite 3901 Sydney NSW 2000, Australia]
  • Paul Atkins, CEO, Patomak Global Partners, LLC, Former Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission; [not in AU]
  • Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors; [Holden Ltd: PO Box 1714, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001]
  • Toby Cosgrove, CEO, Cleveland Clinic; [not in AU]
  • Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co; [ Sydney, Australia: +612 9003 8888]
  • Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock; [37, Chifley Tower, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia +61 2 9272 2200]
  • Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company;
  • Rich Lesser, President and CEO, Boston Consulting Group; [Level 41, 161 Castlereagh Street  Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia +61 2 9323 5600 ]
  • Doug McMillon, President and CEO, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; [not in AU]
  • Jim McNerney, Former Chairman, President, and CEO, Boeing; [Boeing – Australia & South Pacific Boeing Australia Level 10, Exchange House 10 Bridge St Sydney NSW 2000 AUSTRALIA Tel: +61-2-9086 3300 ]
  • Adebayo “Bayo” Ogunlesi, Chairman and Managing Partner, Global Infrastructure Partners; [Global Infrastructure Management Australia Pty Limited (affiliate), Level 30, Deutsche Bank Place, 126 Phillip Street, Sydney, NSW 2000 Phone: +61 2 8259 4229 ]
  • Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM; [Australian Head Office
    IBM Australia Ltd  Level 13 IBM Centre 601 Pacific Highway St Leonards NSW 2065]
  • Kevin Warsh, Shepard Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Economics, Hoover Institute, Former Member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System;
  • Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO, Ernst & Young EY; [EY The EY Centre Level 34 200 George Street 2000 Sydney phone: +61 2 9248 5555 fax: +61 2 9248 5959]
  • Jack Welch, Former Chairman and CEO, General Electric; [Multiple separate businesses in Australia]
  • Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Vice Chairman of IHS Markit; [not in AU?]
  • Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (joined Dec 14)
  • Elon Musk, CEO Space X, Tesla (joined Dec 14)

Of those, Elon Musk has now spoken out against Trump’s attack on the US constitution & rule of law using his ban on people from selected middle east countries.

  • Investment bank, Goldman Sachs is not represented on the forum but Trump’s administration is replete with ex-Goldman Sachs employees, including Steve Bannon Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, National Economic Council Chairman-appointee Gary Cohn and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman nominee Jay Clayton. [Goldman Sachs Australia Pty Ltd Level 46 Governor Phillip Tower 1 Farrer Place Sydney NSW 2000 Australia +612 9321 8777 ]

Many of those companies operate in multiple nations. Those companies have twitter accounts, some of them (e.g. Disney, Uber) market directly to ordinary people. We can challenge what they are doing. Sure, there is an argument that they are trying to engage with Trump for better outcomes for everybody – but if they can’t speak out against gross attacks on basic principles common to all democratic societies then they aren’t ‘engaging’ they are collaborating with hatred.


Leak Ethics and Hack Ethics

Many, many reasons to put some thought into the ethics of email hacks and leaks currently.

Firstly, is the current political trajectory of Wikileaks – in the past seen as somewhat anarchic and/or libertarian and now being cast as a tool of authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin. In either case, it is worth asking is there a way of looking at the ethics of what Wikileaks has done beyond comparing the rightness/wrongness of the people who have either benefit or suffered as a consequence?

Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?

Thirdly is the issue of the ethical culpability of the press or others (such as a rival political campaign) in exploiting revelations from an illegal leak or hack. Currently, the question of press coverage of the leaked DNC emails in the recent election and what electoral benefits the Trump campaign may have gained from those leaks.

There are some easy answers of course:

  • The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.
  • Whatever the rights or wrongs of Chelsea Manning’s acts, she should not be subject to cruel punishments.
  • Trump is deeply unethical on multiple levels regardless of whether he benefited from the DNC hacks.

But can we do better than these clearer issues?

Firstly there is an ethical distinction between leaks and hacks. Practically there are blurred lines between the two (e.g. an insider leaking a password to a third party who gains illegal access to a server) but we can still make a distinction between:

  • Somebody inside an organisation revealing confidential information to somebody outside an organisation.
  • Somebody outside an organisation breaking in (either physically or electronically) and stealing information.

The distinction is related to (but not identical to) the degree of discrimination in the information sought and released.

  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating specific information about an organisation, with some awareness of the information they are revealing.
  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating bulk information about an organisation, with little knowledge of what that information contains.

There is a sliding scale between the two.

Yet another pair of factors, and again on a scale, there is a question of personal risk.

  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is acting at significant personal risk, either to their career or facing legal sanction or violence.
  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is facing very limited risk and/or may gain financially or professionally from their actions.

Lastly, I’d make one more paired distinction.

  • The leak or hack is of a government body or agency.
  • The leak or hack is of a non-government body or agency, or of an individual.

In all cases, I’d contend that the default is an assumption of privacy. That is either a leak or a hack of data is, by default, morally wrong without some sort of mitigating factor. Put another way, non-consensual transparency purely for the sake of transparency is not sufficient justification for dissemination either leaked or hacked information BUT there may be times and occasions when other factors can justify both leaks and hacks (and indeed we know that such times and occasions do exist).

Roughly speaking, this is how I am seeing things:

  • Leaks are easier to justify ethically than hacks.
  • Targetted release of ‘stolen’ data is easier to justify ethically than dumps of data.
  • Acts done in the face of personal risk are easier to justify ethically than acts done with low risk or for personal gain.
  • The release of government data is easier to justify than the release of non-government data, which is easier to justify than the release of an individual’s data.

Beyond that questions of legitimate public interest and consequence matter.

Scenario 1: Donald Trump is President and a member of Whitehouse staff leaks a very specific email regarding the purchase of ‘adult diapers’. The leaked email is widely disseminated and there is much speculation that the President has some degree of incontinence.

I’d see Scenario 1 as unethical. Although it essentially government data (and hence publically owned data) and although it is targetted and a leak (forgive the pun) and the staff member runs the risk of being sacked (and maybe prosecuted) – it fails ethically because the public interest test is weak (yeah, there is an argument that the state of the President’s health is public business but this is a stretch) and the consequence is the bowel/bladder movements become fair game for judging the worthiness of politicians. Odds are that many effective US presidents have had less than functional bodies with regarded to toilet functions.

Scenario 2: An activist believes (because of persistent but inconclusive evidence) that a private company is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The activist manages to download encrypted backups of emails. Believing that there might be ‘smoking gun’ evidence in the emails that executives knew about the testing, but lacking the resources to decrypt and then examine all the emails, the activist releases all the data in an attempt to ‘crowd source’ an examination of the data.

I’d still lean to this being somewhat unethical action by the activist, but it would really rest on how reasonable their belief was that the company was knowingly engaged in unethical human experimentation.

Scenario 3: A lower level manager believes that the private company they work for is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The manager knows that there are emails that can prove this but doubts that people will believe a single email that anybody could have faked. Instead, they pass on to an activist group a download of encrypted backups of emails. The surrounding emails and the encryption scheme help verify that the emails are really from the company concerned.

I think this is more clearly ethical. The person is acting in the face of clear wrongdoing.


Fixing the Electoral Process

A meandering think-out-loud post.

In the aftermath of an election, it is easy to blame the system. However, the flaws in how the US Presidential system works really are appalling.

Attention is currently focused on the Electoral College. It is an almost indefensible system. Indeed one of the main defences offered simply ignores what actually happens in an election. That particular defence is that without the Electoral College presidential candidates could simply ignore the smaller states and concentrate on the big states. Practically, any system in which the popular vote mattered more would encourage campaigning in more states than currently occurs. The Democrats would benefit from votes in Texas or even Utah and Republicans would benefit from votes from California. As things stand, ‘safe’ states get little attention. Yet the key swing states would stay relevant. States like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or Pennsylvania which saw more campaigning would be important sources of votes in a national vote.

The rights or wrongs of state level representation are an argument worth having when devising a system of government and I can see the benefit in how the US Senate is organised but the Electoral College makes next to no sense.

The only other potential benefit is very much a double-edged sword. Yes, in theory, electors in the college can potentially vote for a different candidate. There are some who are campaigning for this to happen to prevent Trump being elected. Yet, that is a truly drastic measure which would shake people’s faith in the democratic process. It is hard to imagine how somebody could govern as President if they were elected in that way. Worth it to stop Trump? Not my call to make.

The EC can be reformed piecemeal at the State level. States can either choose to split their electoral college votes proportionately or subdivide their electors to districts. Alternatively, States can legislate for their electors to vote for whoever won the popular vote nationally.

However, the problem is deeper than the electoral college. In most Presidential elections the discrepancy between the popular vote proportions and the EC vote proportions are irrelevant. Typically the winner has a majority in both. The discrepancy arises when the election is relatively close and close elections have been rare. [Of course, two of the most notable ones have occurred this century and the EC gave the Republican candidate the Presidency…]

The all-or-nothing aspect of the Presidency is the deeper problem. Even if Clinton was elected on the strength of her popular vote margin, a substantial number of voters would, not unreasonably, feel they had been disenfranchised. Trump and his surrogates have argued that if the election was based on winning the popular vote than they would have campaigned differently and hence may have won the popular vote. That argument is both desperate and not without merit. Change the voting system and people’s voting behaviour will change to some degree also. Trump would have campaigned in California and Clinton would have campaigned in Texas – so we can’t know how the election would have turned out (although I suspect Clinton would have won).

Trump won over a lot of voters despite his obvious flaws. A future Trump-like candidate may well have fewer obvious flaws (or hide them better) and do even better. Reforming the EC won’t fix that even if it is a worthwhile move in itself.

There is also little point thinking about the advantages of a parliamentary system. The level of constitutional change needed to bring that about is too vast to contemplate. The comparison is almost not worth making. The US doesn’t have a parliamentary system and isn’t going to have one anytime soon.

Ideally, the electoral system should force on candidates in a close election a need to compromise and recognise their mutual lack of support. Given that President is a single position there is no capacity for a coalition government. Arguably, the role of Vice-President provides some balance to the presidential candidate but this is often in terms of age or experience.

Yet, the Presidency is a bigger role than one person. The Presidency is also a set of appointees – to the cabinet and other senior positions.

Trump’s proposed appointments have been an interesting bunch. Collectively they are a repudiation of much of his populist rhetoric. Others (e.g. General Petraeus) would have effectively neutralised conservative attacks on Clinton’s email use or Wall Street connections.

It seems odd that people vote without actual knowing who will be occupying these key role. While it is true that voters in a general election in a parliamentary system don’t know who will be ministers in the event of one part being elected, generally people have a better idea given the restricted space of either the existing ministers (if the party in government is re-elected) or the opposition shadow cabinet. [Another plus of the Westminster system is the rulers of the nation are opposed by a body nearly called ‘The Cabinet of Shadows’ ]

What would happen if POTUS candidates had to announce their cabinet before the election?

In many scenarios, I doubt it would make much difference. It might depersonalise the election a little but not by much. It might even help a Trump-like candidate appear more palatable by surrounding themselves with less scary, more level-headed people. Would Trump have done that though? Yes – maybe, Trump is now finding some people who are less intent on chewing the scenery but would many of them signed up before the election? Trump’s choice of surrogates during the election suggests that he would have struggled to surround himself with more moderate picks. Consequently, he may have had to pick electoral liabilities (e.g. Chris Christie) and/or people that would have undermined either his own image or his own arguments against Clinton.

Would this require a change in the constitution? I’ve no idea but I assume if a single state made it a requirement of appearing on the ballot that the candidate had to nominate a cabinet as well, that might do the trick.

Margins of error

I suspect most people who read this blog know all this already but I’ve met the same misunderstanding at work recently and also in the context of the opinion polls around the POTUS election. So here is a simplified explanation.

Imagine I have a great big jar of jelly beans, which are the favoured confectionary of probability explanations. There are exactly 500 red jelly beans and 500 blue jelly beans and nothing else – no Jill Stien jelly beans or exotic Even McMulberry flavours. A jelly bean pollster doesn’t know this, though. The pollster wants to estimate the proportion of red and blue jelly beans in the jar BUT is only allowed to look at some of the jelly beans.

The pollster grabs a handful of jelly beans from the jar and looks at the relative proportion of jelly beans. Naturally, I don’t want the pollster to do this very often because they’ll put their germ-ridden hands all over my beautiful jelly beans. So pollster only has this handful to look at. They have to make a key assumption – that the jelly beans were well mixed so that their handful is a random pick of jelly beans in the jar.

The pollster looks at the proportion of red to blue jelly beans. Let’s say they have 5 red and 8 blue jelly beans. The pollster says that the proportion of red to blue is 38% to 62% BUT they also report a margin of error that is quite large. They can’t be sure this figure is right because they know they may have been unlucky. With only 13 jelly beans in their handful, it isn’t wholly impossible that they could pick out nothing but blue jelly beans if the true proportion was 50-50. Now note if they did pick out nothing but blue, this could happen by chance.

Margins of error address only this aspect of errors in polling – that the proportion in the sample was to some extent an ‘unlucky’ pick. Both the reported figure and the margin of error BOTH assume that the picking was done correctly. In our jelly bean example the assumption that the beans were well mixed together.

Now it so happens that I didn’t mix the jelly beans well (although the pollster can’t tell)*. There are actually MORE red towards the top and fewer red towards the bottom of the jar. So the pollster’s assumption was wrong. A clever pollster might try to find ways to deal with this methodologically (e.g. by grabbing beans from both the top and the bottom) but the principle still applies: the reported estimate and the margin of error assume that the sampling methodology was valid. The margin of error doesn’t (and can’t) account for the probability of what in common parlance would be called an ‘error’ (i.e. a mistake).


I was considering doing a round-up of various reactions to the Trump election from the puppy-sphere but one in particular out-did itself in terms of an utter lack of self awareness.

Here is Brad Torgersen (you guessed it would be Brad didn’t you?) thinking about the children: https://www.facebook.com/brad.torgersen/posts/1635053296520897?pnref=story

And now I am reading all these stories from parents, supposedly screaming about how their children are living in Trump Terror, and I just shake my head—dummies, your kids are having a cow because *you* are having a cow.

And if you are thinking “but wait…didn’t Brad freak out after the 2015 Hugo Awards?” then you would be right: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/nothing-more-need-be-said/

So lets be clear:

  • A corrupt authoritarian sexual predator becomes most powerful man in the world with a minority of the vote and starts surrounding himself with white supremacist sympathisers? Brad’s advice: calm down and respect the vote and don’t let the kids get upset.
  • A shonky plan to rig a science fiction award (with the bonus help of a very similar group of white supremacist sympathisers) loses big time in a vote? Brad’s advice: FREAK THE FUCK OUT PEOPLE!!!! VOTERS ARE ABUSERS, CHILDREN ARE UPSET!!!


Anatomy of Fake News

As far as I know the story I’m linking to below is true and genuine. It has distressing elements to it as it concerns a murder-suicide in 2011.


The relevance of that story to this post comes several years later. Specifically in November 2016 in the closing days of the US Presidential Election.

A website claiming to be the ‘Denver Guardian’ carried a news story that an FBI agent was dead in an apparent murder-suicide. The story gained extra attention because it claimed that the dead agent was involved in the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email account. http://www.snopes.com/fbi-agent-murder-suicide/

Of course none of this was true. However, this wasn’t a parody story or even a wacky conspiracy theory blog but rather a website that had been carefully tailored to look like a genuine newspaper website (at least superficially) and the story carried journalistic details such as:

Brown is believed to have started the gasoline-fueled fire but spared the life of his beloved beagle, Dixie. “Prior to the fire, he dropped off the dog at a neighbor’s house,” Frederick said. “He put the dog in a neighbor’s backyard.”

A neighbor told WHAG that Brown appeared “panicked” though it is unclear whether his wife was dead before or after the dog was removed from their home.

In reality we have another case of the ghoulish introduction of the dead into an election. These details were lifted from the story I quoted earlier. Here is the comparable section from the genuine 2011 story.

“Prior to the fire, he brought the animals to neighbors,” Grassi said. “He put his dog in a neighbor’s yard and took her dogs to another neighbor.”

Those neighbors reported that Hockenberry appeared to be “in panic mode,” though it is unclear whether his wife was dead before or after the dogs were removed from their home.

The ‘Denver Guardian’ site still exists but the link to the fake story is dead. A web archive version remains: http://web.archive.org/web/20161105221744/http://denverguardian.com/2016/11/05/fbi-agent-suspected-hillary-email-leaks-found-dead-apparent-murder-suicide/

The aim of this fake news story is not necessarily political. The page carries Google ad-sense adverts and at the bottom of the page are the classic click-bait promoted stories. Both of these elements drive money towards whoever owns the site. Creating a salacious and extraordinary story encourages people to share it – driving more traffic and more advertising revenue.

While parody news has been mistaken for real news, fake news of the kind described above is something else. It is intentional and it is driven by perverse incentives created by Facebook and Google. If there is a political bias to it, then that bias may be due to partisan creating fake stories but I suspect it is more likely con-artists simply looking for the most fertile ground.

As things stand both Google and Facebook are really only beginning to think about taking this issue seriously.