“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Even after two years, the words of the 45th US president stick in the craw. But he was right.
Despite mocking a disabled journalist, re-tweeting far right extremists, boasting of sexual harassment on tape, and being the subject of a federal investigation about alleged collusion with one of America’s most determined enemies, Trump’s approval rating hangs in the mid 40s.
Trump’s world is one where fake news is real and real news is fake. Where “draining the swamp” means hiring billionaires, bankers, and lobbyists. Where corporate tax cuts help ordinary families and slashing federal healthcare will leave no one worse off.
This is a man who has openly admitted paying hush money to a porn star to prevent her from discussing an alleged affair between them. The scandal is the hush money. No one is remotely bothered about the alleged affair, which is said to have taken place in the same year as the birth of his son.
With Donald J. Trump, we really are living in the upside down.
It’s a world where the conviction of Trump’s former campaign manager had “nothing to do” with the man himself. Where an investigation led by a Republican-appointed Republican former FBI director appointed as special prosecutor by a Republican Attorney–General is a partisan witch hunt (by the Democrats). It’s a world where criticism of the president makes him more popular. Where every attack makes him stronger. Every charge makes him bolder.
Luckily, the English language now has a word for people like Donald Trump: anti-fragile.
What doesn’t kill you (in Fifth Avenue)…
In Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book of the same name, he describes anti-fragility as the property of things that “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” Things that “love adventure, risk, and uncertainty”.
The idea applies directly to art, writing, and of course politics. “Criticism,” he writes, “is a truthful, unfazed badge of attention, signaling that [you are] not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing...”
The president‘s number one skill is getting people to talk about him. Constantly. Passionately. Hysterically. A non-stop frenzy of outrage. A never-ending campaign of shock and awe that starts with a tweet and ripples out via cable news and smartphones across the planet.
In all the anger and fury, one thing is always true: He has an audience. It’s a quality that many desire and few have. Today, no one on earth can summon the attention that he commands with 160 characters.
And for at least part of the population, the attacks volleyed at him reflect as badly on the attackers as they do on @realDonaldTrump. With all that energy directed at Trump, some ask, doesn’t that make him an object of great interest? Someone worthy of consideration and regard?
The rise of the anti-fragile
One of the common lines trotted out after every Trumpocalypse is that a similar scandal would have felled almost any other politician. So how did a mogul like the Donald gain this anti-fragile superpower?
In the mid 2000s, when Facebook and Twitter exploded into our lives, people started wondering what would happen once youthful indiscretions, previously forgotten but now immortalised online, crashed into political careers. Would adolescents with the faintest of political ambitions become neurotically boring? Or would the public become immune to scandal?
The answer is both. Because while young people today take fewer drugs, smoke and drink less, and have less sex, politicians are learning the art of scandal vaccination: get a few minor ones under your belt so you can survive when the big one hits.
Of course, many politicians are still felled by allegations of sexual misconduct, corruption, or racism. Others seem to survive almost anything.
It’s not just Trump. Take Boris Johnson. In 2013, Eddie Mair put three accusations to Boris in a TV interview: That he fabricated a quote in a newspaper article; lied to his party leader about an affair; and gave a friend the address of a journalist so that he could arrange for the journalist to get beaten up. Mair’s exact words bear repeating:
“What does that say about you Boris Johnson? Aren’t you in fact making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted…you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
Boris Johnson was later appointed Foreign Secretary and remains one of Britain’s most popular politicians. He recently wrote in an article that Muslim women using head scarves look like “letterboxes”.
Let’s face it: Anti-fragile politicians are scary. They are immune to attack, which gives them licence to say or do whatever they like.
They are not immune, at least not yet, to the law. And currently the law is the most likely thing that could bring down Trump before his term of office expires. But the risks of a legal challenge are huge. Trump has already started mobilising his base against the FBI, the Attorney-General, and the Special Prosecutor. What might happen if a large chunk of the country turns against the courts?
Because while politicians are becoming more anti-fragile, our democratic system appears to be going the opposite way. When continental plates push past each other, earthquakes result. Another big political earthquake now seems inevitable. When will it strike? How much damage will it cause? Perhaps we all need to figure out how to become anti-fragile. The sooner the better.