Illustration of how it never works to tell people to calm down

As far as I have seen, saying “calm down” is nearly always a waste of breath. ” “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” (nytimes) and associated comments illustrate this principle nicely.

The authors, eggheads from Yale and Oxford, saying “calm down”:

The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a “new Cold War” between democracy and totalitarianism.

History raises serious doubts about how helpful this tyrannophobic focus on catastrophe, fake news and totalitarianism really is in dealing with the rise of the populist right, of which this bumbling hothead of a president is a symptom.

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve.

Reader comments, picked by the NYTimes editors:

Democracy purposefully corrupted in so many different ways put Trump in power.

Seeing the threat that Trump is to democracy is a rational conclusion to rational analytical thought.

Word salad dressed up as coherent thought. Trump IS a threat to our democracy and to dismiss everyone who sees it as being hyperbolic is disingenuous . You can’t ignore how millions of people feel.

No, Trump and his enablers have not yet declared themselves our forever rulers. But they are taking steps to undermine the government and our system of the systems of checks and balances.

Some reader comments, upvoted by other readers:

Democrats are united in wanting a fairer distribution of the economic pie. The Republicans are not. They are the tyranny.

And what of the recent reported survey findings that more than half of self-identified Republicans would support suspension of the 2020 presidential election until the country could fix the mythical voter fraud problem

I would rather err on the side of fighting tyranny now, rather than regretting its implementation later. As an earlier commentator observed – of course, panic and hysteria are bad. But anyone paying attention to the current state of democratic institutions in the USA should be alarmed. Perhaps the authors of this piece have not been paying attention.


  1. Joe Shipman

    September 14, 2017 @ 12:49 pm


    I recommend training in rationality. Most people have no clue whatsoever about the very topic of cognitive biases, and most of the ones who do have no inclination or experience to help them spot their own errors.

    What helped me be less susceptible to this: being a chess master (Emanuel Lasker: on the Chess-board, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long”), being a mathematician (I know when something has and has not been proven and what assumptions were involved; specializing in Logic helped further, but you can’t get your theorem in any area of math published if you can’t actually prove it), being a casino gambler (you have to internalize the idea that you can make the correct decision based on the information available and it may still turn out badly), learning about the work of Tversky and Kahneman as soon as it began to be published and following it, and knowing Richard Feynman personally (reading all his books is almost as effective for developing the skill of not fooling yourself).

    This isn’t about being smart, it’s about being mentally balanced, and it’s quite trainable unless you have ego problems.

  2. Neal

    September 14, 2017 @ 1:11 pm


    I suspect that Trump would love to be a tyrant if someone were to give him the job. However, he clearly doesn’t have the stuff needed to install himself as tyrant even if he wanted to (I’m not making a claim about whether he does or does not want to install himself a tyrant). Therefore, I do see claims of looming tyranny as hysterical. However, Trump says (and to some extent does) many things a tyrant might say to a degree which is unusual in modern political discourse. There is some genuine danger in habituating the public to tyrant speak from the President.

  3. Anonymous

    September 14, 2017 @ 1:35 pm


    Joe Shipman # 1
    Hopefully your unicorn qualtiies is not a necessary pre-condition to be rational in politics and society. But they are clearly sufficient. 🙂

  4. lion

    September 14, 2017 @ 3:41 pm


    Don’t think Americans have gone insane. 50% of them still voted for the guy whose supposedly ruining their lives. They’re all communists, but 50% of them are slightly less communist.

  5. the other Donald

    September 15, 2017 @ 12:16 am


    I watched the long version of Bannon with Charlie Rose. We have reached a time when the least informed and least prepared (or most vulnerable if you think that way) voters are sufficient to elect a minor celebrity over a whole field of political pros. That says a lot about the electorate and politics as a profession.

    With 24/7 step by step and word by word coverage of politicians, lots of people have seen enough hair spray, red ties, and word salad masquerading as public service. So they just voted for the guy who is nothing but hair spray/red tie/word salad and doesn’t pretend to be noble.

    Bannon was OK for the campaign but readily admitted Team MAGA had no idea how to form a government or do legislation. So they just punted that to the GOP who have apparently also forgotten how.

  6. Alan

    September 15, 2017 @ 12:30 am


    This is why “The Onion” had to get Univision’s investment – the New York Times has taken over their business model.

  7. John R. Klein

    September 15, 2017 @ 1:16 am


    Joe Shipman:

    Greetings! We were PhD students together at Brandeis.

    “but you can’t get your theorem in any area of math published if you can’t actually prove it”

    You must know that this is false. The mathematical literature is full of false proofs.


  8. Anonymous

    September 15, 2017 @ 9:45 am


    the Other Donald, with you on minor celebrity, albeit with good logic and understanding of US electorate and electoral system and good advisors. But why do you think that only ‘profesional politicians’ can be elected? This is a myth and the fact that this is a myth makes America great. Of course, the other Other Donal has been around politics and politicains for most of his life and lies just as well, it was visible but he had strength to follow on his observations. He is a businessman, not an academician.

  9. Joe Shipman

    September 15, 2017 @ 2:09 pm


    John, point noted–however the correlation between correctness and publication is still extremely high. I don’t know of a single example, ever, of a mathematician knowing his proof was wrong and still getting it published in a reputable journal by relying on the incompetence of referees.

    Anonymous — that was my point, you don’t have to be a unicorn because these are trainable skills. Here’s a somewhat overly comprehensive text, if you want to get very deeply into it:

  10. the other Donald

    September 15, 2017 @ 2:27 pm


    Anon, I’ll leave Trump be, but re: federal politicians – on the whole, gerrymandering has limited access to the process so much that only donor-selected scrubbed-up political actors (complete with makeup, shaky personal lives, and totally cynical beliefs) make it through the primaries. Even a well-known newcomer like Al Franken (minor celeb, comfortable in makeup and scripting, see a trend here?) although apparently capable, was elected by 300 VOTES after multiple recounts and a donor-funded court challenge by his GOP opponent.

    Not electing the donor-selected pro is a very limited exception.

  11. Anonymous

    September 15, 2017 @ 3:05 pm


    Joe Shipman # 9: I have read Eliezer Yudkovskiy before, will check his take on marrying underlying rationality to rational bahviour. We have lot’s of similarities, including chess and mathematics, but I cheked out of math track first for applied staff and than to code, I want to note that in abstract algebra wrong results were published and regarded as great for decades. I recall clearly as in algebraic proofs I was reviewing 2 x 2 was not equal to 4 but professors played geniuses and fellow students kept it cool, rationality forgotten. Only computer checks revealed errors that were easily seen, 20 years later. I think science needs way more accountability than it has had.

    the Other Donald #10: I recall recently at least 2 US congreesmen, 1 US senator and 1 state senator elected at grass roots, in my area. I have also communicated and discussed issues with many starting politicians in may areas I have lived who seeked to mingle with voters. I am not really politically inclined and do not seek to be near politicians. I think term limits on holding political offices will make my experiences common and fix many ills (and maybe to add new ones?)

  12. John R. Klein

    September 16, 2017 @ 12:38 pm



    “I don’t know of a single example, ever, of a mathematician knowing his proof was wrong and still getting it published in a reputable journal by relying on the incompetence of referees.”

    However, without naming names, I know, for example, mathematicians who got their articles published in the Annals who refuse to admit that their proofs contain huge gaps, the extent to which their “result” (in many cases supposedly resolving a well-known conjecture) is not accepted by the community he/she belongs to. The community keeps this all hush-hush so that mathematicians in other subfields don’t even know that the result is considered to be flawed.

    Btw, the Annals is littered with false proofs.

  13. Jackie

    September 16, 2017 @ 4:21 pm


    “We have reached a time when the least informed and least prepared (or most vulnerable if you think that way) voters are sufficient to elect a minor celebrity over a whole field of political pros. That says a lot about the electorate and politics as a profession.”

    1. What makes you think that Trump voters were “the least informed”?

    2. “Pros” of any type often suffer from herd mentality or echo chamber effect – they all agree with each other, so they are in effect interchangeable. When Marshall and Warren discovered the bacterial cause of stomach ulcers, 100% of gastroenterologists told them that they were wrong. A lot of voters were disappointed with the results that the “pros” were getting – they were like the Drs. who kept telling ulcer sufferers to drink more milk and their ulcers never got any better. Now it may be that Dr. Trump hasn’t really offered the right diagnosis (let alone treatment) either, but it’s not surprising that he beat a bunch of guys all offering the same cure which was time proven NOT to work (the real wages of blue collar workers have not budged in 40 years).

  14. Ivan

    September 16, 2017 @ 7:20 pm


    “blue collar workers[wages] have not budged in 40 years”

    These folks (blue collar workers) I dare say are extremely well informed about their lack opportunities today, hence Trump. What’s truly amazing is that “progressives” are so much divorced from reality, or pretend to be, — they used to be a “working class party” at some point, not any more apparently, after their former electorate had been relegated to the “deplorables” a.k.a “nazies” useless heap.

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