President Trump as a Global Catastrophic Risk
A Global Catastrophic Risk (GCR) is one that kills 10% of the global population or causes similar damage. Previous events at this scale include the Black Death and some very large wars. These events are very unlikely to happen, but since they would be so catastrophic it is sensible to try and reduce the risk of them happening.
Because of his character, his stated policies, and uncertainty about what he will do as President, Trump likely increases the risk of a global catastrophe. He likely increases two general risks, or drivers of risk: increased international tension and a rise of authoritarianism. He also likely increases four specific risks: climate change, nuclear war, pandemics and risks from emerging technologies.
There are several possible strategies for reducing these risks, such as lobbying Trump or Republicans, campaigning against him and other authoritarians, and continuing existing risk reduction strategies. I’ll examine some positives and negatives of these different approaches. However whatever we do, we’re likely facing at least four years of increased risk.
(Note that I won’t discuss most domestic policies or risks. For example Trump has committed to repeal Obamacare and deport millions of illegal immigrants. Such policies would result in hardship for millions of Americans, but do not seem to pose a risk at a GCR scale.)
- General risks
- Increased instability
- Specific risks
- Nuclear war
- Climate Change
- Emerging technologies
- Possible pressure points
- What can someone do?
- Support risk reduction organisations lobby the Trump Administration
- Support moderate Republicans
- Support the Democrats
- Support US civil society organisations
- Support anti-authoritarians in other Western countries
- Support non-political risk reduction strategies
The increase in risk stems from his character, his stated policies, and uncertainty about his actions.
Donald Trump seems to have a worrying character. He seems temperamental, volatile and unpredictable. He also seems thin-skinned and to have a big ego. He seems to have a short attention span and little willingness to pay attention. He has clear authoritarian tendencies. He has a past of somewhat shady business dealings and political donations - he is currently on trial for fraud. He has also been accused of sexual assault and of racial discrimination.
What is more, he is 70 years old. It seems unlikely that his character will change dramatically in office. Indeed many people who have worked in the White House say the opposite, that the Presidency ‘doesn’t change your character, it reveals it’. A great deal of pressure, urgent deadlines and little sleep are likely to bring out the negative sides of his personality, not the positive sides.
On the other hand, some Republicans have praised his listening ability, his pragmatism, and especially his deal-making ability.
Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent he has one, has three main threads: protectionism, isolationism and indifference to authoritarianism. These seem likely to lead to increased international instability, increased international tensions, and decreased international cooperation.
He has also committed to policy proposals in relation to specific risks that seem likely to increase risk. For example he has suggested that climate change is a hoax, that more countries should have nuclear weapons, and that he should be able to use arms of the state to go after domestic political opponents.
On the other hand, he could be rowing back on some of his worrying policy pledges. For example in a phone call with the South Korean President he apparently pledged to uphold the security alliance.
Perhaps worries about Trump’s character and policies are exaggerated. Perhaps the worrying things he said were just campaign rhetoric - a general problem with Trump is whether to take him at his word. He has been a successful businessman, so perhaps he will surround himself with sensible advisors, and prove himself a pragmatic dealmaker. At the extreme, perhaps Republicans or the Constitution will constrain him. After all, even under volatile Presidents we haven’t had nuclear war and the liberal world order has survived.
(Note that this applies to some risks but not others. On climate change, for example, he has been consistent in his views and policies, is supported by Republicans, and is fairly able to change Government policy.)
We don’t know yet which world we’re living in. There is a large range of possible outcomes, and high uncertainty about what outcome we will end up with. In probability terms the distribution curve is quite flat and includes in the tail some very bad outcomes. The likelihood of very bad outcomes is low, but it has significantly increased in plausibility. We don’t know what will happen.
There is a difference between real risk and perceived risk. Two examples. Some nuclear scientists were worried, before the first Manhattan Project test of a nuclear weapon, that the explosion might set off a chain reaction and ignite the entire atmosphere. More analysis was carried out and the risk was deemed low enough to carry out the first test, which did not ignite the atmosphere. Several decades ago we did not have much knowledge about asteroids in our solar system – in particular if there were any which were both large enough to cause us serious damage and on a potential collision course. Thanks to a lot of research, we now know the identity, location and trajectory of most of the biggest asteroids.
In both cases as we found out more about the actual state of the world we were able to update our perceived risk to be closer to the real risk. However before we were able to find out what the real risk was, we had to act on the perceived risk. It could be that the real risk of Trump is low. We will find out more over the course of the next few years. At the moment we have to act on the perceived risk.
There is a live debate about what we should perceive the risk of Trump to be. I believe the best strategy is to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Trump seems likely to increase international tension and decrease international cooperation in a number of ways. These stem from his character, policies, and uncertainty surrounding both of these.
Trump’s character seems likely to lead to increased instability. He seems to have a very zero-sum ‘there can only be one winner’ view of the world, which does not bode well for international cooperation. He also seems likely to be willing to escalate conflicts. He rarely backed down in the face of criticism during the campaign, preferring to attack back. This carries the risk of a cycle of escalation. Trump seems like he could be tempted into an arms race, being quite vain, competitive and volatile. Arms races upset stability and raise tensions. They carry the risk that a mistake by either side is misinterpreted and leads to a catastrophic overreaction.
His policies, and uncertainty around them, seem likely to lead to increased instability. He has questioned whether he would act if a NATO country was attacked, and has said he would walk away from US security alliances in the Middle East and East Asia if allies did not pay more for US security guarantees. Perhaps he will not carry through on these policies, but this a prime example of where the uncertainty itself creates instability.
He could also increase international tension by provoking a trade war. In Gettysburg Trump announced his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” - the “Donald J. Trump Contract with the American Voter” in which he pledged to:
“* FIRST, I will announce my intention to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205
* SECOND, I will announce our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership
* THIRD, I will direct my Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator
* FOURTH, I will direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately”
Trump has also said he will apply tariffs of between 5-45% on Chinese goods, and label them as a currency manipulator. This risks a trade war between the two largest economies in the world. Trade wars significantly increase international tension, decrease willingness to cooperate, and are unstable – no side is quite sure what the other(s) will do.
The post-war liberal order has kept us safe. The liberal global order set up by the West following the end of WWII rests on three pillars: trade, security alliances and liberal democratic values – all backed up by American military power. Trump’s foreign policy has three main threads: protectionism, isolationism and indifference to authoritarianism. That is to say, it seems like Trump is less committed to the three pillars of the liberal world order than perhaps any postwar President. The world has been unusually stable and peaceful since WWII, the mechanisms of this are poorly understood, we have essentially no experience with a President like Trump.
A stable, predictable President with clear policies means a global hegemon that acts in fairly predictable ways and that can be trusted to enforce commitments it and others have made. Other countries and non-state actors can therefore make plans and commitments with a degree of confidence.
When this is not the case, actors are less able to do so. They are less willing to make commitments. If the deal is with the US, they might be unsure whether the US will uphold their end. If the deal is with another actor, they can be less sure that the US will put pressure on that actor to hold up their end. They are less able to make plans for the future. In that situation, countries often tend to seek to defend themselves, pulling back from making commitments and becoming more wary of other countries.
Instability, increased international tension and decreased cooperation are major drivers of global security risks. Reducing the risk of climate change, nuclear weapons, pandemics and emerging technologies requires stability and international cooperation. Increased tensions raise the risk of nuclear war and arms races in emerging technologies.
Counterargument – Trump the Dealmaker
The counterargument is that Trump is a dealmaker, and when he is President there will be lower international tensions with other countries, especially Russia and China.
In this assessment, Trump’s indifference to authoritarianism and isolationism actually reduce the risk of conflict. Rather than aggravating them by trying to make them conform to norms of human rights and non-aggression, he will allow Russia and China regional spheres of influence, and be able to strike hard-nosed realist deals without worrying about human rights. This would reduce tensions with the US’ two primary rivals. It might also prove helpful for specific risks, for example pandemics: Trump might be more willing to allow China to carry out unethical medical tests and quarantining. Trump seems to have some sort of personal relationship with Putin. He certainly expresses a great deal of admiration for him and has talked about the possibility of a reset of US-Russia relations. This might reduce the risk of nuclear war between the main nuclear powers as Trump trusts Putin and is willing to collaborate with him.
I do not find this counter-argument persuasive. I think it does not outweigh the negative factors, and it is based on a flawed assessment of the effect of US hegemony, Trump’s character, and the reaction of Russia and China. As I’ll argue further in the next section, US hegemony has benefited global security. Isolationism and abandoning the US’ moral standing as leader of the free world will be harmful. If Trump’s business history is about making deals, it is also about breaking deals or seeking revenge. Appeasing expansionist dictatorships with territorial concessions doesn’t work - it emboldens them and makes everyone else in the system more likely to defect.
Rise of authoritarianism
Authoritarians in democratic and authoritarian countries have been encouraged by Trump’s election – and there is a small risk he will subvert US democracy.
Take authoritarians in democracies first. European authoritarians have been emboldened by Trump’s victory. Marine le Pen – the far-right leader of the French Front National – has a reasonable chance of becoming the French President in Spring 2017. French Presidential elections have a run-off system in which the two top performers of the first round go through to a second run-off round. Most polls predict she will get through to the second round. Le Pen’s father got through to the second round in 2002, but only won 18%. Trump and Brexit recently gained around 50% of the vote in the US (47%) and the UK (52%) – it is plausible that there is a similar result in France. Le Pen wants France to leave the EU, the euro and NATO. Were that to happen I doubt whether the euro or EU would survive in anything like its current form, and NATO would be put further at risk.
Authoritarians in authoritarian countries – especially China and Russia – are reportedly celebrating his win. His election may have made democracy look less tempting to their subjects. If a man who has said such offensive things and who does not seem qualified to lead is put in charge by such a system, people might think it’s better to stick with the authoritarian system. The ideological claim that China especially makes is that strong, far-sighted authoritarian government is less risky and provides better for its subjects. They are using this election to try to support that claim. If democracy is less tempting, this reduces the risk of pro-democracy protests and movements in their countries and their client countries – the main threat to these authoritarians’ power.
There are three reasons the spread of authoritarianism in democracies and its endurance in authoritarian countries is harmful.
First, the spread of mini-Trumps across the West would multiply his risks. This is especially true of the nuclear power France. With every new authoritarian leader or referendum result, the risks of instability, tension and non-cooperation rise. If the EU falls, for example, the European countries will be poorer, more distracted and less able to cooperate to face shared global catastrophic threats.
Second, authoritarian countries are dangerous. If they are able to endure, or if developing countries decide to go down an authoritarian route, that increases risk. Democratic countries rarely, if ever, go to war with one another - even extreme tensions rarely threaten their extensive cooperation. The same cannot be said for authoritarian countries. They are less able to cooperate as they are less willing to pool power and less able to verify continued cooperation. Kleptocracy - the endemic corruption in authoritarian countries - mean that decisions are often made for whoever pays the most, not what is best for the country. Their suppression of free speech of their subjects and the media, and their lack of transparency, means they less able to prevent and react to risks. Think of China’s extensive environmental and health problems - especially its secretive and incompetent reaction to SARS. Amartya Sen argues that democracies don’t experience famines - compare that to the tens of millions of dead Russians and Chinese. People in authoritarian countries are also less dynamic and innovative, meaning they are less able to develop new solutions to problems.
Third, social progress is important. One of the reasons to prevent global catastrophes, aside from saving lives, is to ensure that the future is better than the past. Under the liberal global order the world has had unusually positive scientific, technological, and social progress since WWII. Improvements include the spread of democracy; the rise of tolerance for religious, ideological, and philosophical diversity; the civil rights movement; the rise of women’s equality and feminism; the increase in per capita incomes; and the lowest levels of per capita violence in human history. We should want these trends to continue. We should want the world to move in an anti-authoritarian direction not just because it is safer, but because that is a better future.
Risk of US democracy being undermined
There is some small risk that Trump takes the US down an authoritarian, anti-democratic route. He seems to have little regard for constitutional restraints, for example for the press’ First Amendment rights. His first appointments include Stephen Bannon, a white nationalist. In office, signs of him actually trying to subvert democracy could be attempting to extend his term limits, or undermine free and fair elections. Were he to set himself up as some sort of Putin or Xi it would be very bad for the world. Not only would it be a huge victory for authoritarianism, it would expose the world to more years under the risk of President Trump.
However I doubt whether Trump would even want to set some sort of dictatorship. If he were to try, he would likely face strong opposition from Republicans, the states and the courts. There is even the possibility that militias would oppose him or the military would depose him. The US has been a democracy for a long time, has strong institutions, political culture, and civil society. US democracy has survived Civil War and the Great Depression; it survived McCartney and Nixon. Nevertheless there is some small risk of this happening.
President Trump is likely to increase four specific risks.
Trump has called global warming a Chinese hoax. His EPA transition team will be led by Myron Ebell, who does not believe in man-made climate change. Trump has said he wants to scrap the regulations that President Obama put in place to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Clean Power Plan.
It seems pretty clear that Trump will attempt to overturn Obama’s climate legacy. Some policies can be opposed by Senate Democrats and the courts. However Trump cannot be prevented from carrying out his most important climate policy: pulling the United States out of the Paris climate deal. Reacting to Trump’s election, China, the EU and Japan all reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. However none of them are offering extra cuts in greenhouse gas emissions nor additional money for poor countries to tackle climate change. A US could either slow momentum towards preventing climate change, or indeed the entire deal could collapse.
This could be very bad. It could be compensated for by other developments, such as technological improvements. Or if it is only a temporary break of four years, we might be able to make up for missed time. But it raises the risk of dramatically slowing momentum at a crucial time.
Climate change of four degrees is likely to be a major driver of insecurity, potentially leading to mass starvation, mass refugee flows, increased chance of pandemics, increased instability and more wars as countries compete over scarce resources. Catastrophic climate change of above 6 degrees could be even worse - perhaps even threatening extinction.
There are three risks associated with nuclear weapons.
First is simply that Trump uses nuclear weapons – either in a Cuban Missile Crisis situation or in a ‘limited’ way.
We know that there have been many, many close calls since the dawn of the nuclear age. We should expect those close calls to continue. In the US nuclear command and control system(s) there are no formal and very little practical restraints on the President. This is why it was so worrying that Nixon (and indeed Yeltsin) were frequently drunk. So much depends on character. Trump seems to have a short-tempered, thin-skinned, unpredictable character. Nixon pretended to be irrational and volatile as part of his ‘Madman theory’. Trump seems to be a real version of this.
The most worrying situation is a Cuban Missile-style crisis with Russia. I’ve discussed Trump’s possible relations with Putin, but for now all we need to do is accept that such a stand-off could happen. Close observers to the Cuban Missile Crisis (such as Bobby Kennedy) have praised JFK’s empathy, restraint, desire for the Russians to save face, calmness and far-sightedness. That doesn’t sound like Donald Trump.
Trump has repeatedly flirted with using nuclear weapons in a limited way - for example against Daesh in Syria. The problem with this is that each time they are used there is some risk of escalation. Also, there is currently a strong norm against using nuclear weapons. Were Trump to break that norm, other countries and future Presidents might feel more comfortable using nuclear weapons. And each time they do, there is the risk of escalation.
It is unclear what Trump’s stated policy is on nuclear weapon use. He has repeatedly said he would not rule out using nuclear weapons, and yet he has also made several statements expressing a kind of revulsion towards nuclear weapons like the following:
“An absolute last step. I think it’s the biggest, I personally think it’s the biggest problem the world has, nuclear capability. I think it’s the single biggest problem. [...] Single biggest problem that the world has. Power of weaponry today is beyond anything ever thought of, or even, you know, it’s unthinkable, the power. You look at Hiroshima and you can multiply that times many, many times, is what you have today. And to me, it’s the single biggest, it’s the single biggest problem.”
Or from Playboy, 1990:
“What would be some of President Trump’s longer-term views of the future?
I think of the future, but I refuse to paint it. Anything can happen. But I often think of nuclear war.
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
Does any of that fuzzy thinking exist around the Trump office?
On a much lower level, I would never hire anybody who thinks that way, because he has absolutely no common sense. He’s living in a world of make-believe. It’s like thinking the Titantic can’t sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they’re all pointed, what button it takes to launch them. The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today’s. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they’re going to go in the right direction. They’ve never really been tested. These jerks in charge don’t know how to paint a wall, and we’re relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don’t go there? What happens if our computer systems aren’t working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I’ve seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don’t work. It’s a total mess.”
In his statements, Trump seems to believe that he should preserve an ambiguity over whether he would use nuclear weapons: “The last person that wants to play the nuclear card believe me is me. But you can never take cards off the table either from a moral stand — from any standpoint and certainly from a negotiating standpoint.” This could be interpreted as a standard policy. For example the new British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked: “Is she personally prepared to authorise a nuclear strike?” and responded: “Yes. And I have to say the whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it.” Trump’s willingness to consider limited use of nuclear weapons is dangerous, but not unprecedented - some US military officers urged the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
I would not place much weight on his statements either for or against nuclear weapon use. We can’t read Trump’s mind. I base my assessment of increased risk on his character, rather than on his policy statements.
Second, Trump could fail to continue the path of previous Presidents in reducing stockpiles. Every President since Nixon has cut the number of nuclear warheads the US possesses. There is no guarantee this would continue under Trump. He has said “we have nuclear arsenals which are in very terrible shape”, and Republicans seem to agree with him on this.
Third, Trump has expressed views that would lead to nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation likely increases the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, but more importantly increases the number of nuclear actors. Each actor has some chance of using nuclear weapons on purpose or by accident. Increasing the number of actors increases overall risk.
Trump has talked repeatedly of scrapping the deal with Iran. Let us say he does that. If he doesn’t sign a new deal, Iran is likely to return to their attempt to construct a nuclear weapon. This could potentially be stopped by a US military strike (possibly nuclear in nature). This might not work, or it might work only temporarily. Either way it will dramatically increase international tension. Alternatively if Iran becomes a nuclear power, Middle Eastern countries will be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons, especially if they do not feel they can rely on US protection. Trump has made statements that have been interpreted as encouraging Saudi Arabia to do so. They may already feel that they cannot rely on Trump, given Trump’s expressions of scepticism towards US defence alliances in the Middle East.
Nuclear proliferation is also possible in East Asia. Trump has expressed scepticism towards US defence alliances in East Asia. If East Asian countries don’t feel they can rely on US nuclear protection against China or North Korea, they will be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons – though it must be said they are very unkeen on this at present. Trump has made statements that have been interpreted as encouraging Japan and South Korea to do so.
He is attempting to renegotiate US security alliances to get allies to contribute more, which is not a ridiculous position. Obama has often said NATO allies should spend more on defence, and in 2014 South Korea increased the amount it contributed to the cost of stationing US troops. However the very aggressive strategy Trump is taking - stating he would be willing to cancel security alliances - raises doubts about whether he would actually follow through. This raises the risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and East Asia.
Trump expressed similar scepticism towards NATO. Rather than leading to proliferation, the worry here is of instability as European countries look to the UK and France for protection, and Russia contemplates a Ukrainian-style invasion of the Baltics. Such instability raises the risk of nuclear use by some combination of the US, UK, France and Russia. The global nuclear ‘Mexican standoff’ of Mutually Assured Destruction relies on stability and credibility. Most changes to the status quo are bad, simply because they increase uncertainty.
Trump sometimes expresses a kind of indifference to, or belief in the inevitability of, nuclear proliferation:
“Can I be honest with you? It's going to happen, anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them. Now, wouldn't you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
On the 13th November Trump tweeted “The @nytimes states today that DJT believes "more countries should acquire nuclear weapons." How dishonest are they. I never said this!” It could be that Trump is reversing his positions. Or it could be that his statements have been misinterpreted. It doesn’t really matter - the uncertainty itself is damaging. The chance of nuclear proliferation increases if countries doubt whether they can rely on protection and when they feel the President will not try to prevent proliferation. The risk of nuclear proliferation has increased because of specific policies like scrapping the Iran Deal, and his general lack of concern about proliferation and US security alliances.
A pandemic, whether natural or man-made, would be catastrophic. There are three main reasons the risk is likely to increase under President Trump.
First as argued above there is likely to be less international cooperation. Monitoring and preparing for pandemics relies on extensive international coordination and trust. Trump seems less willing than other Presidents to participate meaningfully in cooperative systems like the World Health Organisation. Additionally, the US is likely to give less international aid. This would mean less help to build up developing world health systems and developing world disease monitoring systems.
Second Trump is seemingly inconsistent, volatile, and does not respect scientific conclusions. He reacted poorly to the Ebola outbreak – exaggerating fears and proposing populist solutions. He seems to not respect science, as is also shown by his climate change position. He might, for example, react to reports of an emerging disease in ways that raised the risk of global catastrophe, for example by mandating that most vaccines produced for the disease be kept in the US, rather than used to prevent the early spread.
Third is the risk of man-made pandemic. There is a strong international norm against using biological weapons, and developing them is also frowned upon. Indeed the use of biological weapons is illegal under international law due to the Biological Weapons Convention. Trump may be less interested in continued cooperation under the Convention - he may be even less interested in cooperating with other nations to combat bioterrorism.
I also think Trump would be less hesitant to use or develop biological weapons. Were he to start developing them – let alone use them – it would strongly undermine norms against them. It also might risk an arms race with other countries as each sought to develop their biological weapons. This increases the chance that a manmade pandemic more dangerous than a natural one is developed. It then may then be released on purpose, by terrorists or by accident. Possibly Trump could be restrained by the military, Republicans or the courts. Nevertheless were he even to consider it openly that would harm the norm.
Many GCR academics think that the greatest risks will stem from technologies that are yet to be developed, or are being developed. Examples include advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
Developing these technologies in ways that are safe and beneficial – responsible innovation – is likely to require extensive cooperation and goodwill between researchers, companies and countries. If cooperation decreases and tension (and the risk of arms races) increases then we will manage the emergence of these technologies worse than we would have otherwise.
Obama seems to value science more than Trump, and seems more aware of possible risks. For instance, he gave an extensive interview on artificial intelligence and released a report on ensuring its safe and beneficial development.
Where are possible pressure points?
Trump will become President in January 2017, and if he does not die or get impeached, will remain so until at least January 2021. John F. Kennedy died in 1963 before he was able to complete his first term. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before he was impeached. Trump is 70 and has not been transparent about his health. He also has the potential to be impeached. For example he wants to involve his children in his business and his Administration in a way that poses conflicts of interest. However the 93rd United States Congress that would have impeached Nixon was Democratic – the current Republican Congress is less likely to seek to impeach their own Party’s President. I think it more likely than not that he will last four years.
So there will be at least four years of increased risk. Trump may not stand again in 2020, or the Republicans may nominate another candidate. Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t stand for a second (full) term as President in 1968. Ronald Reagan challenged the sitting President Gerald Ford in 1976, and almost won. Both were in that situation because the sitting President was unpopular and their Party was divided. Pressure could be perhaps be put on the Republicans. However I think it is more likely than not that he will be the Republican nominee in 2020.
A full eight years of risk can be prevented by ensuring Trump is not re-elected. Both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were both defeated when they tried to win a second term. Indeed 70 percent of those who have served as president since 1825 (26 of 37) failed to win two consecutive terms. However the last three Presidents in a row - Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton - all served two terms. Preventing his re-election will be a key goal.
We are set for at least four and perhaps eight years of increased risk under Trump. Reducing that risk is another key goal. However this might only be the start. The US system has proved itself vulnerable to being taken over by a man with a dangerous character and policies. Other candidates might consciously model themselves after Trump - we might be looking at another Trump in a few years.
What can be done?
What can an ordinary person do? In general, they can donate their money or volunteer their time to organisations doing useful work. People who are not US citizens or who do not live in the US face legal restrictions on donations, and practical restrictions on volunteering. They can still do so, but it may be less effective. I’ll use the word ‘help’ as a shorthand for ‘donate money and/or volunteer time’ when discussing possible options.
A strategic way to assess whether to donate time and money to an organisation is ask what problem it is working on, what possible interventions there are, and who else is working on it. One can then assess how important the cause it is working on is, how tractable work on it is, and how crowded it is, to have a sense of the cost-effectiveness of your help on the margin. GiveWell defines them in the following way:
- “Importance: how much humanitarian benefit would a small, medium, or large “victory” – in the sense of impacting a change in policy (or defending the status quo when a change would have been negative) – bring about?
- Tractability: what do the prospects seem to be for achieving a victory over the short or long term? Is the status quo too politically entrenched to overcome?
- Crowdedness (analogous to room for more funding): how much of the existing advocacy infrastructure is pushing for goals similar to ours? Are there gaps in this infrastructure that we might fill?”
The assessment of pressure points suggests several different strands of strategies. One could help risk reduction organisations lobby the Trump Administration. Within the US, one could help moderate Republicans, help the Democrats or help civil society organisations. Instead of campaigning against the authoritarian in the White House, one could campaign against authoritarians in other Western countries. Finally there are several non-political risk reduction strategies which one could help.
Helping risk reduction organisations lobby the Trump Administration
There are several organisations doing good work to reduce risk. For example Global Zero, the Pugwash Conference, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Ploughshares Fund all do direct work lobbying to reduce nuclear risk. I would be surprised if they weren’t getting ready to lobby the new Administration. Some of the policies they’ll lobby for will be the same risk reduction policies they lobby every President about - reduce the number of warheads, take the weapons off hair-trigger, prevent non-proliferation. However these messages are likely to be communicated with rather more urgency this time. There are other possible changes too. Some nuclear risk reductionists will be dreaming of a grand bargain with Putin, based on the same camaraderie as Reagan and Gorbachev shared.
The Trump Administration is persuadable. It will be staffed by hundreds of people who will not share Trump’s character or all of his policies. Even with Trump himself, there is uncertainty about whether some of his more worrying positions were campaign rhetoric, ill-thought-through, or changeable in response to persuasion. Many people who have interacted with him say he’s influenced mostly by the last person to talk to him.
So one could help organisations lobbying the Trump Administration. One could even consider applying for a job in the Trump Administration directly. At the moment, it looks like he has quite bad advisors - one could try and improve that.
Compared to under Obama, the work of these organisations has likely become more important, as the risk has increased, but less tractable, as Trump’s team seems somewhat closed to outside sources. However much of the risk Trump poses is down to elements of his character and policy platform that seem quite difficult to change, which limits the importance of this strategy.
Helping moderate Republicans
One could help moderate Republicans to restrain Trump. This is an important strategy, but it is unclear how tractable or crowded it is.
Whether out of incompetence or political calculation, Republican elites have not been good at opposing Trump, even during the primaries. They may be even weaker now he is President, with Presidential authority and the ability to pass the Party’s ideological agenda. This is especially true because we live in an age of high party loyalty in Congress. Besides, most congressional Republicans seem to agree with Trump on some of his dangerous views, such as inaction on climate change, renewing the US nuclear arsenal and reducing aid.
However most of them seem to disagree with him on other topics, such as his indifference to authoritarianism, his undermining of world trade and US security alliances and his flippancy about using nuclear weapons. There will also be areas where a few Congresspeople might split from their party because they either agree with reducing the risk, or can be pressured into doing so. This strategy is about helping on those issues.
The Senate is split 51-48 Republican-Democrat (the last seat will be decided in a run-off election in December). This is unlikely to improve greatly in 2018 when 23 Democrat seats and only 8 Republican seats are up for election. Winning over three Senators (as in a 50-50 split the Vice-President has the deciding vote) doesn’t sound too hard, but party loyalty is strong.
Party loyalty is even stronger in the House. All House seats are up for election in 2018 but many seats have been so gerrymandered that they are ‘safe’ – unlikely to change Party. This means that the main threat to those Representatives isn’t re-election, it’s re-selection. This has put pressure on Republican Representatives to tack to the right to prevent strong primary challenges like the Tea Party candidate that unseated Eric Cantor, the second most powerful House Republican. Trump is likely to be able to use his popularity amongst the grassroots as a tool to enforce party discipline. However some Representatives will be willing to defy their party out of principle or fear of losing their seat to a Democrat.
One could help organisations lobbying congressional Republicans on a variety of issues. For example, Senators have the power to approve Presidential appointments including Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, and ambassadors.Trump has appointed two major internal figures so far, neither requiring Senate approval. The first is Reince Preibus, a party official, as Chief of Staff. The second is the far more worrying Stephen Bannon, a white nationalist propagandist, as chief strategist. We want more Preibuses and fewer Bannons. Especially important to international stability would be ensuring a good Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence.
Senators are likely to be especially important as there aren’t that many, they’re traditionally more independent-minded, and they have power over approving appointments and treaties.
Beyond lobbying, one could get involved in Republican primaries – both Presidential and down-ballot. For example in their primary one could vote for, campaign for or donate money to a moderate Representative - especially one that had defied Trump or the Republican leadership. One could also work for the Republican Party or a moderate congressional Republican, to attempt to influence them. Over the longer-term, one could even run for political office as a Republican. These latter two options might also prevent the rise of another Trump in the future.
Helping the Democrats
If Trump is to be defeated then the Democrats have to win the next Presidential election in 2020. Before that, the next Congressional elections are in 2018, and there is some chance that the Democrats could win the House or Senate, which would help restrain Trump. However there is also some chance that the Democrats could sink to 40 Senate seats or below, meaning they would be unable to filibuster, enabling the Republicans and Trump even more. Helping the Democrats do well in 2018, to restrain Trump, and 2020, to get rid of him, seems important as a problem to work on - but it also seems somewhat intractable and crowded.
One could work also for the Democrats directly. Over the longer-term, one could even run for political office as a Democrat.
Or one could donate to the Democrats. Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, and his wife Cari Tuna donated $35m to political organisations in the 2016 election. Their ‘Good Ventures’ foundation (which runs the Open Philanthropy Project in collaboration with the charity evaluator GiveWell) is considered a world leader in evaluating philanthropic causes and organisations. They’ve done research on their options and would only donate if they thought it would help. So one option is to just give to the organisations to which they gave.
They committed $20M to a number of organizations, including:
- the Hillary Victory Fund, the DSCC, and the DCCC
- the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) Victory Fund
- For Our Future PAC
- MoveOn.org Political Action
- Color Of Change PAC
- several nonpartisan voter registration and GOTV efforts.
The largest contributions were $5M to each of the LCV Victory Fund and For Our Future PAC. They later pledged up to $8 million to political advocacy organizations (with the largest single contribution of $5M going to Priorities USA) and up to $7 million to nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.
However there may be reason for scepticism about donating to the candidate’s campaign or supportive PACs. Between Hillary for America, her campaign’s main arm, and outside groups like Super PACs, Clinton raised $687 million - $380 million more than Trump according to OpenSecrets.org. Trump had half the money Clinton had but still won. This suggests an additional a donation of, say, ten thousand dollars would not have had much impact on the result. Because Clinton’s fundraising total was so large, it also suggests that it is a very crowded cause, and that a marginal ten thousand dollar donation might not have much impact.
One could volunteer one's time instead of donating money, but similar arguments might apply as Clinton was said to have a better ‘ground game’ and more volunteers.
Perhaps more targeted help might be more effective. However the best place to target will depend on why exactly you think Clinton lost. For example if you think the Democrats need a stronger candidate you could concentrate on the primary stage (or even before) to attempt to select the nominee with the greatest chance of winning against Trump. If you think voter suppression played a crucial role you could concentrate on protecting voting rights. If you think that big technology firms like Google and Facebook skewed people’s perceptions in a similar way to the media, you could concentrate on lobbying them to remove conspiracy theories and false news sites.
As academics are able to study the campaign more, a clearer sense will emerge of what went wrong and where targeted help may be useful. It is likely to be particularly helpful study ‘natural experiments’ where similar communities ended up differing in one important regard. For example if similar Mid-Western counties differed in voter contact and not much else, but had a big difference in vote share, this would give some evidence that voter contact was key.
Helping civil society organisations
One could help civil society organisations working on institutions to safeguard open discourse, civil rights, human rights, labor rights, and ballot access. People could help unions like the AFL-CIO, or civil-rights organisations like the ACLU. Philanthropists could subsidize investigative journalism or legal defenses for journalists threatened by exorbitant legal action.
This helps restrain Trump by promoting transparency about his actions, possibly blocking or slowing his actions through litigation, and making it less likely he wins in 2020. It may also help the Democrats win and help moderate Republicans restrain Trump.
One could donate to these organisations, volunteer for them, or work for them. This seems not as important as other strategies, but potentially more tractable and less crowded.
Campaigning against authoritarians in other Western countries
In other countries, one could help civil society organisations or parties running against authoritarians – for example donating to or making calls for whoever emerges as le Pen’s main rival. The risk of any major Western country becoming a Putin-style dictatorship seems low, but the rise of Western authoritarians raises risk. The small risk of Trump or other authoritarians becoming a Putin-style dictator is best reduced by helping their opponents, helping civil society groups and helping their opponents in their own party.
Help non-political risk reduction organisations
There are several organisations doing good non-lobbying work reduce risk. Across GCRs as a whole, Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk do important research. (Full disclosure: I used to work at the Global Priorities Project, a project of the Future of Humanity Institute).
Work to reduce the risk of emerging technologies still looks very important. This could be research, such as the technical work on artificial intelligence control and value-alignment at the UC Berkeley Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence. Or it could be more to do with culture such as the security workshops run by iGEM, an international synthetic biology competition for students. Or it could be about improving the talent pipeline such as UPMC Center for Health Security’s Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, a biosecurity leadership development and training program.
Organisations working to reduce international tensions or authoritarianism also remain valuable. Examples include international conferences, student exchanges, and political secondments. The same goes for the monitoring and pandemic preparedness work of the WHO. Given the agreement between Trump and Republicans on climate change denial, work on geoengineering and technological solutions to climate change is arguably more important than before.
Maybe the worries I’ve explored above are overblown. I hope so. Maybe Trump will be more similar to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, both of whom worried many people in the US and overseas. But it looks more likely that Trump’s worrying character and policies really will increase Global Catastrophic Risk. He will make the overall international situation riskier, and be riskier in relation to specific risks. What can we do? Existing risk reduction strategies - research, lobby, develop new technologies - still look like very promising routes. But the particulars of these routes have changed, and alongside them we should also now consider helping political organisations and candidates.
Thanks to Carl Shulman, Rob Wiblin, Uri Bram and Maria Finnerty for comments on the draft of this post.
Haydn Belfield was until recently a Policy Associate at the Global Priorities Project, where he worked on policy research and outreach. The Global Priorities Project is a collaboration between the Centre for Effective Altruism and the Future of Humanity Institute. He is writing in a personal capacity, and his views do not necessarily reflect his employer's.