The Butterfly Effect: Trump’s Election, Randomness, and Lessons Learned

Events with momentous consequences don't necessarily have momentous causes - promoted by hesterprynne

Trump’s win was somewhat flukish, taking advantage of a big Electoral College-popular vote split and an opponent who was really disliked and had some bad news hit at the wrong time.

–Nate Silver

At 6:15 AM on November 9, I was surprised to find myself as Jonah Goldberg’s strange bedfellow. In the parking lot of Cumberland Farms, I heard the National Review editor on NPR saying he felt traumatized. That’s how I felt. He was much less upset about the direction our country would take than I was, but like me, he felt that the world had been turned upside down. Democrats had lost the Presidency, Senate, House, and Supreme Court. Almost no one saw this coming. Like many, I thought we were on the cusp of a gradual change to Democratic dominance; instead, an unanticipated explosion of national proportions blew us backwards 20 years and breathed new life into a Republican Party whose imminent death was greatly exaggerated.

The Monday morning quarterbacking began that Wednesday, though much of it was hard to take seriously. After all, almost everyone in the know (including me) turned out to be wrong, and they didn’t have much data to base their thoughts on. The predictions of the direction of Trump’s future presidency were even more ridiculous. The President-Elect had no record of governing. On the campaign trail, he consistently contradicted himself, sometimes in the same sentence, there was nothing to go on. A few weeks later, there is a bit more clarity. Trump has appointed some officials. We have some data about who voted and who didn’t. To understand this election, however, we have a long, long way to go. Having all the right information doesn’t guarantee a sound conclusion.

There’s a temptation to attribute big causes to big effects. It’s a version of salience bias. The outcome of this election was so cataclysmic, we assume that there must have been a huge reason and ignore the fact that the race was so close that the winner actually lost the popular vote. Changing one or two of the innumerable factors in this election could have easily changed the electoral result.

Unremarked upon, in fact, ironically so, is another factor that we tend not to consider: randomness. Sometimes there is no pattern. Sometimes there is no predictability. If we could hold the election 100 times, we’d have a good idea of just how much randomness is involved, but the fact is, the election result, while legitimate, might have been an accident. Millions of people making intentional decisions doesn’t mean the election result was a result of collective intention.

For better or worse, political commitment means trying to learn what we can do to get the votes we need to make our country a better place. Here are my lessons:

Voting is not a particularly rational activity. Voters are not stupid. Some are uninformed, some misinformed, and most do not think deeply or rationally about voting. Encouraged by the mainstream media, people consistently use the irrelevant heuristics for making the best choice for themselves. My favorite example: the large number of my friends who voted for Trump who said “we needed a change.” Unless they were being dishonest with me or themselves, but their thinking was frighteningly shallow. They weren’t saying we needed a change in policy. They weren’t thinking that deeply. Still others said “I just hate Hillary Clinton.” It would be make sense for people to say I don’t trust Hillary Clinton to do what she says she will, but liking her? She’s not coming over for Thanksgiving.

More information is not enough. In spite of mountains of good information available, voters either ignore it or seek out what confirms their bias. The market for confirmation bias is growing to the point that fake news now has a place in our information ecosystem. There have always been websites dedicated to falsehood, mostly on the right. The Left is starting to catch up. (I was almost fooled by a Facebook story that said the Pope endorsed Clinton). The future of politics will include battles of false information. Democrats will have to figure out how to fight these battles.

Political parties lost their grip on the party system. Each party primary was upset or nearly upset by an insurgent. Part of the GOP’s problem was that everyone and his uncle ran for president. By default, attention inevitably focused on Trump who was good for network ratings and knew how played the media attention to the hilt. The GOP establishment tried and failed to control him. Fielding more than a dozen primary candidates was a bad sign of party unity, and one subplot of the campaign season was the death of the Republican Party.

The Democratic primary was no less problematic for the party. Bernie Sanders may caucus with Democrats, but he was not a Democrat. We tend to forget that parties are composed of not just like-minded individuals, but party members. Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party. We have hashed and rehashed the primary before and don’t need to do so again, but it says something about the party establishment that a non-Democrat, though certainly a fellow-traveler, came close to winning the Democratic nomination.

The mainstream media doesn’t care about fairness or truth. Once upon a time, the media could set the agenda and decide what was appropriate. JFK’s affairs and FDR’s polio were hidden from the public because the media saw little benefit in covering them. In 2016, the mainstream media, primarily the televised media, gave Donald Trump hours of free publicity. Media allegiance is to profit, not fairness or truth. The three cable news networks shamelessly covered Trump. As Eric Alterman writes,

In the final days of the campaign, virtually every media organization chased FBI chief James Comey’s nonstory about new Clinton e-mails as if it were the moon landing. Even The New York Times ran three stories above the fold the day after Comey made his phony pro-Trump intervention. Days before the election, The Toronto Star listed and categorized 560 lies that Trump told during the campaign. And yet when polled, Americans judged him to be more trustworthy than Clinton. It would be difficult to imagine a more damning indictment of our political media.

Most people don’t understand the working class. The working class (everyone pictures it as white, by the way) is the soccer mom and the NASCAR dad of 2016, an oversimplified, misunderstood demographic. We talk about the working class as if it were a discrete group of people that can be easily isolated and appealed to. As work changes, however, so does the working class. My niece and nephew are college graduates. They work in a restaurant. Are they working class? Just short of a doctorate, I’m about as educated as you can get. But my aunts and uncles didn’t have college educations. My family income is less than many of the “working class” people in my town. Am I working class? As much as I would like it to be so, I’m not sure “working class” will turn out to a very useful demographic. As one knowledgeable commentator has written,

My gripe with much of the punditry is that they so routinely mistake one part of the white working class for the whole, thereby stereotyping a class of people with whom they have little direct contact or knowledge. I insist on the value of using a union organizer’s approach when discussing the politics of working-class whites. Following Andrew Levison’s three-part breakdown, based on opinion research, one part are unreachable conservatives who can never be won over, but you must work to “neutralize” them in order to reduce their influence on others. Calling them boilerplate names rather than engaging their arguments doesn’t accomplish that, however, and it may actually increase their influence.  Another part consists of solid supporters, and you need to enlist their activity and leadership in persuading “the persuadables,” which is the third part that Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.”

in spite of being rhetorically unappealing, a promising idea is the precariat, the traditional working class, marginalized migrants and minorities, and educated not finding much a future. Their employment is unstable. They’ve lost rights and benefits that have keep them from being secure.

As income has shifted income to the extremely rich, our personal incomes have dwindled. Benefits have disappeared. First to go were defined benefit retirement plans. Then job security. Temps began to make up a larger portion of the work force. Health insurance covers less and costs more. People feel the insecurity. People are scared. The middle-class–hardly anyone talks about the poor these days–is on the edge of a cliff. Our generation hasn’t done as well as our parents; our children’s outlooks isn’t much better. We may be stuck with the working class idea, but we need to acknowledge that it’s not sufficient.

Donald Trump shouldn’t have won this election. Blame whoever you want. Whatever you want. If blame’s your game, there’s enough to go around. America needs to be made great again, but unless it’s by accident, it isn’t going to happen at the hands of Trump. It may take a butterfly. It may take an earthquake, but things must change.


32 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. This may be the best diary I've seen in a long time...

    …especially in the category of analyzing the late presidential election!

  2. The press

    A few questions to ponder:

    1. How would YOU (not Marc, you writ large) have covered Trump? Here was a guy who attacked John McCain and handicapped people, and his numbers kept going up.

    2. Would you have ignored Clinton’s e-mails? On what news basis?

    3. As far as I know, the FBI had never announced it was investigating a presidential candidate so close to an election. Should the media have ignored that? Alterman can say all he wants that it was a non-story, but if so his definition of story needs work.

    None of these are too say that the press did its job well. They deserve at least as much blame as the Clinton campaign, and if I were a GOP primary candidate, I would seriously consider suing them on an equal time basis (I’m not sure equal time applies to primary candidates; it never seems to come up).

    MOST of the media, mainstream and otherwise, DOES care about fairness and truth. Did they mess up this cycle? Yes. But — with some notable exceptions like Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves — they were trying.

    • Those actually have fairly easy answers.

      1) Don’t constantly break in to take his rallies live UNLESS you are equal opportunity in this regard and/or you spend several minutes following to debunk, factcheck, etc. If you cover the insults be sure to have people ready to talk on air about why such behavior is out of line for a presidential candidate. Of course, I think there IS an argument for not covering his outrageous comments because what he wants is attention and if you don’t give it maybe he will stop.

      2) The email story absolutely did not have to be covered every single day, and when it was covered more could have been done to provide context. Also, Trump was neck-deep in much more scandalous stuff which didn’t get a fraction of the attention her “damn emails” did.

      3) Yes, you can mention Comey’s October surprise statement, but more could have been done to explain this actually wasn’t a reopening of the case and there wasn’t likely more to find.

      I’m not sure there is a legal requirement for equal time anymore since the Fairness Doctrine was rescinded.

      • OK

        1. Agreed.

        2. It wasn’t.

        3. You and I know that context, so clearly it was covered.

        • Couldn't find it now...

          …but I know I read articles pointing to some 500-600 consecutive days of email coverage. You and I also pay a lot more attention than most voters, yet obviously lots of voters took away a very different impression of the story’s significance than they should have.


      by violating the first principal of journalism to tell the truth.

      Fred Rich LaRiccia

    • There's the ideal and the real

      when it comes to coverage.

      1) Ideally, the media would realize it isn’t just a collection of discrete news organizations, but together they create a sort of eco-system of news for which they all should bear some responsibility for keeping it healthy. What one reports, all address. That means preserving an ethic of balance and truth. Fact-checking has taken a step in that direction, but it’s hidden on television news coverage by having someone like Chris Matthews host Bullshit Artist (D) and Bullshit Artist (R) and letting them bullshit back and forth. That’s on the “liberal” MSNBC network, and it goes on for 4 or 5 hours. That’s aside from the Bullshit Breakfast hosted by Joe Scarborough. The mainstream media should take some responsibility not just for the truth, but for preserving an environment where viewers and readers don’t have to swim upstream against partisan sewage to find it.

      2) The media could have covered and tried to make Trump discuss issues. They didn’t.

      3) Covering Trump was difficult. Ordinarily, we make due with the sort of kabuki scripted by the media–part horse race, part bullshit non-issues. Remember Al Gore’s beige suit? Clinton expected the same kabuki bullshit would play in 2016. Trump, however, directs himself in the ongoing Trump show. He showed just how little people really don’t care about all that stuff. Trump didn’t only transcend the media, he pulled back the curtain on their collective failure to cover substance in elections. My answer, not that it would have necessarily solved the problem, would have been to cover issues.

      4) Do what the media NEVER does? Provide context. To be fair, I read newspaper articles on Hillary’s emails that stated why she wouldn’t be indicted. But it was lost in the shuffle of partisan bullshit art and the echo chamber of the media as a whole.

      The media not only doesn’t care about the truth, they don’t care about their consumers. They don’t care about providing the context to make the news comprehensible. Instead they give you Bullshit Artist 1 and 2, who, at best, confirm viewers bias.

      • OK fair enough

        I don’t want to hijack your diary, but I do disagree on your second point. A media realizing that it is collective is not ideal. Reporters should all believe they work for the best publication and act as if the truth will die if they don’t report it.

        I also think that the Clinton campaign knew all the problems with the press going in, but they made them worse beginning with the rope incident and continuing through the press conference drought and continuing now.

        Oh well.

        • America failed

          in my opinion. The media was part of the fail. Clinton and her campaign failed. They failed with the media. They failed with the voters. It was a collective failure. The worst of our society won. Apportioning blame is probably counterproductive.

          I don’t think the media should see itself solely as some sort of centralized collective but rather as part of the people manufacturing what we can know. I would like to see the media take responsibility for the truth the way we all must take responsibility for our country and our planet. They are part of a knowledge eco-system.

          Reporters do NOT equal the media. The media is an industry with its own norms.

          • The Media

            You know, the celebrity talking heads, Andrea Mitchell, Chris Matthews and the rest reminded me of Pauline Kael who said, I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them. and is often misquoted as saying “How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him”.

          • America is failing

            Despite all the happy BS talk, American social mobility and access to a middle class lifestyle is failing. We all know the stats. And in desperate times, people do desperate things, like vote for unqualified con artists (Trump, Duarte, Le Pen…). The media did not do its part in offering a thoughtful reportage of the events of the campaign, much less the stakes — but that shouldn’t even have been necessary.

            sabutai   @   Sun 27 Nov 8:09 PM

    Fred Rich LaRiccia

    • You said

      … the press didn’t tell the truth.

      What, specifically, did they lie about?

      • Not lied, just sloppy with the truth

        It seems that the press had such a low opinion of Trump and such admiration of Clinton that they could not read the tea leaves. I would not call it lying so much as I would call it sloppy reporting and interjecting their own hopes into the narrative.

        They got me, that’s for sure. I was certain that Trump would win and then I started to read the polls and hear the stories about how the Clinton campaign was leaving one state (considering it a lock) and moving to red states to turn them blue. I believed that the press was onto something and I my predictions, my gut feelings, were wrong.

        • The other way around

          I think whatever admiration they had for Clinton (and THAT’s certainly a debatable proposition going back a quarter century) caused them to over compensate, making sure it wasn’t obvious by dialing the negative reporting on her up to 11 while treating Trump with kid gloves until it was too late.

          • I think she got the Clinton Rules

            version of the pre-Trump era.

            She lost the vote because likely voters turned out to be not that likely.



    for the 560 times he lied documented by the Toronto Star.

    Fred Rich LaRiccia

    • Um ...

      Oh, never mind.


        You asked me what the press lied about and I answered they lied about failing to call out Liar Trump.

        Liar Trump’s first and most egregious lie as founder of birtherism was the lie that President Obama was not an American.

        Liar Trump lied 559 more times and got away with them all because the media failed to hold him accountable as the pathological liar he is.

        I anxiously await your response.

        Fred Rich LaRiccia

        • Yes Fred

          You answered my question about the media lying … by citing a media source.

          I was hoping for something more specific.

          The media constantly fact-checked Trump, often pointing out that what he said was wrong, simply ridiculous, or unworkable. None of his voters cared.


            I never claimed that Trumpies cared or didn’t care about Liar Trump’s lies or the media’s failure to call out his lies.

            I ask a question : What effect, if any, MIGHT it have had on voters IF the media had headlined EVERY lie — all 560 of them — Liar Trump told during the campaign ?

            Fred Rich LaRiccia

            • No

              I’m questioning your premise. I agree that the media ultimately failed and deserves some blame. But you’re applying too much blame.

              The biggest lie, probably, was that HRC was “crooked.” There is no evidence of that. And the media did point that out.

              • THE HELL THEY DID !

                It is estimated Liar Trump got 2 BILLION DOLLARS worth of free advertising butt kissing by the fawning media whores. The nightly news led with primetime coverage of every rally where they breathlessly hung on Liar Trump’s every word as if it was coming down from Mount Olympus !

                Give me a break !

                By the way, you answered your own question about what the media specifically lied about by citing Lie Number 346 : the Crooked Hillary lie. lol :) Damn, you can’t make this BS up.

                Fred Rich LaRiccia

                • I see we disagree on this

                  Thanks for your time.

                • Oh and

                  The downrates. Thanks for those.

                  • YOU NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTION ...

                    even though I answered yours. So I’ll try asking it again a different way.

                    What impact might it have had on election results IF the media had headlined EVERY lie — all 560 of them — Liar Trump told during the campaign ?

                    And if you give a plausible answer I promise not to downrate your silly comments anymore.

                    Fred Rich LaRiccia

                    • I don't know the answer

                      I suspect the answer is: People would have stopped listening to the news.

                      I also think you’re forgetting the early days of the campaign. I remember James Pindell going on WBUR and saying Trump was connecting with voters, and that was a radical notion. I’m sure we’ve all seen the clip of the Sunday show where a guest said “Trump could win this thing” and the rest of the panel burst into laughter.

                      No one knew. People who say they knew are lying to themselves. They just threw long and got lucky.

                    • SO YOU THINK PEOPLE KNEW TRUMP WAS A LIAR...

                      and voted for him anyway ?

                      Fred Rich LaRiccia

              • HOW MUCH BLAME IS TOO MUCH ?

                How do you quantify blame ?

                I have yet to hear anyone challenge the veracity of the 560 documented Trump Lies. Anyone. Bueller ?


                Your Honor, the prosecution rests.

                Fred Rich LaRiccia

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