Misinterpreting Trump

Lots of people attacking Trump are willfully misinterpreting stuff he says because they are political hacks.

However, I think there is some amount misinterpretation that is genuine, and can be explained by a similar sort of phenomenon I’ve seen on Fallible Ideas List. Essentially, the mistake involves applying one’s conventional ideas about the non-literal meaning of statements in a context and to a person where those conventional ideas are inappropriate.

Let’s consider a recent example of something Trump said regarding NATO:

SANGER: But I guess the question is, If we can’t, do you think that your presidency, let’s assume for a moment that they contribute what they are contributing today, or what they have contributed historically, your presidency would be one of pulling back and saying, “You know, we’re not going to invest in these alliances with NATO, we are not going to invest as much as we have in Asia since the end of the Korean War because we can’t afford it and it’s really not in our interest to do so.”

TRUMP: If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, “Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.” I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?

SANGER: We do.

HABERMAN: We both do.

TRUMP: With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

SANGER: That suggests that our forward deployments around the world are based on their interests — they’re not really based on our interests. And yet I think many in your party would say that the reason that we have troops in Europe, the reason that we keep 60,000 troops in Asia, is that it’s in our interest to keep open trading lines, it’s in our interest to keep the North Koreans in check, you do that much better out away from the United States.

TRUMP: I think it’s a mutual interest, but we’re being reimbursed like it’s only in our interest. I think it’s a mutual interest. …

Some people are reading this to mean something like, Trump will immediately stop defending countries that aren’t pulling their weight in NATO, or something similar.

I think that’s a really unfair reading of what he actually says. Now, I could go into why, and also go into background context about Trump’s PUBLISHED strategy of being willing to walk away from the table in order to get a better deal, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is to talk about why various people might mishear/misinterpret/misunderstand Trump’s statement. Trump’s statement is it is not what a normal POTUS candidate would say. Any candidate from like the past 60 years or so would never say of a member of NATO (even with a bunch of qualifiers and talk about hoping we make a deal) that they might hear “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” This is very blunt, and direct, and concretely describes a consequence in a specific circumstance. These are things many people find frightening!

The conventional political world is filled with excessive politeness, lies, doublespeak, evasion, understatement, etc. In the conventional political context as defined by conventional politicians and diplomats and those kinda people, Trump’s statement almost amounts to an announced intention to start cutting people out of the NATO right away if he thinks they aren’t pulling their weight. Since if a conventional politician said that kinda thing, that’s what it would mean. And political reporters are part of this world too (since these are the people they cover) and so that’s how they interpret the Trump stuff as well.

I think if a lot of regularly people heard this exchange though, they’d think “Well, it sounds like he really wants to make a deal and just wants other people to pull their own weight. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t they be pulling their weight?”

The lying/evasion/doublespeak culture of the political ELITES actually prevents them from hearing the simple meaning of Trump’s stuff. They interpret it according to what it would mean if one of *them* said it. But that leads to big mistakes.

The thing I was reminded of on Fallible Ideas List was the phenomenon of various people (in particular Elliot) just making blunt, honest statements with no intent of malice and no anger, and people interpreting those statements as malicious and angry. Because in conventional social interaction world, if someone made a similar kinda statement, that’s what it would mean.

People bring their conventional social stuff to Fallible Ideas List and get all confused. And people bring their conventional politician stuff to Trump and likewise get confused.

Amusement at Incompetence and Confusion

Comments on the article here:

It’s been a rough week in the news. And it’s been a rough week in comment sections … and Facebook posts … and Twitter.

If you, like us, could use a bit of Internet delight right now, consider this:

Politeness memes are silly. At best they add unnecessary delay to stating an idea. (I wonder how many days over the course of a lifetime are spent on politeness BS.)

At worst, if you don’t get them correct, people can actually get upset and refuse to interact with you over them. Which is maybe why Nan is careful to even put them in her google searches JUST IN CASE. sad story 🙁

Also they are forced on children without explanation.

That’s a tweet by 25-year-old Ben Eckersley, who lives near Manchester, England. He was visiting his grandmother’s place to do laundry — he and his boyfriend don’t have a dryer, he told the BBC.

Then he happened to notice this eminently charming search, and decided to share it with the world.

“I asked my nan why she used ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and it seemed she thinks that there is someone — a physical person — at Google’s headquarters who looks after the searches,” he told the BBC.

“She thought that by being polite and using her manners, the search would be quicker.”

Now this explanation is deficient for several reasons.

But first, I could see this sort of thing making sense to say a very young child who doesn’t know much about the world.

But how do you get to old age and have this kinda stuff make sense?

Also, Nan apparently knows enough to USE GOOGLE, albeit not super effectively. But still, that beats not being able to use google at all by quite a lot.

So she could try and refute this theory of hers, if she cared to. She could find out, for instance, that …

1) approximately 40,000 searches per second occur on google.
2) google has only 57,100 full time employees

These numbers don’t bode well for what we might call the “telephone switchboard operator theory of Google searches.”

Also does she think the searches are CONSTRUCTED in real time by a person? Or that there’s some huge archive of every possible search that individual humans somehow access and provide?

Doesn’t she notice how fast Google is already? How much does she think politeness helps?

Has she tried comparing the speediness of polite and non-polite searches?

If Google worked at all like she imagined, wouldn’t you expect Google to have very fast, standard response times required of its Google operators?

I worked in a McDonald’s for a while and we had to hit certain minimum speeds for making burgers etc. They tracked the speed. I would imagine Google would do the same if it worked at all like how Nan thought it did…so there wouldn’t be much room for the Google operators to treat stuff preferentially based on stuff like liking politeness.

It might not have helped speed up the servers, but it certainly warmed many an Internet-hardened heart.

The grandma in question — May Ashworth, who was born in 1930 — spoke to the CBCafter her grandson’s tweet went viral.

She said she’s not very computer-savvy; she uses Google only a few times a week.

“I thought, well somebody’s put it in, so you’re thanking them,” she told the radio network.

Very vague what “somebody’s put it in” means…

“I don’t know how it works to be honest. It’s all a mystery to me.”

No surprise here.

Google UK and the main Google account have both responded on Twitter — politely, of course.

Gross pandering.

Meanwhile, how did Ben and his grandmother celebrate her new Internet celebrity?

“We’ve gone really British and she just made me a cup of tea,” Eckersley told the CBC.

People’s amusement at incompetence and confusion seems disgusting to me. What do people like about it?

Myth About American History

I’ve heard for a long time that Americans were split about equally into three factions in their attitude towards the American “Revolution”: about a third favored it, about a third were against it, and about a third were ambivalent.

I was looking for a cite for this when I came across articles, including this one:

I quote a bit below:

When any citation is offered for this “well known” estimate, it is to a letter which Adams wrote to James Lloyd, dated January, 1813.[3] A close examination of that letter should convince an intelligent reader that John Adams never said any such thing! It is clear that Adams, in point of fact, was writing about American opinion of the French Revolution and the subsequent struggle between England and France which had a considerable impact on the United States in the 1790’s during the period of his presidency from 1797 to 1801. Without taking the space to quote the entire letter, which runs over two printed pages, or discussing all of the specific points of evidence to sustain that view, the data to destroy the misreading can be provided simply by examining a part of one sentence. After mentioning a third “averse” to the Revolution, and a third “enthusiastic,” Adams observed: “The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France….” If it was the American Revolution toward which this “lukewarm” group was neutral, does it make any sense at all that a staunch patriot such as Adams would have praised it as “the soundest part of the nation”? Of course not! He did so because that group shared his own view toward the struggle between France and England.

(Note the point above also appears on various “Did you know???” type myth-busting articles on the internet. That’s how I originally started on this research trail. This appears to be the more thoroughly argued/original paper on the issue though)

It actually does make perfect sense to me that Adams could describe the “soundest part of the nation” as “lukewarm” to the Revolution.

He could think something along the lines of “These are good solid folks who don’t like war because they just want to be left alone to tend their farms and raise their families.” Just cuz he disagreed with their views on the war doesn’t mean he’s going to trash them or change his overall opinion about them.

As a general methodological crit I don’t think it’s very wise to present sentence fragments written two centuries ago as having self-evident meanings on a controversial point.

So I’m not going to do that! I found the whole letter and on the internet there’s no space constraints. I’ll comment on what I think each passage is saying. I didn’t do the entire letter — I cut out some intro fluff and only went up to the point in dispute. If you want fuller context though you can go here:

Note that numbers in [brackets] are dead-tree version page numbers

TO JAMES LLOYD.↩

There is not, Sir, in your masterly letter a more correct or important observation than that of “the unhappy ignorance which exists among the members of this great family, but resident in different sections of it, with regard to the objects and qualities of each other. This ignorance, the offspring of narrow prejudice and illiberality, is now presenting brimful the chalice of envy and hatred, where it should offer nothing but the cup of conciliation and confidence. It sprang from the little intercourse and less knowledge which the people of the then British Provinces possessed of each other antecedently to the American revolution, and instead of being dissipated by an event so honorable [110] to them all, has been cherished and perpetuated for political party purposes, and for the promotion of the sinister views and ambitious projects of a few restless and unprincipled individuals, until the present period.”

I think this is talking about some sort of simmering political/cultural tensions between the USA and UK which are still unresolved. And basically, that these are due to ignorance, and instead of getting better after the Revolution they’ve continued because of the actions of sinister political types who gain from them somehow.

Of this ignorance, when I went to Congress in 1774, I can assure you, Sir, I had a most painful consciousness in my own bosom. There I had the disappointment to find, that almost every gentleman in that assembly was, in this kind of information, nearly as ignorant as myself; and what was a more cruel mortification than all the rest, the greatest part even of the most intelligent, full of prejudices and jealousies, which I had never before even suspected.

Adams saying that he and 1774 Congress were super ignorant.

Between 1774 and 1797, an interval of twenty-three years, this ignorance was in some measure removed from some minds. But some had retired in disgust, some had gone into the army, some had been turned out for timidity, some had deserted to the enemy, and all the old, steadfast patriots, weary of the service, always irksome in Congress, had retired to their families and States, to be made governors, judges, marshals, collectors, &c., &c. So that in 1797, there was not an individual in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, or in either of the executive departments of government, who had been in the national controversy from the beginning.

Adams saying that the 1774 Congress guys got less ignorant over time, but there was big turnover, so by 1797 Congress and the Executive were all ignorant newb statesmen again. (Side note: this letter was literally written in the middle of the War of 1812 with the U.K. so that may be some relevant background here — like explaining how relations came to become bad with UK again).

Mr. Jefferson himself, the Vice-President, the oldest in service of them all, was but a young and a new man in comparison with the earliest conductors of the cause of the country, the real founders and legitimate fathers of the American republic.

Even Jefferson, who was like an elder statesman in 1797, was young newb compared to “real founders” of America.

The most of them had been but a very few years in public business, and a large proportion of these were of a party which had been opposed to the revolution, at least in the beginning of it.

So I think this is referring to the newb 1797 statesmen. Adams is saying they’re newbs, and a lot of them were opposed to the Revolution.

If he’s talking about the French Revolution, this seems like a big topic change.

If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. Burke did those of the people of England,

(Any Burke experts reading this, please provide insight here as to what this is referring to)

I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution.

Given the preceding context, (but in light of not knowing what the Burke reference is about), I have two thoughts:

1. This appears to be about the American Revolution, not the French Revolution. Adams had just been talking about 1797 Congressnewbs and how a bunch of them (or their party, at least), who had replaced the “real founders” of America, had opposed the Revolution.

2. I think the most natural reading is that he is talking about the people’s sentiment towards the Revolution at the time it happened, and not in 1797. Cuz he was just talking about the 1797 newb statesman’s (or their party’s) attitudes towards the revolution “at least at the beginning of it.”

These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French;

Note that part of the context of the American revolution was that, from a pretty early point, we were getting help from the French. So this could explain the issue of framing stuff in terms of liking England vs France. And in particular in terms of the anti-Revolution side being pro-English and the pro-Revolution side being pro-French.

indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude

Gratitude sounds like something you give someone who helps you. Not something you give to somebody who is doing something you approve of. Of course, the connotations of the word could have changed over time.

to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France;

See my comments above and also note Adams’ framing … on the one hand, you have some people detesting the French. On the other hand, you have some people hating the English. And then you have the calm yeoman farmer guys, averse to war and not really hating either side.

and sometimes stragglers [111] from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances.

I have trouble interpreting this last bit. It could be about attitudes shifting during the war of independence but could be about stuff over time.

The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors,

The ambassadors thing could be reference to XYZ Affair, which happened in 1797. So what he’s talking about seems later in time now.

and even to the government, united, though for a short time, with infinite reluctance, the second third with the first,

So this I read as him saying that the factions he describes shift over time. Since he described the anti-revolution, pro-English faction first, and the pro-Revolution, anti-English faction second, he’s saying that France acted so badly that they managed to get these two sides together for a bit, politically.

and produced that burst of applause to the administration, in which you concurred, though it gave much offence to Mr. Randolph.

Overall I think Adams was talking about the attitudes to the American revolution, but the letter seemed significantly more ambiguous than I’d have expected given the treatment of the topic from both the “HISTORICAL FACT: Adams said opinion on American revolution was split 33-33-33” side, as well as the “HISTORICAL MYTH DEBUNKED” side.
But even IF Adams was talking about American attitudes to the American revolution, his like vague general impressions of people’s opinion is pretty poor evidence for making any kind of generalizations of what people thought of the revolution at the time.