Cry wolf

This post is in response to a SlateStarCodex article published shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The author Scott Alexander argues that President-Elect Trump is not “openly racist”, and therefore much of the response to the Trump campaign/administration was/is overblown.

Despite the organized and detailed write-up, the article ignores a lot of relevant data and literature. This is strange given the amount of positive attention it got from well-known scholars:

Those are just from my personal feed, and I follow 53 people. I’m sure there are more based on Pinker‘s vast popularity. It was, for instance, mentioned positively by Paul Bloom on this episode of Sam Harris’s podcast. A search for the article’s title on Twitter will show the level of traction and positive energy it received overall.

Among my Facebook friends, the article was shared by those with backgrounds in statistics and economics. A week or two after I began writing this post, a friend of mine (data scientist doing fraud detection for a major credit card company) discovered the article independently and emailed it to me with the subject line “This is why I’m not worried”. I’m still seeing it going around and getting accolades for its supposedly rigorous, data-cognizant approach:ss1_2

So, I decided that a detailed response would be well-worth the effort.


Alexander opens with the observation that Trump lost votes (percentage-wise, compared with Romney) from white voters:

From an NYT exit poll report

From an NYT exit poll report

This result may seem counter-intuitive. Consider, though, that many white people are not racist, or at least are turned off by obvious appeals to racial prejudice. Moderates and conservatives who fit that description were probably still able to vote for Mitt Romney in good conscience. So, if the theory is that racist sentiments were uniquely important to Trump’s campaign, these data may actually corroborate that. Trump kept all the white republicans who loved or could tolerate his rhetoric, and lost the rest.

This seems to be the simple version of what actually happened, according to some research from UMass (I was linked to it first on Twitter, but here’s one press release). Schaffner et. al. gave convincing evidence that (1) lack of college education predicts racist and sexist sentiments, and (2) racist and sexist sentiments are the strongest predictors of support for Trump. Amazingly, the data that motivated their hypotheses in the first place was taken from the same NYT exit poll report Alexander cited:

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

The Schaffner study is well-worth a full read. For now, you’ll find a few of their main results down the page, when I address other parts of the SSC article.


In part II of his post, Alexander focuses on a number of Trump’s statements that, when taken literally, seem to contradict the claim that he is openly racist: maybe even that he values some vague conception of social diversity.

But Alexander’s “representative sample” don’t distinguish Trump from someone who is out to be popular, or pay lip-service and appeal to queasy Republicans. Given Trump’s history and character, these are better explanations of his statements.

And that’s being charitable. Trump’s phrasing and verbal tics, like prefacing the name of a minority group with “the”, indicate xenophobic attitudes. Amid the bullshitting and half-formed sentences, his only cogent thoughts about black communities apparently involve racist generalizations. From the quotes in Alexander’s piece:

 

‘I employ thousands and thousands of Hispanics. I love the people. They’re great workers. They’re fantastic people and they want legal immigration… The Hispanics are going to get those jobs, and they’re going to love Trump.’

‘And at the end of four years I guarantee that I will get over 95% of the African-American vote. I promise you. Because I will produce for the inner-cities and I will produce for the African-Americans.’

 

There’s a reason we never saw President Obama tweeting pictures of himself eating American-ized Mexican food, or improvising half-assed shows of support for the LGBQT community by grabbing audience props (both were cited in Alexander’s piece as examples of Trump’s benignity). These are not actions taken by someone with honest concerns for social justice. Someone with such concerns would make them explicit parts of a continually stated and reinforced political platform.

To all this, Alexander says:

 

“And if you believe he’s lying, fine. Yet I notice that people accusing Trump of racism use the word ‘openly’ like a tic. He’s never just ‘racist’ or ‘white supremacist’. He’s always ‘openly racist’ and ‘openly white supremacist.”

 

True: if Trump is racist, he’s technically not being “open” about it around cameras, in a way that a longtime KKK member might be around friends. But who cares? Here’s one reason why SA thinks we should:

 

“This, I think, is the first level of crying wolf. What if, one day, there is a candidate who hates black people so much that he doesn’t go on a campaign stop to a traditionally black church in Detroit, talk about all of the contributions black people have made to America, promise to fight for black people, and say that his campaign is about opposing racism in all its forms? What if there’s a candidate who does something more like, say, go to a KKK meeting and say that black people are inferior and only whites are real Americans?”

 

I think that, nowadays, such an openly racist candidate becoming a serious contender is next to impossible. This is a good thing. It means you can’t write Mein Kampf and take control of a world power eight years later. It means most people are decent enough to expect at least a serious apology for public racism, and nobody wants to think of themselves as racist. But it also means that people with deep-seated bigotries who run for office are likely to behave exactly like Trump has for the past two years: putting out a handful of genuinely racist statements surrounded by a bunch of disingenuous appeals, excuses, and distractions.

If I’m wrong, we’ll have to say something like “hey everyone, I know we went nuts over Trump, but this is even worse. It’s actually the worst.” And, if a future front-runner is as openly racist as Alexander seemingly needs him/her to be, most people won’t have any problems accepting that. Anyone who would say “haha nope, sorry, you used up your chance with Trump, I’m not falling for that again” is someone whose reason is not worth appealing to in the first place.


The majority of the data Alexander gives are to be found in part III, within his counters to some common talking points. I respond to these below.

 

1. Is Trump getting a lot of his support from white supremacist organizations?

 

It’s noteworthy that Alexander didn’t provide any links to articles claiming that Trump is getting, specifically, “a lot of his support” from white supremacist organizations. That’s because, as far as I can tell, there aren’t any that use that exact phrase. If you Google the question above, you’ll actually get a lot of great articles detailing public support Trump has received from white supremacist organizations. But none of them say Trump received “a lot of” his support from them, percentage-wise, the claim to which Alexander seemed to be responding in remarking how small the KKK is relative to the media attention they received. Mathematically, Trump could not have gotten “a lot of” his support from white supremacist organizations, because there aren’t “a lot of” them to begin with.

So, this is a straw-man. Also, since when did Internet-Articles-Per-Person become the standard metric for determining when enough is enough? Let’s apply Alexander’s exact logic here in another setting. The search string “Saddam Hussein” returns about 20 million results from Google. There is only one Saddam Hussein. So, assuming at least one of every 10,000 results is a relevant article, that means there are at least 2,000 articles for every one person in the I am Saddam Hussein club! Wow, what an overblown reaction we had to that organization!

 

2. Is Trump getting a lot of his support from online white nationalists and the alt-right?”

 

Same problem. Figures like “% of Trump supporters who are X” are uninformative without

  1. knowing the overall % of people who are X, and
  2. a comparison to, say, “% of Clinton supporters who are X”.

Noticing this can work for both sides. A headline like “80 Percent of GOP Voters Say Trump’s Racist Comments Are ‘Totally Fine’” should immediately raise the question “well, what percentage of Democrat voters said the same?”. If the answer is close to 80, the first result doesn’t mean much. (It wasn’t close to 80.)

Regarding white nationalists and the alt-right, noticing that (a) the active alt-right is a small minority, and (b) almost all of them were ardently anti-Clinton, makes it completely uninteresting that the alt-right and KKK comprised only a small percentage of Trump supporters. What matters is that they comprised any percentage at all. For all the awfulness they bring to the world, groups like the alt-right and the KKK are, perhaps, effective red-flags. When they show support for something or someone, and when we see behavior like this and this from adherents to a front-runner candidate, we should be freaked: whether or not the candidate accepts the support or condones the behavior.

 

3. Is Trump getting a lot of his support from people who wouldn’t join white nationalist groups, aren’t in the online alt-right, but still privately hold some kind of white supremacist position?

 

This question suggests the crucial idea that Trump tapped into widespread but mostly dormant racist sentiment, and that this directly contributed to his success. In his response, however, Alexander answers an entirely different question. His logic is hard to follow: for some reason, he starts pointing to surveys showing that racist sentiments have gone down, overall, during the past century. These polls should surprise no one (especially since a focus on Southern states can change the picture), and they don’t tell us anything about Trump’s campaign.

At the time Alexander published his post, there was a ton of easily-accessible, relevant data on this issue. In mid-September, this author used the 2016 ANES Pilot Survey (conducted in January) to show that, other than party affiliation, racial resentment is the best predictor of support for Trump:

clintonVtrump1

According to that same analysis, racist resentment is also strongly correlated with dissatisfaction with President Obama:

obama

Schaffner et. al. found the same kinds of results in their study, which relied on a roughly 2,000-sample YouGov survey conducted in October. In their regression model predicting the 2-party vote, the coefficients for sexism and racism were double that for economic dissatisfaction:

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Here’s how the magnitude of those variables affect the predicted probability of a Trump vote, with the others variables held fixed at their averages:

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Finally, they found this large effect of sexism and racism to be unique to the 2016 election:

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

Schaffner, MacWilliams, Nteta (2017)

 

Here’s a compendium of similar results from yet others surveys conducted before November. Notably, a Reuters poll (March 2016) found that Trump supporters have far-and-away the worst racist attitudes toward black people:

reuters1

 

4. Aren’t there a lot of voters who, although not willing to vote for David Duke or even willing to express negative feelings about black people on a poll, still have implicit racist feelings, the kind where they’re nervous when they see a black guy on a deserted street at night?

Probably. And this is why I am talking about crying wolf.”

 

Again, we shouldn’t need Trump to come right out with “I think white people are the superior race and here’s why”. This strange obsession with precision of language doesn’t seem as important to me as un-normalizing Trump and not giving ground to authoritarian sentiments. It’s clear from the data that racism was a key part of the Trump campaign, well ahead of economic anxiety.

 

5. But even if Donald Trump isn’t openly white supremacist, didn’t he get an endorsement from KKK leader David Duke? Didn’t he refuse to reject that endorsement? Doesn’t that mean that he secretly wants to court the white supremacist vote?

The answer is no on all counts.”

 

If there’s a consequential difference between an official political endorsement and something like the following Tweet, I’m not aware of it.

 

6. What about Trump’s ‘drugs and crime’ speech about Mexicans?

 

Alexander contrasted Trump’s words on illegal immigration from Mexico with McCain’s and those from Bill Clinton’s platform, and argued that Trump’s approach was basically identical. But there are two noteworthy differences. The first is that Trump others the immigrants by saying “They’re not sending you” (emphasis mine). This is in line with the theory that Trump’s rise to power is in large part due to activation of authoritarian sentiments via xenophobic language. The second is his use of the word “rapists”. To me, this indicates that Trump intended to stir feelings of physical and moral disgust against Mexicans, whereas the words of the other candidates point more to concerns about societal well-being.

 

7. What about the border wall? Doesn’t that mean Trump must hate Mexicans?

 

I never really thought so. It seemed more like one of his “decision-maker” or “businessman” signals.

 

8. Isn’t Trump anti-immigrant?

 

His supporters are. And his cabinet picks continue to dance around Trump’s more controversial campaign talking points on immigration, like a national Muslim registry. The fact that they’re still dancing should be horrifying enough.

 

9. Don’t Trump voters oppose the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves?

This was in New York Times, Vox, Huffington Post, Time, et cetera. It’s very misleading. See Snopes for full explanation.

 

The survey statistic was that 20% of Trump voters said they oppose the “executive order which freed all slaves in the states that were in rebellion against the federal government.” The Snopes article basically said this was because they care more about not allowing executive orders than literally freeing slaves. I’m not sure how this makes anything better.

 

10. Isn’t Trump anti-Semitic?

 

I’m not sure, and I’ve personally never heard this issue brought up.

 

11. Don’t we know that Trump voters are motivated by racism because somebody checked and likelihood of being a Trump voter doesn’t correlate with some statistic or other supposedly measuring economic anxiety?

 

Economic anxiety is a predictor of Trump support. Just not nearly as much as racism or sexism sentiments. See the previously referenced analyses.

 

12. Don’t we know that Trump voters are motivated by racism because despite all the stuff about economic anxiety, rich people were more likely to vote Trump than poor people?

 

No, we know that Trump voters are motivated by racism (better said, racist sentiments predict a Trump vote) because we have data to support it.

The rest of the talking points (13.-17.) are interesting but not as important to the ideas in this post. I’ll leave them for another time, if necessary.


In part IV, Alexander writes:

 

Why am I harping on this?

I work in mental health. So far I have had two patients express Trump-related suicidal ideation. One of them ended up in the emergency room, although luckily both of them are now safe and well. I have heard secondhand of several more.

Like Snopes, I am not sure if the reports of eight transgender people committing suicide due to the election results are true or false. But if they’re true, it seems really relevant that Trump denounced North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and proudly proclaimed he would let Caitlyn Jenner use whatever bathroom she wanted in Trump Tower, making him by far the most pro-transgender Republican president in history.

 

Ok, but Mike Pence is straightfowardly anti-gay and anti-transgender, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is Steve Bannon, and Congress is now controlled by the Republicans. Are we supposed to depend on Trump’s convictions, moral scruples, and work ethic to keep things in check?

 

Listen. Trump is going to be approximately as racist as every other American president.

 

With the exception of President Obama, I might agree here, if we’re talking about Trump the person. For the most part, it seems to me like Trump will say whatever he thinks necessary to get people to like him and remain powerful. Ten years ago, he was a Democrat, and he said all the right things. For the last few years, he was Republican, and he rode a wave of racist and authoritarian sentiments into the White House by saying all the right things. When he wants to appear pro-diversity, he says all the right things, or at least right-enough things for people like Alexander to back him up.

Trump may not hold rigorous, calculated beliefs about white supremacy in his heart-of-hearts. He may “just” be an extraordinarily crass, emotionally immature, sociopathic bully who will put these traits to work against women, minorities, and people with disabilities to feel better about himself and gain support. He may be at least as much of a Michael Scott as he is a David Duke. How any of this is supposed to make us less worried is beyond me.


Let’s look at Alexander’s “confidences” in various events not happening during a Trump presidency. These are listed at the tail-end of his piece:

 

  • Total hate crimes incidents as measured here will be not more than 125% of their 2015 value at any year during a Trump presidency, conditional on similar reporting methodology [confidence: 80%]
  • Gay marriage will remain legal throughout a Trump presidency [confidence: 95%]
  • Neither Trump nor any of his officials (Cabinet, etc) will endorse the KKK, Stormfront, or explicit neo-Nazis publicly, refuse to back down, etc, and keep their job [confidence: 99%].
  • No large demographic group (> 1 million people) get forced to sign up for a “registry” [confidence: 95%]
  • No large demographic group gets sent to internment camps [confidence: 99%]
  • Number of deportations during Trump’s four years will not be greater than Obama’s 8 [confidence: 90%]

 

Taking the confidences as true probabilities, then, at least one of

  1. total hate crimes will be more than 125% of their 2015 value during at least one of the next four years,
  2. gay marriage will become illegal,
  3. at least one of Trump’s officials will endorse the KKK, Stormfront, or explicit neo-Nazis publicly and refuse to back down,
  4. a large demographic group will get forced to sign up for a registry,
  5. a large demographic group will get sent to internment camps, or
  6. the number of deportations during Trump’s 4 years will be greater than Obama’s 8

will occur with probability*

1 – (.80)(.95)(.99)(.95)(.99)(.90) = .3631

So, according to Alexander, the chance of at least one shocking injustice occurring during the Trump presidency is 36.3%: eight points above Trump’s chances of winning the presidency, as reported by FiveThirtyEight on November 8th.

And he’s telling us that we’re crying wolf.

At the end of his post, Alexander says

 

“If you disagree with me, come up with a bet and see if I’ll take it.”

 

Ok. Above, I didn’t even account for the ever-increasing chances of some global catastrophe brought on by an unstable sociopath becoming the most powerful person in the world. So, let’s add one more item to the list:

7. Trump, Putin, Jong-un, or any high-ranking military official from those leaders’ countries threatens a nuclear strike

I’ll give Alexander 1:1 odds on at least one of 1-7 happening during Trump’s presidency. By his accounting, these odds are generous. I’ll put up $500.00, and if something happens and I win, it will go toward helping people through whatever it is. Here’s my contact info.

 


*Under the assumption that the events are independent, which is not quite fair. However, any reasonable model with dependence would not affect my number’s comparability to Trump’s election-day chances. For instance, the probability in question is at least .20, again using Alexander’s confidences.