Survival Bias in the Time of Trumpism

Dear Joel,

I’m glad you are finding some solace in Rick Perlstein’s new history of American conservatism. I’ve argued before that Perlstein’s surprise at how nasty Trumpism is raises suspicions that he doesn’t pay much attention to those of us who have been concerned for years about the Republican party’s hate. Still, I’d love to see more historians come to terms with the ways that racism, in particular, has informed conservative politics for ages.

I appreciate the impulse to find some assurance in history. We’ve been through worse. We’ve done this before. The nativism and racism and selfishness at the heart of Trumpism isn’t new. As stirring as it might feel to say This isn’t America. We’re better than this, Trumpism isn’t an anomaly but part of a historical pattern. As history shows us, this is exactly America. We’re a nation founded on slavery and indigenous “removal,” through murderous violence and genocide, by guns and smallpox and now drones and nuclear warheads. We were a colony, and we are a colonizer. Puerto Rico shows us that we’re post-colonial like Barack Obama showed us that we were post-racial. That is, we’re not. Many white Americans, including those in government, are rooting for Puerto Ricans to die so that rich whites have a new, warm place to retire cheaply.

It can feel wrenching that we’ve not come any farther, but, then again, why should we have? Our political system was designed to move slowly, and the winners in our system have been practicing this for half a millennium now. They’re pretty good at it.

And I like looking at historical patterns (and sociological trends) for assurance. There is a relief in being in, on average, average. I’m like most Americans in lots of ways: disgusted by Trump, supportive of a wide range of policies to reduce gun violence, a believer in climate change.  It’s nice knowing I’m not alone. Social media hasn’t so much been a bubble for me as a connection to others who think that open carry, partisan gerrymandering, and the Jones Act are anti-democratic. Facebook lets me rest, for a moment, knowing that I’m not alone, and that keeps me calling my members of Congress to let them know that we’re out here, wanting better governance.

But finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors. And we should resist it.

When we say “We survived worse,” we’re engaging in survival bias. Columbus’ arrival to the New World brought with it death for many people, from the indigenous people who quickly succumbed to new diseases to the enslaved Africans, 40% of whom died on route between Africa and their planned destination. Historians disagree as to how many people were here—hundreds of nations, surely, and perhaps as many as 12 million people—but we know that many didn’t survive. During the Civil War, 750,000 soldiers died due to Southern defense of slavery. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, Louis Allen, Willie Brewster, James Early Chaney, Johnnie Mae Chappell, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Henry Hezekiah Dee, Cpl. Roman Duckworth, Jr., Medgar Evers, Rev. Willie Edwards, Jr., Andrew Goodman, Paul Guihard, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. Bruce Klunder, George Lee, Herbert Lee, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Charles Eddie Moore, Oneal Moore, William Lewis Moore, Mack Charles Parker, Lt. Col Lemuel Penn, Rev. James Reeb, John Earl Reese, Michael Henry Schwerner, Lamar Smith, Emmett Till, Virgil Lamar Ware, Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others didn’t survive Jim Crow or the fight for Civil Rights. In the 1980s, AIDS was an epidemic for gay men; many of them died. Every day, nearly three American women don’t survive domestic violence; very often, their children are killed with them, as just happened in your town. On Monday, 59 people didn’t survive our nation’s armed crisis of white masculinity.


Above, a stained glass window from Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African American girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. The people of Wales provided the church with this window, designed by Jeff Petts, during the renovation. It’s central image is a Black Christ, crucified. The words say “You do it to me”–an invocation of Matthew 25:45, when Jesus tells that whoever feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, offers hospitality to the homeless, cares for the ill, visits the imprisoned, or provides drink for the thirty. But we also hear in the words Jesus’ rejection of those who fails to care for the vulnerable–those who leave the poor hungry, cold, sick, lonely, and thirsty. Neglect and rejection are actions we do, too. 

And those are the wounds we self-inflict. Abroad, even more people don’t survive our mistakes. As terrible as Trump is, it’s possible we’ll escape his presidency without the hundreds of thousands dead that George W. Bush is responsible for.

Can we learn from history? Of course. And I think that America is strong; indeed, some parts of our system (like the electoral college) are too resilient. Though we will be damaged for a long time, our nation will likely survive this. Perhaps we will hit an anti-democratic low that inspires true patriots to fight for the right of each person to be represented fairly in government. Two recent elections in which the popular winner lost the presidency, Russian interference, voter suppression, the vast power of big money donors, and the Trump children’s bribing their way out of federal charges hasn’t brought it yet, but maybe. Maybe it will even come from the right, led by people like Evan McMillan. Hell, maybe Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

More practically, I think things will get better through sheer demographic attrition. While, as the alt-right shows us, there are terrible people of every generation, the sheer size of the Baby Boom cohort amplifies how “deplorable” many of them are. Literally, their political (and economic and environmental) choices are killing us.

Many people aren’t surviving. The less powerful die as the rest of us wait for history to pass. We shouldn’t get comfortable with that.


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