Scaremongering or a real disturbance in the force?

keep-calm-and-read-trump-tweetsIn the absence of Jedi Masters, over the years we have developed early warning systems to detect disturbing signals which help us forecast and prevent hazards. Ranging from earthquakes, tsunamis, or diseases, to the escalation of violence or the outbreak of armed conflict, there is a full gamut of events which countries and organisations routinely monitor. Have we got an effective early warning system to help us anticipate a serious threat to democracy and freedom?

This is a question that many of us are asking ourselves today, because it is not possible to avoid thinking that history is blatantly making rhymes. We have seen THIS before—THIS is Trump, of course. And if it were not because we are talking about the United States of America and we refused to accept that it’s happening what’s happening because THAT can’t happen there—THAT is fascism, of course—we would all be truly alarmed.

And what’s happening is that a democratically elected government has declared simultaneous wars on media, on science, on immigrants, and… in only one week! Just a sort of Blitzkrieg on civil liberties and rationality. In other words, Trump is doing what he said he’d do, while increasing uncertainty and widening the space of possible future scenarios.

Furthermore, this democratically elected government is determined to institute that facts are a matter of opinion—if at all—which is particularly worrying in a moment where they can flood people with alternative facts, or they just need to unplug a cord to switch off an annoying web page, and cause a digital blackout.

Not surprisingly, George Orwell’s “1984” surged to #1 on Amazon’s best sellers list after Trump’s inauguration speech, when his press secretary Sean Spicer argued that the ceremony had the biggest audience in history despite evidence, and later declared: ‘Sometimes we can disagree with facts’

Inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017 (left) and President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, in Washington, U.S., REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (L), Stelios Varias/File Photo

However, it is not difficult to dismiss all the fuss as childish scaremongering. First, journalism is of course on fire, but that’s a collateral effect—so to speak—and part of the problem. There is so much noise in the system that is very difficult to detect any meaningful signal. Second, some of our international watchdog organisations are cautiously and responsibly warning about the danger of a worldwide rising populism and autocracy:

Donald Trump’s unorthodox presidential campaign left open questions about the incoming administration’s approach to civil liberties and the role of the United States in the world.

This year, Freedom House is recording the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, but this might well be a minor “technical correction” to a secular relentless trend of progress—the ebb and flow of history. Third, perhaps the most disconcerting fact is that stock markets—poster child of cautiousness—have been celebrating the arrival of the new president, and the week after Trump’s inauguration, the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed the 20.000 mark for the first time ever.

So, What do we have to do about Trump? Should we just keep calm and enjoy his “funny” tweets, or should we rush to take up arms?

Let’s face it: Understanding risk and risk perception is an arcane discipline. We might well be overstating Trump, because we usually over-react to intentional actions, especially those that offend our morals. And clearly, Trump qualifies as a conscientious provocateur. But we could certainly be understating a very real threat, because we usually under-react to long-term threats, and to changes that occur slowly and over time.

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit.

Most dangerous situations arise when a threat is ambiguous. Ambiguity leads decision makers—us—to ignore or discount the risk and take a wait-and-see attitude. And even when 99.9… % of the time, doing nothing may be the best course of action, such an approach can be catastrophic.


As depicted in my improvised doomed-to-failure” matrix above, when someone opt to take actions to mitigate a proper threat which in the end proves to be a false alarm, he or she will be labelled as irrational or lacking the cold blood required to deal with complex situations. Do nothing in the face of a real threat, and you will be accused of irresponsible or incompetent behaviour. Faced with THIS kind of dilemma, whatever our choice, we are screwed unless good luck smiles on us.

In today’s politically correct speech, it is not well seen to mention the great dictator. I won’t do it, but talking about history and rhymes, it would be really sad to have to look back one day and have to say (with Martin Niemöller’s permission):

First he came for the media, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a journalist

Then he came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Mexican

Then he came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Muslim

Then he came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

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