Trump and Tribunes


I was delighted and dejected when reading this interview (titled “Trump: Tribute of Poor White People”) with J. D. Vance, who wrote Hillbilly Elegy. Vance came from a poor white family, spent time in the Marines, and is a Yale Law graduate.

I was struck when watching the first presidential debate by the difference in emotional content of the two candidates. Since reading The Political Brain, I’m on the look-out for how politicians connect with people’s emotions. I groaned when Hillary’s first answer included the words “advanced manufacturing”. I know more about advanced manufacturing than most people, so I expect I’m one of the few people who could even possibly be excited about such a thing, and I was definitely not excited to hear about advanced manufacturing in the first 30 seconds of a major debate about the future of the nation. In contrast, Trump’s first words were, “Thank you, Lester. Our jobs are fleeing the country.” That is quality speech-giving.

I can’t bear to write only about politics, so a little Roman history: tribune referred mostly famously to a Roman elected official. Early in Roman history, only the aristocratic class could vote for elected officials. Political action, basically massive labor strikes, gained the Roman working class the right to vote. The tribune of the plebs was the first official that the working class, the plebs, could vote for.

It’s often said that the tribunes could veto legislation, which brings to mind the US President’s formal ability to refuse legislation and return it to Congress. The tribunes’ veto was different. Nowhere in the job description did it say “tribues can veto”. Instead, tribunes’ physical bodies were considered sacrosanct. This meant that attempting to harm, move, or resist a tribune was punishable by death without a trial. (Think of the forcefield surrounding polices’ bodies that makes injuring or resisting them an extra-special crime.) A tribune would block legislation doing something like physically interposing himself between voters and the voting equipment or by putting his hands over the mouth of someone who would give a speech in favor of some legislation. The tribune, whose job was to protect the rights of the working class, could thus enforce their legislative power only in a single place at a single time. (This was effective because Roman laws could only be voted on in certain places following certain elaborate procedures. Lintott’s Constitution of the Roman Republic is a great place to learn more.)

Vance’s interview and Trump’s speech are good reminders about the effects of a failure to humbly inquire and empathize. I spend a lot of time around PhDs, who are trained to solve certain kinds of problems in certain kinds of ways. It is tempting for people like this to think that they are smarter than others. And because intellectuals often value intellect, this means that being smarter means being better than others.

In contrast, I think that school gives good grades to people who are good at school, not necessarily people who are good or smart. It’s easy to get lost in that elite white people echo chamber, which says that Trump supporters are just racist, foolish, or whatever. I had the good fortune to be, as a kid, in a Boy Scout troop whose fathers were mostly contractors and laborers. The white collar dads were often laughably out of place when outdoorsing, and yet somehow ended up in a disproportionate share of leadership positions. That experience taught me a lot, including, as Vance talks about, some humility when making assumptions about how political opinion, intelligence, worth, agency, and wealth are related.