Why are we optimistic about 2017?

What did Emily Roden learn about America’s new Secretary of State and the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, after spending a week on jury duty with him?

‘All I know is that this man who holds one of the most powerful positions in the world and clearly has the means and ability to side-step his jury responsibilities, served as a normal citizen without complaint or pretense.’

Not only that, he explained the case to his fellow jurors ‘humbly, delicately and without an ounce of condescension toward those who disagreed’ – despite being a ‘man who strikes multibillion-dollar deals with foreign heads of state’.

Emily Roden is a small business owner. She wrote these words in the Dallas News, online arm of The Dallas Morning News, which backed Hillary Clinton for President. Roden did not vote for Trump; and she makes clear that her article is just an anecdote, not an endorsement of Tillerson’s appointment. But clearly, a Trump world doesn’t seem as bad as she and her paper once thought. Right?

There is nothing wrong with Roden’s story: indeed, it disclaims a fuller knowledge of Tiilerson and is careful to stress that his performance as a juror is only suggestive of an instinct for public service, rather than providing a definitive account of the man. But Roden’s article is indicative of a wider trend, in which virtually everyone – including myself – has participated. Now that Trump’s Presidency is a fact, people have seemingly given an improved forecast for the next four years, in comparison to their thoughts before his victory. As in the aftermath of any disaster, people have leapt at opportunities for optimism.

We said all those things about Trump because we wanted Hillary to win. We caricatured him as a monster and an idiot – did you know that, actually, he picks good advisers? (One friend has compared him consistently to Ronald Reagan.) It is perhaps telling that one journalist, defending Trump’s nomination of General James “Mad Dog” Matiss for Secretary of Defense, wrote of how he has already talked Trump out of reinstating the use of torture. How thin are the straws at which we grasp, when our big cause for optimism is that President Trump might not torture people? Had Clinton been elected, the issue would never even have arisen. Yet because our standards were set so low, anything will do.

By searching for pieces of good news, we can provide evidence for the belief that Trump’s administration will be alright in the end. The horror story we told during the election can’t actually happen, can it?

Most of the criticism directed at Trump before November 9th was levelled by people who expected him to lose. They did not believe that someone so “unpresidential” could win an election. When he did win, that belief remained. In order to maintain it, however, the argument has changed. Where once it went: the President cannot be unpresidential; Trump is unpresidential; therefore, Trump cannot be the President; it is now: the President cannot be unpresidential; Trump is going to be the President; therefore, Trump cannot be as bad as we thought.

In psychology, rationalization is when we find reasons to justify a hypothesis or action we really know is wrong. By searching for pieces of good news, we can provide evidence for the belief that Trump’s administration will be alright in the end. The horror story we told during the election can’t actually happen, can it? While it is likely that most fears are indeed exaggerated and that Trump will not do many of the things he says – or pick unanimously terrible advisers – we must beware of this casual optimism. Optimism comforts us, it lulls us into a false sense of security and in so doing relieves us of the obligation to act. In 2017, that would be a mistake.

The appointment of the Russophile Tillerson as Secretary of State comes at the worst possible time, with Putin more aggressive than ever; Trump is a compulsive hedonist who derives his pleasure from power; and, to cap it all off, Ben Carson will actually be in the government (as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development). And it’s not just America. Brexit looks like it’s going to be hard, Theresa May is gradually acquiring a reputation for mediocrity, Francois Fillon winning the French election would be almost as bad as defeat to Marine Le Pen, there are neo-Nazis in Germany, Syria is worse than ever, record numbers of refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, Malaysia’s leader is corrupt, the head of the Philippines brags about murdering people and Islamic terrorism is seemingly everywhere. We should prepare ourselves for a rough 2017, not a honeymoon: as it stands, the goodies are still losing.