ON one level, Michael Wolff’s controversial new book about Donald Trump and his inner circle simply confirms what many of us already knew or suspected: That Trump himself is a horrifying caricature of an actual human being, surrounded by an enabling coterie of incompetent sleazebags motivated solely by personal greed, a twisted circus troupe that, in defiance of all reason or logic, now leads one of the world’s superpowers.
On another level, however, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House describes something much worse: Donald Trump is apparently a Trojan, an impostor file carrying malicious code to infect parts of the program that runs the complex computer simulation we perceive as our Universe and reality.
An assertion like that is enough to cause so much eye-rolling I can actually hear it from here, so let’s go through this step by step, starting with the possibly alarming idea that we live in the Matrix.
The theory that the Universe as we know it is actually an enormous simulation is not all that new; the concept has floated around in one form or another since the 1930s, and is intricately connected to quantum mechanics.
Our best understanding of the Universe — reality, in other words — at the quantum level, the smallest building blocks of everything we can perceive, is that it is a biocentric, model-based reality. For any practical purpose, it doesn’t exist until we observe it; until then, it is just a stew of quantum probabilities. American physicist John Archibald Wheeler described reality as “participatory,” and experiments with his ideas have tended to support his notion that “everything is information.” This gives rise to the idea that, if we have not created the Universe on our own, we may simply be living in someone else’s simulation of it.
While it is not the only possible explanation of our Universe, the simulation-as-reality theory is compelling enough that it’s perhaps the best explanation we have. After all, we have already simulated the Universe ourselves — albeit on a subatomic scale — and the theory neatly answers the thorny mystery of the genesis of the quantum stew that our observations make real. Plus there is there is the startling discovery in recent years of a specific type of computer code buried in the complex mathematical operations of string theory, which describes the fundamental makeup and interactions of the Universe at its smallest possible scale.
Too Dumb for Democracy
The simulation-as-reality does not preclude the existence of what we think of as “free will”; after all, even in computer programs we develop at our comparatively miniscule scale, algorithms that give parts of programs (such as non-controlled characters in a video game) a certain measure of autonomy are commonplace. Thus we are able to develop certain routines and behaviors on our own, sometimes to our own detriment; we are, apparently, encoded with the capacity to conceptualize things that are beyond our intellectual capacity to effectively operationalize.
A perfect example of that peculiarity in our design is the concept of democracy. In order for democracy to work effectively, we should hypothetically choose the most competent candidate for an elected office. In practice, however, we almost never do.
There are a couple of well-known reasons for this. First is the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect (named for its discoverers from Cornell University), which manifests itself as self-delusion about our own intellectual capacity. Since we are inherently incapable of accurately assessing our own competence, we are unable to accurately assess the competence of others. We tend to overestimate our own intelligence, which prevents us from recognizing our lack of competence in assessing others (such as political candidates), thus we tend to overrated them as well. We rely on what we understand in doing so, which means that we often rely on cues such as displayed confidence — which is, apparently, inversely proportional to intelligence — in order to make judgments.
Second, democracy on a large scale provides no incentive at the individual level to acquire political knowledge, because the individual benefit is quite small. Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan describes how democracy works with this analogy:
How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not. Imagine a college professor told her class of 210 million students, “Three months from now, we’ll have a final exam. You won’t get your own personal grade. Instead, I’ll average all of your grades together, and everyone will receive the same grade.” No one would bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.
As a result, voters can indulge shallow, irrational, and even destructive beliefs in supporting a candidate, because there are no discernible direct consequences; Brennan likens this expressiveness to supporting one’s favorite sports team. Not only are the odds that a particular individual vote is the one to decide an election incredibly small, identifying the voter is essentially impossible.
In the context of computer programs, these characteristics of democracy represent a serious security risk, because it is very easy to manipulate them to produce negative outcomes, and very difficult if not impossible to make them produce more than average or perhaps just slightly better than average results.
The nature of our reality and our adherence to a political system that we are not actually equipped to handle provide an explanation for why Trump, who Wolff at one point in his book describes as the “rent-in-the-fabric-of-time president-elect,” a man so diametrically opposite everything that a President of the United States — or for that matter, a normally civilized human being — ought to be, was suddenly vaulted into the highest office in the land.
Whether by design or coincidence, he was perfectly suited to exploit the flaws in the American character and its electoral system. To a certain segment of the American population (opinion polls and the results of the November 2016 election suggest it’s about a third), Trump was the equivalent of an email promising the recipient that everything that makes him uneasy — soft borders, free trade, feminism, government regulation, being required to give a damn about the environment, science in general, churches that don’t include Jay-sus, dope suckers, homos, niggers, spics, Chinamen, and especially them goddamn ragheads — could be made to go away if he just opens the attachment.
Trump himself is not actually the problem; he made it clear with his own behavior that he is too stupid to do anything but make a mess of anything he touches, a conclusion Wolff’s book simply confirms. It is the dangerous collection of actors attached to him who are now pillaging the country who are doing the real harm.
We now know what happened; what is still a mystery is why, and who’s responsible. The simplest explanation is that Trump may be a function of reality itself; the program of the Universe, or at least that part that pertains to post-modern American society, may have enough bugs in it that it created its own human malware. Or he might be the astonishing creation of something above our ken, what to us would appear to be a malevolent deity: A supercosmic hacker, so to speak. Or he may be a creation of boredom and a mean streak, a deviant player in a cosmic-scale Sims game.
Whatever his genesis, what happens next is unknown, but probably not good; compromised computer programs can’t fix themselves, at least as far as we know.