1.10 Washington, We Have A Problem

Can a tech metaphor ripped from the Apollo 13 disaster help explain the Trump presidency? Find out in this week's special politics-themed episode of Soonish!

Whether you like Donald Trump or not, you’ve got to give him credit for one important thing. He’s reinvigorating national debate about the Constitution and the limits on the powers it gives to the president.

With his attacks on judges and journalists, his efforts to shut the borders to Muslims, his attempts to quell inquiries into his campaign’s Russia ties, his early-morning tweetstorms, and so much more, Trump has breached every norm of presidential conduct. And he’s testing the constitutional separation of powers in ways the nation’s founders could never have anticipated.

In this episode, we try to understand Trump’s impact on government—and what the Trump presidency might mean for America’s future—using a metaphor from the aerospace business: gimbal lock.

Pilots and astronauts know gimbal lock as a scary situation in which a craft’s inertial guidance system can fail to isolate the central gyroscope from the craft's movements. Normally, a spinning gyroscope always points in the same direction, which provides a consistent reference point for navigation. But that only works as long as the craft can pitch, roll, and yaw around the gyroscope freely. Gimbals—concentric, nested rings mounted around the gyroscope at 90-degree angles to one another—are designed to allow exactly that. But in older guidance systems, including those on the Apollo spacecraft, pointing the craft in certain forbidden directions can cause two or more of the gimbals to align. That means the gimbals can keep the gyroscope isolated from maneuvers in two directions, but not from maneuvers in the third direction—rendering the whole system useless.

A gyroscope surrounded by a system of three gimbals. (Wikimedia Commons)

A gyroscope surrounded by a system of three gimbals. (Wikimedia Commons)

Attentive fans of the movie Apollo 13 may remember that as the astronauts attempted to keep control of their damaged capsule, they worried loudly about gimbal lock. That wasn’t just a dramatic device. For the Apollo astronauts, it was a constant concern.

What I’m suggesting in this episode is that we consider the U.S. government as if it were a system of gimbals built to protect what journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson has called our constitutional gyroscope. (Isaacson’s metaphor, which first turned up in his biography of Albert Einstein, was what got me thinking along these lines in the first place.) A three-gimbal system corresponds nicely to the three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial.

The Constitution sets up an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that the branches always operate independently and that no single branch obtains too much power. For example, the president can veto bills sent to him or her by Congress, but Congress has the power to override the veto and even impeach the president. The president appoints Supreme Court justices but the Senate has to confirm them. The judiciary can convict people but the president can pardon them. And so on.

We may even have a stabilizing "fourth gimbal" in the form of the Fourth Estate—the media outlets that, historically, have kept tabs on the government and reported on its excesses. The big question we face today is whether the system of gimbals is foolproof—or whether, in fact, it may be vulnerable to the malice and/or ineptitude of a player like Trump, who seems to have little knowledge of or respect for the Constitution itself.

And it’s not just Trump who’s testing the system.

  • Both houses of Congress are controlled by the president’s political party—and that party’s leaders, seemingly intent on their mission to pass healthcare and tax legislation, have allowed the president to roam largely unchallenged.
  • With the addition of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the court’s liberal-to-moderate wing is again just one swing vote away from losing its majority on issues such as abortion rights.
  • The independent press has been partially undermined by political polarization, the industry's own economic distress, and the surprising effectiveness of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” campaign.

Under conditions like this, there may be a danger that two or more branches of government will end up acting in lockstep. That could put our system into a kind of gimbal lock, disabling the checks and balances that would normally protect the Constitution and moderate the actions of an authoritarian president.

Constitutional gimbal lock might not send us careening into space, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

That’s the proposition this episode explores, anyway. Making the show has been a fun and interesting way for me to cope with a set of political circumstances that I  could never have imagined back in mid-2016, when I first hatched the plans to launch a podcast about the future. Thankfully, I found a couple of very generous and cooperative government and public policy experts, Yascha Mounk and David Eaves, to help me think through the idea.

Is the gimbal-lock metaphor useful, or just fun? Well, listen and decide for yourself.

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See Also

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, a new podcast about constitutional from Elizabeth Joh and Roman Mars

The Bullshitter-in-Chief, by Matthew Yglesias, Vox, May 30, 2017

 

Guests

David Eaves, lecturer in public policy, Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government

Yascha Mounk, lecturer on government, Harvard University

Amy Shira Teitel, spaceflight historian, writer, YouTuber, podcaster

 

Mentioned In This Episode

Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard, music by James Horner (1995)

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (2007)

Walter Isaacson’s appearance on CBS This Morning, November 6, 2013

Vintage Space, Amy Shira Teitel’s YouTube channel on space history

Gimbal Lock and Apollo 13, from Amy Shira Teitel’s Vintages Space channel

Apollo 11 mission transcript, featuring the “fourth gimbal” remark by Michael Collins

James Comey testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017, full transcript and video

Yascha Mounk’s column at Slate

Yascha Mounk’s page at New America

The Good Fight, Yascha Mounk’s podcast from New America (iTunes listing)

Xconomy Voices, the new show I’m hosting and producing for Xconomy (pilot episode)

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Looking Back by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts

Desolate by Tim Beek from the album Soundtrack

Interplanetary Hollows by Tim Beek from the album Soundtrack

Schoolhouse Rock: The Preamble, music by Lynn Ahrens (1975)

Strange World by Tim Beek from the album Orchestra

Slow Lights by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts 3

The Undead by Tim Beek from the album Various

Grasping Hope by Tim Beek from the album Contemporary

New Beginning by Tim Beek from the album Contemporary

 

Special Thanks

Thank you to my guests for playing along with the gimbal lock metaphor. Thanks also to Lauren Bacon for introducing me to David Eaves, and to David Mindell for pointing me to the work of Amy Shira Teitel. And deep thanks to Mark Pelofsky and Daniel Sheehan for reviewing and commenting on drafts of this episode.

 

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