At one point in the presidential debate earlier this week, Hillary Clinton said, “Mental health is one of the biggest concerns.” She was not referring to her opponent, but those words would have been apt in that context. Mental health is indeed a huge concern when it comes to Donald Trump. No candidate in US history has been so unhinged. Not only is Trump incapable of deep thought, he appears incapable of rational thought. His rare coherent sentences seem accidental, like the broken clock that is right twice a day. Even his hairstyle seems to reflect that the neurons below are firing in unusual ways. Indeed, his speech patterns are what you would expect from a malfunctioning AI bot. I’m not sure Trump would pass the Turing test.
Why, then, are so many Americans supporting him?
One possible reason proposed by the columnist Glenn Reynolds, which I have touched upon in an earlier edition of Lighthouse, is that a large number of Americans are closet racists, bigots, misogynists and nativists, but kept their preferences hidden because they seemed unacceptable in polite society. (Preference Falsification.) Social media allowed them to discover others like themselves, find enormous amounts of data that would feed their confirmation biases, and build progressively larger echo chambers. At the appropriate tipping point, along came Trump, articulating these basic instincts and bringing them into the mainstream. And boom, you have the Trump wave, in what social scientists would call a Preference Cascade.
I think there is much truth to this. I would also like to propose another reason: we are a species that relies on stories for explanations of the world around us, and Trump tells simple stories.
The world is complex and mysterious, and we make sense of it through stories. All our myths and religions evolved out of the need to find stories that would a) explain the world; and b) comfort ourselves. We have modified these stories as new evidence has popped up (eg, science), but have also stuck to older stories (eg, religion) for all kinds of reasons, from custom to the force of inertia to their beguiling simplicity. This last point is important. The world is so complex that simple stories appeal to us precisely because they stop us from feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Where did that tree come from? God put it there. Why was there an earthquake? God was punishing us for our sins. And so on.
Trump sells simple stories. Imagine a middle-aged white man in small-town America who has seen jobs disappear and incomes stagnate for years. If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan explain to him why he is in this state, their complex explanation of a complex phenomenon will typically contain a mix of jargon, empty phrases and tired bromides, and might even be incomprehensible. Trump, on the other hand, will keep it simple. “You are losing your jobs because our government ships them overseas” is his anti-trade spiel. “You are losing your jobs because immigrants are coming in here and taking them away” is his anti-immigration spiel. Both of these explanations are wrong, but whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are simple.
Once people buy into these stories, they are so invested in them that they are not going to accept deeper explanations. And they don’t trust politicians anyway, regarding them, with some justification, as smooth-talking, power-hungry, sociopathic slaves to special interests. Trump made a fool of himself in this recent debate, but he did worse in many of his earlier debates during the Republican primaries, and that didn’t hurt him. His followers judge him on different parameters than pundits and conventional politicians do. Substance is irrelevent, and facts don’t matter. Stories matter.
I don’t believe Trump tells these simple stories because he is a master politician. I think he tells them because he is a simpleton. His ideas are mostly dangerous and wrong, and if there is any first principle he believes in, it is an infallible belief in his own excellence. He has already destroyed his party, and he will damage his country if he comes to power. Will he be president?
I have a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. My pessimistic view is that polls are underestimating his support, just as polls underestimated the Brexit vote, because of preference falsification. So he will do better than his polls indicate. My optimistic view is that demographics are against him, and he has antagonised many black, hispanic and female voters, whose numbers are too large for him to win. He won in the multiway Republican primaries because the floor of his support was high; he will lose in the November election because its ceiling is too low. That’s the story I’m telling myself, because much as I find Hillary Clinton deplorable, I’d prefer a bad president to a mad president.