Trump’s pathogenic rhetoric.

There is of course no single reason why Donald Trump won the presidential election and it would be grossly inaccurate to suggest that there is a single profile that fits every Trump voter; there may be as many reasons that people voted for Trump as there were Trump voters.  Nevertheless, there is a core of his supporters for whom he can say or do nothing wrong and that fact raises an interesting question.

A week or so I ago I mentioned to a friend that the presidential election opened my eyes to the number of people in this country who are vulnerable to the demagoguery of Donald Trump.  I haven’t led a sheltered life and have been around some people whom I would not describe as particularly deep thinkers.  For most of them, however, I entertained a belief that native savvy and basic decency would prevent them from being taken in by Trump’s appeal to the worst parts of human nature.  I have been wrong to an unpleasant extent.  Why?

The answer becomes clearer once you look at the appeal of Trump as you would look at an infectious disease in which a pathogenic microorganism exploits a weakness in a person’s immune system to cause illness.  In the case of the Trump phenomenon the immune system consists of the power of reason and the capacity for critical thinking.  By critical thinking I mean the objective analysis of an issue in order to form a judgment about the issue.  Objective analysis is analysis that is as free as possible from emotion and personal bias.

What most often allows Trump’s pathogenic rhetoric to get past a person’s “immune system” is the fact that he is saying something that the person badly wants to hear, and that is a confirmation of some bias or prejudice that the person has, whether it be racism, religious bigotry sexism, xenophobia, or some other form of anger or hate.  It is a form of intellectual weakness that we all fall prey to from time to time:  An appeal to the heart bypasses the brain, and emotion overpowers reason.  Critical thinking gets shoved aside when the person hears something that strikes a responsive emotional chord – the person believes Trump because the person wants “validation” of his or her bias or prejudice.

An occasional lapse in critical thinking does not seem so bad when the appeal to our emotions touches a soft spot that we may have for acts of kindness and charity.  It seems a whole lot worse when the appeal is to feelings on the other end of the spectrum.

I am going to say the following because I have no doubt that it is true – and obviously so – to any rational observer employing his or her powers to think critically:  Trump is an amoral, compulsive liar incapable of truly caring for anyone or anything other than himself and those members of his immediate families whom he considers as alter egos.  His narcissism dominates his thoughts and actions to an extraordinary extent.

That is not to say that everything that he is doing or intends to do is wrong.  Such conclusions generally lie in the eyes of the beholders, and honest people can differ.  This is about whom he is and what he is and the harm that someone like him is capable of.  He is unstable, not because he is mentally ill, but because he has no fixed moral or ethical standards or even political philosophy that guides him.  He lives in the moment seeking to wring all possible nourishment for his insatiable ego out of it.  Winning is the only thing that matters to him, and he is constantly looking for an opponent or enemy to defeat in order to prove himself.  There will always be scapegoats; he can’t survive without them.

Why then are so many people unable or unwilling to see what Trump is and the danger posed by how he is trying to govern this country?  I am not talking about the Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans of this world.  They know full well what Trump is but they will go along for the ride as long as Trump’s political agenda conforms to their own and Trump stays within some semblance of reasonable bounds.  McConnell and Ryan are cynics, not dupes.  No, I am talking about the true believers who have been taken in lock, stock and barrel by Trump and are willing to defend him at all costs.

Some of those true believers are unabashed followers of Steve Bannon who make no effort to hide their prejudices; they could care less about anything that Trump says or does as long as he pursues the alt-right agenda.  Others, however, deny that they are prejudiced in any manner and that Trump’s appeal to them is based on more positive reasons.  They may be fooling themselves, but they are not fooling anyone else.

There is another factor at play.  It has been fashionable for a number of years for academics to decry a wave of anti-intellectualism gripping the country.  Such observations often come from elitists who confuse anti-intellectualism with a refusal to accept their particular points of view.  Nevertheless, I do believe that there has been a rise in anti-intellectualism that has created an ideal environment for Trumpism to spread, much like squalid urban environments contributed to the spread of tuberculosis.

Anti-intellectualism refers to a general aversion to intellectual pursuits that often manifests itself as a tendency to distrust scholars and experts, including scientists.  Anti-intellectualism is not the same as a lack of raw intelligence; it is an attitude based on an emotional response to intellectual arguments and theories.

It is no coincidence that the alt-right movement includes a disproportionate number of people without any scientific background of their own who reject the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on the causes of climate change.  What does their position on a purely scientific question have to do with their intolerant social and political beliefs?  The answer is very little other than anti-intellectualism.  If your aversion to critical thinking allows you to reject the evidence of man’s role in climate change it can allow you to buy into the malignancy of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

There was a wide gap in the presidential election in the preferences of those with and without a college degree. College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%.  According to the Pew Research Center this was by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.

The statistic is not surprising.  An education either in the sciences or in the humanities is intended to impart a lasting belief in the value of critical thinking that should inoculate college graduates against the effect of rhetoric like Trump’s.  Preventive medicine is never 100%  effective but I believe that the gap between college-educated and non-college educated voters generally reflects differences in the value placed on critical thinking and on the skills necessary to employ it.  This is not to say that many, many non-college educated voters did not see through Trump immediately; it means only that only that training and education in critical thinking does tend to have an effect.

In summary, I do not accept that an otherwise rational and open-minded person condones Trump’s behavior unless Trump has touched upon something angry and intolerant inside that person’s head.  I would never make such a pronouncement about a mere political disagreement, but this is no longer just about politics.  The recent escalation by Trump of his “war” on the media as the “enemy of the people” is undemocratic, un-American, and dangerous.  It is not melodramatic to say that resistance to Trump is now about patriotism, not about politics.  Enough is enough, things have to be called out for what they are, and we all have an obligation to get involved in some way.

Is there any hope that some of Trump’s true believers can be persuaded to re-engage their powers of critical thinking and join the resistance against his attempts to reset American values?  Yes.  David Axelrod said on CNN this morning that he guessed that only about half of Trump’s supporters comprise the “irreducible core.”  Beyond that core there is room for movement.  Just because a person succumbed to an angry or intolerant impulse when entering the voting both in November does not mean that he or she is a bad person or is irredeemable.  We need those folks back on the side of reason, and soon.

February 20, 2017

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