It is an overworked cliché today that pundits from across the political spectrum have miscalculated the staying power of Donald Trump’s popularity. My best friend’s long-time pal Steven Hayward posted a Thanksgiving mea Trumpa at Powerline. And I certainly never expected this staying power.
The original consensus view was that Trump would be a brief but entertaining flash in the political pan as he had been in previous campaigns. When he stuck around at the head of the class, there was a great deal of re-positioning and reconsideration. Now there is (for me and many others) the frightening prospect that Trump may actually win the nomination. Or serve as a Ron Paul spoiler (the pouty third-party “If I cannot have the nomination I’m gonna ruin it for the winner and let the Dems win” gambit). Or perhaps even more frightening, become the 45th president.
There have been hundreds of articles and posts analyzing his success. Most make some reference to his plain speaking and distinction from the political class, saying what the common folk think. I believe it goes beyond this; I believe it is rooted in the very psychology of many Americans in a way that it trumps (intended) normal reservations, logic and litmus tests that people usually apply when picking “their” candidate.
Plain speaking is one thing. Why do people stick with him when he makes stupid gaffes that would doom other politicians, or when he holds positions that would normally cause them to reject any other politician? So many Republicans have been sidelined in past races for a single slip up, sometimes a single word (macaca, anyone?). How is it that Trump survives gaffe after gaffe, sometimes growing stronger when critics say, “This time his doom is insured.”
Trump’s Rhetoric Relieves Many Americans’ Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a term coined by Leon Festinger to explain the mental discomfort felt when two contradictory ideas or thoughts are held in the mind at the same time. People who are not willfully blind or so ideologically conditioned as to be impervious to reality are confronted by such conflict by politicians and the media on a daily basis.
We are repeatedly assured by politicians and media personalities alike that terrorists calling themselves the “Islamic State” and shouting “Allahu Akbar” as they commit acts of barbarism have nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, we are told that people who equate ISIS and jihad with Islam are Just. Plain. Wrong.
We’re told it’s un-American to think this way. It’s Islamaphobic.
For many (most?) of us, that hurts our brains. But… but…but… we silently think. We don’t hate or fear all Muslims. Just the ones who want to kill us. Most of us have Muslim friends.
We are asked by our leaders to hold in our minds two concepts that are contradictory. Cognitive dissonance.
The Democratic National Committee puts out an ad quoting several Republican presidential candidates saying America is at war with “radical Islam” and then quotes President George W. Bush saying we are not at war with “Islam,” two different things which any rational person can differentiate. “It’s wrong to attack an entire religion and an entire people.”
Really? That quiet voice is saying in many heads. That’s not what I just heard. Inigo Montoya speaks up, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” They didn’t say “at war with Islam” – qualifiers matter, which is why we use them. Sorta like why we say “conservative” and “liberal.” Would President Obama be happy with saying “Americans hate Muslims” or is he more likely to say “conservative Americans hate Muslims?” Qualifiers matter. We can see the difference in the words they use but are expected to accept these two contradictory claims made with authority. We are being told left is right.
When people are slaughtered in Paris, President Obama calls it a “setback” after saying that he has “contained” the group responsible for the terror attacks the day before.
While people see their healthcare costs rise, their deductibles increase, they lose their doctor after being told (“period”) they could keep her, and in many cases their insurance plans get canceled, they hear from politicians that Obamacare has been a success.
When many workers give up looking for a job and quit the workforce, resulting in the lowest workforce participation rate since 1978, they are being told by the current administration and a pliant press that the unemployment rate is falling and they should be happy the president is doing a good job.
With the bodies of the dead still cooling in Paris after an Islamic terrorist assault, a new Islamic terrorist assault in Mali leaving another American dead, lockdowns in France and Belgium because of the threats, President Obama continued to warn Americans that the real imminent threat is climate change. He reserves his anger in press conferences for Republicans, not terrorists.
When people across the political spectrum raise concerns that importing “refugees” from Syria into the United States should be slowed down because this could provide a convenient path for ISIS or Al Qaeda to smuggle in terrorists, President Obama and his supporters ridicule the notion. Even after it is revealed that one of the Paris terrorists apparently was a using a “refugee” passport and ISIS states it will be using the refugees to infiltrate terrorists.
President Obama chides Republicans for being afraid of “women and orphans” as 26-year-old Hasna Ait Boulahcen blows herself up with a suicide vest during a Paris raid. In San Bernardino, a woman joins her husband slaughtering fourteen people. But we shouldn’t be afraid of women, we are mockingly told by our president.
On one hand, we have the world as people experience it on a day-to-day level. On the other we have it as Democratic politicians and their media supporters present it. In movies and TV shows it is more likely than not that the initial focus on a likely Muslim suspect will turn out wrong and it will be the right-wing nutcase who is really the terrorist, giving us the Hollywood elite’s invaluable insight into our preconceptions and prejudice. How often does James Bond or the IMF go after Islamic terrorists these days?
The average mother cannot help thinking about whether she is more concerned about getting shot by a terrorist when she goes to eat dinner next Tuesday with her toddler, or if August is two degrees warmer on average in one hundred years from now. Which does she believe her government should be more focused on?
Yet while the world literally burns, our president and his surrogates and top leaders (as well as the Democrat candidates) are telling her the greatest threat we face is climate change.
Our president and his media repeatedly tell us that terrorists want to kill us not for the reasons the terrorists proclaim (religious, cultural, historical, and political reasons) but because of jobs and climate change.
The government assures us they will “vet” an influx of tens of thousands of immigrants from Syria and other Muslim nations – but “vet” with whom? The Syrian equivalent of the CIA and NSA? We are wrong if we question how. FBI Director James Comey explained that the agency cannot vet people who are not in their database. President Obama isn’t explaining to anyone how the vetting will be done.
I’m reminded of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Major Eaton tells Indiana Jones the government has “top men” working on researching the Ark of the Covenant. When Indie asks, “Who?”, the major repeats, “Top men.” Cut to the vast warehouse where the Ark will be buried forever, untouched.
We know that one of the San Bernardino terrorists passed three levels of government background checks to be allowed into the U.S. But that’s OK, we should still have confidence because we will have “top people” on the job vetting Syrians. Pay no attention to the fact that ISIS can apparently print their own Syrian passports and documents.
Americans are being fed statements from our government and press daily that contradict what we see around us and what makes common sense. They are constantly being asked, as Chico Marx did in Duck Soup, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
The frustration builds. The cognitive dissonance is built into the warp and woof of culture these days. Television, movies, theater, and magazines. Yoga is canceled because it is “cultural appropriation,” yet my latest copy of Smithsonian celebrates Lin-Manuel Miranda’s all-Black Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton and no one dare claim cultural appropriation there. When it’s Black actors portraying White historical figures, it’s brilliant and edgy. What would the reaction be to a revered White actor portraying Crispus Attucks? Somehow I doubt the Smithsonian would treat it the same way.
Cognitive dissonance comes from liberals who claim they support free speech by denying others the right to say things they disagree with. It springs from minorities crying racism at every term, then claiming they cannot be racists when they cast racial epithets because they lack power. Never mind that the President, Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of HUD, the Administrator of the Small Business Administration, two Supreme Court justices, as well as the U.N. Ambassador are all minorities. Congress is 8% Black, 6% Latino and 5.6% Asian. It’s hard to compare these to their population percentages because of those pesky “White Hispanics” and other crossover designations, although Blacks are about 13.2% of the population. But having the presidency and much of his cabinet being Black should help balance that out.
Cities are burning with race riots, police officers are being executed by Blacks, Black Lives Matter demonstrations are making headlines, and race relations are at a two-decade low. But President Obama says he has improved race relations during his presidency.
And along comes The Donald. Here is someone in politics who doesn’t even pretend that the other side has any credibility at all. They are idiots. They are morons. How can they expect any intelligent person to believe this crap? On Fox News Sunday (excuse me, Faux News Sunday for my liberal friends) today he said the label “losers” was not strong enough for the politicians in Washington.
And people who have been struggling with their cognitive dissonance, wondering if there was something wrong with themselves, can heave a sigh of relief and say, “Hell, yes. Finally, someone is saying what I was too afraid to say.”
“I’m not crazy after all.”
He legitimizes their feelings, their frustrations at being force-fed through every media a topsy-turvy world that contradicts so many values they took for granted ten or twenty years ago. The definition of marriage, the role of America in the world, even what it means to be a man or a woman.
Trump is the therapist who reassures the patient that they are not insane. He relieves the pressure on the brain without the awkward and messy trepanning procedure. His role is more than just that of politician – it is one of psychic rescuer.
For decades Americans have been conditioned to be politically correct, and to be sensitive to other cultures, the feelings of others, to not judge.
Discrimination – in the broadest sense so essential to survival (fire hot – don’t touch!) – became something to be avoided to the point of absurdity. Reality became user-defined (choose to be a man, woman or other), and people had to set aside common sense; disparate outcomes were not because of difference in abilities or effort or dumb luck but because of institutional racism or other factors unrelated to the individual who failed.
One was required to be willfully blind to the fact that you had to have proportional racial representation on the faculty but not the basketball squad. We could allow for ability in one but not the other, and ironically for an academic institution is was in the field of sports where ability was the determinative factor for allowed discrimination, not academics.
And along comes Trump who cries BS (literally) and a lot of people say, “Thank you!”
They will forgive him a great deal because for the first time in decades someone on the national stage in politics has clearly, passionately and without a thought to how it would play out on page one or the lede on the evening news, cried “This is crap!”
And that’s a good thing, a great thing. Many times over the last few months Trump’s over-the-top pontification has smashed open the Overton Window, allowed for the conversation to happen over policy issues that were somewhat constrained (over immigration, refugees, military strategy, taxation, etc.).
But like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, identifying the problem doesn’t mean having a solution. The Overton Window refers to politically acceptable options; Trump often sets a parameter beyond the acceptable, allowing more rational heads to grapple with the issue and come to a more measured policy. Even Trump usually backtracks and softens his rhetoric.
But is that what we want in a president? President George W. Bush was accused of being a “cowboy” (as was Reagan before him) but Trump makes them look like Caspar Milquetoast.
I believe one real secret to Trump’s effectiveness, which differentiates him from the other top-tier candidates, is that he doesn’t care about the press, he uses the press.
Republicans treat the mainstream media the way a battered spouse does her abuser – she tries to be nice in the hopes that this will avoid further abuse. In my practice I represent abused spouses, and the problem is not the victim, but the abuser. No matter how well you treat the abuser they will find an excuse to batter again. The victim’s conduct is not at fault. It’s about power and control.
No matter how Republicans pander to the MSM, they will always have their words twisted and distorted. They will always be covered unfairly. They will always be ambushed. They will always have unfavorable coverage, and be the subject of negative editorials. Time for Republicans to say “Screw ‘em!” and control their press more effectively, or just ignore the consequences. Don’t pander any more. Mock the press, don’t meet the press.
Say what you want to say. Have your plans prepared before you shoot off your mouth but address the concerns of the people, not the press. Don’t worry how the press will receive it and distort it, think of how the people will hear it. Town hall your message, don’t focus group it with groups gathered by “experts.” The “experts” are generally wrong, fighting battles from several campaigns back (which they lost…).
Americans are living in a Through the Looking Glass world. Trump has capitalized on that as no other politician. But candidates have to stop talking in generics and platitudes that the press cannot take issue with; they have to take stands with details that will alienate some people to rally others.
If Cruz or Rubio would get their acts together to recognize how hungry the American people are to be told by politicians that their candidate understands that up is not down and not just generic “values” but specifics are what they stand for, then I believe Trump’s support would erode quickly when more stable, thoughtful and credible candidates began treating our national cognitive dissonance.