As chaos reigns and Donald Trump’s reckoning with Robert Mueller draws near, the question persists — why is Trump’s base so obdurate in its loyalty to a dangerously unstable and incompetent president? One answer is particularly disturbing: for millions of Americans, Trump’s pervasive lies are culturally and psychologically addictive. They have become his means of survival.
Even now, Trump’s mendacity astonishes ― witness his repeated assertions that droves of violent terrorists are assaulting our southern border, or his plainly false claim that government workers support his petulant shutdown. But his perpetual dishonesty obscures a related pathology which makes him as dangerous to our climate as he is to the rule of law: the comprehensive incomprehension of his own intellectual deficiencies which melds him with his followers.
Not only is Trump ignorant of his ignorance but, as George Will put it, “he does not know what it is to know something.” Thus the biggest lie of all: his assertions of universal expertise.
Repeatedly, Trump claims that “nobody knows more than I do” regarding a multitude of complex subjects: energy, the debt, the Federal Reserve, fiscal policy, trade, tariffs, infrastructure, immigration, border security, fighting ISIS and military strategy in general — exemplified, most recently, by his precipitous decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the vehement objection of his advisers, Congress, and experts across the ideological spectrum. Paradigmatically, Trump dismissed the dire National Climate Assessment without glancing at the world all around us: “People like me, we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.”
Even for a self-anointed “genius,” Trump’s range impresses. That’s the problem. True geniuses are disinclined to proclaim their gifts, and perceive the infinity of what they can never know.
By contrast, Trump is a classic exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for two psychologists who demonstrated that the less knowledgeable and competent you are, the more you believe in your own superlative abilities. Such benighted folks not only “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”
Our president personifies this to a frightening degree. That explains his embarrassing search for a chief of staff, and the resignation of James Mattis in protest over Syria: Trump lurches from crisis to crisis, foreign and domestic, deaf to the voices of knowledge and experience. And so the few capable advisers he has are supplanted by incompetents who coddle his groundless and dangerous conceits ― condemning us to a president whose unilateral actions grow ever more unhinged.
But the worst of it is this: Trump became president because the Dunning-Kruger Effect increasingly pervades the country which elected him ― converting his blustery contempt for knowledge into a political asset. The noted academic Tom Nichols illuminated our collective cognitive decline in a telling article “How America Lost Faith in Expertise.”
Nichols offered a jaw-dropping example. In 2015, Public Policy Polling asked primary voters in both parties whether they would support bombing Agrabah — the fictional country in the Disney film “Aladdin.” Nearly one-third of Republicans favored bombing; only 13 percent were opposed. Democrats’ percentages were roughly reversed. Aside from confirming stereotypes — hawkish Republicans, dovish Democrats — half those responding expressed opinions on whether America should bomb a cartoon country.
“Trump’s accession marked the democratization of ignorance, empowering a dangerously self-obsessed demagogue who, devoid of learning and discernment, portrays himself as sufficient to all things.”
One laughs. But the very serious concern, Nichols suggests, is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance — at least regarding public policy — has become a virtue.
This contempt for expertise helps bond Trump to his followers. To reject established knowledge enables the angry or insecure to assert their autonomy from a despised elite ― including specialists in areas like climate science and global economics. Informed debate devolves into a mindless fusion of vituperation and misinformation.
Why? One cause, Nichols argues, is that the complexity of modern life engenders feelings of helplessness among Americans who feel increasingly subordinate to sophisticated experts. As it grows harder to comprehend complex subjects — climate change leaps to mind — they seize upon assertions, however bogus, that corroborate what they wish to believe. Donald Trump is their enabler in chief.
This phenomenon is particularly acute in shaping our opinions about politics, decoupling our most visceral biases and illusions from the need for objective verification. Thus a 2015 study by scholars at Ohio State found that both liberals and conservatives discounted scientific theories which contradicted their beliefs — and, when challenged, doubted science instead of themselves.
In this swampland of subjectivity, opinions justify themselves simply by existing, creating a thickening fog of incomprehension where expertise competes with bunk. The result is a pernicious intellectual populism in which everyone’s opinion, regardless of its basis, is as good as anyone else’s. All one needs to validate a preposterous assertion is to express it.
His voters elected him by ignoring the most obvious requirement of global leadership: that presidents must both understand the challenges of governance in a complex world and be aware that, because their knowledge is finite, they need informed advice to help them govern wisely. Trump’s accession marked the democratization of ignorance, empowering a dangerously self-obsessed demagogue who, devoid of learning and discernment, portrays himself as sufficient to all things.
For those supporters, Trump’s belligerent ignorance on a multiplicity of subjects is a source of comfort and affirmation, the psychic glue through which Trump simplifies an all-too-complicated world. Even should Mueller reveal damning evidence of Trump’s enthrallment by Russia, their craving for what he gives them is too primal to shake. If they need to believe whatever Trump says, most will.
Critical to this polarization is the widespread decline of respect for Trump’s favorite target, the mainstream media — outlets with actual journalistic standards — in preference for divisive social media. Equally problematic, self–selected virtual communities are supplanting actual relationships between people of differing views and backgrounds, intensifying the tendency of more Americans to view each other as enemies ― and for millions to see Trump as their avatar.
These communal bubbles have become increasingly impermeable, their occupants ever more susceptible to disinformation and manipulation. Inevitably, this suffocates our capacity for critical thought — mirroring, and empowering, Trump’s political needs and intellectual and psychological incapacities.
Central to his survival in office is the deliberate destruction of our shared belief that verifiable truth is the indispensable foundation of political discourse. As our societal agreement about credible sources and objective fact diminishes, so does our means of resistance to baseless theories and political quackery ― affecting even the skeptical and well-informed.
“Like other class systems, this perpetuates itself ― enhancing the danger that Trump’s presidency will not be sui generis, but a banefully instructive prototype.”
This fact-free environment provided Trump a credulous audience unwilling, or unable, to perceive his constant lies and lethal grandiosity — or care about the democratic institutions and traditions he seeks to override. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” nourish the alternative reality in which Trump inflames his own American tribe against “enemies” like Robert Mueller.
Trump’s Lotusland has dedicated soothsayers ― Breitbart, Infowars, Hannity, Limbaugh ― buttressing a class system of the mind which separates those addicted to propaganda from those who are not. Like other class systems, this perpetuates itself ― enhancing the danger that Trump’s presidency will not be sui generis, but a banefully instructive prototype.
If we are to survive as a civil society, this cannot continue. Schools must emphasize civic education and Internet and media literacy — the ability to question and research. In a time when resources for good journalism are shrinking, building strong nonprofit news sources must become a philanthropic priority.
Finally, we must renew our personal and political commitment to reach America’s varied communities, and the actual people who live there — our fellow citizens. That means addressing the realities which define their daily lives, surmounting false palliatives through empathy and, yes, knowledge.
Unless and until this happens, we will pay a terrible price. Just how terrible is likely to be revealed yet again as this New Year brings us new revelations about Trump’s multiple violations of law and entanglement with Russia, and millions of Americans treat Mueller’s report like a political Rorschach test – its meaning distorted by their own internal landscape.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.