Why Obama can't argue with a reality-show businessman who relies on bombast and subjectivity
President Obama's decision to release his long-form birth certificate is a reminder of the handicaps under which rational people labor when confronting the irrational. Facts are poor antidotes to irrational beliefs, as numerous analyses of birther madness (and other false beliefs) have noted and birther reaction to Obama's birth certificate demonstrates. But if you're naturally inclined to try reasoning with people, you keep presenting them with facts anyway, even until your impulse to reason becomes as reflexively unreasonable as the faith based conspiracy theories you seek to dispel.
And therein lies Donald Trump's great advantage. Whether or not he attended the "best schools and always did good," whether or not he was admitted for reasons having little to do with merit, he seems to owe very little to the academic tradition and its regard for reason and facts. Instead he owes his ascent on reality TV and in the increasingly unreal venue of Republican presidential politics largely to the popular development tradition -- its preference for subjective statements of belief over mere statements of fact and its celebration of utterly unmerited self-esteem.
Known on The Daily Show as "professional megalomaniac" Donald Trump, he self-affirms to the point of self-parody. His chest-thumping is not exactly a lie. When an aggressive self-affirmer declares his greatness, he probably intends to be offering a factual statement, and it may pass for one among friendly audiences, eager to believe in his leadership and accustomed to accepting the "truth" of personal testimonials.
But whether or not Trump's fans take all his bombast literally, they do seem to take seriously his questionable claims of high intelligence and an unvarnished record of astounding success (which Joshua Green questions here).
I doubt they support his presidential bid simply because they find it entertaining -- though these days, you never know. What's the harm of a political blowhard's encomiums to himself? If people share his assessments of his own incredible excellence, they're likely to credit his pronouncements about the economy or foreign policy and perhaps even fantasize about Gaddafi and the Somali pirates skulking off when Trump points at them and declares, "You're fired."
Asserting his own greatness, his implicit (as well as explicit) message is that he will restore America's greatness as well. It's as if Trump's self-proclaimed exceptionalism would rub off on the nation. A developer who worked with Trump years ago told me that when he walked down the street, strangers reached out to touch him in the apparent hope that success would rub off, which may partly account for his reported phobia about shaking hands -- a phobia that makes it hard to imagine Trump actually running for anything, except perhaps in a virtual election for Mayor of Jersey Shore, an office for which he might actually be qualified.
Image credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper