Can Trump Think? Part 5, Method and Madness

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Maybe a new motto to put on those red hats?  (Wikipedia)

Following previous items in this thread, readers weigh in on why Donald Trump may be saying the things he does, and why his supporters are still with him.

1. On Crying Wolf. In yesterday’s item, a reader noted that reflexive, excessive use of terms like “stupid” or “bigoted” had weakened their meaning — and made it hard to signal that someone like Trump really is different from, say, Sarah Palin (who knew much more about policy than Trump does).

A reader who now serves as a mayor in a state Trump is almost certain to carry writes this:

Reading the prior note about how our terms have lost power due to overuse, it occurred to me that when Trump is called racist or sexist or hateful of a religion…that is not hurting him with many of those who are inclined to vote for him.  

Those who have supported him since the start of the Republican primary are likely to be only more attracted to any candidate identified as racist. At the very least, they are people who don’t find racism as a disqualifying thing.

He started the campaign calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and the reaction calling him “racist” endeared him to those who actually like being identified as having racist views. It jump-started his campaign, immediately connecting with people who were sitting out there holding hateful views about Hispanics.   Maybe some supporters shy away from identifying themselves with the term, but they don’t back off of self-evident racist policy and social views.  They are who he says he is.

His attitude toward women?   Same concept applies.

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2. From another reader, a shorter note about the role of “thinking” in politics:

As you recently noted, Trump is apparently always “thinking” very carefully about what will turn his audience on.

Bush and Rove were just the latest in a long list of politicians and operatives who have understood that there are times when a righteous war against a certifiable Bad Guy will make many people feel good or at least better in a way that nothing else will. So far Trump has had no trouble finding plenty of takers for his own, much more theatrical bellicosity - Mission (almost) Accomplished on steroids, as it were.

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3. On levels of complexity in political discourse and motivation:

As a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, I might add a little to the last writer who mentioned the distinction between "stupid" and "evil."  While most angles on the Trump constituency are focused around some amalgamation of low information voters and those who don't "think," recent cognitive neuroscience research tells the opposite story.

It's not that people who buy into seemingly absurd premises don't think enough, it's that they simultaneously have elaborately thought out and yet tortuously simplistic justifications for Trump's policy positions.  This is how one can take something as complex as fiscal policy or the global economy and reduce it down to base elements of race and gender delineating winners and losers.  

It takes a lot of "thinking" to contort something as odious as sexism or racism into a valid justification for limiting immigration or economic opportunity.  It's this same carefully crafted in-group/out-group distinction that allows people to similarly dismiss Trump calling women pigs and dogs as "rejecting political correctness" , assuredly something no one would accept if it were uttered about one's mother, sister, or daughter.

As a prime example, I note the case of John McGraw, the 78 year old North Carolina man who punched a Trump rally protester as he exited the building escorted by security.  When asked about the incident, McGraw mentioned a possible link to Al-Qaeda and that the next time "we might have to kill him."  

This is the mindset of an intricately constructed worldview in which political protesters could be sleeper cell terrorists.  It takes a large amount of mental effort to jump through the logical hoops necessary to assume that society can easily be made great again and yet be so precipitously close to falling over the cliff of peril.

This is a feature, not a bug, in the Trump campaign.

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4. Finally, on the interlacing roles of expression, and reflection, in making up what we think of as intelligence:

In your recent conversations regarding Trump’s intelligence, I think most of it has to do with how he expresses himself. For example, his limited vocabulary, coining words that he should know better than to use – a famous word is “bigly” – and his very simple ways of expressing relatively complex ideas regarding commerce and conflict, impact our assessment of his intelligence. [JF note: As I understand it, there is a reasonable chance that Trump intended to say “big league” as opposed to “bigly.” Still...]

I know liberals who have thought GW Bush was stupid, largely because of how he expressed himself, as well as his failure to explore his errors. Bush’s failure to reflect concerned me more than any sense of his presumed intelligence.I am much more confident in President “I screwed up,” than I was with President “Mistakes were made.”

Reagan, too, was given to expressing his ideas in uncomplicated ways. Some would suggest that this indicated a talent for communication, not a deficiency in sense or judgement. No one spoke of Romney as unintelligent (nerdy, awkward, maybe, but these are not intellectual flaws). And I know many republicans who seem to believe that democrats are either stupid or naïve.

It does go both ways, and all you have to do is listen to the patronizing tone many republicans take on foreign policy pronouncements, “their” turf. Sarah Palin remarked last week on President Obama’s stupidity, but Obama’s intelligence and patriotism are often impugned.   

My assessment of intelligence is related to one’s willingness to learn. The Atlantic has covered the work of Carol Dweck in the past. Her research on growth vs fixed mindset is more related to efficacy, but I believed that it is also useful in understanding an individual’s willingness to learn new skills and information.

The ability to synthesize novel ideas or new skill sets says a great deal about individuals. One problem that many people who are employed in low-skilled occupations that later are outsourced or disappear, is that whether for lack of interest or lack of opportunity, they had not thought to acquire new skills. Does this mean they are unintelligent? No. It means that they were not interested or sufficiently foresighted to understand that tomorrow might require different information than today provided. Somehow, their plan was to win (or survive) and that didn’t work out. Lacking the interest in a Plan B, they were stuck.

The same is reflected in my understanding of Trump. He is not doing much differently now than he ever did. He speaks without much thought or reflection, because that has worked for him in the past. He is mostly skilled at expressing himself in terms of his personal interpretation of wealth and therefore, success. And it may work with some voters.

My concern with Trump is that he doesn’t seem to have information that a President ought to have at his or her disposal, or at least, he doesn’t express his knowledge base in public fora. He has not explained how his policies will work. He does not indicate that his understanding of the global economy is more than transactional, and his foreign policy interests appear to be limited. His vision is that America will win, win, win. He has not explained what he has learned so far, how he will achieve his vision, how he will work with others on a global scale. Maybe has a plan for doing this, but he has not shared any inkling of this plan with the voters, and some of us need that information.  

What has he learned, as an American, an adult, a man, a father, a business person, and how does this presumed growth translate into his potential leadership? The answer to that question is much more interesting and useful to me than how “intelligent” Trump may or may not be.