Donald Trump Is Changing How We See Reality, and That’s a Good Thing
In the fall of 2015, Dilbert creator and national treasure Scott Adams first told his blog readers that Donald Trump “would forever change how [they] view reality.” Much to the chagrin of millions, Adams’ prediction turned out to be an understatement. Adams (an author, entrepreneur and trained hypnotist as well as a cartoonist) has known for years that facts don’t matter in a political campaign. The only thing a candidate needs to know is psychology, and Trump knows psychology very well.
In his ascent to the White House, Trump didn’t exactly conceal his technique. While winking at those who understood what was happening, he stayed in character, and played to the public’s emotions and sense of identity. Many were shocked by how blatantly the candidate invented/eschewed reality, but Adams was amused and impressed. He deemed Trump a “master persuader,” the best he has ever seen. His assessment of Trump’s exceptional ability aroused my interest in a man I previously saw as little more than gaudy and trite. I began to read Adams’ blog religiously, and now devour every word he publishes.
Adams frequently teaches his audience how to recognize confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs) and cognitive dissonance (mental stress caused by simultaneously holding contradictory thoughts, beliefs or attitudes). Having learned my lessons well, I noticed Meet the Press host Chuck Todd displaying telltale symptoms of both conditions last Sunday when he interviewed Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. At a briefing the previous day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had berated reporters for underestimating how many people watched Trump’s Inauguration Day address. Spicer contended, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”
Todd wasted no time grilling Conway about what he insisted throughout the interview was a lie that Spicer had told at the press briefing. “Why was it necessary,” he asked, “to send out the press secretary on his first day in office to utter a provable falsehood that now calls into question everything the press secretary will say from here on out?” Offering none of his own proof as he lambasted the Trump administration for its presumed dishonesty, Todd fumed, “What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?”
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.
Admittedly, Spicer’s assertion could be interpreted two ways: 1) the in-person and remote audiences were each individually and separately the largest ever, or 2) the combination of audiences was the largest ever. I assumed Spicer meant the latter, because the on-site assemblage so clearly did not surpass all other inaugurations in size. But it apparently never occurred to Todd that Spicer was referring to the combination, or that before going ballistic as he did, it would be more prudent to wait a day for a scheduled press conference at which Spicer would surely be asked to clarify what he had said:
Todd repeatedly demanded that Conway explain why Trump had instructed Spicer to kill his own credibility with a “provable falsehood.” The interregator’s belief that Spicer had not only lied but obviously lied, was not up for debate. In Todd’s mind, the only unknown was what motivated the president to sabotage his press secretary. But if the premise that Spicer told an untruth is set aside, what could be more apparent than the answer to the “why” part of Todd’s question? Indeed, it’s so evident it wasn’t even worth asking. Trump is being subjected to a widespread, ongoing campaign to delegitimize his presidency, and minimizing the crowd size is part of that effort. Why would he not repudiate it? Trump is also engaged in an information war with the media, and this episode is a battle in that ongoing conflict. We can assume the intent of each skirmish is to win the war. Asking why Team Trump fought this one is like asking Todd why he put the screws to Conway. Both questions answer themselves.
It’s been said that the number of inauguration attendees and TV/internet viewers is a trivial issue, and maybe on one level it is. But the brouhaha reflects a pervasive mindset that’s worth examining. Going into the interview with Conway, Todd’s existing belief appears to have been (and probably still is) that Trump and Spicer are not trustworthy, and that his media brethren are vastly more credible. Consequently, Todd was primed to accept (confirmation bias) media reports that only 250,000 people watched the inauguration speech in person, even though 250,000 tickets had been distributed, and the ticketed area was full with a majority of the audience positioned behind it.
When Todd was confronted with a challenge to reporters’ phony estimates, he automatically rejected the argument as preposterous (cognitive dissonance). Many others reacted likewise after Conway referred to Spicer’s counterpoints as “alternative facts.” That innocuous term was labeled Orwellian by hysterical social media hordes and pundits. Even prior to her interview with Todd, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen had questioned the “rationale” of giving Conway a platform, and suggested those who book her should issue a disclaimer informing the audience that she was invited to appear “because it’s entertaining” and that interviewing her “isn’t actually of journalistic value.” Elite Daily Senior Politics Writer John Haltiwanger tweeted that the media should “shun” Conway and Trump’s reps in general.
When he interviewed Haltiwanger Tuesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson told him his “outrage seems selective,” which Haltiwanger justified by claiming “the amount of lying that’s occurring within the [5-day-old] Trump administration is unprecedented.”
Carlson zeroed in on an especially salient factor when he wondered why Haltiwanger believes Conway is “uniquely reprehensible and immoral.” As indicated by his astonishment and shrill insistence that Spicer had inflicted long-term disrepute on himself for countering supposedly unassailable media reports, Todd likewise seems to believe the Trump administration lies to an unprecedented degree. His overblown mockery of Conway for using the term “alternative facts,” ignited accusations far and wide that her utterance is evidence that the president and his staff are imposing fascism, totalitarianism, etc. on Americans. Never mind that it’s routine for people in a disagreement to each offer different arguments in support of their respective positions. That Trump is dictatorial or some such thing is a belief that many of his critics have harbored for months if not longer. That’s why he was compared to Hitler when he humorously asked supporters at a campaign rally to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him (“I do solemnly swear…no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever…”). That sort of thing is common in politics, but when Trump did it, drama queens gripped by confirmation bias were outraged.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, escalated the tension between the president and the press yesterday when he castrated The New York Times in a phone interview. He told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States….That’s why you have no power…You were humiliated…The paper of record for our beloved republic, The New York Times, should be absolutely ashamed and humiliated.”
There is so much going on in Trumpland, one is hardpressed to keep up with it all. It seems, however, that the enmity between Trump and the media is likely to prevail for some time, especially since Bannon threw gasoline into an already-raging fire. Some people will rejoice, and see it as the overdue comeuppance of a privileged institution that deserves to be disempowered. Others will side with the press and turn a blind eye to longstanding evidence that it sometimes functions as a CIA mouthpiece.
Adams likens the current state of the union to “two movies playing on one screen.” It’s way beyond the usual political discord. Trump has provoked something much deeper. His less-affected detractors are chronically incredulous and bemused, but fairly calm. The ones stricken more severely have been driven almost literally crazy. They’re enraged, terrified and generally unable to cope. The only relief they get is from hallucinating. Trump’s supporters range from those who see him as merely the lesser of evils, to fanatics who’ve been waiting for someone like him their entire lives.
Love him or hate him, Trump has indeed, just as Adams said he would, fostered opportunities to grasp the human experience as never before. Most of us hadn’t previously realized it, but it has always been true that facts don’t matter in the realm of persuasion. It has also always been true that our biases cause us to attach undue significance to evidence we think supports our position, and to diminish or dismiss information that conflicts with our existing beliefs. And it has always been true that irrationality is the norm even though the notion seems counterintuitive.
No matter which controversy is the stimulant at any given moment, the way Americans rant in opposition to one another provides a window into our collective psyche. The more we step back and really see what drives us, the more we will become able to handle the vicissitudes of life. After all, there must be some explanation for two movies playing on one screen. To remain ignorant of the determinants and of how best to cope, is a recipe for endless confusion, anger and angst.