Donald Trump: America’s Orange-Haired Doppelganger
I remember distinctly the day in 2008 that Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain named Sarah Palin has his running mate. At the time, Governor Palin was a relative unknown nationally. Her reputation for competence had not yet taken a mortal wound at the hands of a predictable ambush by Katie Couric, and she did not yet have a best-selling biography or a reality TV show. The Tea Party did not yet exist, and she had not yet become either its Joan of Arc (in 2010) or, to ideological conservatives, its Judas (in 2016).
Governor Palin was at that time just a surprise VP pick—and one that appeared to bring McCain a number of tactical advantages. She was relatively young and energetic and female and conservative where Senator McCain was . . . not. She was also the highest elected official of an oil-rich state. Even as a first-term governor, Palin still possessed real, actual, executive experience lacked by first-term Senator Barack Obama or his running mate Joe Biden.
I remember a conversation a friend from that day. He was worried that Senator Obama would attack Governor Palin’s lack of experience. I remember responding, “How could he even try? Any time he criticizes her executive experience, it will just emphasize that he has even less—she’s a governor who used to be a mayor; he’s a first-term Senator who used to be a community organizer.”
Imagine my surprise when the Obama campaign employed exactly that strategy—successfully. A critical mass of Americans was willing to accept that Governor Palin did not have sufficient executive experience to qualify her to be President, but were simultaneously willing to accept the logically incompatible proposition that Senator Obama’s complete lack of executive experience was adequate.
I struggled to understand how so many of my fellow citizens could champion two propositions that cannot both be true: that Palin did not have sufficient executive experience; and that Obama (with less) did. I could understand why someone would believe that a first-term governor was not sufficiently seasoned to be President. That is a reasonable position. I could understand why someone would contend alternatively that a candidate did not need any executive experience to be qualified for the job. But I was at a loss to comprehend how people embraced those mutually exclusive opinions at the same time.
In 2016, with the political rise of Donald Trump, the answer became clearer. In 2008, as it was generally political liberals dancing joyously in the gross inconsistency of their positions on Palin and Obama’s executive experience, I explained the “Palin riddle” to myself as an expression of a progressive, Benthamite, ends-justifies-the-means political philosophy. I believed that deep down people understood that those two mutually exclusive statements could not both be true—they just wanted one party or candidate to win and the other to lose and were willing to sacrifice logical integrity for the outcome. It took Trump to show me that my conclusion was woefully wrong.
Trump precipitated two phenomena that more fully revealed the terrifying truth. First, in the Republican primaries, Trump levelled a barrage of criticisms against his opponents that logically should have backfired to his detriment. Trump, who is on record making uncomfortably sexual comments about his daughter, called Ben Carson a pedophile. Trump, who has in the recent past gone out of his way to maximize his use of the H-2B visa program to hire hundreds of immigrants for unskilled positions, criticized Marco Rubio for being soft on immigration. Trump, a habitual liar who boasts of his ability to deceive and obfuscate, branded the rigorously precise and accurate Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump attacked the Pope for questioning his faith, asserting categorically that no man (even including the Pope) has the right to do so—then turned around and explicitly questioned the genuineness of Cruz’s Christianity.
Whether Trump’s criticisms are valid (some may be) or baseless (some certainly are), they are not points he can logically raise without self-harm. Even if Ben Carson did have sexual thoughts about children, and Marco Rubio wanted ample cheap foreign labor, and Ted Cruz was godless liar, Trump pointing these things out would, in a logical world, necessarily emphasize in the eyes of voters that Trump has expressed sexual thoughts about his own children, that he has a long track record of seeking cheap foreign labor, and that the works of much of his life are those of a godless liar. But it didn’t. Each and every one of those attacks damaged its target without rebounding—and notably, had that effect in the minds of a broad cross-section of self-professed Republicans.
Second, Trump’s support has remained steady or has increased among those who claim to approve of him for his policy positions, even as Trump has reversed himself on those same positions. Trump supporters generally laud his tough-guy personality, his overt aggression, and the cathartic experience of watching smug, biased media-types tie themselves into knots as he slaughters a procession of sacred cows. But most claim to support Trump primarily because of their approval for one or more of his policies: they want a wall across the southern border coupled with mass deportation, they want an improved economy, they want lower taxes, or they want someone to put an end to the insanity of politically correctness and talk straight and tell it like it is, and they argue that Trump’s articulated policy positions will accomplish those goals.
Leaving aside whether these aims are wise, they are all specific policies that Trump has vehemently and repeatedly promised to pursue. But at the same time that Trump proclaims he’ll build a wall, his closest advisors on immigration declare that it will be a “virtual wall” and that any deportations will be “rhetorical deportations,” all occurring on paper rather than in physical reality. When Trump still had active opponents in the primary, he promised to lower taxes and roll back federal economic regulation, which his supporters claimed showed how a Trump presidency would help the economy. But within days of his apparently decisive victory in Indiana, Trump reversed himself and began to champion the ideological opposites of these same policies. He expressed approval for higher income tax rates, a higher federal minimum wage, and a punitive import tariff. And at the same time that Trump kills PC sacred cows of race, gender, and national origin, he expressly approves of the real-world fruits of that same politically correct speech code–things like laws mandating permission for biological men to use women’s restrooms, and restrictions on the first amendment right to engage in speech critical of the government. Trump brags about his willingness to talk straight and tell it like it is, but at the same time confesses that every promise he has made, and every position he has taken, may not be genuine and may, whether sincerely held or not, change if it suits his desires in the future.
That Trump has taken absurdly inconsistent positions on every side of a host of important issues is indisputable, but not the point. The point is that even as Trump repeatedly reverses himself, and, in fact, even as he jumps from far-right to far-left positions on specific issues, his approval does not suffer even among those who claim to have based that approval on Trump’s rightward policy articulations. It would, in a logical world, be impossible to claim to support a candidate for a specific position, and then with a straight face continue that support undimmed when the candidate embraces the opposite position.
Both phenomena—the fact that Trump’s criticisms should have been self-annihilating and were not; and the fact that Trump’s repeated 180-degree policy reversals have not meaningfully impacted his approval among purportedly policy-driven supporters—are important clues to the Palin riddle.
These phenomena show that the issue is not that political liberals tend to be ends-driven and willing sacrifice logical consistency for the sake of a desired narrative. The issue is that a meaningful swath of Americans across the political spectrum no longer see logical consistency, and the concept of objective truth that a devotion to logical consistency directly implies, as having any genuine relationship to reality. The unresolvable logical inconsistency of criticizing Palin’s lack of experience while indulging Obama’s, or of crediting Trump’s criticisms of opponents while not applying those same criticisms to Trump, or of supporting Trump’s policies even as those policies morph into their ideological opposites, only affect the mind of a person who believes that logical inconsistency is evidence of error. And logical inconsistency only demonstrates error in the mind of someone who believes that truth has an essential logical consistency—that is, that truth has a non-subjective essence. For logical consistency to matter to a person, that person has to be influenced by the presumption that reality remains mostly unaffected by what is believed about it.
The rise of Trump suggests that a large number of Americans no longer have such minds or operate within the framework of such beliefs. They—we—have unmoored ourselves from the cultural and intellectual concepts that truth is objective and that internal logical consistency is one of its core metrics. Those concepts are foundational to the notion of natural rights that undergirds the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Those concepts are assumed in the American system of republican democracy, which asks citizens enfranchised with a vote to make reasoned, factually-based assessments of candidates’ policy positions and candidates’ truthfulness about those policy positions based on what those candidates have said and done. Without those foundational concepts, the rights our governmental system is intended to preserve become nonsensical, and the system intended to preserve those rights loses much of its protective power.
It’s been observed by commentators as varied as Simon Sinek (with his “Start with Why” lectures and book on communication) and Dilbert-author Scott Adams (with his “squishy robot” theory of human nature) that humans are neurologically wired to process information emotionally, that reason is biologically secondary, and that the natural function of reason is to rationalize primary emotional responses. The American cultural tradition, however, historically included a normative expectation that people should act primarily according to their reason, and strive to make their emotions give it deference. While a cultural aspiration does not change human nature, people who have internalized the norm that reason (operating, impliedly, on an objective truth) is superior to emotion will process information and make decisions profoundly differently from those who have not. The former may actually be engaged in rationalization most of the time, but the imposition of a clear logical inconsistency will throw up a warning flag they have been culturally trained not to ignore. For the latter, inconsistency is no barrier, and is not even relevant, to rationalizing that which their emotions desire.
The solution to the Palin riddle, proved by Trump, is that as a society we have reached a tipping point in the weakening of devotion to reason as a cultural norm. Our founders based our entire system of government on the presumption that the people who, whether successful at it or not, at least aspire to be more than their limbic urges. That presumption may no longer be viable. The rise of Trump suggests that American society has replaced a shared understanding that truth is objective (and thus that internal consistency matters) with an increasingly shared belief that truth is constructed, individualized, and subjective. And if truth is assumed to be constructed, all that remains for a person to attain and serve it is to rationalize whatever is believed to be true, without regard to whether the rationalizations can logically coexist. In that paradigm, a logical inconsistency is not a dire warning, nor is it even an inconvenience to holding an emotionally desired or emotionally gratifying belief or opinion.
Trump is not an aberration or a phenomenon. His supporters are not particularly poorly educated or lacking in functional intelligence, any more than were the many highly educated Democrats who pilloried Palin’s greenness but considered Obama qualified. Trump is, rather, a mirror in which we can see more clearly the results of two generations of a saturation of culture and education with post-modern premises about truth. Trump is a pure reflection, and a predictable consequence, of a slow but sure sea change in how we understand foundational concepts of truth and of reality. Trump is, in a literal sense, the candidate who most reflects who we have chosen to become, and is for that reason the candidate we deserve.