The Donald in Dilbertian Perspective: Reason, Evolutionary Psychology, and Stiff-necked Reality
April 1, 2016
As strange as it may sound, one of the more insightful discussions of Trump's political success is offered by "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams. Trump is a "master persuader," he argues, who knows and uses human psychology to far greater effect than anyone else in the field, either party. Trump will be America's next president, he predicts, since "psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president."
Adams's blogging about persuasion, (ir)rationality, and identity is quite interesting. Like me, he's not concerned about Trump as a candidate so much as he is about him as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Cavna, Comic Riffs author at the Washington Post, helpfully summarizes Adams's explanation of the Trump phenomenon in six points:
1. Trump knows people are basically irrational.2. Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level.3. By running on emotion, facts don't matter.4. If facts don't matter, you can't really be "wrong."5. With fewer facts in play, it's easier to bend reality.6. To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics--and identity is the strongest persuader.
Madison Avenue types and sharp political advisers long ago figured out the priority of identity over reason, wisdom, judgment, and whatever else one might think pertinent to being President. (Similar statements can be made about the products we buy or services we hire or society we keep--everything is branding and branding is about identity.) Sadly, this is the way things work in our post-Freudian world. Still, it's difficult for us to believe that identity actually does trump all else, which may be why even our most cynical politicians seldom play this card as brazenly as Trump does.
We are living through a time when reason is being reimagined in terms of psychological identity. Things that were thought to be mad not long ago are now viewed as necessary consequences of our fundamental principles not because those principles have changed on the page but because they are now being read through this lens. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the Obergeffel v. Hodges case is a rather clear instance of this in law.
In the arguably more pragmatic domains of American business, politics, education, and religion, what counts as reasonable or a rational course of action will be whatever works. If identity politics, business, education or religion works (not just as a complement to sobriety, decency, gravitas, judgment, competency, and so on--as Clinton seems to be betting--but even in fairly open defiance of most of these qualities) then it will become quite rational to be as irrational a candidate as Trump.
But can this be? Postmoderns insist reason itself is culturally construed and evolves along with everything else. Adams, however, continues to diagnose the Trump phenomenon more as an escape from reason rather than as a redefining of reason. Still, his analysis suggests that irrationality is the new reason. Either way, here is Cavna's annotation on the first point:
"If you see voters as rational you'll be a terrible politician," Adams writes on his blog. "People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keep us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence."
That's a basic point of contemporary evolutionary psychology (often used to criticize religious belief). If this critique is true of anything, however, then we have no good reason to believe that any of the things we believe are true (including this critique), "except maybe sometimes by coincidence"--and this is no minor point. This popular strand of evolutionary psychology may free Trump and all the rest of us from a sense of obligation to truth but it does so at the expense of the very possibility of knowing anything or at least of being able to know that we know anything. It's ultimately self-defeating.
Fortunately for knowers and speakers of truth everywhere, reality is a very stubborn thing. We can believe what we like about what is reasonable and right and true and we may be dead wrong in what we believe and do about it too. Madness is possible and our madness, however widely shared, does not bend reality or define reason or redefine truth--only our psychological state. There are limits to our revolt against reality including the truth about our personal identities. Reality always wins in the end; the only question, as Carl Trueman recently pointed out, is how much damage we will do to ourselves in the meantime?