Trump Sold America a Miracle Cure

Alan Levovitz makes sense of the Denier-in-Chief's success as similar to rational people buying miracle cures. He puts our charlatan buy-in to

  • Exploition of epistemic uncertainty
  • Tunnel vision from existential panic
  • Nostalgia
  • Anti-elitism
  • Sunk-cost fallacy (similar to cognitive dissonance)
  • Our need for myths to handle life’s injustice and overwhelming complexity

Many who trust Trump to heal our body politic do so for the same reasons that people … —normal, reasonable people—trust quacks to heal their bodies. They have been swayed by a powerful confluence of factors—specifically, epistemic uncertainty, existential panic, and anti-elitism. These factors ensure that even when reality hits … the marks will place the blame somewhere else.

Epistemic uncertainty—the idea that traditional sources of knowledge cannot be trusted—has long been exploited by disingenuous medical gurus to attract patients. Their techniques mirror those that Trump brought to the broader public: Earn sympathy by identifying genuine problems …

 But instead of proposing nuanced fixes—as an honest person would—exploiters of epistemic uncertainty turn these legitimate critiques into crude rhetorical bombs that allow them to attack the entire system.

In the haze of these attacks, anything seems possible. Epistemic uncertainty undermines rational evaluation. Emotion and tribalism, already significant factors in determining one’s worldview, become the dominant source of beliefs.

After all, who can you trust when the Food and Drug Administration is run by Big Pharma?

Once the purveyors of uncertainty have earned their audiences’ trust—and undermined their belief in any other source of information—it becomes virtually impossible to hold those purveyors accountable. 

Yet even in a world infected by epistemic uncertainty, not everyone falls for quackery. Not everyone votes for Trump. Those who do are likely also facing existential panic, which in turn can cause a crippling case of tunnel vision. Existential panic occurs in the face of a grave threat to physical well-being, personal identity, or worldview. 

In health and medicine it’s easy to touch off existential panic, because there are still lethal and debilitating conditions for which science has few answers…

Trump did the same in the political sphere: Instead of harping on rising rates of disease, he invoked rising inner-city crime. (Both, in fact, are falling.) Throughout the campaign, Trump offered rhetoric that characterized the American lifestyle—and even American life itself—as being on the cusp of complete collapse. Instead of toxins, terrorists.

The problems identified and solutions offered by quacks and Trump are built from the same archetypes—they only vary in specifics.

Nostalgia plays a big role in both cases.

Existential panic narrows your vision until you see only a threat to the core of your being. And then, there, at the end of the tunnel, are the gurus. The Trumps. They offer nostrums, which is what the existentially panicked crave. Not arduous therapies with low chances of success, not wonky policy proposals, but simple solutions guaranteed to cure it all. emphasis mine]

image source

I can see how existential panic leads to tunnel vision and a "need" for simple cures, because panic activates a primitive brain emergency mechanism. It literally causes tunnel vision, narrowing visual focus and making us rapidly scan our environment. I experienced this once in a traffic jam, trapped behind a vehicle whose horrible exhaust made me ill. I gripped the wheel tightly, focusing just on continuing to drive, staring at the vehicle's rear end to maintain distance. In doing so, I slowly drove right past the exit which would have rescued me.

This reptile brain panic response also prevents higher thinking. We don't comprehend complicated mechanisms, like a door knob. We needs mechanically obvious ones like a push bar. 

Once such nostrums are embraced, belief in them is not easily dislodged. To give up on the mythic vision would not just threaten true believers’ sense of hope and security—it would threaten their dignity. That’s thanks, in part, to the final factor in establishing and then ensuring a charlatan’s power: anti-elitism.

Accusations of elitism mistakenly collapse two different claims. The first, which is true, is that some people know more than other people: about religion, history, science, medicine, economics, politics. The second, which is false, is that these people are more valuable as human beings by virtue of their specialized knowledge. Anti-elitism turns assertions of the former into assertions of the latter and capitalizes on the fact that elites themselves often do the same. Condescending doctors become synonymous with all doctors, pompous academics with all academics.

The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispel it. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs. ... To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken. And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea. It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths. [emphasis mine]

In economics this is known as the sunk-cost fallacy, which causes you to hold onto something worthless—an idea, a practice—because you’ve invested so much in it. For Trump supporters, as for many who feel let down by the medical system, the investment is their identities, their dignity, their sense of hope. Very few people are willing to remake themselves for the sake of truth.

Ultimately, Trump is a symptom of a deep problem, deeper than institutional failures and poor education, deeper even than racism or sexism. Humans need myths to make manageable life’s overwhelming complexity and evident injustice. [emphasis mine]

image source (text mine)

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Replies to This Discussion

Ruth, more than anything else (at least from where I sit), Drumpf took a bunch of people who can't be bothered to look past the surface level of out current situation and gave them the old razzle-dazzle.  He called them out with the dog-whistle about "Make America Great AGAIN" with that last word being the pitch above 16 kHz for those who wear swastikas and white hoods, he claimed to have plenty of answers to complex problems, not that he expounded much on them or offered details, and he put the whole package out there with a panache which I suspect would confound P. T. Barnum himself.  In short, he sold 'em the proverbial "bill of goods" and they lapped it up.

I can't help but get back to the whole "informed electorate" business here.  The problem is that too much of the electorate either isn't informed or is too lazy or indifferent to care about being informed.  Many of them either don't follow the news or if they do, lean on Fox for their information.  Some don't even vote because it's an inconvenience or they can't spare the time out of their day or they don't see their one vote as significant.  These are people who likely never took civics or if they did, dismissed it as a responsibility they didn't want to accept.

The situation is made worse by the partial Balkanization of our media.  This isn't just a matter of liberals watching Rachel Maddow and conservatives going for Hannity but the fact that most if not all liberal spokespeople DON'T talk to Hannity or O'Reilly but stick to the left side of the spectrum.  Someone on Real Time with Bill Maher yesterday pointed out that Grover Norquist (who was a panelist on Friday's show) was a conservative on what is ostensibly a liberal show, and Norquist is only one of many right-of-center guests Bill has had on over the years.  The problem is that the flip side to that equation is next to non-existent, made so by the general hostility Fox hosts have for such guests.  The hard fact is that if liberal interests are going to be served, such parties must be willing to brave those environs.

Sorry to be going on a bit here, but that's how I see it ... and fixing this mess is going to take WORK.

What you say is true, Loren. But Levovitz has made me realize the extent to which "people who can't be bothered to look past the surface level of out current situation" might be motivated by existential panic of which they aren't even aware themselves. 

It reminds me of how some people who lived right near Three Mile Island, and chose not to evacuate, behaved. I read about one couple who had a child, and decided not to evacuate. At one level they thought they were't afraid and discounted the alarm. But they found themselves frantically shopping for a new car. Only later did they realize, and admit to a reporter, that they were distracting themselves to avoid their fear. I think many who bought the snake oil aren't just afraid of losing white privilege, or outsourced jobs, they bought the collapse of Christian civilization pitch.

This means that my sharing actual scary scientific facts and models about humanity's existential threat from climate catastrophe, as I commonly do here, would scare them even more. The worse climate chaos will become, the more they would respond by frantic science denial. I need to rethink how to begin communicating the actual existential threat, which their votes have made worse, without painting them into an emotionally frozen corner. I'm at an impasse on that, for the most part.

Ruth, I hope you will reconsider your use of the word "existential", as in "existential threat'. It does, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, exaggerate the danger.

These people actually believed the black guy was going to show up in black helicopters and take their guns. They are not going to be reached by anything short of the rapture. (It should probably be renamed the rupture.)

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