As I said a few days ago, progressives like me are going through an anxious period. There's no obvious Democratic presidential candidate who seems fully up to the job of beating Trump in the November 2020 election.
Meanwhile, polls show that Trump has managed to hold on to his base of support, and maybe even has expanded it a bit. This befuddles people, again, like me, who wonder what 44% or so of the country sees in a guy who is so obviously immoral, a habitual liar, and mean.
A book I just finished re-reading gave me a new perspective on this question. And that scares me, because the explanation makes so much sense, and shows why it is so difficult to get Trump supporters to stop fawning over him.
Here's an excerpt from a blog post I wrote about the book back in December 2014, "The social value of getting wasted." Following the excerpt I'll explain what this has to do with Trump's popularity.
With New Year's Eve coming up soon, this seems to be a good time to share some passages about the positive side of intoxication from a book I just finished, "Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity."
The author, Edward Slingerland, discusses the ins and outs (along with the yin and yang) of wu-wei, the elusive quality of effortlessly flowing with life so much praised in Daoist and Confucian philosophy.
Slingerland, a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, clued me in to some aspects of both Asian and Western culture that had largely escaped me before.
For example, why getting wasted -- imbibing copious amounts of alcohol or some other intoxicating, mind-altering, inhibition-dampening substance -- is so important in closing business deals, as well as in other social contexts.
The basic reason is that we admire and trust good-hearted people who act naturally, spontaneously, unselfconsciously. Schemers who always seem to be calculating what to do and how to act, not nearly so much, even if they proclaim their beneficent intentions.
Slingerland explains from both a philosophical and neuroscientific outlook that virtue (de, in Chinese) can be faked by what often is called "cold cognition."
That's the slower, more intellectual, thoughtful part of the brain's workings. This is contrasted with "hot cognition," which is faster, more emotional and intuitive. So, Slingerland says:
These techniques take advantage of the fact that deception is fundamentally a cold-cognition act and relies on cognitive control centers. This means that if we can impair the cognitive control abilities of people we're trying to judge, we'll do a better job of sussing them out: they will be less likely to confuse our cheater-control systems.
This, of course, is the rationale for so-called "truth serum" drugs used by interrogators. Lessen inhibitions and what a person says should more accurately reflect what is really inside them, not just how they want to appear to outsiders.
OK, you may have noted that I said we admire and trust good-hearted people who act naturally, spontaneously, unselfconsciously.
Scratch the "good-hearted" and you've got a pretty decent description of Trump -- though I'm sure most of his supporters view him as possessing a good heart, albeit a decidedly weird one, given Trump's habitual vicious attacks on anyone he views as opposing him.
Trump doesn't drink, but he acts like the emotional, intuitive, spontaneous person in the thralls of "hot cognition." His rallies are popular with Trump supporters because he offers them an uncensored view of what's on his mind. (Which is why those rallies horrify the rest of us.)
This goes a long way toward explaining why many voters didn't trust Hillary Clinton, even though she was a much more trustworthy person than Donald Trump. With Trump, what you see is what you get. With Clinton, it was difficult to tell whether the persona she presented outwardly truly was who she was deep down.
So what scares me is that all of the rational, reasonable, well-though-out policy prescriptions and criticisms of Trump the eventual 2020 Democratic presidential candidate presents to the public may not be enough to defeat Trump if the Dem isn't able to demonstrate the sort of natural, spontaneous, unselfconscious personality that appeals to the evolutionarily ancient "hot cognition" part of the human brain.
if you watched the Academy Awards last night, this theme was on full display, as it is every year of the Oscars.
When someone who has won the film editing award, say, walks on stage, steps up to the microphone, and pulls out a piece of paper that they proceed to read, thanking everyone they want to thank in words they wrote before coming to the event, I think, "Oh, no, this is so boring."
Contrast that with someone like Joaquin Phoenix. After winning the Best Actor award for his role as the Joker, Phoenix rubbed his face, looked around, and proceeded to give a gripping acceptance speech that was mostly about how we humans are screwing up the natural world.
He said he'd been thinking a lot about what he said, so it wasn't totally spontaneous. But it had the ring of spontaneity and sincerity, which is why I remember his remarks so much more clearly than the scripted and predictable remarks of other Oscar winners.
Let me be clear. I'd rather have any boring predictable scripted Democratic nominee become president, rather than Donald Trump. What worries me, though, is that the nominee would be much more able to beat Trump if they can muster the sort of "can't look away" spontaneity that Trump and Phoenix possess, albeit in vastly different fashions.
And so far I haven't seen that from the Democratic presidential candidates.