Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a psychological theory that can be summed up as: unintelligent people don’t know they’re unintelligent, and may even think they’re smart. Meanwhile, intelligent people underestimate their abilities or at least acknowledge the limits of their current knowledge or intellectual ability. In the words of Dunning himself, “People don’t know what they don’t know”.
You probably have anecdotal evidence of this in your own life, a friend who knows the truth about climate science or how best to stop terrorism despite having no background in either. Meanwhile, it is Socrates who once (maybe, nobody knows) said, “I know one thing, that I know nothing”.
This came out big-time in the election of Donald Trump.
I know it’s wrong to call a politician and his supporters ‘stupid’ because you disagree with them, but my disagreement is not the only reason I’m calling them out. Objectively, one of the highest correlations to support for Trump were having only a High School Diploma. So, in one measure of intelligence, educational attainment, they were. But there’s another reason I’m calling them out.
A theme of their support was the anti-elitist, anti-intellectual attitude that has been a feature of conservatism for a while but never this prominently.
Americans are woefully uninformed on most policy issues. Most have their blurb they’re ready to give people about hot-topic issues like gun control or gay marriage, but those are outliers. There are a myriad of policy issues that are full of various complexities, be they legal, political, moral, or otherwise. In my experience, most people cannot name their representatives, much less the details of what they’re voting on.
Trump spoke very plainly, and very boldly about his policies and they stuck. Part of the reason for that is that they were simple and easy to grasp. They made sense on the surface level.
True to Dunning-Kruger form he also said things like “we’re going to do healthcare, we’re going to fix taxes, we’re going to build a wall and it’s going to be so so easy”.
It’s almost as if Trump looked at the presidency and went “pfft, that’s easy, they’re messing up, I could do that!” akin to an amateur seeing a professional golfer mis-hit a drive and thinking they could walk up and put one 300 yards down the fairway.
A lot of times, politicians shy away from too wonky of talk, they know must people don’t care about the particulars of policy – they want to hear the actionable outcomes. Which is why you hear “We’re going to do X reform because Y platitude”. Inaction is DC also played a part – when little was being done to address people’s concerns, easy ideas that would appear easier to implement take hold.
It was almost as if they were saying, “You liberal elitists, with your expertise, aren’t getting it done, don’t you see how easy this is?”
There’s a problem with these type of ideas and it’s that they’re a bit like trojan horses to our brains. Simple statements are easier to understand, and therefore easier to accept. We don’t have to think too hard about it, it makes sense to us at first.
There within lies the problem. There are a lot of things that are true even though they don’t make immediate sense, alternatively, there are a lot of things that make sense that aren’t necessarily true.
It’s easy to laugh at them now but think about people in the Bronze Age who held it as fact that the earth was flat and was the center of the solar system. “Look,” they would say, “the ground as far as anyone can see is flat, and balls don’t start rolling on the floor. There’s a simple way to explain the movement of the stars around the earth.”
So it goes with Trump’s policy ideas. He offered simple and bold answers to complicated questions and people hopped on board. The problem being that all it takes is a little more digging to see why they’re not actually productive.
How do you stop something from getting somewhere? Simple, you put a sturdy physical object in-between your two points.
Alas, that’s not how any of this works. First, net immigration from Mexico has been near 0 since 2008. Secondly, most people don’t climb over or through the existing border when they do cross. They come as tourists or on short-term visas, and over-stay their temporary access. A wall would do nothing to stop this. A wall wouldn’t be terribly effective even if that weren’t the case, unless all 2,000 miles of it were constantly monitored. A difficult and expensive task to solve a nonexistent problem.
TL;DR – A wall is good at stopping things from moving, but that’s not how immigration works at all.
It’s easy to tell that Trump still sees war and conflict as it is often portrayed in movies, what warfare scholars call 2nd-generation war. That is, large-scale industrial war where the aim is to eliminate the enemy’s capability to fight by destroying their resources. That could be soldiers, natural resources, or even the will to fight. As evidenced by his proposed military budget, he wants to buy the big-ticket shiny items like planes, ships, tanks, and helicopters that would be effective in 2nd-generation war.
The problem is that the fight against terrorism and organizations like ISIS are anything like the above, for two reasons.
One, this is asymmetrical warfare and it is fought much differently. The weaker side plays to it’s strengths, hiding amongst civilization, trying to make small but devastating strikes, and bleed out their opponents. It’s why untrained soldiers with pick-up trucks and AK-47s can be successful against the most advanced military in world history. More ships and helicopters will do nothing to aide in this fight.
Two, is that we need to face the unfortunate truth that we will never truly end the fight against terrorism, but we can do the best we can to temper it’s flames. Instead, Trump’s idea is to fan them. What motivates someone to become a radical? It’s not an easy answer, but it’s not hard to see how someone who has nothing else to live for when their family and economic prospects are suppressed or killed by what they see as the oppressive West would turn to extremism.
[Side-note: In March alone, bombings authorized by Trump have been responsible for up to 1000 civilian deaths. I’m sure the extremists will stop now.]
I’ve always despised the notion that “they hate our freedoms”. That was nothing more than an attempt to demonize our enemies. They hate when we kill their civilians from the skies with faceless drones, and torture potential innocents in places like Abu Grahib.
Trump sees an enemy and thinks, we’ve got the firepower, lets blow em up. That answer is far too simplistic and is clearly counter-intuitive.
TL;DR – Wars against terrorists in the 2010s are fought differently than wars against the Russians in the 1960s-70s. Trump does not know this.
Economics and Jobs
It’s hard to know where to even start with this one. A theme of his lofty promises is that he rarely laid out HOW he was going to accomplish them. A big detail if you ask me, but his supporters never seemed to mind. It felt good to hear him say that he was going to bring back their prosperity so they didn’t want to question it, and they believed his was powerful enough to get it done.
Trade is a complicated subject, so I won’t do a deep dive here, but it’s clear that his ideas on trade were lacking deeper understanding.
First, is yes, that our globalization-era trade deals hurt some sectors and workers worse than others. That’s a trade-off (no pun intended) that you have to accept. When EVERYONE can buy cheaper appliances because they’re made overseas, we’re better off because we can spend those savings on other things important to us. Were some people hard-done by this? Yes, but that’s the capitalism that we profess to love so much, right? The problem was that the companies that benefitted didn’t re-invest in their employees. If they used those savings to offer re-training or education subsidies to help people move on in the new economy, we might not be in this mess right now.
More evidence that he can’t see past the surface level on this issue is his obsession with trade deficits. It’s true that we have a large trade deficit with China, but that’s like me saying I have a huge trade deficit with the grocery store. I do because I get a lot of value from shopping there since they have goods I want at a preferable price to anywhere else.
The US economy, now intertwined with the global economy, has a vast number of moving parts and variables. Governments play a vital role as the largest spender, often the largest lender, and the rule maker, but the role the gov’t has in the economy is often overplayed.
A lot of conservatives have this fantasy picturing the economy as a pipe in which productivity and value flow. If they can just unclog the red tape and taxes holding it up, BOOM – the jobs and capital come bursting out. May be true to an extent, but issues this complex rarely have such simple resolutions.
TL;DR – You can’t put trade policy into a simple zero-loss game.
I like this one because a lot of people get caught up on this. “America First” Who would disagree with that, right? Why are we taking care of others problems when we have so many of our own?
Similar to the trade issue, too many people want it both ways. They want a job manufacturing dishwashers for $50k with benefits but they want to be able to buy a toaster for $10. People want the US to be the foremost leader in the world, to help shape the future in the image we like, but they don’t want to pay for it.
Yes, we spend to protect certain countries, patrol the seas, develop other countries economically and more. The return we get is not as straightforward as a dollar sign that Trump would love to see. I don’t know what the value of having free and open seas to trade in is, but the ROI is huge.
When we send humanitarian aid to struggling countries, we do it because (IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO) it creates good-will with a country that they will remember. It’s why you give sugar to your neighbor, it doesn’t cost you that much but it goes a long way.
When we offer economic development to 2nd world countries, it’s because countries with more wealth are usually more stable, creating a better international environment and with the hope that it will allow them to buy more of our goods and services in the future.
These returns are not immediate, sexy, huge, or even ensured, but they’re worthwhile.
TL;DR – We pay to help make the world more stable and prosperous. The benefit cannot be measured directly in dollars.
It’s when we accept ideas easily that we should be especially critical of ourselves and our own thought processes. Unfortunately, human brains are lazy and don’t want to do this often.
To be clear, this happens to everybody. Yet, Trump voters who were frustrated and confused by DC were more susceptible to boisterous lies about fixing it than others.
Trump, to his credit, is an excellent marketer and sold his ideas well. Like any conniving salesman however, the reality doesn’t measure up – and we’re all paying the price.