In front of the main cathedral on Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia, 2014
I really don’t want to get bogged down with politics on this blog too much. But every now and again, a piece comes rolling along that’s so close to the heart of the material of this blog, I can’t pass it up.
So it was with this piece by Neal Gabler, titled Why Donald Trump can lie and no one seems to care. Gabler attributes much of Trump’s appeal to what we’ve discussed as confirmation bias in the electorate — Trump lies and changes his story about many things many times. By doing so, he finds something that plugs into everyone’s story that lets them identify with what he has to say. We naturally skim over most of what he says, living as we do most of the time in our own distracted, impulsive minds. When he says something that sticks, it reinforces our already extant mental models of the situation. By broadly traversing the knowledge space, Trump uses his “sea change antennae” to score more wins than the other, more rigid and consistent Republican candidates. And by doing so, he gains allies.
Which is, of course, what narcissists do. I really recommend checking out my previous post on this here, and the effect of hyper vigilance and that super radar. This lets individuals with these disorders quickly pick up on what people think they need to hear, and use that lowest level of empathy — mirroring behavior — and send it right back to them. I wouldn’t be the first to call Trump a dyed-in-the-wool narcissist. But that’s not what’s so interesting about Trump’s rise in the polls.
What’s more interesting is what Gabler calls “The Winchell Effect”. From the post above, here is a great quote that describes it:
“Walter Winchell, about whom I wrote a 1994 biography, was a hugely popular New York-based gossip columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain and an equally popular radio personality, although saying that is a little like saying that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. Winchell was thegossip columnist, with an estimated daily audience of 50 million. He practically invented the form, and the form was a long chain of snippets — rumor, prediction, innuendo — racing down the page, separated by ellipses.
Some of these snippets were scarcely more than a noun, a verb and an object: Mr. So-and-so is “that way” about Miss So-and-so. Does her husband know? In this way, Winchell became not only the minimalist master of gossip but also, quite possibly, the first tweeter – before Twitter.”
The Donald is definitely a modestly Performance-based Authoritarian. And he’s mastered a similar speaking style. No long-winded diatribes — only short knowledge fragments, straight out of an Authoritarian Conway’s Law mapping — that alludes to a better, higher v-Meme Performance-based view of the world. To steal from Nike, Trump repeats over and over again “we’ll just do it.” And for a nation with increasing fragmented social spaces, and increasing Authoritarian methodologies on both the Left and the Right, that narcissism thing, combined with knowledge fragments with memetic-viral potential, lets him hit the mark.
I wouldn’t want to deny Trump his own agency, that at some level, he is responsible for his actions. But it would be great if we would own up to a greater understanding that Trump is also an emergent phenomenon of our own social structure. And upon realizing that, love ourselves enough to get busy with the hard work of repairing our own grounded social/relational empathetic networks that more accurately enable us to seek the truth.
Takeaway: Narcissists can hack elections in representative democracies using their super-sensitive antennae to pick up on memes that are resonant in their constituencies they are courting. Agile narcissists — ones with no problems lying, able to speak to different constituencies in an electorate, and skilled in using knowledge fragments/sound bites — can use confirmation bias in receptive audiences to secure disparate constituencies. When the majority of politicians are operating under old systems of beliefs that are in conflict with some level of data-driven thinking in the constituencies they are attempting to secure votes from, the narcissist has a huge advantage. Old-time reliable messages are no longer valid, and the narcissist can exploit this to his/her advantage.
Narcissists can lie any way that is persuasive. But the electorate is left, unfortunately, only with the truth they experience.