WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2020
The commander's same old clothes: Anthropologically speaking, we humans can have a very hard time seeing what's right before us.
Hans Christian Andersen captured this limit to human discernment in his famous fable, The Commander-in-Chief's New Clothes. (We're translating from the Danish.)
Early this morning, we thought of the limits of human discernment as we perused Slate's new offerings. It was just an amusing colloquial headline. But the colloquial headline said this:
Trump Just Killed the Stimulus Talks. Is He Out of His Mind?
By JIM NEWELL and JORDAN WEISSMANN
OCT 06, 2020 6:27 PM
Is the commander "out of his mind?" Some headline writer had tossed it off as an entertaining bit of snark.
But that is precisely the (obvious) question which has relentlessly gone undiscussed as the nation's upper-end press corps has gazed on Trump's puzzling raiment.
In the article bearing that headline, Newell and Weissman engaged in a lengthy debate about the commander's recent tweet, in which he seemed to put the kibosh on covid/pandemic relief talks.
As everyone on the planet could see, it seemed like a crazy thing for Trump to do. So why in the world did he do it?
(Hours later, needless to say, Trump aggressively flipped.)
As you will see if you read the piece, the youngish analysts went around and around, at substantial length, contemplating an endless array of possible motives lying behind Trump's tweet. To our ear, they seemed to assume, all the way through, that Donald J. Trump is a rational actor, or that some other rational actor stood behind the decision to issue the politically disastrous tweet.
Maybe Art Laffer got him to do it? So the discussion proceeded.
At one point, the writers even wondered, if only briefly, whether Trump is a rational actor. But that exchange went like this:
WEISSMANN (10/6/20): My concerns are twofold: One is that we’re assuming the market will keep dropping. That seems like the safe bet to me, but it’s always possible investors will find some optimistic narrative that stabilizes things a bit and the carnage won’t be terrible enough to budge Trump. (I still think the politics would be pretty miserable for him, but not *as* miserable, and not in the visceral way he feels whenever the Dow drops.)
My second fear is that ever since he returned from the hospital, Trump has been in single-minded own-the-libs mode. It’s like he nearly died at Walter Reed and the doctors rebuilt him slower, dimmer, and more vindictive than ever before.
Do you see any indication that we are currently dealing with a rational actor?
NEWELL: It seems like a more acute episode of the irrationality that’s plagued his entire administration, which is that base politics alone is all he needs, since he won that way in 2016. It may not occur to him until too late that his 2016 model was a fluke. This is only rational if, as you said earlier, he’s hoping to kneecap the Biden presidency. But, as you also said earlier, there’s no way he thinks he can lose. It gives me a little trepidation about the transition period if he does lose, when he’ll openly announce his plan to kneecap the Biden presidency.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that: He’s just trying to change the news cycle from him having COVID-19 because it makes him look “weak,” and he’ll do anything.
At that point, "just to play devil's advocate," Weissmann asked if Laffer may have persuaded Trump to adopt this stance during a recent chat.
At this point, can we talk?
When they spoke about "rational actors" and "irrationality," the writers seemed to be thinking about political players whose judgment was very poor. In their formulation, it still may not have occurred to Trump, or even to his advisers, that he will need more than his base to win re-election!
A wholly different possibility never seemed to intrude. Neither Weissmann nor Newell, and certainly not the headline writer, seemed to have considered the possibility that the commander may be fundamentally impaired, whether cognitively or psychiatrically.
It never seemed to enter the writers' minds that the commander actually may be "out of his mind," and not just in a snarky, colloquial sense. That he may be "out of his mind" in a dangerous clinical sense.
Could Donald J. Trump be in the grip of a major "personality disorder?" Could he be some serious version of "mentally ill?"
Could he be a sociopath? Even worse, could he be a sociopath currently hopped up on drugs?
Could the commander in chief possibly be dangerously disordered, as an array of psychiatrists tried to argue in the 2017 book, The Dangerous Case of Donald [J.] Trump? Could he be (dangerously) "out of his mind" in some clinical sense?
This seems like an obvious possibility, but the possibility didn't intrude on this long rumination at Slate. The headline writer had some fun with the idea that Trump may be "out of his mind," but no one raised that possibility in the technical medical sense.
Dr. Bandy X. Lee and her gaggle of shrinks might as well have published their book about Trump on Mars or Uranus. Amusing headline to the side, the thought that Trump may be some serious version of mentally ill simply doesn't exist in this piece at Slate.
To our eye and ear, the commander has seemed deeply disordered for some time. (We recommend that such people be pitied.)
Currently, that would make Trump a disordered person on steroids. (But with the nuclear codes!)
In that sense, yesterday's peculiar tweet seemed a great deal like an episode from this emperor's familiar old clothes. That said, human discernment is very limited, and the men and women of the upper-end press have spent the past however many years refusing to consider the possibility that Dr. Lee and her fellow psychiatrists were actually right about Trump.
The adults in Hans Cristian Andersen's fable couldn't see their emperor as he actually was. It was left to one lone child to discern the true shape of reality.
So it seemed to go as we plowed through the long piece at Slate. This helps explain why this news report about Facebook and QAnon is, at least in theory, the day's most important news item.
Long ago, it was actually hard to gain exposure to crazy factual claims.
Rubes like us got to choose between Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. Neither man was crazy or nuts. Neither man was partisan in a ridiculous way.
Today, The Crazy is very big business. Like a thousand other orgs, QAnon is spewing The Crazy on a round-the-clock basis—and due to the limits of human discernment, a very large number of QAnon faithful can't see that they're getting conned.
Yesterday, Facebook banished QAnon, dispatched their work to the outback. There will be no way out of our current cultural/political mess until some such actions, across the culture, make it very hard, once again, to gain access to crazy assertions and claims.
Our mainstream press corps has struggled, for years, to suppress an obvious possibility about the commander's peculiar wardrobe.
In that way, our nation's elite display their lack of discernment. Meanwhile, we rubes have been displaying our own lack of discernment by believing every damn fool claim which comes down the pike.
This happens with Them, and it happens with Us. Tomorrow, we'll offer examples.
Tomorrow: From both sides now