Overcoming Your Trump Addiction

… And fleeing the Dictatorship of the Gullible

I belong to a medically underserved population trying to rid itself of a Trump addiction. We’re users, hopheads, junkies. No rehab facility. Failing to overcome the addiction means relapse, new seizures of sputtering rage, and driving friends and families away again. They are as tired of this as we are.

Clinicians are rightly preoccupied with COVID-19 and its after-effects, so we are left to fend for ourselves.

We’ve all had moments when we thought we were around the turn. “Distraction” helps, but it’s a Band-Aid. He’s faded for the moment. He’s still there. Somewhere.

There’ve been a few encouraging signs of progress, however. My daily race to the news to see the outrage that happened in the 15 minutes since I last checked has slowed to a trot.

I read less. I watch the news less often. I don’t click on as many tweets. I unsubscribe from some feeds.

But bad influences persist. Hordes of people around us are still using. People still flash weapons and use them sometimes. They spit fury about invisible things.

I blame him. He’s mobilized the gullible. He put a lot of them in command.

How he did that — how politicians everywhere do it — is not new. We have a long history of venerating — even risking our lives for or letting ourselves dislike to the point of obsession — dishonest, odious and definably unbalanced leaders.

The odious leader handbook has them making loud assertions, often in three-syllable chants, that our lifestyles, jobs, freedoms, finances and children are under mortal threat.

Requirement #2: the leader has to be the only, lonely one among the Earth’s billions who can save us from the consequences of what he or she is lying about.

It sounds crazy. And it is crazy. Back in the 19th century, there was a brilliant British polymath named Frances J. Galton, a master of a good half-dozen difficult sciences. He measured literally everything from authority to head sizes. From those studies, he concluded that “men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who [are]… within a measurable distance of insanity.”

Requirement #3: Our troubles are someone else’s fault.

We are a lively people, and in our history, we’ve conjured up colorful arrays of villains. Among them: Native Americans, abolitionists, and Black and brown and Asian people. We’ve targeted the Irish, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gay and lesbian and trans people, random powerless people, inscrutably manipulative (ingenious, although invisible) groups and, needless to say, liberals.

More recently, haughty experts and celebrities have enlisted in a Deep State, which is also invisible. From there, they rig elections and conspire to overwhelm us with confiscatory taxes that we can’t pay because we soon won’t have jobs.

Requirement #4: Believe nothing from our past.

And #5: And followers get to believe they have bonus insights that others don’t. They are smarter and braver than the rest of us, who may still have no idea what they’re talking about.

In 1963, after studying politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter was especially disturbed by “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

I’ve changed my therapy. Instead of focusing on the former president, it’s better to figure out how people fall for these fictions.

Finer minds than mine have researched the problem.

To some of them, gullibility is simply an enduring personality trait. We’re “intrinsically gullible.” Or, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explained, thinking that might otherwise lead us to reject foolish information is “slow, analytical, rational and effortful.”

And, as the late psychologist Scott Lilienfeld added, we make 35,000 decisions a day, and we naturally opt for faster, emotional, and readily exploitable thinking. Real discretion uses too much time and energy.

We can’t help ourselves. “Even when we ‘know’ we should be drawing on facts and evidence,” writes cognitive psychologist Eryn Newman, co-author of a University of Southern California paper on the same subject, “we just draw on feelings.”

Too busy to consult facts, we’re generally open only to ideas that are compatible with what we already believe. “If you happened to distrust the FDA and the government,” she told one interviewer, “the thought of a cover-up would fit neatly into your world view.”

Gullible people, it seems, are less able to detect when they’re being gamed because they lack a full tank of “social intelligence.”

On the other hand, Hugo Mercier of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris, citing some of the same research, flatly asserts that “people aren’t gullible.” The “longstanding association between lack of intellectual sophistication and gullibility” is just wrong.

His is a rational world. We learn by readily embracing information that is “well-informed, competent, well-intentioned, part of a broader consensus, or if they offer us good arguments.”

His remedy is simple. “Make them think more, [give] them grounds for trusting us, reasons to think we’re right.”

The Dictatorship of the Naïve. But after all I’m drawn to what Alessendra Teunnisse of Macquarie University in Australia says.

The most workable explanation of America’s recent acceptance of the unseen, she says, is considerably more straightforward. Gullible people are simply “highly responsive to persuasion tactics, such as the pressure of a charming and convincing salesperson.”

That, it would seem, is pretty much why otherwise stable people joined the boiling MAGA masses and why they still might. The guy is a convincing, colorful salesman.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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