Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Make America Great Again is Objectively Stupid (But Subjectively Brilliant)


Source:Wikimedia Commons

As of writing, Donald Trump is the leading Republican candidate. And I sincerely hope that this sentence will be looked upon as the remnants of a quaint, laughable time in our history and not as part of the prologue to what became our nation's greatest electoral failure.

You'd never think that we could get much worse than this guy, but...

A lot of people are scratching their heads as to how a sentient clump of hair attached to an inflated meat-vessel is somehow winning against one of the deepest and most qualified Republican fields in history. To be sure, name and brand recognition help-- but that isn't the whole picture. Some point to his no BS attitude or his  rancorous charm (never thought I'd ever pair those words together). Others to his exorbitant wealth and business experience. Some argue that they just want to watch the whole system collapse either for the lulz or for a restart. To which I ask: Have they not seen the riveting documentary known as The Purge? That simply will not end well.

These are all perfectly legitimate parts of the answer, but today we're going to look at another. It's much more subtle but its effectiveness has its roots in some serious psychology. His slogan.


The other day I came across a brilliant Facebook post excoriating the message behind this idea. To my chagrin, I can't find it or else I'd post it, link it, and credit the creator. So I'm going to paraphrase it from memory (if you happen to be the creator of the post, please leave a comment below so I can credit you and your post!).

"Make America Great Again?
To which "again?" are you referring?
Are you referring to when African Americans were only worth 3/5ths of a person?
To when a civil war took more American lives than any conflict hence?
To when women weren't granted suffrage?
To periods when alcoholism and domestic abuse ran rampant?
To when we were so nationalistic that we discriminated against Italians, Jews, the Irish and countless other 'undesirables?'
To when we were paranoid at the prospect of nuclear annihilation?
When the rest of the world was in ruins, in peril, in poverty, or in privilege-- with very little wiggle room in between?
Which again should we go back to?"


Objectively, the idea of "returning" to greatness is pretty stupid. Our economy has never been larger, violent crime continues to decline (on average), our liberties have never been applied more equally. This is, arguably, one of the greatest points we've experienced as a country so far.

But this won't ring true to a lot of people. Thanks to a vicious availability cascade, we all feel like today is froth with uncertainty and danger. Of course the world we're in isn't perfect and we have a lot of work to do-- but we can celebrate our victories as we work on our shortfalls.



 How talking about media influences makes me feel.

But it's not just that our minds are snatching at the most readily available  information. There are three cognitive quirks at play that makes it appear that, subjectively, Trump (and the loads of others with similar such slogans in prior contests) is speaking pure gold.

1) Hindsight Fallacy:

We all have a tendency to think everything was a bit more idealistic in hindsight. Nostalgia makes us believe that the world we grew up in was simply better than what the current generation has going for it.

  • "We played outside and would not get sucked in to television all day! We had actual adventures."
  • "Stuff was always less expensive as a kid. Now, all of this stuff is cheaper in quality and costs a lot more."
  • "The cartoons/heroes that I grew up with actually stood for something. Yours are nothing but factories of mindless drivel."

Any of those sound familiar? They should-- we've all done it. Even seniors in high school bemoan the status of the freshman class on how they appear to be "just the worst" at everything desirable.

A million different effects converge to why everything appears rosy. But, for now, just understand that we all have a flawed view of our pasts. One that is often better and greater than what we have now. Who wouldn't want to go back to the ideal? To Neverland? To the past that exists in our minds?

2) Rationalization:

We have a tendency to take anything that conflicts our paradigm and dismiss them. There are a million different subconscious strategies that drive the overarching machinations-- but the end result is the same. We easily find evidence supporting things that we already believe in and find evidence to "invalidate" the rest.
Somewhere, we know that the past wasn't as peachy as we believe it to be. But we continue to find evidence all around us about how terrible this contemporary world is. All the while, we mis-remember things to fit the narrative that we have abdicated our awesomeness and sprinted down a steep moral, social, and economic decline.

"America isn't 'great' now-- or at the very least less great than it was when we were growing up. And we need to change that path."

But reality is hardly that simple.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Well, not as complicated as this fucking show, but you know, not simple either.

3) We are the Protagonists of Our Own Lives:

This one may be a bit harder to swallow but, brace yourself: The Universe does not revolve around you.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Alright, technically the relative observable universe does. Thanks Einstein for ruining my point.

This is something that we are consciously aware of but we have a hard time actually applying it to our everyday lives. We see ourselves as being at the center of the story. Admittedly, it's tough to do otherwise. Empathy is only so effective in allowing us to get into each other's heads. We're not physically capable of literally seeing things from another person's perspective. We afford excuses to ourselves for when we mess up, but others are merely incompetent/dumb/assholes/wrong/bad people. This self-centeredness makes it difficult to remember that others have it just as hard as us. In fact, they may have it harder. A number of people really don't consider how objectively wrong the idea of "Again" is in Trump's slogan, because those issues may not have affected them or their peer group. And if it doesn't, it just adds more ammunition to the rationalization and nostalgia already at work.

So, at the end of the day, there are a number of external factors and conscious influences that escalates Trump (shudder) to the top of the field. But we shouldn't neglect what may be going on in the realm of our pre-concious minds. That doesn't mean that Trump isn't a horrible potential candidate. But let's give credit where its due: His slogan manages to be solid yet ambiguous enough to tap into a wide margin of people's cognitive minds simultaneously. In short, his slogan is stupid but, also, just a little bit brilliant.
Peter Licari Student in Political Behavior and Elections

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