The 2016 election as a gateway to a new reality

How the last four years have changed our understanding of politics and beyond

As the heated, divisive, professionally orchestrated multi-billion dollar election campaigns of 2020 are finally coming to their end, the 2016 election is still notably present in people’s minds. While the Biden campaign is praying for 2016 not to repeat itself in terms of polling inaccuracies and unexpected turnout, the Trump campaign is yearning for exactly that.

The 2016 election also occupies a special place in my mind and memory, but for different reasons. The drama of American presidential elections has been fascinating me since I had first seen the movie “Primary Colors”, a competent adaptation of the same-titled book about Bill Clinton’s primary campaign culminating in his nomination for the 1992 presidential election.

However, I had essentially tuned out of the 2016 election campaigns at some point. I was not aware of any clearly defined political programs that Trump and Clinton might have presented. I certainly did not watch any of the so-called presidential debates that rather resembled the trash TV of Jerry Springer than a platform intended for informing the public about the potential future of the country.

As someone with a longstanding interest in politics like me, this was unusual. But it felt like the 2016 election simply had nothing to offer that was worth my interest or that fell in range of what I considered my skills. An economist by training, I considered myself a rationalist in the sense that I thought of myself as a rational person with a strong confidence in logic and reason not only governing my own thinking but essentially also the world. Not all the times, but I would expect the more reasonable opinion with the better evidence on its side to prevail at the end of the day — and if it did not, grave consequences would follow.

Given that I could not identify anything resembling logic or reason in the 2016 election campaigns, I merely considered them much ado about nothing that would eventually turn out the way the experts and reasonable people predicted. So I went to bed in my European time zone during the night of November 8/9, expecting nothing but an unexciting Clinton win, shrugging off the odd tightening in Florida before putting my computer on sleep mode.

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Photo taken by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily. Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-BY-2.0

When I refreshed my browser early the next morning, the headline of the election ticker changed to TRUMP SURGES. A few hours later, Clinton conceded the election and the world started to become used to the sound of “President-elect Trump”.

The aftermath of the election prompted a boom of attempts to explain and rationalize the unexpected result. A rational explanation attempt was that the U.S.-American median voter in 2016 simply preferred lower over higher taxes, less over more immigration, less than more U.S. military involvement abroad, and fewer than more establishment politics and politicians. While there might have been some truth to that, it would have been not more than a one-size-fits-all-explanation: the election went that way because that is where the voters wanted it to go. But why they wanted it and how they decided that Donald Trump of all people was the one who could take them there would remain unresolved.

The 2016 election result had stunned and energized me at the same time: There was a riddle to unpack but my familiar toolkit suddenly seemed very much inapt for the job. I had to admit that my model for understanding politics and human action had hit a dead end.

Enter Scott Adams. The creator of the Dilbert comic strip embarked on a new career path as a political analyst and commentator when he suggested in his blog as early as in August 2015 that Trump had a pathway to nomination and to victory in 2016. Apparently, Adams had been on to something that many professional observers of politics had missed.

I took notice of Adams’ takes on the 2016 election only in 2017 when I stumbled upon an extensive interview of him by Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report recorded in September 2016. There, Adams elaborated on what he had identified as the strongest element of Trump’s political skill stack: Persuasion. From Adams’ perspective, Trump’s public statements were not nearly as silly and incompetent as most of us perceived them. Instead, to Adams, Trump labelling Jeb Bush as “low energy” and Hillary Clinton as “crooked” was the display of carefully crafted linguistic kill shots that Trump used to create an association in our brains between these negative labels and his opponents that stuck. It further made sense for Trump to use a very simple, braggadocious but visual language and plenty of repetitions to convey an idea of how GREAT a Trump presidency would look like — or conversely, how TERRIBLE a Clinton administration would be. Trump’s entire style of communication, while often repelling and detached from facts and reality, suddenly appeared highly effective in reaching its intended goals when analyzed through the lens that Adams had brought forward.

When hearing this notion about the powers of persuasion for the first time, I was reminded of my high school days when I excelled at analyzing speeches by Kennedy and Lenin that had been so impactful in their times that they had earned themselves their place in history books. Maybe, I thought, my skill set was not that poorly designed for expanding on what Adams suggested really mattered for understanding political discourse and persuasion at an advanced level. By contrast, my academic studies had never encouraged or challenged me in this direction. For many years, this skill was like a muscle left untrained. Now that I had realized the weak spot in my thinking, I could finally start exercising again. The daily livestreams that Adams has been doing from his home studio since 2016, always accompanied by a cup of coffee, have been an inexhaustible source of material in this regard.

Moreover, Scott Adams’ approach to politics is not limited to the identification of a set of rhetorical tricks. Instead, he frames his view on politics as part of his broader understanding of reality. Central to this understanding is the notion that people are not rational. This notion entails that we should no longer expect people to take all the available facts into account or to reach the same conclusions upon being confronted with the same set of facts or even to accept something as a fact unanimously.

“Since my twenties, when I learned hypnosis, I’ve abandoned the idea that anyone is rational, including me. So once you abandon that, the world becomes far less frustrating, not more.” (Scott Adams on the Rubin Report, September 1, 2016)

As an economist, this notion was initially a bitter pill to swallow for me given that modern economics is (in)famously known for putting rationality at the core of its models of human economic behavior. I still think there are many examples of rationality getting the basics right. Most of us do not dance Tango in the middle of a busy road most of the time. Most of us do not spend their whole paycheck on the first day of the month. Most of us do have a pension plan for the distant future. Our institutions and norms are partly forcing or nudging us in the direction of what society considers rational.

But when it comes to other mental compartments, I have grown to accept that rationality in the sense of fully integrating all available information and making unbiased judgements is a shaky presumption, to say the least, and hence not providing much explanatory power for how humans think and act. Behavioral economics has long since integrated the cognitive biases of humans into the framework of economic analysis. Among these biases, Adams refers to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance most frequently.

Confirmation bias makes us preferably select the evidence that is confirming our prior beliefs. Cognitive dissonance, in turn, kicks in when we are nevertheless confronted with evidence or arguments that are incompatible with our beliefs or values. Instead of reevaluating the latter, we will often prefer to misinterpret the evidence in a way that makes it less threatening or to misrepresent the argument in such a way that it discredits our opponent instead of ourselves. Importantly, these biases are not character flaws but rather simple, unconscious mental defensive mechanisms. As a result, political conversations have more and more been resembling two movie-realities playing on one screen, as Adams calls it. Occasionally though, these two realities collide with each other. This is what happened during the famous Cathy Newman interview with Jordan B. Peterson when Newman was simply mentally incapable of accepting any of Peterson’s arguments without twisting them into something that would confirm her negative premonition about Peterson.

Adams has actually put together lists of indicators or “tells” for when somebody is slipping into cognitive dissonance (list 1, list 2). Remember and apply them to the next discussion where you think you have reason and evidence on your side. Over the past few months, I have been fact-checking claims about the coronavirus on Twitter. Trust me, cognitive biases are a thing.

In his book “Win Bigly”, essentially a compilation of the Trump persuasion skill stack, Adams reminisces about one of his 2015/16 predictions that operates at an even higher level: Not only would Trump win the election, but his win and his presidency would rip a hole in the fabric of reality and allow us to look through it, thereby providing us with an opportunity to experience reality in a completely different way. It would be presumptuous to suggest that everyone has shared this experience — but to me, it certainly felt like I have.

However, if the 2016 election and the ensuing Trump presidency were such a gateway drug to this new perspective on reality, why would not more people see it that way, in particular among the professionals who have been making their livings from analyzing politics? Recall that 2016 defied nearly all the rules that the professionals had been living and thinking by. Inevitably, this had to trigger a strong cognitive dissonance reaction on their side. As a consequence, expressions such as “triggered” and “unhinged” have increasingly been attached to once clear-headed analysts and commentators. Entertainers, in turn, who had never considered their reality as being subjected to the rules of logic and rationality seemed to have a much better shot at understanding what was going on regarding the spectacle of the Trump presidency.

Enter Russell Brand. The multi-talented Englishman, who has prospered in his various careers as comedian, actor, writer, activist and podcaster, can be considered an expert in understanding the interactions between an individual speaker and the audience. As such, Trump’s trademark ways of simultaneously playing both the media and his supporters like a fiddle have not slipped his attention. While Brand’s YouTube channel is predominantly populated by conversations about spirituality, meditation, self-help, environmentalism and social justice, Brand has been adding clips of him acknowledging Trump’s persuasion skills while casting doubts on the left-leaning media’s approach of confronting Trump in the gutters of insults and ridicule — because that is where he knows best how to fight back and how to make his enemies lose their minds.

“Any opponent of Donald Trump that has serious intention of displacing him ought to acknowledge: You’re dealing with someone who knows how to play this game in a way that’s not been played before extremely well, is galvanizing his support brilliantly (…), is able to engage in their games of derision (…) with aplomb.” (Russell Brand, June 26, 2020)

This extents to Trump’s approach to the coronavirus situation. Trump’s public health messaging has arguably been detached, in particular as the election is nearing, from everything what a risk-averse evidence-based public health expert would suggest. However, as Brand has pointed out, even his own infection has provided Trump with the opportunity of creating powerful images and messages which he was able to directly communicate to the U.S.-American public. While his messaging is damaging from a public health perspective, it is nevertheless effective — as it appeals to the growing part of the population that simply wants to feel differently about the coronavirus pandemic even if (or rather because) the fundamentals of the pandemic have not really changed.

It is probably not a coincidence that Scott Adams, the hypnotist, and Russell Brand, the spiritualist, have come to very similar conclusions about Trump’s persuasion game. In their own ways, both have been long-term students of the workings of the mind. Apparently, there is little reason to study the mind though if you imagine it as an unbiased computing machine. From this point of view, it has probably not been a coincidence neither that I have become interested in the practice of meditation around the time when I discarded my uber-rational model of the mind.

After all, what is the utility from having gained this new perspective on reality in 2016 beyond a better understanding of politics? You might have noticed that the four years that followed the 2016 election have been a non-stop nightmarish frenzy for most of the media and intellectuals. I am not in a position to question their reasons and motivations, but I may suggest that awareness about when persuasion is at work really helps to preserve a degree of mental sanity when following politics. Clearly, not everybody wants to be sane these days, but I find it much more interesting and revealing to ask myself from time to time how a piece of news or a political speech wants to make me feel instead of whether it makes sense to me at a rational level. The journalist and author of the book “Hate Inc.”, Matt Taibbi, has pointed out that the media has understood that division as a product is selling very well in our times and that as a consequence, the news has become a mental health threat.

I may further claim that it has improved my life quite a bit to presume that people, especially friends, who disagree with me do so simply because they have selectively accepted evidence that I have selectively discarded, and vice versa. Having complemented this presumption with some awareness about cognitive dissonance has driven down the number of useless political fights in my private sphere close to zero.

I am not suggesting it was necessary to know about the ideas and individuals I have mentioned here to grasp a better understanding of what happened in 2016. In fact, I believe our collective understanding of politics and reality has evolved considerably over the past four years anyway, mostly outside the press rooms though. Simply reflect on how you thought politics, news and reality worked in 2015 compared to today.

Complementary, there is very recent evidence from 2020 that the U.S.-American public at large is actually well aware by now that its information is being filtered and that consumers of the news will be shown different versions of reality depending on their political leanings: In a survey of registered voters collected by the Pew Research Center, 67% of U.S. adults say they have seen the news sources they turn to most often present factual information that favors one side of an issue in coverage of the 2020 election. Interestingly, Trump supporters among the sample are about twice as likely as Biden supporters to say that the news sources they turn to most often have reported made-up information that is intended to mislead the public (45% vs. 22%). U.S. adults further believe that partisans cannot agree on basic facts: The vast majority of Americans (85%) say that Trump and Biden supporters cannot agree on basic facts about important issues, while 80% say they think Americans tend to get different facts depending on which news sources they turn to. Hilariously, on the latter two measures, Trump and Biden supporters largely agree.

Hence, in times of political division and non-stop media barrage, we might actually have grown more, not less, aware of our two-movie reality, thanks to the gateway that has opened in front of our eyes. Whether we are willing and able to change anything regarding the political entrenchment and toxicity is a different question. But I am optimistic that what happened in 2016 has rendered us an immensely valuable service that will outlast the immediate political consequences of the election outcomes in both 2016 and 2020.

Economist. Reader. Writer. Hiker.

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