Friday, August 18, 2017

August Forebodings

August in an incompetent president's first year has become a time of foreboding. That sense of dread is part of the fallout from voters' attraction to presidential candidates who hide their privilege and lack of preparation behind an engaging populist speaking style.

In 2001, George W. Bush was spending the month of August at his ranch in Texas, clearing brush rather than acting on warnings that al Qaeda was preparing to attack inside the U.S.. In 2003, Al Franken, the comedian more recently turned senator from Minnesota, detailed the ignored warnings leading up to the 9/11 attacks in his serious and funny book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. At Amazon, you can read Chapter 16, "Operation Ignore", by clicking on the bookcover.

Now, a president even less equipped to handle the job is taking a long vacation, and it's hard not to wonder at what threat is brewing while a president distracts himself and the nation with outrageous tweets. It's worth remembering that George W. Bush's popularity, like Trump's, was dropping during his lackluster first year in office. When Bush's popularity shot up to 90% after the 9/11 attacks, he used the popularity to launch an ill-advised war, and get elected to a second term that ended in economic collapse.

At a time when the Trump administration is teetering on the brink, it's easy to imagine a scenario similar to the Bush years, when a president's incompetency unexpectedly played in his electoral favor.

Even without attack from outside, the nation continues to be sabotaged from inside, as anti-government ideology allows incompetent candidates to get elected, and then proceed to mismanage or dismantle government operations.

NOTE: Columnist Paul Krugman, whose columns often have an uncanny coincidence with my own thoughts, addressed August's foreboding in a different way:
Despite this, it may seem on the surface as if the republic is continuing to function normally. We’re still adding jobs; stocks are up; public services continue to be delivered. 
But remember, this administration has yet to confront a crisis not of its own making. Furthermore, a series of scary deadlines are looming. Never mind tax reform. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Trump and Mass Hypnosis

Many of us made it through last year's primaries and election, and the first six months of the Trump administration, without hearing about the techniques of mass hypnosis that may have contributed to his improbable election. A look back, though, shows that a number of people trained in hypnosis were recognizing sophisticated use of persuasion techniques where many of us were seeing coarseness, bullying, and lies. As articles like the New Yorker's How Trump is Transforming Rural America document how persistent is support for the president in some areas, despite all the incompetency and scorched earth policies emanating from the WhiteHouse, it's worth asking how hypnosis might be playing a role.

Scott Adams, the writer of the syndicated cartoon series Dilbert, recognized a method in Trump's madness during a primary debate in August, 2015. He wrote a blog post entitled "Clown Genius", about how the allied techniques of hypnosis, persuasion, and negotiation would win Trump the presidency. When, for instance, Trump declares he's worth $10 billion, it anchors a big round number in your mind. It doesn't matter what the true figure is. Though critics may offer far smaller numbers, the underlying message of all that discussion in the media will be that he is a wealthy man. Adams goes on to describe in detail the logic behind "anchors", "intentional exaggeration", and "thinking past the sale". Though Adams may be naive when he asserts that Trump's talents of persuasion could serve him not only as candidate but also as president, he offers valuable insights into the logic behind the campaign.

In March, 2016, TheHill interviewed hypnotist Richard Barker about Trump's techniques, which include "future pacing" and repetitive words and phrases. At rallies, Barker explains,"he gets them to visualize two problems, then he gets them [to] nod their heads three or four times for solutions."

The transformative power of Trump's use of repetition at rallies is described in this chilling account by a journalist in the New Yorker article:
Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!” 
The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away. 
Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued.

In May, 2016, TheWeek published a column by James Harbeck with a fine-grained analysis of the rhythm and intonation in the repetition Trump uses at rallies and in tweets to achieve a hypnotic effect. Among the techniques he identifies are the use of "the same words and phrases incessantly and identically", "the same structures over and over and over to set up an automatic cue-response expectation", and "the rule of three". Harbeck ends the column with this: "So there it is: How to hypnotize voters, in six simple moves. Be funny. Be confident. Be a bully. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Close with the emotion. Win."

In October, as the election approached, a college student and budding hypnotist named Kevin Butler wrote in awe of Trump's abilities. He explains that no one can be hypnotized against their will. It's not weak-mindedness that creates vulnerability to these techniques, but an openness to what Trump has to say.

Many of us heard a message of hate, fear, vulgarity, lies, and empty promises, and turned away in disgust. But what made so many others open to the message? The current fiasco has been 40 years in the making, a long marination of minds to make them more vulnerable to emotional appeals and empty promises. People point to the deep despair that has taken hold in economically depressed rural areas. Conservative radio and Fox News, with little competition from more objective news media, have used that despair to stir resentment towards coastal elites. If minds are saturated with lies and spin, and hardened with resentment, then truth, if it be heard at all, will sound foreign to the ear. Anti-government sentiment, which in its virulent form becomes like an auto-immune reaction in which the nation's institutions come under attack, is magnified by insecure religious leaders who view government as a competitor with God for their congregations' loyalty. The sabotage of legislative progress during the Obama years deepens people's cynicism about government's capacity to improve our lives, which in turn has played electorally into the hands of the saboteurs. And then there's the flight from issues during campaigns by the news media, which find that emotion-laden stories draw more listeners.

In an age when a suicide candidate can penetrate the nation's defenses and occupy the White House, and as the status quo creates and becomes increasingly undermined by the destabilizing effects of climate change, no amount of military might, and no wall, can keep a nation secure. A democracy grows weak and vulnerable from within, from lies, festering divisions and deepening resentments. The interior of a nation has its own front lines, defended by teachers, scientists, journalists--all who are willing to serve truth and rationality, who seek commonality and accept difference, who mend rather than thrive on division.

There is no easier way to artificially create and sustain division than to feel entitled to one's own facts. Two months into the Trump presidency, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a profile of the cartoonist Scott Adams mentioned above, who had been so impressed by Trump's hypnosis skills. Despite all the chaos in the White House, he still saw Trump as doing "the people's work", and has written a book, to be published later in the year, "Winning Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter".

Another Adams, John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, might counter as he did in 1770, that "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the states of facts and evidence." John Adams spoke those words in a courtroom--one of the last bastions in what is now a rapidly shrinking world where facts still matter. When Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1988, misquoted Adams and said, instead, "Facts are stupid things", his Freudian slip presaged the rising ocean of passion that Donald Trump would so expertly manipulate to send facts fleeing to whatever high ground might somewhere remain.

At the same time, this is the golden age of facts. They are literally at our fingertips, ever more conveniently presented on the internet, for anyone who wishes to find them. Might facts be just one more thing in the world that reaches a state of perfection only to become outmoded? We need someone with the necessary hypnotic powers of persuasion to convince people they still matter.