An open letter to passionate opponents of Donald Trump
Peter A. Taylor
December 8, 2016
My initial reaction to the Trump candidacy was, "You've got to be kidding me!" It was only after several writers I like (e.g. John Derbyshire) took a shine to him that I started taking him seriously. I have my reasons for supporting Trump, but I also realize that peer influence (if I may call it that) came first. If it hadn't been for that peer influence, I would very likely have different reasons, or different weighting factors, for supporting a different candidate.
Other people therefore may be justifiably suspicious of my explanations for why I supported Trump. I am a human being, and am prone to the usual human failings. All jokes aside, I am neither a robot nor a space alien. But neither is any other legal voter. And so I am similarly suspicious of the explanations that other people give me for their political decisions.
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker describes some experiments that were done on people who have had the nerve bundle (corpus callosum) connecting the two hemispheres of the brain cut. The left hemisphere, asked to explain the person's response to a stimulus that was only received by the right hemisphere, will fabricate an answer without hesitation and with no awareness that it is doing so. Pinker writes,
...the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right.
The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.
I have seen and heard a great deal of hyperbolic fear and loathing of Donald Trump, generally combined with explanations that strike me as unsatisfactory. I believe that this fear and loathing is completely sincere, and is an accurate reflection of the inclinations emanating from the right hemispheres of people's brains. However, I believe that the explanations for it, while also completely sincere, are coming from the left hemispheres of people's brains, and my response in the light of Steven Pinker's work is that I want a second opinion.
One place to get a second opinion is from contrarian economist Robin Hanson. See his 2008 blog post, "Politics isn't about policy". Robert Frank offers similar insights into human nature in his book, Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status. Hanson says that the psychology of real elections is basically the same as the psychology of high school student council elections, and that the main impact of student council elections is that they effect the relative social status of various cliques. If a jock is elected student council president, it raises the social status of jocks relative to nerds, etc.
Another economist, Laurence Iannaccone, has studied religion, which he associates with "credence goods", goods whose quality is difficult or impossible to verify even after using the product. He describes eternal salvation as "the ultimate credence good." One thing churches typically do to encourage trust in their credence goods is to create an illusion of consensus among the right people, the people who are knowledgeable and virtuous enough to be able to judge such matters.
I claim that moral superiority is a credence good, and a large part of what the "prestige press" (and much of academia and the entertainment industry) does is to reinforce the illusion of consensus behind the moral superiority of political correctness.
People who set store by their political correctness have lost face in the short term just by having lost an election. But the prestige press has also suffered a great loss of power and prestige. The internet reduces its power, and the Trump campaign was in large measure an assault on its prestige. The success of the Trump campaign suggests that we may be seeing a "preference cascade"; the prestige of the prestige press is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the prophecy has been at least partly discredited. There is a very real possibility that the loss of face suffered by the politically correct is a long-term trend.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was killed shortly after a preference cascade revealed that he had far less sincere popular support than he appeared to have. Despite the hysterical fearmongering of the press and various agitprop groups, American Progressives are not in danger of ending up like Ceausescu. But I can understand how the right hemispheres of politically correct people's brains would be inclined to feel that way.
Update: Glenn Reynolds on status anxiety.
Update 2: Here is James A. Donald on Trump Derangement Syndrome, social status, Pussy Riot, and pecking order among chickens.
Update 3: The English word, "mortified", illustrates the point I'm trying to make. Emotionally, severe embarrassment feels like a life-threatening catastrophe.