Rationalising the Irrational

Vox recently published an article, written by David Roberts, titled “We overanalyse Trump. He is what he appears to be“. In it, Roberts discusses the concept of a “theory of the mind”: the capacity that humans develop to “read” humans and to understand their beliefs and goals. As such, humans with this capacity are consistently attempting to apply this theory to others. This includes, of course, the President of the United States. And why wouldn’t we try to read him? The president is the most powerful man alive: his decisions affect millions and his beliefs can make or break economies, militaries and countries.

Roberts writes of the attempt to understand Trump’s theory of the mind:

Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

A scary conclusion to reach indeed. We all know that Donald Trump, in public at least, seems like an extremely shallow person. He is unable to weave coherent sentences together. Interviews demonstrate very clearly that Trump completely lacks anything resembling an attention span: he cannot focus on discussing the same topic beyond a few minutes. He does not seem to have any core guiding ideology save for a belief in himself and his supposedly legendary business acumen. Of course, Trump is a reality TV star, and like many celebrities a lot of people assumed that the public persona that Trump adopted was merely that: a character putting on a show. As successful a businessman as he was, surely Trump must have more nuance and intellect that he seems to let on?  Alas, the accounts of many who do know Trump privately show that with Trump, there is no ‘public’ persona- for there is only one persona. There is no other Trump than the one we see.

This, of course, impacts how we analyse the news surrounding the Trump administration. Let us take, for example, the recent firing of FBI director James Comey. When the news broke out, I joined many in offering the litany of accusations that Trump was attempting to cover up his Russian scandal by blowing up the investigation into said scandal. To be sure, Trump’s firing of Comey was still by all means inappropriate with no place in America’s constitutional democracy. But now, as I rethink everything, I am less and less convinced that Trump was masterminding some elaborate coverup.

Firstly, there is Politico’s account of the events that led to Comey’s political demise. Trump, reports Politico, was “enraged by the Russian investigation” and “would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe.” Watching prodigious amounts of cable news is standard behaviour that Trump is already well known to indulge in, so this would not be surprising to many. Then, according to the report, one day Trump decided he had enough. Trump fired Comey.

This set off a spectacular chain of events. Caught completely by surprise, the White House attempted to put out an excuse for why the president would suddenly fire the FBI director. It was Comey’s blunders during the 2016 election, they claimed; this was eroding trust in the FBI and the only way to restore it would be to fire the director. It was a reason that made sense- except it would only have made sense if Trump had fired Comey on day 1 of his presidency. Suddenly firing the director while the Russia investigation was picking up steam just reeked of scandal. Yet the White House steamed on. Sean Spicer gave that reason in his famous press conference “in the bushes”, although it does say something that even a press secretary like Sean Spicer decided to hide in the dark before giving out this excuse. The next day, vice president Mike Pence reiterated the same rationale.

Then Trump decided to contradict them all, accusing Comey of “showboating” and announcing that he didn’t like the Russia story and wanted to end- ergo, firing Comey. At one stroke he threw his entire administration under the bus.

In my view, this is concrete proof that there really is nothing to Donald Trump than what we see. It’s possible- indeed probable- that the Russia investigation is unearthing dark secrets that Trump does not want you to see. But masterminding an elaborate coverup he is not. No leader chats to reporters about taking action to halt an investigation into your aides’ shady treasonous connections. The simple truth of the matter was he didn’t like what he was seeing on TV and decided it had to stop.

The same lack of depth is evident everywhere. In the debates from last year, in his speeches, in interviews. They reveal a man with a profound lack of subtlety, of curiosity and of belief aside from in himself. And this would be clear enough to everyone if we were not so busy trying to construct a Theory of Trump. I am indeed guilty of this; on my occasions, I have portrayed Trump as a man with well thought-out ends who is coming up with the means to get there. The narratives out there, indeed are numerous. Most notably, many seek to portray Trump as an autocrat who is trying to dissemble the American constitution and turn the government into an illiberal democratic state resembling Turkey’s.

There is, however, no narrative. President Trump is a scam. He sold himself to his voters as a dealmaker, only to have his first deal with Congress fail because he didn’t understand the specifics of the deal he was trying to make. He sold himself to his voters as a brilliant businessman who would run the country like a great American company, but had to cover up his multitude of failed businesses, whether it be Trump University or Trump Steaks. He sold himself to his voters as a political outsider who would drain the swamp, only to fill his cabinet with investment bankers and ultra-conservatives.

He isn’t any of that. President Trump has no grand strategy. His presidency is just a mass of reactions to what he sees on Fox News. We appear to be doing the opposite to what we do to Kim Jong-un; while we seek to irrationalise the (admittedly twisted) rationale behind Kim’s actions, we are consistently trying to rationalise the irrational behaviour of Trump’s.

No wonder, then, that Sean Spicer wants to hide in the bushes instead of doing press conferences. How do you defend a man who is indefensible? How do you keep rationalising the irrational (and sometimes only to be contradicted less than 24 hours later?) How do you try to point out the method in the madness when there is no method? 

We are in unprecedented (or, as Trump would spell it, ‘unpresidented’) territory. The leader of the free world, who usually articulates grand visions of how he envisions the world order, is now just a 70 year old who yells at the TV. It is impossible to predict what will happen next according to the Trump administration worldview, because there is no worldview. The next four years, instead, will just be the world grimacing for whatever ideas some commentator on cable news puts in the president’s head. What interesting times we live in.

 

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3 thoughts on “Rationalising the Irrational

  1. very well thought through, I mainly agree that Trump is nothing more than a blustery ego. However, I’m a little concerned that those around him who do have an ideological bent have also identified the emptiness of Trump, and are using it to their own ends (e.g. massive corporation tax cuts etc).

  2. Finishing my international relations course does make me thing through this a bit. One might be tempted to try and rationalize Trump’s behavior. After all, social scientists are usually trying to find a causal relationship between things. I and some people in the academic field around me are beginning to recognize Trump’s irrational behavior and how difficult it can be to predicting state behavior. After all, he’s the president, and I think it kind of matters.

    As for your comments on “irrationalizing” the Kim regime is something I find quite interesting. Studying about North Korea’s nuclear program from a realist perspective does provide me a rational but disheartening view of the situation. One might see Kim Jong-Un’s missile tests as absolute madness, but with US allies surrounding it, Trump’s unpredictable behavior, and China’s seemingly unreliability, developing nuclear weapons seems to make sense.

    I think you concluded that piece quite well. The one bit of optimism I get is that I’m surely going to get a lot of material as a political science student, though my term papers would have to acknowledge its limitations due to a single man’s behavior. It will be an interesting four years, and hopefully (or not depending on your perspective), we won’t have another four.

    1. Thank you for your comment P’Jun!

      I think that the Kim regime is rational – but in the sense that it is rational in acting to self-preserve. If you factor in any other conditions eg. humanity, then the regime is absolutely mad (and I suppose, evil).

      I was just reading today that a model based on statistics from Quartz predicts that Trump would win a second term. The question, I think, is whether he will reach that point; he needs to survive the first without being impeached.

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