On strong leaders and simple stories

Donald TrumpPhoto by iprimages: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iprphoto/

The key to Donald Trump’s appeal is that he presents himself as a strong leader with simple, bold (hoo boy, they’re bold!) solutions to America’s complex problems. Too many immigrants? Build a wall. Frightened of terrorists? Close the door to Muslims. He offers us the comforting notion that these issues are not really so complex after all, if you only know what you’re doing.

The Trump world view is super-easy to grasp because it’s all about dualities: you’re smart or you’re stupid, strong or weak, a winner or a loser – and he, of course, sits atop the pile, the winner of winners, the billionaire businessman, the natural boss. And that’s exactly what his supporters want: someone to take the burden off their shoulders, to reassure and absolve them, to take control and sort things out. I’m developing a tentative hypothesis that, despite all the personal freedom rhetoric, Americans are actually by nature hierarchical, especially eager to defer to their seniors, perhaps as a reaction to their lack of an unelected figurehead. Trump’s supporters, anyway, appear to me just like children, looking up to their strong, confident parent for all the answers. The fact that his answers are not only ill-defined and wildly unworkable but also often grossly offensive, not to mention unconstitutional, and the irony that he, the supposed parent figure, frequently resembles nothing so much as an angry toddler, are apparently lost on them, so seduced are they by the simplicity of his black-and-white, leave-it-to-me narrative.

A number of factors can amplify the appeal of a perceived strong leader, and many of them are in play in the current election campaign. Anxiety about the economy, national security, and demographic and cultural changes, along with doubt about the competence and trustworthiness of the established elite, all go some way towards explaining Trump’s appeal. He has also done an effective job of selling the ‘Make America Great Again’ idea to his relatively aged supporter base, despite the lack of clear evidence that America is any less great now than it ever was – depending, of course, on what on earth you mean by greatness.

But while the rest of us are busy laughing at the Trump supporters and their dumb gullibility, perhaps we should pause for a moment to consider whether we ourselves are immune to the temptations of a strong leader or a simple story. While we may aspire to formulate informed, independent opinions on issues of public importance, aren’t we also ­– not least as the result of limited time – sometimes prone to reductionism, to retreating to our political comfort zones, to trusting relatively blindly in the leaders whose general outlooks we share? During the 2008-9 financial crisis, for example, I’ll admit I largely crossed my fingers and put my faith in Obama.

The current clefts between different factions in the Republican Party have a parallel in the UK Labour Party, where the leftwing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his supporters have spent the three months since he was elected in more or less constant conflict with their more centrist colleagues on the opposition benches. When, on December 2nd, Parliament voted on whether to extend airstrikes against Daesh (ISIS) from Iraq into Syria, the Labour Party was unable to come to an official position. According to the leftier elements in my Facebook feed, however, the decision could not have been starker: wage war or keep the peace, kill innocents or spare them. After the vote went in favor of extending airstrikes, the comedian and columnist Frankie Boyle wrote:

“So we decided to stop children drowning on the beaches by killing them in their beds”.

On the whole, I feel quite disengaged from British politics these days, having been out of the country for more than eight years, but I was struck by the tone of what I was seeing on Facebook and elsewhere, and inspired to dig deeper. So I read the entire transcript of the Parliamentary debate – yes, all eleven hours of it (though, unlike the Speaker of the House, who was congratulated at one point for the strength of his bladder, I’ll confess I did take the odd comfort break). By the time I finally reached the end, one thing at least was clear: the decision was not simple. Contrary to what I’d been reading, it was far from a choice between death and life: yes, bombing always risks the loss of innocent lives (though the level of risk was much contested in the debate, given the available technology and nature of the targets), but Daesh are already killing and abusing innocents in the most horrific ways, as are Assad’s forces, as are some of the numerous other groups that oppose them both. Every way you slice it, there’s suffering and death. The question – the much more complicated question – is how to minimize it, in the short and longer term.

The anti-bombing lobby claimed that targeting Daesh in Syria would make British citizens less safe by angering Daesh and inspiring more Muslims to radicalize. Those in favor of the bombing argued that Britain could not get any higher on Daesh’s hit list and that military action was urgently needed to restrict their recruitment capabilities and limit further overseas attacks.

Ultimately, the key disagreement seemed to be about timing: it was pretty clear that some airstrikes would be needed, with or without Britain’s involvement, as part of a multi-faceted strategy to combat Daesh. The anti lobby argued that the other facets of this strategy were not yet far enough advanced to capitalize on any gains made by air; the pro lobby countered that progress was indeed being made, and claimed that ground operations and other efforts would become even more challenging further down the line if Daesh were not quickly contained.

Very occasionally, a political question arises that is genuinely simple: I find it hard, for example, to make a good devil’s advocate case against gay marriage or in favor of free access to guns. But the vast majority of important public questions are just not like that. They’re complex and difficult, and very often depressing or scary or both. It is so much easier, practically and psychologically, to paint our world in black and white, to claim that the right answers are obvious and call our opponents immoral or insane, than to face up to the true, dismaying messiness of most things. But it is not responsible, and it is not honest.

As individual citizens, we need to resist the temptation to buy into oversimplified stories and instead actively challenge ourselves to seek out counter-arguments and subject our first intuitions to sincere stress-tests. I worry that the way the media is evolving is both discouraging us from doing this and making it harder. The Internet and social media call us to sink back into our siloes, only hearing what we want to hear, only talking to those with whom we already broadly agree. TV and radio stations with overt political positions appeal to the same lazy tribal instincts, and in the US, even those that aim for some level of objectivity are beholden to their advertisers and, hence, to viewer ratings. Watching TV here, it would be easy to get the impression that no Presidential candidate other than Trump (who, as my husband has to remind me in my more apocalyptic moments, is only supported by about a third of the quarter of the population who self-identify as likely Republican primary voters) has said or done anything much for several months. We want to watch Trump because he gives us drama and entertainment, and they’re giving us what we want.

If we are to develop informed, evidence-based opinions, we need to incentivize our media to present us with the issues and arguments in a substantive and balanced way. With our daily lives to lead, we can’t be expected to do all the raw research ourselves and so will always need to look to trusted guides to filter and present the information, but we risk losing them if we continue to consume largely lowest-common-denominator fare. Moreover, even with access to reliable sources, we will still always, at least on some questions, have to live with a level of ignorance, for all kinds of reasons, including a lack of expertise or time or access to restricted information. Sometimes, we have no choice but to rely on our leaders to understand the finer detail on our behalf and make the best decisions. That, of course, is why it’s so essential that we elect the truly strong ones ­– the ones with critical capacity and intellectual integrity, not just bold, bombastic conviction – to do the job.

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “On strong leaders and simple stories

  1. Michael Etherington

    Thank you, Alice, once again for this clear concise analysis of BOTH US and UK politics. Your final paragraph is right. We do have to depend on our leaders whose staff provide the level of investigation and consideration that we (voters) cannot achieve. It is impossible for everyday citizens to find out enough of the truth to make a complete analysis and arrive at a balanced answer. All the press is controlled by someone who promulgates their view subtly or overtly. We cannot unscramble to full complex truth.
    I look forward to discussing the Republican approach in February with neighbours when we are next in California.. Michael

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  2. Rachel Etherington

    Al – this piece is utterly brilliant. Even if we did have all the research, evidence, intellectual capabilities, insight to truly understand these issues I am not sure that would reflect what goes on behind closed doors within each and every party. These things are further complicated by the disrupting influence of power, the questionable motives of those contesting leadership and, the age old issue of balancing the ‘right thing’ with the most popular. One doesn’t go into politics if one isn’t a raving solipsistic narcissist (!!) and thus they all want to wield as much power for as long as possible. This will distort – consciously and unconsciously – their understanding and views on issues. Furthermore, a Republican and a Democrat will find evidence to substantiate their views on – say – healthcare, both of which may appear robust, and we’re back to the question of whether there is or can be an objective truth. Anyhow, thank you for this. Excellent and thought provoking.

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  3. Love your writing! Regarding Trump, I heard a BBC blip a couple weeks back about Britain voting on whether to ban him. Something about hate speech. I hope they do ban him. Maybe then his supporters will wake from the coma.

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  4. Anonymous

    Excellent analysis, Alice and stunning writing! Totally agree with you on all of it and I just hope enough checks and balances happen to mitigate some of whatever Trump/Bannon has in store. I would be curious to hear more about your thoughts on the American hierarchical nature- maybe the topic for another article!:)

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