Trump’s level of stupidity is mind-numbing, but we can now reveal the secret that gives it power.
Editor’s Note: Samuel Warde is the editor-in-chief of Liberals Unite (recently re-branded as The Art of Living) as well as a contributor to Mindy Fischer, Writer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. You can view a list of his articles here.
Nearly two years into his presidency, the full scope of Trump’s stupidity remains stunning, baffling. The sheer magnitude of his lies is but one example, but certainly the most obvious one to consider.
The Washington Post has been tracking Trump’s falsehoods since his inauguration, putting that figure at 7,546 false or misleading claims presented his first 100 days in office. Yet, no matter how many times his lies get debunked – he stupidly keeps presenting them somehow thinking he is getting away with it.
So how does he keep doing it? How does he still think he can get away with telling bold-faced lies – in some instances repeatedly?
There is a scientific explanation for this behavior which is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
A psychological principle known as the Dunning-Kruger effect explains a lot when it comes to understanding Trump’s inability to understand and accept his intellectual shortcomings.
The noted journal Psychology Today crowned Trump “The Dunning-Kruger President” the day after his inauguration, briefly defining the theory as such:
Named for Cornell psychologist David Dunning and his then-grad student Justin Kruger, this is the observation that people who are ignorant or unskilled in a given domain tend to believe they are much more competent than they are. Thus bad drivers believe they’re good drivers, the humorless think they know what’s funny, and people who’ve never held public office think they'[d] make a terrific president. How hard can it be?
Writing for the Pacific Standard, Dunning himself explained the effect as follows:
In many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
The Dunning-Kruger President
If you do a Google search for “The Dunning-Kruger President” you will find that several news organizations have published articles applying the principle both before and after the 2016 presidential election.
Salon published an article in September 2016 explaining that “Trump is not merely ignorant. He is also supremely confident and feels superior — the most dangerous kind of idiot,” attributing his behavior to Dunning-Kruger.
Bloomberg published an article in May 2017 explaining that “We’re all ignorant, but Trump takes it to a different level” in an article titled: “Trump’s ‘Dangerous Disability’? It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect.”
Conservative author and political commentator David Brooks published an article for The New York Times that same month explaining that Trump was the “all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect” due to his infantile lack of mastery of “three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25.”
According to Brooks:
- “First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers [during] interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.”
- “Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.”
- “Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious. But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved.”
The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains Trump supporters
Politico took the obvious next step, attributing Trump’s popularity with some voters to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Politico started their article, reporting that:
Many commentators have argued that Donald Trump’s dominance in the GOP presidential race can be largely explained by ignorance; his candidacy, after all, is most popular among Republican voters without college degrees. Their expertise about current affairs is too fractured and full of holes to spot that only 9 percent of Trump’s statements are “true” or “mostly” true, according to PolitiFact, whereas 57 percent are “false” or “mostly false”—the remainder being “pants on fire” untruths. Trump himself has memorably declared: “I love the poorly educated.”
Continuing, Politico explained that: “The problem isn’t that voters are too uninformed. It is that they don’t know just how uninformed they are.”
[Dunning-Kruger] may well be the key to the Trump voter—and perhaps even to the man himself…. In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect also explains Fox News
Actor, comedian, and screenwriter John Cleese used the Dunning-Kruger effect to explain Fox News in a 2012 video posted on the Monty Python YouTube page.