In many areas of life, incompetent people 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 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. (David Dunning)
Things got a little different in 2017. Within less than a month in the office, Trump’s cabinet managed to accumulate spectacular cognitive deficit never before seen in the White House. This deficit, accompanied with a commensurate loss of credibility, is threatening to become a permanent trademark of his troubled presidency.
The biggest change introduced by Trump’s arrival has been the reversal of information flows in the communications between the White House and the press. Until now, the White House had always been the center of political information and, through press briefings or other communication channels, shared a fraction of that information with the press. What the press knew was a subset of what was known to the White House. Because of this asymmetry (to avoid answering unpleasant questions or possible self-incrimination), the White House would engage in deception. There was a stable symbolic pact between the government and the press; the press got something to work with, while the White House was occasionally allowed to get out of an uncomfortable situation. No one’s intelligence was insulted.
All this underwent a 180 degree reversal with Trump. First of all, and this is the root of the problem, Trump’s administration seems to be reluctant to accept the fact that they won the election — as if that was never really a part of the plan. Instead of governing, they continue to behave like the opposition, always arguing from the position of the victims of establishment and raising objections and outrage at how the system functions. They have remained reactive instead of proactive, systematically behind the curve.
Trump’s White House is populated predominantly with political amateurs, dilettantes and professional yes-men who, themselves, do not produce any substantial informational content. They are by and large either misinformed and making things up or getting their facts from the low-tier media such as Fox News, Breitbar, tabloids or reality shows, who themselves are known to habitually make things up (their business model often based on fabricating “facts”). As a consequence, the mainstream press has been much better informed than the White House, both in terms of the area covered and the depth and quality of information. Trump’s White House operates with a subset of the information available to the press and the press can run circles around its staff. Because of that, current White House spokespersons have had a great difficulty engaging with the press. They are incapable of creating a deception when they need it – the conceptual difference between a deception and a lie seems to elude them — so they lie instead, and when they are called on a lie, they lie more and blame facts, which further undermines their credibility until there is none left. As a result, after less than a month in office, Trump had to declare war on facts and pronounce the press the enemy of the people.
Power cannibalizes itself — it carries the seeds of its own destruction (Jean Baudrillard)
In their infinite political naïveté, Trump and his cabinet do not understand that by waging a war on facts, media and dissent in general, they are actually writing their own obituary.
The current administration is deluded by the idea that their rise to power and their program in general have a strong historical, messianic mission of correcting the years of imbalances caused by neoliberalism, globalization, and cultural displacement. In their minds, weakening of their power, even temporarily, would be a betrayal of that mission, and so, any voice of opposition has to be inhibited and ultimately subdued.
The fatal flaw of this position is that by suppressing the opposition, and the information its existence and voice provide, the leadership is left essentially blind to whatever is happening in their back yard. Within a very short time, they will have no vocabulary to discuss socio-political conditions and develop an approximate description of social reality.
In the face of perpetual conflict with reality, Trump’s political machine will foster a continued state of cognitive dissonance and with the help of spectacle possibly provide a temporary life support for their existence through the suspension of disbelief. However, Trump’s administration’s non-linear relationship with facts and truths will gradually turn whatever remains of their constituents into a cult following. Like most other authoritarian ideologies, both Trump and his followers will remain non-adaptive not allowing any feedback to penetrate the boundaries of their fortress of ignorance, and when the end becomes inevitable, they will be unable to transform or adjust. The autopsy of the communist experience and other totalitarian forms of political rule offer numerous illustrations of this trajectory.
Aside from this, there is a practical question regarding the sanity of Trump’s approach: How does one get away with a lie as a policy tool in the world of total information? This might be easier to implement in a society like the old Soviet Union, which had never been given a chance to properly embrace modernity and where the population had been subdued by chronic scarcity, where bare necessities had been a luxury for decades, and where people were ready to make any compromise that would restore their dignity and bring their lives closer to normal. In the era of relative affluence and absolute information such a project cannot take root, even in the short run — it would require an extraordinary force to maintain its stability.
And this is where things begin to break down. Large-scale systemic oppression requires the mobilization of enormous resources to keep control of political subjects and effectively turns them into hostages. Attempts to oppress growing discontent require a heavy-handed rule which in turn reinforces the hostage syndrome and brings about further escalation of discontent with generally adverse economic side effects. At that point, legitimation becomes the system’s biggest problem and requires mobilization of all resources, primarily aimed at its glorification. But, by then the oppression is the only thing the system knows how to deliver. It is the only strategy, and a very expensive one. Finally, when existing resources are fully exhausted, the system has to collapse.
Send in the rubes: Technology and political snake oil
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth (Mike Tyson)
Although with the help of social media, artificial intelligence and technology in general, oppression can take on subtler forms, the standard of tolerance will change with it and oppression will always be recognized for what it is. The illusion that this battle can be won by “psychological operations”, a systematic form of mass propaganda that acts on peoples’ emotions — a half-baked idea of crowding out the info-highway with misinformation — is a reflection of both ultimate ignorance and arrogance that comes with it. It is an ill-conceived program initiated by data analytics companies and funded by the right wing plutocrats who specialize in election strategies, based on an erroneous assumption that, in the era of total information, the society outside the governing party’s sphere of influence and control will remain static and non-adaptive, and that the pattern-recognition models of their currently employed consulting companies, will remain only their (and nobody else’s) proprietary tool forever. The absurdity of such assumption is best illustrated by the fact that every major hedge fund has already caught up with this trend and either has a similar platform and capabilities or is in the process of getting one very soon. Words like artificial intelligence and machine learning are the most frequently used buzzwords during the incoming student orientations at all major American universities — these topics are the most rapidly developing areas of science and technology. It is not difficult to imagine what this landscape will look like in four years or beyond.
After all, when it comes to economics and social sciences, there is one thing we learned about our attempts to model their dynamics: All models are wrong; some of them are useful (at best). So, it is all about how we decide to use these models, what sample and assumptions we choose to calibrate them etc. And, sooner or later, we realize that all these models of social behavior do not offer any substantial new wisdom, but can make our tasks of data manipulation easier only if we give them correct instructions as an input. In other words, it is garbage-in-garbage-out at the end, no matter what (this is the best outcome). In that context, alternative facts, misinformation, alienation from reality, or other forms of self-indulgence (an emotional state Trump’s cabinet is particularly prone to) can only compromise effectiveness of any given technological platform.
Yes, these companies can help you win the elections, but they can never become an instrument that secures a smooth and peaceful governing — that erroneous extrapolation is the new political snake oil. People like Stephen Bannon are real rubes here. Their anti-elitist sentiment, combined with their messianic fantasy, which has been running in displaced mode as a war on facts and critical thinking in general, compromised their own resistance to nonsense – they start believing the nonsense they are peddling and ultimately become victims of the snake oil sale themselves.
The ultimate delusion, however, remains a belief that this battle can be won at all. Ignorance by design is the trap any hegemonic ideology faces. Monochromatic political systems are vulnerable to loss of robustness and long-term fragility. The authoritarian project is self-defeating — even a temporary victory on that front is a guarantee of a defeat in the long run. History offers countless examples, collapse of the communism being just the latest one. Diversity of opinions, multiparty systems, and what is generally referred to as freedom of speech (even when existing only pro forma) are always superior in this context. Tolerance for existence of alternative forms of interpretation of social reality as well as social organizing (from street gangs, organized crime, religious cults, and self-sustainable communes to fringe or mainstream political parties) carries enormous informational value. After all, wasn’t the spectacular defeat of the centrist ideology in 2016 (and the traction of the right wing populism in the West) a direct consequence of ignoring the voice of the people who were left behind by progress and globalization — the people whose existence had been systematically delegitimized by neoliberalism. The diversity of opinions of the socio-political landscape allows rule of force to be replaced by a more efficient rule through freedom or self-conduct, which, while not necessarily less oppressive than the totalitarian structures, could be an economically superior alternative resulting in more robust and stable systems.