Fri 7 May 2021

Otto English argues that Donald Trump is living proof that, while you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, you can fool yourself

Who’s Pizza?

A few years back I had a boss called ‘Norman’. Norman ran a training business out of a fancy building in West London and believed himself to be a business genius. According to his version of events, which he liked to relate on his rare excursions to the pub, his life had been a classic rag to riches tale. He had seen an opportunity and built his firm up from scratch. But it wasn’t true. Norman had in fact inherited a pile of money, bought the building, hired a much smarter friend and gone from there. 

As a manager, in a client-focused enterprise, Norman was a walking talking time bomb. He would make spontaneous promises to clients that he couldn’t possibly deliver. He brokered deals that lost him money and what few friends he had. He had the attention span of a goldfish. He would take credit for other people’s hard work and claim that all the best ideas were his own. But worst of all, he had the interpersonal skills of a parrot on acid. 

“Who are you?” He would shout randomly at staff and visitors. “Are you happy?” He would bark at others. 

Once, when I was taking a client out for lunch, he stopped us on the stairs and demanded to know where we were going.

“Ask” I replied, referring to the then popular Italian restaurant chain.

“Ask who?” He demanded. 

“Ask pizza” I replied, at which point Norman turned to my client and said very slowly, as if talking to a child:

“Pizza, where are you going for lunch?”

Eventually, he sold up. The building had become a valuable bit of real estate and he made far more from that sale than he had ever made as an entrepreneur. But he had by now convinced himself — and others — that he was an irrepressible business genius, with a nose for a great deal. 

In the years that followed US President Donald Trump’s inexorable rise to power there was something about him that struck me as oddly familiar; that benighted arrogance; the random outbursts; the curious statements of fact that he made up on the spot; the obsession with being the centre of attention; the claims that other people’s achievements were his own and most of all that clear and obvious conviction in his genius when there was scant evidence to support it.

Then one day it struck me. The 45th President of America was in fact ‘Norman’ writ large.

Psychopath in Chief

Much analysis has been made of Trump’s character in the last few years. Some have dubbed him the ‘Psychopath in chief” and suggested that he has some kind of personality disorder. His niece, Mary, has conjected in her recent book, that his character was forged by a brutal and bullying father, who drove her own Dad to an early grave. But I have a simpler explanation. Donald Trump, like my old boss Norman, is suffering from an acute case of the Dunning Kruger Effect.

That condition, first coined by the social psychologist David Dunning and his Cornell University colleague Justin Kruger, is a cognitive bias wherein people who have no obvious ability believe themselves to be supremely competent. 

All of us suffer the Dunning Kruger effect at times. That’s why the very worst drivers think they are the best. My friend Richard used to think that he was gifted with a beautiful singing voice when in fact he sounded like a crow that had trapped its foot in a tree. 

Trump’s reputation as a brilliant entrepreneur rests in no small part on his best-selling book The Art of the Deal, which was published in 1987. That tome that was part business manual and part autobiography sealed the image of the future President in the public consciousness as an instinctive and gifted tycoon. In the years that followed Trump cited it over and over as one of his greatest achievements and his second favourite book after the Bible. It sold over a million copies. It demonstrated his brilliance, his acumen, his genius and his winning way with words.

But in fact Trump had not written any of it. The book was penned entirely by the journalist Tony Schwartz, who later suggested that the work should be reclassified as fiction.

Sure a lot of books purportedly penned by celebrities are ghost written, but Trump’s involvement in the project extended no further than Schwartz being allowed to listen in on his phone calls and tag along while he played golf. When Tony tried to interview him, he grew listless and bored — gave one word answers and tried to leave.

And even as the book was being written, the essential lie that lay at its heart was being exposed. Throughout the eighties Trump’s businesses were haemorrhaging millions of dollars. Between 1985 and 1994 he lost a staggering $1.17 billion. Last year The New York Times concluded that he was, in essence, a bad businessman who only survived financially because was rich enough and lucky enough to stay afloat. This was perhaps the only casino owner in history to have lost millions on his gambling enterprises. 

The Devil’s Apprentice

Trump’s other profile-raising triumph was his stint on the US version of TV show The Apprentice. During his time there he drove the production team to distraction by repeatedly making random decisions, suggestive comments and incomprehensible pronouncements. He frequently had to be redubbed because he was making no sense. He often hired the worst candidates because he liked them and not because of anything competent they had done. The footage had to be expertly re-edited in order to make any sense of what was going on.  

Tony Schwartz’s verdict on Trump is particularly fascinating. 

“I seriously doubt (he) has ever read a book straight through in his adult life” he told the New Yorker in a 2016 interview, “more than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”

And so there, in a sense, you have it. Trump is proof that very stupid people can prosper and even end up being the President of the United States. Of course, you know that because you read the Byline Times — but the growing assumption that he will blow it this time might be wishful thinking. As recent history has demonstrated, life is never quite as straightforward as we want it to be and it seems that an awful lot of Americans are still buying in.

Everyone underestimated Trump in 2016, while overestimating the instinctive common sense of the American people. Everyone assumed that the good people of the USA would see through him, reject his blather and send him packing. Unfortunately, the Normans and Donalds prosper because there remain an awful lot of folks out there who continue to take too much at face value. These are the people who believe that reality TV is real, that celebrities actually write their books and that sovereignty is tangible.

We all need a bullshit detector in the age of Dunning Kruger populism — and as it heads towards November, perhaps Americans need one more than anywhere else.   

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