Well, This is Certainly Eye-Opening!


September 2016


eye-openerIt’s mid-September 2016, less than two months until the presidential election. I’m writing this in the doldrums, where I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately. I made the mistake of once again nervously checking the website FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s statistical prediction site, and the prediction was just depressing. Hillary is slipping badly in the polls; Trump has rebounded from just about a 5 percent chance of winning at his nadir and as of this moment has over a 40 percent chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight. I am depressed.

But alongside the depression is an intense incredulity. As Nicholas Kristof noted in an op ed,

“A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence.”

Substantially more voters think Donald Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. Let that sink in. “At odds with all evidence” doesn’t begin to do justice to the situation.

Yes, I know there are people who think Hillary is dishonest and not trustworthy. I’m not going to devote precious essay space to trying to convince those folks they have a skewed view of her (although I think they do). Regardless, she is not in the same league – she is not even on the same planet – as Trump when it comes to dishonesty.[1] No politician is. The evidence is truly overwhelming that Donald Trump doesn’t just lie; he is a pathological liar. There’s an amazing amount of evidence of this that he seems to provide effortlessly day after day, hour after hour. It’s as if he doesn’t even stop to consider whether what he’s about to say is, you know, true. He just says whatever he feels like saying, whatever he thinks will have the most advantageous effect on the crowd.

And yet … somehow a substantial portion of the American public hasn’t gotten the news that most of what he says isn’t true. Or has gotten the news but doesn’t believe it. Or doesn’t care. Or something.

It is really striking – and terrifying – to watch Trump’s poll numbers go up and wonder how anyone, let alone a substantial portion of the American electorate, could vote for such a pathological liar – and this doesn’t even touch all the other substantive objections to Trump (his extreme narcissism, his racism, his sexism, his xenophobia, his bullying, his often infantile behavior, and his truly stunning ignorance about government and foreign affairs).

I suspect that most Trump supporters effectively live in a different “information universe” from me. They hear different things on the TV stations they watch or on the talk radio shows they listen to. And – surprise, surprise! – what they’re hearing about Hillary Clinton aren’t facts but innuendos and conspiracy theories. This isn’t always foremost in my mind, because I generally don’t watch what they watch – although I periodically watch clips online, so I get a sense of it, albeit not the full blast.

This happened recently when I watched a clip of the Seth Meyers show’s “A Closer Look” segment, which showed Fox people putting forth “interesting” conspiracy theories about Clinton having a double or being about to drop out of the race (because pneumonia). And it really struck me – people actually watch that stuff day in and day out and they don’t think it’s a joke, and they don’t see the slant. It occurred to me – really, I think, for the first time with full force – that, given what they watch and hear on a regular basis, it may not be that surprising that a lot of Americans don’t support Hillary. Still, it’s hard to understand how they can support Trump.

And what about all those lies that Trump tells on an almost hourly basis? I know they’re lies because I actually follow the real news and pay attention, and because I read the fact-checkers. And I know that Trump is grossly ignorant about government and foreign affairs because I watch and read about his interviews on such subjects and about the reactions of experts in those areas, all of whom are appalled at his complete lack of knowledge and understanding (to say nothing of his lack of interest in learning).

But we are a democracy, so those of us who are clear at this point that Trump would be a dangerous and disastrous president must hope that all those “real Americans” out there figure this out pretty soon, because November 8 is fast approaching.

It is beyond question at this point that Trump is completely unfit to be the president of the United States. There is an impressive consensus about this – the likes of which has not been seen before in my lifetime – including many Republicans (the ones who put country above party). Many have observed that Donald Trump is not normal (which is putting it kindly), and this is not a normal election.

Yet his support is non-trivial and it has increased in recent weeks. And, as surveys indicate, people’s assessments of Trump versus Hillary are often untethered to facts. I don’t think it’s elitist to say that I had a higher opinion of the American people than the current situation seems to warrant. I mean, I thought there really were limits to the loathsomeness that a candidate could get away with, a floor of unfitness below which a candidate would really have a hard time attracting and keeping supporters. But no, there doesn’t seem to be. He says he’s strong; he says he’ll make America great again, and that seems to be enough for his supporters. He spouts all sorts of baseless and ignorant lies, and they cheer. And his support is substantial. Well, this is certainly eye-opening!

Who knew that so many people could be so completely taken in by a con man! Who knew that the mainstream media (MSM) would feed the anti-Hillary frenzy by focusing endless time and words on Hillary’s email server scandal and trying to create another Hillary scandal out of the Clinton Foundation (where they found there was no wrong-doing) – while mostly ignoring the greater probability of real scandal in the Trump Organization.[2] And who knew how long it would take the MSM to be able to – take a deep breath, and – call a lie a lie.[3]

Clinton is a normal politician who, like most politicians, sometimes “bends” the truth and who is famously secretive (although given what she’s been put through, that’s not surprising). Trump, on the other hand, is an abnormal candidate who doesn’t just “bend” the truth. He lies – blatantly and with abandon.[4] It is really something to behold.

Back in 2004, George W. Bush won re-election after what many considered a disastrous four years in office. (I was one of the many.) The U.K.’s Daily Mirror’s now-famous headline was, “How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?”[5] I think of that often these days.

The rest of the world is watching what’s going on in this country, in this election, with astonishment – and horror, since what happens here will affect them too. It’s reminiscent of the Brexit vote, only worse.

Donald Trump is a disaster of a human being. I would guess that he is a sociopath. But he is not what is so disturbing about this election. What’s so disturbing is that despite everything – despite the pathological lying, the narcissism, the overt racism and sexism, the fascistic tendencies (declaring only he can fix things), the embarrassingly infantile behavior and poor impulse control, and the complete ignorance about matters of state (and disinclination to learn) – despite all of these off-the-charts-extreme red flags that Donald Trump is unfit to be president, his following is substantial. What does that say about the many Americans who plan to vote for him in November?

There has been much speculation about why Trump’s fans support him – they are racists themselves and Trump makes their racism seem acceptable; they are experiencing economic anxiety, and Trump promises them he’ll make it all better; they are of an authoritarian bent, and they like Trump because he appears strong; they feel left behind by society and they resent it, and Trump tells them he’ll make American great again – the way it was before they were left behind. I suspect there is some truth to all of those explanations.

But whatever the reasons, I am still left horrified at what appears to be a catastrophic lack of assessment on the part of the Trump crowd. They appear to lack the most basic ability or willingness to ask about Trump’s pronouncements, “Is this true? Does this make sense?”

Of course, my incredulity is based on my now-utterly-smashed notions about how citizens vote in an election. I’ll admit it – I really did think people thought at least a little and tried to find out some facts and exercised some judgment about the character of the person for whom they would cast their vote.

I realize now that for a substantial portion of the American electorate it’s not about facts at all; it’s about emotions. And that means it’s about whatever lies work and whatever pronouncements make people feel good. It’s not about whose policies make more sense – because, you know, policy is boring. It’s about who can generate the most attention and whip up the most intense emotion.

It turns out that American elections, at least at the presidential level, are about the opposites of what I always thought they were – and should be – about. It’s about who can do a better job of emotionally manipulating people. It has little to do with who has better ideas about how to run the country, because so many Americans are unable or unwilling to go into that level of detail – and because gasp-worthy antics and cringe-worthy statements are much more eyeball-grabbing than wonky policy talk and so receive a lot more media coverage. Every time I think, “No one will fall for that,” I’m proven wrong. It took a reality TV star sociopath to wipe the last bit of rose color from my glasses. Now I see clearly what our democracy is. It’s not a pretty picture.





[1] This has been documented repeatedly by fact-checkers as well as by reporters who have covered Clinton for decades.

[2] http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/09/trump-foundation-involved-yet-more-corruption ; http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/trump-foundation-starts-look-slush-fund?cid=sm_fb_maddow

[3] http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/dean-baquet-new-york-times-vows-trump-lies

[4] There are too many sites recounting the many lies of Trump. Here are just a few: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/08/donald-trump-has-few-regrets ; https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/09/18/donald-trump-said-12-false-things-on-saturday.html ; http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/ ; https://thinkprogress.org/9-lies-in-donald-trumps-big-speech-to-the-republican-convention-ee9287ee6b36#.lvzu5hgmw

[5] http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/images/blbushdumbpeople.htm


7 comments on “Well, This is Certainly Eye-Opening!

  1. J Berry says:

    Thank you Ellen ! Brilliant as always

  2. Rachel Alexander says:

    Ellen – Only because of my respect and admiration of you could I bring myself to read this. I have stopped reading all coverage of the election and of trump hoping that if I look away, it at least won’t get worse. Of course it is getting worse and your disappointment and exasperation are beautiful mirrors for mine. An image I wish we didn’t have to see.

    • ellen post says:

      You are wiser than me, Rachel. I have been glued to coverage of this awful election, particularly because Trump is just so off-the-charts horrible and the stakes are so high. When I wrote this essay, about a week ago, things were looking grimmer and grimmer. But now things seem to be improving a bit. I do think HRC will win in the end. I just wish it weren’t such a nail-biter. And I’m afraid my feeling — WTF is wrong with so many Americans who plan to vote for a sociopath??? — will stay with me no matter who wins the election.

  3. Leslie says:

    Yes, we are finally seeing the effects of a population that is raised on advertising and entertainment — it is drawn to the “drama” of the entertainment and has long since stopped trying to look behind the advertising. Very scary for the future of a “democracy.” Of course, if Trump wins, it will no longer be a democracy. But then no one wants to look that far ahead. Just the next news headline please.

    • ellen post says:

      Leslie — Yes indeed. My sentiments exactly. What a nightmare. It reminds me of Neil Postman’s prescient book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”

  4. […] I wrote elsewhere (see here), “At odds with all evidence” doesn’t begin to do justice to the […]

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