The Cognitive Dissident
Comey flap proves Trump’s underrated, first-rate intelligence
With his defenestration of FBI Director James Comey, President Trump has done it again: He has confounded the media, pundits and the vast majority of the public, and broke new ground for the U.S. presidency, by being consistently inconsistent and shrugging it off.
Americans normally love hating politicians for double-talking, flip-flopping, and being for something until they’re against it. You know, the whole “lying crooked Hillary” thing.
Not Trump. Re: Comey, Trump can fire a guy he’s praised without batting an eye or fretting that — amid the FBI’s probe of his campaign — it looks like a Solntsevskaya Bratva (aka, Солнцевская братва) (aka, Russian mob) hit on the Investigative Committee of Russia (aka, Russia’s FBI). Trump even scores attacking the media for suggesting something is amiss.
Many continue to huff-puff about it, but I think Trump’s rationale was brilliantly put in his Comey firing letter: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, in three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
Why brilliant? Turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic definition of cognitive dissonance: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” So Trump can like and hate Comey at the same time, and move on. Whether we Dems can process it or not.
Cognitive dissonance, from Merriam-Webster, is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”
Social psychologist Leon Festinger famously coined the term “cognitive dissonance” in 1957. He explored how we’re so tortured by conflicting thoughts that we take desperate steps to resolve.
To adapt from Wikipedia, let’s say we’re watching our bad carbs and sugars, but we really want a donut, which I do, right now, and a dozen would be even better. We have four choices:
1. Change our behavior (“I’ll eat no more of this doughnut.”)
2. Justify by changing the conflict (“I’m allowed to cheat my diet every once in a while.”)
3. Justify by adding new factors (“I’ll spend thirty extra minutes at the gymnasium to work off the doughnut.”)
4. Ignore or deny information that conflicts with beliefs (“This doughnut is not a high-sugar food.”)
The latter case explains our confirmation bias. Tortured by cognitive dissonance, we gut-pick a side, and then seek and accept supportive information while ignoring or rejecting what conflicts. Our Facebook feeds help. (Maybe that’s Zuckerberg’s secret sauce — easing our cognitive pain.)
Through the lens of cognitive dissonance, we can see why Trump supporters, given their first-rate intelligence like his, accept when candidate Trump declared one thing, and President Trump declares something completely the opposite — and even denies what he once said and trashes reporting on the transcript of what he said as fake news. Trumpsters can balance competing thoughts just fine.
Which of course leaves the much stupider White House press corps and many Americans completely confounded, reeling and sputtering.
To supporters, Trump isn’t a flip-flopper, liar or typical politician. He’s a brilliant businessman, deal-maker and strong leader who knows way more than the political system that elected him. Proven by his historic achievements in just his first 100 days.
Who cares whether Trump is inconsistent? If you want to talk about being inconsistent, then let’s talk about how liberal crybabies, with their second-rate intelligence in spite of their big-time college educations, are way more conflicted. They hated Comey for paving the way for Trump’s election. Then they hated Trump for firing Comey. Any questions?
Personally, I fall into the second-rate category. A lifelong Dem, and as such, not so smart. But I love to learn from people who are smarter than me.
Learning from Trump and supporters gives me a bit of, you know, cognitive dissonance. But since I’m not in any position to praise-fire someone, let me try his Comey approach to other situations that might come up:
Calling in sick: “Hey, boss — sorry, can’t make it to work today. If it’s an emergency, shoot me an email because I’ll be wind-surfing or resting on the beach and can’t answer the phone right away.”
Dealing with an irate customer: “Sorry, sir, I’m new to this job. I understand that the new printer you bought yesterday from us doesn’t work, but we can’t take it back because you took it out of the box.”
Handling a breakup: “Dearest heart, while I love you more than the earth loves the moon and stars, the trees love the breeze, and the bees love the peonies, I can’t see you anymore. Why not? It’s not you. It’s you.”
Meeting a new friend for dinner: “Let’s order! This is a great place because I’m a big-time foodie. Yay! But if you want to share, I should tell you I’m vegan, locavore, non-GMO, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, nut-allergic, soy-sensitive, high-fructose corn syrup-intolerant and can’t have legumes for reasons I won’t say right now, but maybe — wink! — we’ll find out some time.”
Talking further with new friend: “It’s not humble-bragging if you have earned the right to brag about how humble you are.”
Talking even more with new friend: “While I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking, wondering, taking on-line tests and seeing my therapist four times a week to talk about whether I’m a self-absorbed narcissist, I don’t think so. Do you think I am?
Talking to server at end of dinner with new friend: “How was my meal? Well, obviously I thoroughly enjoyed the bluefish sliders with rice crumble & kale, fermented monkfish platter & burnt watermelon reduction, and dessert of free-range plum with rubbed peach. Frankly, I’m blown away. It will go down in my personal history as the Best Dinner Ever. I ate every bite and literally licked the plate clean. Big mentions on Facebook, Yelp and Instagram coming! But I need you to comp the whole thing because the food was terrible and the portions were too small.”
Share your own examples of cognitive dissonance. We feel them every day.
As the Trump-Comey matter unfolded, Washington Post writer Monica Hesse noted on May 11 how Steve Colbert’s Hillary-friendly studio audience, on first hearing of Comey’s firing, cheered. But when the audience realized it was cheering for Trump, it quieted. “It was a moment of whiplash in a political climate that has become nothing but,” Hesse wrote.
To me, cognitive whiplash is understandable but unnecessary if we simply replace certainty (we know what we know!) with curiosity (what the hell do we know?).
Life is complicated. Human history, literature and morality plays show and explore that the truthiest truth lies between black and white. God knows we’re flawed, and most organized faiths accept and offer a chance to do better when inevitably we fail, all toward enlightenment.
The sanctimonious who declare they know right from wrong in every situation — and always choose right — are the worst hypocrites since the ancient Greeks coined the word to mean stage actor. Those who declaim they’re always completely honest, and tell it like it is, are either the most dangerous liars, lack self-reflection, or insult people and then call them over- sensitive. God love ‘em.
Most of us aspire to do right, and for Christians, the PowerPoint from Sinai offers a simple BuzzFeed listicle: (don’t steal, kill, covet or adulterate with the other soccer moms/dads, forget Flowers.com on Mother’s Day, or golf on Sunday without some church first, etc.). Most of us choose do right, or try and try again.
The problem comes when we hold others to our highest standards and call B.S. on them, thrilling to point out their inconsistency and hypocrisy.
That’s cognitive dissonance in a nutshell: If we hold others to our high standards, then we have to uphold them ourselves, and it’s mighty stressful.
Since I curse at drivers who don’t use turn signals and thereby cause 80 percent of traffic accidents and 250 percent of fatalities other than texting drivers, I now have to use my turn signal every all the time. Or I have to rationalize when I forget or ignore — I use my signal more than most people. Or if I signal, this arrogant, entitled DB in the new $100,000 Land Rover is going to speed in and cut me off. Or I have more important things on my mind, e.g., the flirty texts from my neighbor’s wife, than making sure stupid distracted drivers avoid accidents.
Point is, let’s lower the needless cognitive stress by accepting, as humans, we’re all a mess and make no sense. It’s been 30+ years since the recently departed Jonathan Demme made the landmark Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” To me, the advice is even more trenchant today in the age of algorithms, machine learning and other thrall with data and analytics that too often swamps sloppy but informative human emotion and gut sense.
Yes, we can hold two opposing ideas and still function. We can hate what we love and love what we hate. We don’t have to be consistent, and expect it from others. We can have that donut and eat it too.
This is in no way to defend Trump’s cognitive dissonance. But he may be ushering unto American politics a new, and perhaps more realistic, paradigm: The seat-of-pants, go-with-gut, I don’t care, I’m not gonna do what you Washington types tell me. I’m not from Washington, I’m gonna do what I think, screw all of you, you doubted me when I said if I wanted to be president, I would be, and now I am. So choke on it, losers. I’m gonna do what got me here. Whether it makes sense or not.
Trump supporters find his approach refreshing, just what our nation needs, especially when it confounds people who expect the President of the United States to be trustworthy, consistent, dignified and respectful of history, the office and the Constitution’s vision that the president is a public servant, not a potentate.
Naturally, Trumpsters double down even when he Saturday Night Massacres the nation’s chief federal law enforcement officer for doing his job investigating evidence that Russia pulled a Manchurian Candidate to put our leader into power.
I worry where Trump is taking the country. But look at it this way:
Trump may be our first, 21st century, Stop Making Sense president. And perhaps the last gasp of Washington-style gotcha politics, when candidates need to measure their words and worry that every off-cuff quip could be the next headline and opposition ad sound bite, especially with millions of iPhones pointed at them at every public moment, hoping for a viral video.
Avoiding a gaffe is too hard when you’re being authentic, as Joe Biden learned, Bernie didn’t worry about, and Trump relished because, for his base, the worse, the better.
Honesty, even conflicted, perhaps especially if conflicted, is authentic because we’re all conflicted.
The hoary legend of the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes is that he trudged through Athens with a lantern looking for that one honest man.
Founded on the Athenian concept of democracy, our nation constantly looks for that honest person to lead us, with honesty including humility to accept powerful checks on his or her electoral power. But the honest leader by definition is flawed. We’re suspect of perfection because it doesn’t exist in nature or humanity; when presented, we doubt and gag. We want true authentic not faux — the Nordstrom $400 muddied jeans or $1,400 Neiman destroyed tennis shoes — but human leaders who are just as ridiculous as we humans are who pick them.
The one honest man or woman we seek to lead is far perfect or polished, in appearance, on camera, in their personal or professional lives, or most of all, in their consistency. To me, again not to defend Trump or his poor Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, etc., too much effort is expended in trying to square Trump on a diet eating the donut.
Newsweek’s Matthew Cooper once captured how the media’s political consistency test creates its own cognitive dissonance:
“Somewhere along the way, the charge of flip-flopping became one of the deadliest in politics — the shorthand for a lack of character. By contrast, a politician who didn’t change his or her mind, or who vowed to be uninterested in polls, was considered to be of a higher caliber. But there is a case for flip-flopping, or what might be called being human. After all, almost anyone with common sense has probably evolved on some position or another.”
Not to understate, but I’ll likely not evolve to accepting Trump and the GOP’s craven fealty. I feel for folks who struggle and cling to Trump as the nation’s savior, even if this gang and their policies will hurt their most fervent supporters first and foremost. I hope Obamacare repeal/replace continues to fail from the GOP’s now obvious lie to its base, suckering but hurting the believers, that it has a better plan for them. I believe the quip attributed to Churchill that Americans will always wind up doing what’s best (after exhausting all alternatives).
Most of all, while hardly as smart as Trump or his supporters, I believe the rest of Fitzgerald’s observation about cognitive dissonance:
“One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer