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The Kool-Aid of competence

March 22, 2018

‘I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.’ So said Donald Trump, who never runs.

 

Trump was speaking to United States governors about the recent Florida school shooting, and criticised the deputy who refused to enter the school. No doubt the officer was terrified—those who have entered such crime scenes certainly are. And rightly so. Rifles like the AR-15 used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are highly destructive military-style weapons. They not only have a far greater range and penetration power than the deputy’s standard pistol, but also cause far greater wounds.

 

In short, Deputy Scot Peterson had every reason to be afraid of the shooter, as did his colleagues. This does not excuse his inaction, or the inaction of the FBI and local sheriff’s department. Instead, it highlights the extreme danger of the scenario: even trained, armed officers are unwilling and sometimes unable to respond immediately.

 

What interests me here is, first, Trump’s willingness to believe he would’ve braved this danger. And second, his willingness to say this publicly, to millions of citizens.

 

To begin, Trump would not have ‘run in there’ to confront Nikolas Cruz, or help victims. Most obviously, because he is a corrupt narcissist, who personifies ‘selfish, unempathetic preening’. If there is a list of likely civilian first responders, Trump is not on it. This is also because, even if Trump were a generous, community-minded helper—an enormous “if”—he might still freeze up under fire. This is because, despite the popularity of the “fight or flight” idea, often we’re simply paralysed by serious threats.

 

So, even with goodwill, intervention in a massacre is extraordinarily difficult—and the US President has little goodwill.

 

So, Trump’s statement to the governors is a fantasy: a flattering version of reality, in which the President is far better than he really is. Obviously, this describes his whole presidency and official White House press. It is an administration of unusually prominent deceit.

 

But these kinds of fancies are actually quite common. Not simply for other American conservatives, but for ordinary citizens.

 

Take the martial arts, which also offer opportunities for courage or cowardice. While death is rarely a threat, these arts nonetheless cause pain and prompt fear (if done well). I’m familiar with a few empty-handed styles, as well as a couple of weapon arts. I’m well aware of my shortcomings as a fighter: over the decades, I’ve been (literally) beaten by many different people, in many different ways. Put another way, I’m competent enough to recognise my incompetence.

 

And yet: when I first imagine a fight, I still see myself doing exactly what I want to do. I have an illusion of my own talent and stamina. Yes, I know that many of my techniques will fail; that I’ll be exhausted more quickly than I want; that my tactics will be clumsy, and my strategies simplistic. I can use metacognition to catch my errors. But my imagination is egotistical. This is because consciousness is not a see-through screen, but, as philosopher Iris Murdoch put it, ‘a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain.’ Its default is distortion, which takes constant labour to undo.

 

In short, we often overestimate our own excellence, and underestimate our crapness. Not simply because we are too ignorant to know our ignorance, but because the psyche devotes a great deal of energy to protecting itself.

 

The point is this: Trump, with his action hero fantasies (and the rest), is an extreme version of everyday delusion. In other words, the President is the worst of us. (Well, duh, you say.)

 

But Trump is also a leader; an ideal of American success. And his fantasy life encourages the fantasies of others. If they want to believe in their own superiority to people of colour; in the bourgeois dream of hard work and wealth; in American exceptionalism; and, of course, in the glory of vigilantism—well, Trump is there to give the ‘cloud of…fantastic reverie’ another puff of smoke. The President gives folks permission to simply make stuff up, while telling these same folks that scientists and journalists are the ones making stuff up. 

 

Some of these are lies, others are part of the same illusion: that Trump is always the most wealthy, the most virtuous, the most powerful man—and his overwhelmingly older, white and wealthier followers are lit by this same glow. And, surprise, surprise: many of these are gun owners, who falsely associate gun ownership with personal safety.

 

Which brings us to Donald Trump, telling the world that he’d run into a shooting. Ladies and gentlemen, the man knows his base. He's selling them a diluted version of the Kool-Aid he himself chugs: delusions of easy competence.

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© 2017 - Damon Young - www.damonyoung.com.au