Donald Trump and the Contours of American Decision-Making: Do we suffer from a collective thinking disorder? And what can we learn from Star Trek?

Donald Trump and the Contours of American Decision-Making:

Do we suffer from a collective thinking disorder?

And what can we learn from Star Trek?

Burton Weltman

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.”

Attributed to Albert Einstein.

 A.  The Irony of American Decision-Making: A History of Self-Defeating Policies.

“It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” 

Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Why, in the name of peace, has the United States been involved in more wars since the founding of our country than any other country during that period of time (we have been at war in over 200 of our 239 years)?[1]  Why, in the name of self-protection, does the United States have the highest rate of gun ownership (some 88.8 guns per 100 people), but also the highest rate of gun deaths of any industrialized country?[2]  Why, in sum, do American policies often seem to produce the things they are supposed to prevent?  Is this crazy, or what?

Take for example the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The United States conquered Iraq and overthrew its government in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that might threaten us.  It was a preemptive strike to eliminate a potential threat.  There was no evidence that the weapons existed, but George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld inveigled the mass media, scared the public, and stampeded the Congress into supporting the invasion.  It turned out, of course, that there were no such weapons.  In fact, the patient containment policy of President Clinton during the 1990’s had seemingly led Saddam Hussein to destroy Iraq’s chemical weapons.

The conquest was also supposed to help bring stability to the Middle East.  As a consequence of the invasion, however, Iraq became a haven for terrorists who continue to pose an actual threat to us.  The invasion also ignited a firestorm of violence in the Middle East and around the world that we are still struggling to get under control.  The Iraq invasion stands as one example among many in our history of the irony of provoking violence in the name of preventing it.

Take also the example of America’s gun policies.  Americans are the most highly and widely armed people in the history of the world.  The ostensible goal is for people to be able to protect themselves against violence.  And every time there is a significant incidence of gun violence in the country, people buy even more guns as a preemptive move to protect themselves.  But this is a self-defeating policy both for individual people and the populace as a whole.

The data is clear that people who own guns are more likely to be shot than those who do not.  And the most likely persons to be shot with a gun that you own are you and people you know.  There is almost no chance that you will ever use your gun to protect yourself or anyone else.  Significantly, states within the United States with looser gun policies have higher rates of gun violence than those with tighter gun restrictions.  Nonetheless, the recent trend has been mainly toward even looser gun controls in those states with the greatest gun violence.  The National Rifle Association and other gun groups largely funded by gun manufacturers have manipulated the mass media, made people afraid of each other and of the government, and stimulated a national obsession with owning guns.

The consequence of these policies is that guns are so easily and widely available in the United States, that conflicts which in other times and places might be settled with fists or, at worst, clubs and knives, are often settled with automatic weapons.  It also seems to have become the case that guns are so widely possessed by people that whenever a police officer confronts someone with something in his hand, the officer feels he has to assume it is a gun, and frequently decides he has to shoot the guy.  A wallet, a toy truck, anything can be taken for a gun.  As a result, we are currently experiencing a reign of fear between the police and the people they are supposed to protect, with each group scared of the guns possessed by the other.

Our gun obsession has given the United States the highest rate of gun violence of any industrialized country, all in the name of self-protection.  American gun policies stand as another instance of the irony of trying to prevent violence with violence.[3]  Why do we so often adopt these sorts of self-defeating policies?

B.  Confounded Founding: Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

“In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.”

 Mr. Spock on Star Trek

 Concerns about self-defeating policies are not new in our history. They date back at least to the founding of the country.  In the 1780’s, after having defeated the most powerful army in the world and gained independence for the United States from England, George Washington expressed the overwhelming sentiment of the Founding Fathers when he complained about the outcome of the Revolution.  “Have we fought for this?!” Washington lamented as he surveyed the social and political landscape of the United States.  The Founders had expected that peace and harmony would reign among Americans after their English overlords had been expelled.

But the country seemed, instead, to be in chaos.  Social classes were in constant conflict with each other, pitting rich against poor, farmers against bankers, cities against the countryside.  Worse still, the populace was refusing to follow the lead of the Founders, who had expected to be recognized as the natural and rightful leaders of the people once the British were gone.  Demagogic upstarts and hucksters were taking center stage, and vying with the Founders for political power.  What had the Founders gotten wrong?  The problem may have been of their own making, and its roots may be seen in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence opens with the words “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to….”  The document then goes on to make a case for why it was necessary for the American colonists to revolt against English rule.  The argument consists of two main parts.  The first part is a concise statement of the natural rights theories of John Locke and Francis Hutcheson, to the effect that when a government becomes tyrannical, it is not merely the right but the duty of people to overthrow it.

The second part is a lengthy list of grievances against the King of England which purports to demonstrate that Americans have a duty to revolt against him.  This part opens with the words “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” (Emphasis added.). That is to say, the King was in the midst of a long term plan to become a tyrant, not that he already was a tyrant.  This revolt is a precautionary and preemptive move against a king who intends to become a tyrant.  Consistent with this opening statement, the specific grievances that follow are mainly prospective in nature and effect.  The first is “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”  That is, the King was keeping the colonists from doing what they wanted and, thereby, keeping them from growing in wealth and power, not that he was actually abusing them.

Most of the grievances are of this nature.  They complain that the has King ignored requests from the colonists and/or made things inconvenient for them.  The few grievances in the list that alleged actual harm to the colonies were punishments that England had imposed on New England because of the Boston Tea Party and other terrorist actions by the so-called Sons of Liberty.  The Declaration concludes, nonetheless, that the King has demonstrated his intent is to become a tyrant, and that the colonies will likely be strangled to death if they do not revolt.

Although the fear expressed in the Declaration is sincere, the document does not make an argument that the colonies are currently being tyrannically oppressed.  England’s North American colonies were, in fact, the freest places for freemen in the world, and the colonists knew this.  The Declaration is an argument that current events indicated the King’s intention to tyrannically oppress the colonies, and that the colonists had better get out while the getting was still possible. It is essentially an argument to make a preemptive strike for independence before it is too late, before the colonists are enmeshed in tyranny and unable to resist the King.  The Declaration was a powerfully written statement issued by most of the most respected men in the colonies.  It scared enough colonists into supporting a revolution to make that revolution happen.

It was not, however, accurate in the main.  The Founding Fathers were wrong about the King’s intentions and the import of his actions.  The King was not trying to become a tyrant, or to reclaim the powers that English Kings had claimed during earlier centuries.  To the contrary, although George III was an active King, England was evolving into a parliamentary system in which the King had very limited powers.  The Founding Fathers, however, relying to a large extent on misinformation they had gleaned from English radicals, feared for their liberties.  Scorning negotiations that might have produced a peaceful compromise, they rushed into war, risking their lives to save freedoms they were not seriously in danger of losing.[4]

It was a long and brutal war that they eventually won.  But things did not turn out the way the Founders expected.  Instead of peace, they found themselves enmeshed in an unexpected new war of social classes among Americans that upset their plans for the new nation.

The American Revolution was not merely, or even primarily, a movement for national independence.  Most of the revolutionaries did not mind being considered Englishmen.  What they minded was being controlled by the kind of government that ruled England, and that the English were imposing on the colonies.  That is, they were opposed to centralized government, and to government with a strong chief executive that might morph easily into tyranny.  Their goal was to establish a decentralized national government with a weak chief executive.  The Founders were not adherents of small government.  They were adherents of local government, with local government having broad powers of control over the local economy and social life.

This goal was exemplified by the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States.  The Articles left most governmental power to the states.  The President of the United States under the Articles was essentially the chairman of the meetings of Congress and served for only one year.  But no sooner had the Revolution ended, than Founding Fathers such as George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, among others, turned against the decentralized government for which they had been fighting.

The decentralized system of government the Founders had fought so desperately to establish turned out to be unwieldy and unworkable.  They had expected a new regime in which local elites would rule with the consent of the local masses.  But the masses proved to be unruly, and unwilling to defer to the local elites.  The Founders found that in opting for a preemptive strike to prevent the potential of royal tyranny, they had stirred up a hornets’ nest of grievances among ordinary Americans, who saw tyranny in the way local elites were asserting control over things.  Ordinary people wanted to control things, and demagogues vied for their support.  The Founders worried, in turn, that this might lead to a new form of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority.

So, in something of a panic with the way things were going, and too impatient to try to reform the Articles, the Founders moved preemptively and peremptorily to adopt a new Constitution with the very sort of centralized government and strong chief executive that they had fought a war to oppose.  It was a government that defused the influence of ordinary people by allocating most power to officials who were chosen at several removes from the populace.  It also contained checks and balances against the influence of demagogues.  It was a government the Founders believed they could control, and that properly balanced democracy with what we today would call meritocracy.  Unfortunately for them, government and politics under this new Constitution did not work out the way they expected and produced, instead, exactly the sort of the political free-for-all they had hoped to avoid.  But that is another story.[5]

The contours of American decision-making seem to be shaped by impatience and impulsivity, tending toward self-defeating preemptive strikes, and often leading to unintended and unwanted results.  As a consequence of this pattern, we seem to make the same types of mistakes over and over again.  Why is this?  Are the Founding Fathers unwittingly to blame?  The Founders were brilliant and heroic.  They were also sincere in their fears and honest in their impulses.  But did the Founders initiate a pattern of national leadership that is based on fear, and decision-making that is based on impulse, that has devolved to permit the hucksters and demagogues, that they hoped to prevent, to come to the fore?  Are they ultimately responsible for Donald Trump?[6]

C.  Ironies of the American Psyche: Self-Inflicted ADD, DID, and PPD.

“I object to intellect without discipline.”

Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Donald Trump is not a new or novel phenomenon in American history.  Visitors to the United States during the nineteenth century frequently noted the prominence of self-promoting hucksters and fearmongering politicians, who were full of grandiose promises, bullying bombast, and braggadocio claims.  These visitors generally bemoaned the publicity that demagogues of this sort received from a mass media that favored sensationalism over facts.  It is a character type that first became prominent during the 1820’s and 1830’s, with the rise of the demagogic President Andrew Jackson and a new national ethos of laissez-faire individualism.

Jackson came to power by stoking fear of Native Americans, blacks, immigrants, bankers and intellectuals.  Jackson, like Trump today, was a colorful figure who was always good for a sensational news story.  And Jackson, like Trump, represented a race to the bottom in American politics that appalled the remaining Founding Fathers.  He was exactly the sort of thing the Constitution was supposed to prevent.  Was this, they complained, what they had fought for?[7]

Charles Dickens was one of the visitors who commented on this development.  A firm believer in the ideals of the American republic, he described the Trump-type American during the 1840’s in these terms: “If I was a painter, and was to paint the American Eagle… I should draw it like a bat, for its short-sightedness; like a bantam, for its bragging; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it.”[8]

Dickens was dismayed by the influence of demagogues and hucksters over the public, and incredulous at the way newspapers encouraged them.  Dangerous frauds, they promoted selfishness in the name of progress, slavery in the name of freedom, and murder in the name of peacekeeping.  Their arguments were invariably ad hominem, and they inevitably portrayed social problems as the result of Others who needed to be attacked and defeated.  How was it that Americans were wont to follow these sorts of people?  Were they a cause or a symptom of America’s problems?  Was this some sort of collective mental illness?

Many commentators and policy analysts, both past and present, have concluded that Americans do suffer from a thinking disorder.  One of these is Professor Tara Sonenshine, a former Undersecretary of State of the United States.  Reviewing our history of preemptive actions, self-defeating decisions, short-sighted policies, and violence, she claimed in 2014 that “American impatience is not a passing fad nor is it minimal in scope.  How to reign in the impulsivity in us is a major task.  It might take national therapy — if we have time and patience to explore it.”[9]  How to find the time and patience to deal with our impulsivity and impatience?  This is an ironic question, but a crucial one if we are to avoid falling prey to Trump-type demagogues.  So, if we think of ourselves as suffering from a thinking disorder, how might we diagnose it?

1. Do we collectively exhibit symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), i.e. chronic impatience, impulsiveness and short attention spans?

The French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States during the 1830’s and 1840’s. Like Dickens, Tocqueville believed that American-style democracy was the wave of the future in the world.  But, also like Dickens, he complained that Americans were an impatient and impulsive people, who seemingly could not wait for anything, or see anything through to completion.  As a result, he claimed, American laws were “frequently defective and incomplete” because Americans did not think them through, and “even if they were good, the frequent changes they undergo would be an evil.”[10]  That is, Americans were so impatient and impulsive that even when they stumbled into a good public policy, they abandoned it for another policy if it did not succeed immediately.  The net result was that policymaking in America was erratically and poorly done, and violence was often substituted for reason.

Does the impatience and impulsiveness that Tocqueville and others have noted in Americans constitute ADD?  People diagnosed with ADD are generally incapable of making good decisions.  They are too impatient to go through a whole decision-making process, and consider all aspects of a problem.  They lack the concentration to arrive at a well-reasoned decision that is consistent with their own values and goals.  And they are too impulsive to make a decision that can be explained to others and understood by them.[11]  Is this diagnosis a description of American policy-making?  One might reasonably cite American educational policy over the last one hundred fifty years as an example of collective ADD.

Public education in America first took on its modern form during the 1840’s in Massachusetts, where Horace Mann oversaw the establishment of what were called “common school” methods in the elementary and secondary schools, and “normal school” methods for teacher preparation.  Modeled on the factories of the industrial revolution that was beginning in America at that time, common schools were assembly lines for the mass production of standardized education for children.  Mann and his colleagues invented the idea of grade levels, that is, that children should go through standardized stages of education, with all of them learning the same set things at each stage.  They invented standardized curricula for each grade level, standardized textbooks and workbooks, and standardized tests to determine if a child was eligible to move along the assembly line to the next stage.  Normal schools were invented to train teachers in standardized teaching methods appropriate to the common schools.  Rote memorization and recitation were the main teaching methods.

The common schools were a leap forward in both the democratization of education and the use of schools for purposes of socialization and social control.  There was widespread concern in the country at this time about the massive immigration of European peasants to America to work in the new factories and live in the burgeoning cities.  Public education was deemed necessary to make their children into more efficient workers and effective citizens.  Common schools were seen as a prescription for making democracy workable.

The common schools were a cheap and efficient way to instill what were called the 4R’s, reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and religion.  But the education they provided was unimaginative, uninteresting and unintellectual.  As a result, no sooner did the common schooling become widespread during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, than alternative means and methods were proposed to make education more interesting, effective and intellectual.  Over the course of the next fifty years, two methods gained the most support among educational reformers.

The first is what came to be called Essentialism.  The second is what came to be called Progressivism.  Advocates of both methods rejected the rote teaching methods of common schooling.  Essentialists want schools to focus on teaching the recognized academic disciplines.  They want each of the major subjects taught separately, with the goal of making students into scholars in each of these fields.  Progressives want schools to have interdisciplinary curricula which focus on teaching for real-world problem-solving, with the goal of helping students to become active and effective citizens.  Advocates of common schooling have rejected both methods as frivolous.

The history of American educational reform over the last century and a half has been a struggle among advocates of Essentialism, Progressivism and common schooling, with common schooling as the default position of American public schools.  There has been a pattern to this struggle in which every fifteen to thirty years, there is a call for educational reform and a major proposal is issued by either the Essentialist camp or the Progressive camp, or both.  The proponents tout their proposals as revolutionary new ideas, ostensibly based on new educational research, although they are, in fact, really just repackaged past proposals.

In any case, the reform proposals get media attention, and are adopted in whole or in part by many schools in the country, with the expectation of revolutionary improvements in public education.  In the course of these events, Essentialists attack any Progressive initiatives, Progressives attack any Essentialist initiatives, and both are attacked by advocates of the common schooling status quo.  The mass media promote the controversy.  The reforms invariably have some limited short-term effects, but do not immediately bring radical improvements in education.  So, they are deemed a failure in the media.

Given the infighting between Essentialists and Progressives, and the inertial appeal of the status quo, the reforms are almost entirely abandoned after a few years, and forgotten.  That is, until they are resurrected the next time.  Meanwhile, common schooling defaults as the predominant method of teaching in our public schools, which it still is today.  Isn’t this ADD among educational policy makers and politicians?[12]

2. Do we as a people suffer from a Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD), i.e. a Violent Hang-up on Violence?

H. Rapp Brown, a leader of the Black Panthers during the 1960’s, once claimed that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” If so, then trying to prevent violence is as American as apple pie. The problem is that Americans all too often choose preemptive violence to prevent violence.  The idea is to accept a small amount of violence in order to avoid a greater amount.  But that lesser violence frequently becomes the greater violence it was meant to prevent.

The problem dates back to the first English settlers in what became the United States.  The settlers moved into what they thought was a wilderness, and were terrified of being overwhelmed by wild Indians and wild animals.  So to cleanse the continent of Native Americans and native animals, they began a series of wars that lasted almost three hundred years.  They initiated a pattern of preemptive violence that has been repeated with dire results throughout our history.

One of the more ironic examples of self-defeating preventive violence is the secession of southern states in 1861 that led to the Civil War.  It was a suicidal act and an example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  The facts of the matter were that southern slave owners had almost everything going their way in 1861, even with Lincoln’s election as President.  Lincoln got only 40% of the vote, with 60% being split among competing pro-slavery candidates.  If the pro-slavery forces could have agreed at the next election on a single candidate, Lincoln would almost certainly have been a one-term President.  In any case, Lincoln could not do anything about slavery anyway because pro-slavery forces still controlled Congress.  So, Lincoln’s election was at most a temporary political inconvenience.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Dredd Scott decision of 1857 had held as a matter of Constitutional law that a slave owner could take his slaves anywhere in the country.  Slaves were property, and a man could safely take his property wherever he wanted within the United States.  This decision implied that slavery was legal everywhere in the country, and that there was no such thing as a “free state.”  It would have required a Constitutional amendment to change this decision, and there was no way an anti-slavery amendment ever would have gotten the necessary approval from three quarters of the states.  Rather than slave states seceding to protect slavery, it was northern states that should have seceded if they wanted to avoid slavery in their midst.  The only way in which slavery could have been undermined during the mid-nineteenth century was if southern states seceded so that northerners could become a majority in Congress and northern states could become a three-quarters majority in the Union.  And that is exactly what happened.

A group of so-called Fire Eaters among southern whites became convinced in the 1850’s that the only way they could save slavery was to take preemptive action to secede from the Union before northerners could become populous and powerful enough to conquer the South.  They were convinced that the South had a military and economic advantage over the North at that time, such that secession could be achieved.  And they were convinced that it was a now-or-never crisis.  They must decide for a little violence now to avoid catastrophic violence later.

The Fire Eaters gradually gained the support of the southern news media during the 1850’s.  With Lincoln’s election in 1860, enough southern whites were convinced by the Fire Eaters so that most slave states were pushed into choosing secession and fighting the Civil War.  As a result, they got the catastrophe they had wanted to avoid.  Ironically, if the South had not seceded in 1861, slavery might still be the law of the land today.[13]

Catastrophic violence has often resulted because Americans have had problems with the idea of compromise, confusing it with appeasement, and have had problems being able to sustain strategies of containment instead of resorting to confrontation.  Compromise involves reaching a deal with an adversary in which each side is able to preserve its principles while giving up on some collateral issues.  Compromise is different than appeasement in which one side gives up on its principles in order to assuage the other side.  Forging compromise generally requires patience and flexibility.  Containment involves accepting in the short run a status quo that includes things to which you are opposed, but applying pressure to attain gradual long term change without resorting to violence.  Economic sanctions against an offending person or country constitute an example of a containment measure.  Containment also requires patience and flexibility.

Americans have repeatedly lacked the patience to work out compromises and wait out containments.  In the cases of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Iraq War, Americans resorted to violence just as economic sanctions seemed on the verge of bringing about the goals we had set.  In the summer of 1776, British negotiators were sailing to America to offer the colonists home rule on terms that were consistent with the demands that the colonists had been making.  The radicals in the Continental Congress forced through a Declaration of Independence just a few weeks before the negotiators arrived, so that all parties were faced with a revolutionary fait accompli that scotched any further negotiations.

Likewise, war was declared by Congress in 1812 just days before news arrived from England that the English were acceding to the Americans’ demands.  Again, war was a fait accompli.  And the economic and military sanctions that President Clinton had placed on Iraq had achieved their intent of essentially disarming and disabling the regime of Saddam Hussein, but that did not stop President Bush from declaring war based on bogus claims.  Each of these is an example of snatching war from the grip of peace.  Does this amount to a collective case of PPD?

3. Do we exhibit symptoms as a nation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), or Split Personality?

Americans frequently have been split into competing political and social groups. The split has often been characterized as between liberals and conservatives, though the definitions of liberal and conservative have evolved over time.  As these terms have been used over the last hundred years or so, liberals are seen as tending to think favorably about government involvement in economic, environmental and social welfare policies.  Conservatives tend to oppose these government activities.  The country has seesawed politically depending on whether liberals or conservatives have had the upper hand.  This split is exemplified today by the battle between so-called Red State conservatives and Blue State liberals.

But Americans have not only been split into different groups, they have also been split as individuals, and have frequently held competing inconsistent political and social positions on issues, often without even realizing it.  For example, Americans have consistently been distrustful of governmental authority, but have also insisted that the government impose law and order on society.  Americans have consistently extolled individual freedom, but expected social conformity.  Americans have generously contributed to private charities for poor people, but often refused to support public programs of welfare for the poor.  Americans have often opposed government programs of economic assistance, but coveted the benefits those programs provide.  It is even common today, for example, to hear the ironic refrain from some conservatives that “I just want to keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.” [14]

This split personality is particularly acute in Red States.  The problem is that many areas of the country are almost totally dependent economically on government expenditures and programs, and these areas are disproportionately in Red States.  To fund these expenditures and programs, the federal government takes in taxes from the country as a whole, which it then doles out to those areas most in need.  By a wide margin, Red States get back in government expenditures more money than they pay in taxes.  That is, Blue State taxpayers are financing Red State recipients, and Red State conservatives generally have no problem with taking money from federal government programs they ostensibly oppose.

Historically, Southern slave owners, for example, claimed to be in favor of “states’ rights,” and condemned as government oppression any attempt to regulate or restrict slavery.  But these same slave owners were overwhelmingly in favor of federal government enforcement of slavery and restrictions on abolitionist campaigns.  They claimed the states’ right to nullify any federal restriction on slavery, but adamantly insisted on the enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws against the nullification of those laws by northern states.  Some might call these inconsistencies mere hypocrisy, but might they not also be examples of an underlying DID?

The ways in which Americans have resolved their social ambivalence and political contradictions in action has frequently turned on how the issue has been framed to them.  Americans have historically responded positively to broad rhetorical appeals to freedom from government control, and to wholesale warnings about possible government oppression.  At the same time, these same Americans have frequently promoted strong government regulations and restrictions with respect to practical matters of interest to them.  It has consistently been the case since public opinion polling first developed during the 1930’s that when a question is asked in broad ideological terms, as in “Do you favor free markets or government economic regulation?”, about two-thirds of the respondents favor free markets.  But when a question is asked in specific pragmatic terms, such as “Do you favor laws that keep dangerous drugs off the market?”, at least two-thirds of respondents answer “Yes.”

As a result, politicians who are against economic regulation — generally conservatives — usually pitch their campaigns in broad ideological terms, while politicians who favor economic regulation — generally liberals — usually tailor their campaigns to specific issues and pragmatic programs of concern to voters.  Likewise, demagogues and hucksters, who are trying merely to manipulate public opinion and have no real solutions to problems, invariably try to frame the discussion in broad generalities, with broad generalizations and stereotypes.  It is generally incumbent on responsible progressive politicians to focus on practicalities of how things might work rather than on sensational generalities.

Fear can easily be generalized.  Hope needs to be particularized.  Trump-type demagogues thrive on appealing to the fears, hatreds, and worse angels of Americans, rather than their hopes, likes and better angels.  They try to resolve the split in our personality in a way that is self-destructive to us.  We need to counter them with pragmatic rationality.[15]

D.  What’s in a Brain and What Can We Learn from Star Trek?

“I find their [humans’] illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”

 Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

So, maybe it is a question of our brains?  Although people are often described as thinking with their hearts, their stomachs or other anatomical parts, we actually think with our brains.  The human brain consists of two key parts, the brain stem and the cerebral cortex, with the cerebral cortex split into a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. The brain stem is the earliest and least sophisticated portion of the human brain.  We inherited it from our pre-human ancestors.  The brain stem is the locus of the “fright, then fight or flight” reaction of our puny rat-like evolutionary precursors who had to make their way in a world of giant carnivores.  This sort of reaction was apparently a successful survival strategy for helpless mini-mammals.  But it may not be as useful, and may often be counterproductive, in the world of modern humans in which shooting first and asking questions later can lead to unnecessary wars and suffering.

The cerebral cortex evolved later in humanoids, and is the locus of human self-consciousness and critical thinking.  It is in the cerebral cortex that we do our rational thinking.  The cerebral cortex is split into a left hemisphere which is largely responsible for logical thinking and a right hemisphere which is largely responsible for creative thinking and intuition.  Psychologists have described good decision-making as a thought process that combines a person’s brain stem and both hemispheres of a person’s cerebral cortex.  Simplistically put, the brain stem will stimulate the process, the right hemisphere will imagine possible responses, and the left hemisphere will analyze the evidence for them.  A plausible conclusion will then be reached.[16]

There are many formulas for a good decision-making process, but some elements are common to most formulas.  A good decision-making process should be whole, coherent, and transparent.[17]  A process is whole if it is based on significant reflection and discussion, and covers all aspects of the problem under discussion.  A process is coherent if it results in a reasoned decision, the reasons make sense, and the values and goals embedded in the decision are consistent with the actions proposed to deal with the problem.  A process is transparent if the information and reasoning upon which a decision has been made are open to public scrutiny, and the reasoning behind the decision can be replicated by others.  Each of the parts of the brain, the emotional stimulus of the brain stem, the logic of the left hemisphere, and the intuition of the right hemisphere, are crucial to the process.  Making use of the various capacities of the whole brain, with each part checking and balancing the others, is key to an effective decision.[18]  The importance of these elements is illustrated in the 1960’s television series Star Trek.

Star Trek dramatizes the voyages of the spaceship Enterprise.  The three main characters in the crew of the Enterprise represent different personalities and decision-making styles.  There is Mr. Spock, the stoic Vulcan science officer and first mate, who applies cold logic to every situation.  Dr. “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s doctor, is a charming Southern gentleman who is erratically emotional.  And Captain James Kirk, is a Western space cowboy who is always ready for action.  In the course of most episodes, these characters bounce off of each other and eventually combine their respective insights to come up with a workable resolution of whatever crisis confronts them.  One of the aims of the TV show seems to be to illustrate the elements of a good decision-making process, and the ways in which disparate personalities can work together.

Using the brain as an analogy, McCoy represents the excessive influence of the brain stem, Kirk a rashly decisive right hemisphere, and Spock an over-weaning left hemisphere.  Each of them tends to take his tendencies too far and, thus, each of them needs the leavening effects of the others.  And while each is bedeviled by the others, each is also bedeviled by himself.  McCoy must tame his emotional overreactions to operate within the bounds of medical science.  Kirk has to balance his impulse to act rashly on his own with his sense of responsibility as captain to the whole crew of the spaceship.  Spock, who is half-Vulcan and half-human, is frequently torn between his Vulcan rationality and his human emotions and imagination.  But he invariably comes to his senses by focusing pragmatically on whatever is the specific problem at hand.  And that focus on practicality is the key lesson of the show.

McCoy’s hysterical overreactions to problems are almost always wrong.  He repeatedly calls for drastic preemptive actions, and for action based on fright.  Kirk’s initial responses to problems are often unduly aggressive and, thereby, also wrong.  He frequently wants to jump into the middle of things based on insufficient information and reflection, and to act based on courage.  Using the thinking disorder diagnoses, Kirk seems to suffer from ADD (impatience and impulsivity) in his need always to be in motion.  McCoy suffers from PPD (exaggerated fears of others), and is almost always stoking panic.  Spock suffers from a mild case of DID (split personality), but does not exhibit symptoms of either ADD or PPD.

Although Spock’s logic seems alien to his colleagues because it is so cold, his conclusions are almost invariably correct.  Unlike McCoy, who often gets carried away with ideological prejudices and generalized fears, Spock is able to focus on the practicalities of a situation. Without Spock’s Vulcan rationality, the others would many times have doomed the Enterprise through their emotional and impulsive decisions.  And the alieness of Spock’s logic seems to be the point that the show is trying to make.  Star Trek seems to be saying that we Americans need a bit more of Spock’s rationality, a trait which is alien to most of us, and a little less of McCoy’s emotionality and Kirk’s impulsivity, which we find more natural.

Produced during the height of the Cold War, when “un-American” was a term of highest opprobrium, and to suggest that America was not the best at everything was deemed un-American, this was a courageous stand on the part of the producers of the show.  It was a suggestion that could perhaps be safely made to a popular audience only through the guise of science fiction.  Spock, in particular, often said things about other worlds that were pointedly applicable to the United States, as when he said about an alien world that the Enterprise had visited “This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrast.  Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens.  It is not wise leadership.”  He said that in the 1960’s, ostensibly about some other world, but it applied to the United States then and applies all too increasingly well to our world today.

E.  A Martian’s Eye View: Positioning oneself in but not of a situation.

Life and death are seldom logical.”

Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

 Intuition, however illogical, Mr. Spock, is recognized as a command prerogative.

Captain Kirk on Star Trek.

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

 Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Although the other characters on Star Trek often disparage Spock as being coldly inhuman, Spock is not inhumane.  To the contrary, while he is dispassionate in his reasoning, he is also very compassionate in his responses.  He frequently cites as one of his moral imperatives that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and repeatedly puts himself in danger to save others.  Despite the repeated references in the show to Spock’s logic, his greatest strength, and I think the main point of the show, is his ability to see things from an outsider’s point of view.  I had a history teacher in high school who would often ask the class to imagine what would a Martian think of the events we were discussing.  That is what Spock essentially does.

Spock, as a Vulcan, is literally inhuman and an outsider, but he is also the colleague of a crew of humans on a spaceship.  So, he is the outsider who is an insider.  As such, he is able to appreciate the situation in the way his human colleagues do, but also break out of their cycle of insiders’ thinking, and break away from the pattern of ADD and PPD that McCoy and Kirk represent.  McCoy’s passion and Kirk’s intuition, which are at least partly a function of their being insiders, are important to the decision-making process on the Enterprise.  But Spock is able to devise pragmatic solutions to problems by seeing them from the outside, where others are overwhelmed by the enormity of problems from seeing them only from the inside.  Spock’s compassionate and considerate rationality, an attribute he can bring to the situation in large part because he is an outsider, is the key to the crew’s survival.  And maybe to ours, as well?

If we want to break out of our vicious cycle of self-defeating policies, and our susceptibility to demagogues and hucksters, we need to adopt the position of outsiders, and see ourselves as outsiders might.  To define our thinking disorder in a nutshell, we Americans suffer from too much McCoy and Kirk, and too little Spock.  To describe our current political crisis in a nutshell, Donald Trump is McCoy on steroids pretending to be Kirk.  He is fooling a lot of people by playing on their fears of outsiders, and trapping those people in their mental cages.  Americans need, instead, to welcome outsiders and alternative points of view.

Abraham Lincoln once famously said that “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”[19]  Trump is fooling a lot of people.  We will soon find out how many and for how long.  When will we stop fooling ourselves so that we can stop being fooled and made fools of by the likes of Donald Trump?  Where are the Vulcans when we need them?

            July 26, 2016

[1] Alex Jones “America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776.” 2/21/15.  See also “List of wars involving the United States.” Wikipedia. 7/19/16.

[2] Jonathan Masters. “U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons.” Council on Foreign Relations. 1/12/16.

[3] You can find an extended discussion of the Second Amendment and gun policies in the United States in my blog post on “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”

[4] For the still definitive discussion of the politics of the American Revolution, see Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1969.

[5] You can find an extended discussion of how and why the Founders made the Revolution, their expectations for the Revolution, and their disappointments with the outcome and with both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution in my blog posts on “George III’s Legacy,” “George Washington’s Lament,” “Would it have been better for the colonists and would it be better for us today if the American Revolution had not happened?” “How might things be worse if the American Revolution had not happened,” and in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? (AuthorHouse, 2013).

[6] For a Pulitzer Prize winning examination of political and intellectual hucksterism in American history, see Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.  Hofstadter would not be surprised at the rise of Donald Trump.

[7] For a brilliant discussion of early American history with a focus on demagoguery and hucksterism during the Jacksonian era, see Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[8] Charles Dickens. Martin Chuzzlewit. New York: Signet, 1965. p.581.

[9] Tara Sonenshine. “The Age of American Impatience: Why It’s a Dangerous Syndrome.”  Accessed 3/24/15.

[10]  Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 140.

[11]  Accessed 3/24/15.

[12] You can find an extended discussion of the history of American educational reform in my blog post “Struggling to Raise the Norm: Essentialism, Progressivism and the Persistence of Common/Normal Schooling in America.”

[13] You can find an extended discussion of why the South seceded, why the North did not, and the alternative realities that could have ensued in my three blog posts on “Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861?”

[14] For an example of a prominent American who exhibited a liberal/conservative split personality, you can find a discussion of James Bryant Conant in my blog post “Progressivism, Postmodernism and Republicanism: The Relevance of James Conant to Educational Theory Today.”

[15] For a conservative view of America’s split personality, see Irwin Stelzer, “Split Personality America,” 2016.  For a liberal view, see Andrew O’Heir, “America’s Split Personality: Paranoid Superstate and Land of Equality,”, 2013.

[16]  Jared Diamond. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 220-221.  David Sloan Wilson. Evolution for Everyone. (New York: Delacorte Press, 2007), 51-57.

[17]   Accessed 3/23/15.

[18] John Dewey. How We Think. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1933), 96.  Jerome Bruner. “Going Beyond the Information Given,” in Contemporary Approaches to Cognition, J. Bruner, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 66-67.

[19] You can see a discussion of Lincoln’s comment and the power and limits of demagogues in my blog post “Limiting the sum of Lincoln’s ‘Some:’ Democracy, Mobocracy, and Majority Rule.”



2 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the Contours of American Decision-Making: Do we suffer from a collective thinking disorder? And what can we learn from Star Trek?

  1. Dear Dr. Weltman,

    Re: Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

    When a socio-economic landscape of gross inequity manifests to cause a person excluded from social rank to remain in blighted hope that someone may show pity, the founding generation helped level the playing field. Staying the course of equality (Independency) in spite of a strategy of appeasement I believe defined the 18th century’s American Revolution.

    When equality is viewed as selective in the context of the American Revolution, i.e., not applicable to people of African origin, one needs to compare it with how livestock are treated in many parts of the world today. In another 250 years, humanity will scarcely be as reckless as it is today with livestock as humans were with one another 250 years ago (in addition to 18th century America, my insights are owed to then prevailing social commentary by Jonathan Swift and Voltaire). Considering the uncertainties of social order – health/opportunity/strong institutional foundation in civil society, on an average, fending for oneself insulates us from according sufficient dignity to lesser privileged. I say this to differentiate willful malice (minority) vs. social malady.

    In summary, appeasement on a larger scale in a government is symptomatic of a grossly biased system. Making earnest efforts to not be stubborn to create an unbiased social order will prevent us from revisiting the truly egalitarian social movements of yore.

    Best Regards,

  2. Thank you for your comments, Suresh.

    I am particularly struck with your comparison between the way in which livestock is treated today with the way in which African slaves were treated in the past. I hope you are right that people will treat livestock better in the future. And I think you are right to distinguish willful malice from social malady. I have a blog post on Thomas Jefferson in which I try to do this with regard to him. He was in many ways a great man, but he was also a slaveholder. His mistreatment of African-Americans can possibly be seen as a result of social malady rather than willful malice.

    I also try to distinguish between compromise and appeasement. I think of compromise as an agreement in which each side to a dispute gets to maintain its principles while giving in on collateral matters. I think of appeasement as an agreement in which one side gives up on its principles in order to settle the matter. I think that if the colonial Americans had evaluated their situation better and not been so impatient, it would have been possible for them to have reached a compromise agreement with the British government without having to give up on their principles and without having to engage in a long and bloody revolutionary war.

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