Suppose someone says something that is obviously and non-controversially false. This is pointed out to him. He then keeps repeating it anyway. There are, it would seem, three possible explanations for this behavior:
The person’s reasoning abilities are so defective that what is obviously false to persons of normal intelligence is not so to him.
The person suffers from a mental and/or emotional illness or syndrome. He would recognize that the statement is obviously false, if not for the interference with the reasoning process caused by a psychological disturbance of some sort.
The person knows that the statement is false but chooses to lie. (A variation on this are statements made with indifference to their truth or falsehood, aka Harry Frankfurt’s well-known distinction between lies and bullshit.)
ETA: As commenters are pointing out, these explanations are not exclusive of each other, and may indeed work synergistically to create a political singularity of stupidcrazyevil.
Consider this case:
President Trump met Tuesday morning with a group of sheriffs from the National Sheriffs Association, a group that consists of more than 3,000 sheriffs from around the country. And to this sworn group of law enforcement veterans, with reporters taking notes, he again repeated a falsehood about the murder rate in America.
Trump told the sheriffs, “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” He blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.”
The country’s murder rate is not the highest it’s been in 47 years. It is almost at its lowest point, actually, according to the FBI, which gathers statistics every year from police departments around the country. . .
Here are Trump’s exact words to the sheriffs:
“And yet the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years. I used to use that, I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised. Because the press [gestures to reporters] doesn’t tell it like it is. It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.”
Trump made the same claim several times during the presidential campaign. Many people have pointed out that this statement is obviously and non-controversially false (Even in the age of alternative facts, there are some statements that retain that status, at least for now). What explains Trump’s persistence? Is he stupid? Mentally ill? Evil? Displaying some combination of these characteristics? It would be irresponsible not to speculate:
I think this has some explanatory salience here. Trump is, it seems, a pretty dumb guy. He’s also apparently an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that is, he’s a dumb person who, as a consequence of his lack of reasoning ability, has an unrealistically high assessment of that ability. In a money and celebrity worshiping culture, there’s a natural tendency to resist the conclusion that rich and famous people are often quite stupid, but in fact it’s not unusual for this to be the case. You can be, as Jeeves described his employer, mentally negligible, and still be very rich. (The easiest way to achieve this is to inherit so much money that you would be much richer today if you had simply stuck all that money in market-tracking investments. This probably describes Trump’s financial situation). As for fame, the correlation between intelligence and celebrity is weak at best, and quite possibly inverse.
In short, Trump is the kind of person who hears that the murder rate rose between 2014 and 2015, and sees on the teevee (I almost wrote “reads” but let’s not kid ourselves) that murders are spiking in Chicago and Baltimore, and then out of sheer intellectual laziness and stupidity confabulates some nonsense statistic in his head, which he then proceeds to convince himself is true because he genuinely believes he’s a very smart guy, so therefore what he’s concluded must be true. An idiot in other words.
I understand that it’s dangerous to make medical diagnoses from a distance, and that it’s important not to stigmatize mental illness in general. Still:
President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that’s good for the economy? Or a weak one?
So he made a call ― except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn’s accounts of the incident.
Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn’t know, that it wasn’t his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.
Trump was not thrilled with that response ― but that may have been a function of the time of day. Trump had placed the call at 3 a.m., according to one of Flynn’s retellings ― although neither the White House nor Flynn’s office responded to requests for confirmation about that detail.
For Americans who based their impression of Trump on the competent and decisive tycoon he portrayed on his “Apprentice” TV reality shows, the portrait from these and many other tidbits emerging from his administration may seem a shock: an impulsive, sometimes petty chief executive more concerned with the adulation of the nation than the details of his own policies ― and quick to assign blame when things do not go his way.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump’s 2-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president’s conduct.
“I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and a member of his National Security Council. “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.” . . .
To Cohen, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the problem is not the leakers. It’s the president. Because Trump has shown no true affection or respect for anyone outside his immediate family, Cohen said, he cannot expect that of his staff. “This is what happens when you have a narcissist as president.”
Speaking of Johns Hopkins, there’s this guy:
Gartner, a psychologist in private practice in Baltimore and New York, author of a psychobiography of Bill Clinton, and a former instructor in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, contends that Trump “manifestly” meets the DSM-published criteria for at least three personality disorders: narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. They are a “toxic brew” that in his view not only make Trump “dangerous” but add up to “malignant narcissism,” not a diagnosis formalized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual but a label coined by the German-born psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.
Gartner argues that Trump’s symptoms are so extreme that there’s no reason to adhere to the so-called Goldwater rule.
Finally, it’s possible that Trump isn’t really dumb or mentally disturbed at all, and that all the apparent stupidity and narcissism are just part of an elaborate act, put on by an evil mastermind — a veritable Bond villain come to life and elected president of the United States. But that hypothesis reeks of paranoia, and personally I believe I’m far too smart and mentally well-balanced to fall for it.