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Let's face it, readers: You're either like me, stunned at the election results and horrified at the prospect of President Trump, or you're only here to point and laugh at my comeuppance.
Either way, you're probably sick of my writing about Donald Trump. Me too! So this is the last one – at least, this is the last one until after Jan. 20, when It Becomes Real. For now, though, I'm putting all the cards on the table, leaving it all on the field or whatever cliche you choose to apply to the situation.
I will do so with some armchair psychology, because if I'm going out I may as well go out big. And it's this: I believe Donald Trump is perhaps this century's single best example of Dunning-Kruger Effect, handily surpassing all real candidates for the title and even easily edging out the winner of the fiction category, Michael Scott of "The Office" fame.
What is this Dunning-Kruger Effect? I'm glad you asked. I'll turn the answer over to self-delusion expert David McRaney. It is, he explains, "a psychological phenomenon that arises sometimes in your life because you are generally very bad at self-assessment." To put it another way, people often don't know how much they don't know, or how bad they are at things.
If you have been "living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers," as McRaney puts it, you will never know you are mediocre. You will go through life blissfully unaware of your mediocrity until you hit a wall of reality and your self-esteem dissolves into a puddle of your own tears.
This is Everyone's Favorite Critique Of Millennials, the "everyone gets a trophy" phenomenon. You have heard this, right? Some old person somewhere mouthing off about how bad the kids are these days because they've all been raised to think they're a special snowflake, and that's why they spend all day making duckfaces at their phones instead of doing useful things like voting for Hillary or making me a sandwich.
Now imagine not a millennial, though, but a boomer born to a wealthy New York City real-estate tycoon. There are probably few better enablers of mediocrity than certain rich parents and the staff they hire to raise children (like Michael Scott, characters of this stripe also thrive on TV. Well, almost thrive – what Fox did to "Arrested Development" is a crime!).
Then imagine that this heir to a real-estate fortune gets loan after gift after loan from Daddy to start his own empire, surrounds himself with sycophants and flatterers, and gains tremendous rewards for his boorish behavior – behaviors like, I don't know, firing people on TV. Who, in all that time, is going to tell him no? Who, in all that time, would try to point out that his success is less about where he has gotten to than it is about where he started from?
Or, as Oliver Willis put it on Twitter over the weekend, "Nobody has ever told Trump to his face that he screwed up, except for bankruptcy judges and Hillary Clinton." Even at that, I would say Trump paid no mind to those judges; his constant bragging throughout the campaign about his business brilliance suggests even those legal critiques passed through him unheeded.
Evidence for Trump's inflated, unwarranted and deluded sense of self-confidence has been there all along, from the aforementioned bankruptcies to the fact his real-estate schemes have underperformed both the real-estate market and the stock market. The man throws temper tantrums when his mediocre TV show doesn't win Emmys and when reporters fact-check his many lies – how dare they not recognize his greatness!
Two authors who know Trump intimately have also pointed out the way Trump's dirigible of ego goes on undisturbed by reality. "The Art of the Deal" ghostwriter Tony Schwartz explains here that Trump's short attention span isn't just a quirk that makes Trump's Saturday night Twitter fun to watch. It is, according to Schwartz, a major underlying cause of Trump's mediocrity.
The short attention span, Schwartz explains, "has left him with 'a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance." In the diary Schwartz kept while writing the book, he wrote "All he is is 'stomp, stomp, stomp'—recognition from outside, bigger, more." Trump loves the exterior adulation – why else do you think he's doing a post-election victory tour? – as it only validates his own inflated sense of self.
But Trump can't be bothered to build an interior life. Schwartz says during the year and a half he met Trump in his apartment to plan the book, he never once saw a single book. That's okay; a lot of people are not big readers. But most of those people never get elected president bragging along the way that their IQ is "one of the highest."
Wayne Barnett's 1992 book on Trump, just re-released with the title "Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth," is a detailed biography of Trump during what, until his "The Apprentice" success and this last bit of unpleasantness, was considered Trump's glory days in New York. Barnett, in an interview, explains that in those supposed glory days, Trump was unable to see his own failings.
"Donald in '88 and '89 was doing incomprehensible deals that were unsustainable on their face, thinking he could not lose," Barnett says. "Almost every one of those deals blew up in his face ... He seemed to have it all, and that stays in the mindset. So he has a track record of bankruptcy and failure, but there’s also this narrative that he’s the embodiment of brashness, boldness, decisiveness and that’s what people choose to see."
Clearly in that interview, Barnett is nursing some deeply held antipathy toward Trump, so grains of salt may be required, but Trump's business disasters at that time are well documented elsewhere, too. Our new president-elect approached ill-conceived project after ill-conceived project with confidence he would come out of them winning, And even when he lost, Trump insisted he won.
Over and over during the campaign, Trump revised his own history to cast failures – bankruptcy, lawsuits, defaults on payments owed to those working for him – as evidence of success. He never settled lawsuits, he claimed (though he did); he was "smart" to turn his losses into tax gains; and stiffing his employees was just good business sense. Nobody does better deals than he does was a constant refrain for the entire campaign.
And now, Trump is trying to claim a popular-vote loss and a modest Electoral College win as a "landslide" victory of "historic" proportions. It simply is not, and Trump's insistence to the contrary is not just, as Nate Silver write, Orwellian in nature; it is also clear evidence that Trump is simply unaware of just how mediocre he is. Yes, he is just one of only 45 people in the history of forever to have been elected President of the United States, but he fell into it ass-backwards thanks to a system that was designed to protect slave-owners and that today disenfranchises tens of millions of voters.
The people Trump has surrounded himself with for his presidency, advisors and cabinet appointments alike, offer no hope that he's gained any insight into his own mediocrity. Will Steve Bannon tell him no? Will his kids? Will weaselly-faced Kenoshan Reince Priebus? They seem not to have said no so far. The result is everything from needling the cast of "Hamilton" to seriously threatening our tense but peaceful relationship with the world's other nuclear superpower, China. It's one thing to give an oblivious idiot a platform on Twitter, another thing entirely to give him a platform on the world stage.
As I wrap this up, I must point out that I am not the only one to have identified a possible Dunning-Kruger phenomenon in Donald Trump's campaign, including David Dunning himself who suggests Trump voters, moreso than Trump, suffer from it. But it is clear to me that Trump himself has it "bigly," probably the biggest we've ever seen. That's his signature line, right?
The Dunning-Kruger Effect led to great cringe comedy as Michael Scott bumbled his way through "The Office," enabled by sycophants hoping for a taste of power, dimwitted office drones who didn't care and audience surrogates who found it just as funny as we did. With Trump, it is most definitely not funny, as the president has significantly more opportunity to do real harm to real people than a fictional paper company manager.
And unlike a television, we can't just hit the power button on the next four years. We can only hope our republic survives.