It’s a requirement for a certain sort of political journalist to file at least one heavy-breathing dispatch on the cynical brilliance of Donald Trump, stuffed with clichés about the Republican nominee’s “genius… ability to make facts irrelevant” and his supposed skill at “hypnotizing” voters into believing things that are demonstrably false. These are often accompanied by a compulsory comment from a Trump supporter denouncing an “elite media” that doesn’t understand ordinary, salt-of-the-Earth types susceptible to cheering-New-Jersey-Muslims-on-9/11 conspiracy theories.
During an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher last week, I made the uncontroversial point that Americans believe many stupid things and that it was necessary to challenge those stupidities. This provoked a barely coherent Trump-supporter named Wayne Allyn Root to suggest that my “elitism” betrayed a disconnect with those in real America. Later in the show, Root, author of the autobiographical book Millionaire Republican (“The real key to becoming a Millionaire Republican is to do the opposite of what the masses do”), boasted that he went to Columbia and his daughter attended Harvard. (Live television, I decided, was no place to admit penury and a degree from a state university.)
The question, of course, remained unanswered: if Trump has such a fraught relationship with reality, why are voters—those stolid and honest middle Americans—so easily charmed by his lies? There now exists a significant literature on this question, most of which forgoes simple explanations in favor of needlessly complicated ones. The boring truth is that Americans of all backgrounds believe all manner of dumb things. Why would we expect voters to exhibit a degree of rationality they rarely display in other aspects of life?
Indeed, Americans have a particular talent for transforming charlatans, cranks, and frauds into celebrities—and a particular tolerance for fact-free fads promoted by already-existing celebrities. Our favorite medical man is arguably Dr. Oz, who indulges all sorts of unscientific mysticism. We’ve made the absurd television “medium” John Edward absurdly wealthy for pretending he can communicate with your dead pet newt. Ours is a culture in which an Oscar-winning actress has a second act as a lifestyle guru peddling pseudoscientific nonsense, forcing Canadian academic Timothy Caufield to publish the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (Spoiler: pretty much.)
Believing stupid things is, alas, a habit of both plebs and elites, celebrities and nobodies. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.
On any given night in New York City, dinner parties are thrown, forthcoming Hamptons holidays compared, and fantastically ignorant conversations about politics and “wellness” trends are had (sound baths, steamed vaginas, vinegar diets, child sacrifice, etc). I was once in the unpleasant company of an obscenely wealthy literary agent when she advised her guests that this summer they should all commit to hiring her German-born “energy person” in Southampton, who would tinker with their chakras and free their radicals, while draining their bank accounts for the privilege.
You would be unsurprised to discover that my host diligently ate organic, shunned gluten, ingested handfuls of probiotics, and avoided Genetically Modified Organisms. And most well-informed people would also be unsurprised that last month the National Academy of Science released an authoritative report aggregating 20 years of research on genetic modification showing no evidence exists to support claims that GMOs are harmful to humans or the environment. But like the dozens of studies that preceded it, the new report will have no effect on those friends convinced that tinkering with nature inevitably precipitates civilizational disaster.
And of those friends, I doubt you’d be surprised if more than one owned a copy of The 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse, a book that has lurked on the New York Times bestseller list since 2014, promising to “cleanse your cells and insides.” There is, as Tim Caufield points out in his anti-Paltrow opus, “absolutely no evidence to support the idea that we need to detoxify our bodies in the manner suggested by the cleansing industry.” The body is quite capable of “cleansing” and “detoxifying” itself—your kidneys and liver take care of that—but smart people still believe in scrubbing cells clean with pint glasses full of plutonium-scented green sludge. (A friend pointed me to his preferred local organic restaurant, in one of New York City’s most expensive neighborhoods, that hawks a “16 oz. Alzheimer’s Fighter” juice, which will set you back $8 and do absolutely nothing to stave off Alzheimers.)
Or how about my Facebook acquaintance who recently recommended Arianna Huffington’s best-selling book The Sleep Revolution, which extols the virtues of a good night’s rest. An uncontroversial premise, sure, but when I thumbed through the book I spotted Huffington’s praise for a colleague who shared “insights about acupuncture, herbs, homeopathy, and all sorts of natural ways” to help readers fall asleep. I don’t want to be uncharitable, but homeopathy is voodoo, “herbs” is a meaningless category of “healing” (some herbs, if ingested, will kill you), and acupuncture, to paraphrase Yale Medical School professor Steven Novella, doesn’t work.
The same day I was advised to revolutionize my sleep, I happened upon a short and pointless Yahoo News article about supermodel Elle Macpherson’s “alkaline diet,” a change necessitated by a discovery that “her pH levels—of acid to alkaline—weren’t balanced.” Of course, Yahoo’s celebrity stenographer challenged none of Macpherson’s antiscience. “I didn’t realize that stress, worry, jet lag, not getting enough sleep, and eating too much red meat, dairy, or not enough greens can make your body acidic.” Well, it can’t. And the science supporting an “alkaline diet” is nonexistent. But Gwyneth, Gisele, and Victoria “swear by it.”
My favorite of the countless money-grubbing mystics skulking around Hollywood is Anthony William, the self-proclaimed “Medical Medium” who has no medical training but, according to the prolific woo-woo endorser Gwyneth, “always knows what the problem is and the pathway for healing,” even when your doctor doesn’t. (In fairness, William is also endorsed by phone-throwing model Naomi Campbell and former Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula.) Anthony claims he can “see” illnesses lurking inside patients because of some unexplained supernatural vision that visited him as a 4-year-old child, hilariously dramatized in this YouTube video. William’s Facebook page has 1.6 million likes—including, I was distressed to discover, a few of my own Facebook friends—and his book Medical Medium: Secrets Behind Chronic and Mystery Illness and How to Finally Heal recently appeared on the New York Times list.
Of course cancer is best detected by real doctors and their expensive machines, not a man wearing linen pants and a pony tail who hears voices. This might seem obvious, but desperate people are rather easily convinced by quacks peddling “politically incorrect” solutions to terminal problems.
And so it is with a certain strata of Trump voters, alienated by stagnant wages and an America they believe is on the decline, despite significant evidence to the contrary, who feel that desperate times demand the suspension of common sense and unity behind a political quack. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell recently lamented that we live in unique times and in 2016 “facts no longer matter.” Though we might ask themselves if they ever mattered or is it just Trump’s brazenness and lack of political sophistication that’s unique?
Our political brains are governed by the same bad instincts and dumb hunches that make us believe we can detox our own bodies with juice and protect our kids bodies from the nonexistent ravages of GMO corn. Sure, there’s no evidence to support such claims but they’re certainly things that feel true. Sound familiar?
So next time you’re out in the world, look around—at the shelves full of hoax supplements, powdered vitamin C packets meant to stave off a cold (they don’t), and best-selling books promoting cynical and exploitative mysticism—and remember that we’re susceptible to Donald Trump’s charms not because he’s a genius, a hypnotist, a skilled outsider politician. Americans fall for it because he’s famous, moderately funny, and we spend most of our lives surrounded by bullshit people making bullshit claims.
What’s one more in the White House?