About the fact that the current president of the United States of America is in the habit of saying astoundingly stupid things in public, there is no debate — how could there be? The debate on the right is mainly between Trump partisans who believe, or at least claim they believe, that President Trump is in the habit of saying astoundingly stupid things in public as part of a grand political scheme (twelve-dimensional chess!) and those who believe that President Trump is in the habit of saying astoundingly stupid things in public because . . . of the more straightforward reason.
Jamie Kirchick of the Brookings Institution wryly observes: “Everything Trump says makes sense when you just preface it with, ‘Donald from Queens, you’re on the air.’” I do not know if Kirchick intended his remark this way, but his joke actually splits the difference between the grand-design explanation of Trump’s ridiculousness and the he’s-just-an-ordinary-fool explanation. There’s a reason Trump sounds like your chemtrail-obsessed uncle or that guy at work who’s always going on about Q-Anon, trafficking in a poisonous mix of conspiracy theories, scapegoating, and resentment-driven politics.
The formal term for what’s at the root of all this is “rational ignorance.” Many of you will have experienced the phenomenon of the very smart person who has very dumb ideas about politics — and who, if challenged, will immediately retreat into the vaguest of generalities, and often ends up displaying surprising ignorance about the most basic public-policy questions. These are the people who believe that you can walk into Walmart and buy a machine gun, that foreign aid represents half of federal spending, that the CIA introduced crack into inner-city neighborhoods, etc., and who tend not to know things like who their representative in Congress is or how our tax system works. Why are these smart and often very successful people so ignorant about politics? Because they’ve spent their lives getting really smart about a different subject and achieving their success in a field in which political knowledge isn’t very important. This is why Albert Einstein had such batty ideas about politics.
We have only so much time and only so much available in the way of neural resources to throw back at all the problems life throws at us. Earning a living eats up a bunch of the ordinary person’s time-and-brainpower budget, while seeing to children and family, managing a household, maintaining friendships and social obligations, etc., demands most of what’s left — or, for many busy people, more. I’d like to learn French and, if I dedicated a couple of hours a day to it, I could make some real progress in a year or two, I’m sure. But if I take into consideration all the other things I might do with that one or two hours a day, learning French ends up not making the cut. (So far.) That doesn’t mean that I lack the capacity to learn a Romance language or that I hold the works of François Rabelais in low regard. My ongoing ignorance of the French language is rational — there are other uses of my time and resources that better serve my overall ends in life.
We have only so much time and only so much available in the way of neural resources to throw back at all the problems life throws at us.
On top of that, in a mass democracy there is little opportunity for the learned amateur to put what political knowledge he does have to efficacious use. It is extremely unlikely that your individual vote is going to be the deciding factor in any given election, or that the outcome of any given election is likely to be the deciding factor in any public-policy issue that is deeply important to you in your own life. Imagine you are 18 years old, and ask yourself which would have the bigger likely payoff: spending four years studying public policy or spending four years studying finance? Imagine you are a 35-year-old mother or father: If you had spent two hours a day for the past ten years reading up on the details of federal fiscal policy instead of investing that time in your children, would you or your family be happier or better off? Unlikely. You’re probably in the same position vis-à-vis most of that kind of stuff that I am with French: If your options were unlimited, it would be on the agenda. But your options are not unlimited. That’s the root of “rational ignorance.”
Revenons à nos moutons.
The fact that most people who don’t make their living thinking about politics tend not to think very much or very carefully about politics does not mean that they are not interested in politics or do not care about it. Far from it. But, as Robin Hanson reminds us, politics is not about policy. Politics is about tribe. How we align politically is based for most people almost entirely on how we wish to position ourselves socially and culturally. At the moment, our politics is marked by a kind of inverse partisanship: It isn’t that Trump partisans think the Republican party is so great — they just think those other guys are so awful that any alternative is acceptable. That’s the “But Hillary” defense, a moral get-out-of-jail-free card for right-wing talk-radio hosts and their listeners. Democrats have their own version of that, which is why they don’t argue that Republicans are wrong about tax policy or abortion but that they are racists, misogynists, homophobes, captive to corporate greed, etc. We end up with a political discourse in which both sides are, at their broadest points, heavily invested in their insistence that there is no good-faith disagreement about policy — there is only the eternal conflict between the guys in the white hats and the guys in the black hats.
Acknowledging good-faith disagreement inevitably would highlight the basic political ignorance of the general electorate (including the cable-news-watching and talk-radio-listening sub-electorate), and people find it very disagreeable to confess their ignorance about these issues, even as they are entirely comfortable admitting that they do not know very much about diesel engines or blood disorders or the internal politics of Tuvalu.
Donald Trump is clearly a creature of ignorance. No other sort of man would be capable of writing these sentences: “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. When we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore — we win big. It’s easy!” There isn’t a serious economist or businessman in these United States who really believes that. But it may sound good on talk radio and social media, and Trump is at the very least clever enough to understand that his core partisans are ignorant enough about the underlying issues that their sense of tribal loyalty is almost certain to overwhelm whatever critical thinking they may bring to the question.
Trump doesn’t know much, but he knows enough to know that that doesn’t much matter, at least as a question of the crude calculation of his own self-interest — the only subject to which he gives serious thought.
Call it rational ignorance with a vengeance, rational ignorance with malice aforethought.
Editor’s Note: This essay has been updated since its original publication.