How to shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it

Terrific piece by Peter Beinart that brings in relevant social-psychological research to explain the evil genius behind Trump’s plain sight flouting of democracy and the rule of law:

And yet, Trump’s China remarks don’t appear to have hurt him much. The majority of Republican voters and politicians still oppose his impeachment. His China comments may even prove politically shrewd. Research into the psychology of secrecy and confidence helps explain why.

In January 2016, Trump infamously declared, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The statement was widely interpreted as a commentary on the loyalty of Trump’s voters. But it can also be understood as a commentary on the value of brazenness—of acting publicly rather than furtively and confidently rather than bashfully. It’s a value academics have confirmed time and again…

The researchers’ conclusion: There is a secrecy “heuristic”—a mental shortcut that helps people make judgments. “People weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions,” [emphases mine] they wrote. A 2004 dissertation on jury behavior found a similar tendency. When judges told jurors to disregard certain information—once it was deemed secret—the jurors gave it more weight.

While it’s unlikely Trump has heard of the secrecy heuristic, his comments about murder on Fifth Avenue suggest he grasps it instinctively. He recognizes that people accord less weight to information that nobody bothers to conceal. If shooting someone were that big a deal, the reasoning goes, Trump wouldn’t do it in full public view. The logic works even better when it comes to Trump’s comments about Ukraine and China. Most Americans know murder is against the law. Whether inviting foreign meddling in an American election constitutes a “high crime or misdemeanor,” by contrast, is less well established. By openly inviting such meddling, therefore, Trump sends the message that it’s not that important. If it were, he’d have kept his request a secret.

But brazenness entails more than just a lack of secrecy. It also entails confidence. And here too, there’s ample evidence that Trump’s confidence works to his political benefit…

If people use secrecy as a heuristic to gauge importance, they use confidence as a heuristic to gauge competence. As Cameron Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, explained to me, “There is a lot of research showing that when people exhibit confidence, they come across as more competent, intelligent, skilled, and so forth.” The word con man, the Harvard professor and former Obama-administration official Cass Sunstein has noted, is short for confidence man. That’s because “when con men succeed,” Sunstein observes, “it’s usually because they enlist the confidence heuristic. They don’t show any doubts. They act as if they know what they are doing.” Thus, they win people’s trust.

By openly asking Ukraine and China to investigate a political rival, Trump expressed confidence that he’s doing nothing wrong. And while one might think the majority of Americans would view Trump’s confidence as an outrageous sham, academic evidence suggests that con men can be surprisingly difficult to unmask.

Short version: Trump is not so great at actually being a president.  But as a con man, he is nearing “great and unmatched” ability.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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