December 28, 2016
I had nothing less than an epiphany last weekend when I happened to catch an infomercial on TV for a silicone muffin pan. You know the kind I mean.
“The amazing silicone muffin pan that will never stick or never wear out, and it’s only $40 dollars. But, wait! Act now and you get two amazing silicone muffin pans for just $40 (plus shipping and handling). And, if you act in the next 10 minutes you can get both for only $25 (plus shipping and handling). Of course, if you’re not completely satisfied, you can get your money back.”
Ron Popeil was a trail blazer in direct marketing on television. He was a genius. Who could forget the pocket fisherman or the set-it-and-forget-it rotisserie. The genius of Popeil is the emotional impulse buy. Who really needs a silicone muffin pan, but, what the heck. It’s on TV, I get two for the price of one, and there’s a money back guarantee. What could go wrong?
What goes wrong is that the silicone muffin pan sucks, and rather than go through the hassle of fighting for that money back return, it’s easier just to forget it and wait for the next TV special. The lesson is that people have a short memory when it comes to being duped by media messaging. People are used to making impulse purchases and shrugging off inferior products, that’s what I fear has happened with Trump. People were swayed by Trump’s savvy messaging and voted for him, just like they bought the silicone muffin pan.
I think the voters who elected Trump were enthusiastic and eager to buy what he was selling, but when it turns out the muffins are sticking to the Donald, the attention and the interest of those voters will have moved on. The only problem is that Trump is not a silicone muffin pan. Maybe that’s not being fair to the minority of the electorate that voted for him. Maybe they read and evaluated his detailed policy positions and considered his vast experience in government before casting their vote for him.
No, I think “Make America Great Again” is pretty much the same as “the amazing silicone muffin pan that never sticks.” My hope is that while people may forget their impulse buy of that silicone muffin pan, they will remember what they bought with Trump and not hesitate to get their money back by voting in the mid-term elections in 2018.
November 20, 2016
I don’t think I’ve ever done more than a single posting in a day, but today will be an exception. This morning, I opined about how fear and emotion instead of logic and reason persuaded enough voters to give us a president elect Trump. I blamed the amygdala.
A key point of that post was that Trump didn’t need well-developed policy positions because he was pitching an emotion-based message. During the campaign, one-liners, sound bites, and various logical fallacies were sufficient to get Trump elected. If fear resonated with his supporters, then that was what Trump was selling.
In stark contrast to Trumps single-sentences policy statements, I just watched President Obama in his last international press conference in Peru. As I listened to Obama’s well-reasoned responses, I realized that there may never be such a stark contrast between outgoing and incoming presidents.
Very things in life are black and white. There is complexity and nuance in everything we experience – at least for some of us. President Obama has been criticized in the past for offering long, rambling, complex answers to questions. In a Twitter-inspired world where a full 140-character tweet is a polemic, Obama’s five-minute answer to a question of how to achieve world piece is considered boorish and pedantic.
I will miss his thoughtful, longish answers. They made logical sense to me. All I had to do was listen and follow along. He provided background, context, and logic that usually lead to an inescapable conclusion. If his conclusion didn’t make sense, at least I had a framework by which to understand the differences between him and me. Differences are fine as long as they can be resolved through a fact-based analysis.
I wonder how Trump will handle his first press conference as president. I suspect there will be few long, rambling, fact-based answers. Instead, I suspect his answers will be short, emotional, anger-based, and always black and white. Hello, amygdala! His answers will be ideally suitable for social media and will be easily captured in a 140-character tweet. I don’t need to think, I just want to “Make America great again.”
But, we should not forget that nothing in the world is truly black and white. Nothing is simple. Everything is nuanced. Complex problems never have simple answers, no matter what a candidate tells the voters.
I will miss Barack and his long answers. Those long answers made me feel like he understood the complexity of the problem. They made me feel like he could actually develop a response, and not just come up with a reaction. Those long, rambling answers made me feel safe- it was a great eight years for that feeling. Yes, I will miss those long, reassuring answers.
November 20, 2016
Ever since Trump’s implausible victory, experts have been scrambling to explain the ties that created his winning coalition. For all practical purposes, American presidential elections are binary – pitting one Republican nominee against a Democrat nominee. It sounds simple enough. Members of each party elect delegates that choose a candidate to represent them and a nominee is chosen, QED. But in 2016 things were upended by the impact of social media and the role of the amygdala. 
The past is not prelude.
In the past, the belief-sets that attracted an individual to a given party were relatively well-understood. Democrats tended to have progressive social views, be pro-individual, have modest incomes, and see a role for government in society. In contrast, Republicans tended to have a clear view of social norms, be pro-big-business, have greater income and wealth, and think a small government was the best.
Of course, those characteristics listed are imprecise and open to criticism, but the point is that it seemed feasible to reliably group people into one of two camps. It was an orderly era, and one which pollsters must have found blissful.
What resonated with Trump voters?
The era of easily recognized voting blocs appears to have been relegated to history with the Trump victory. Everyone is now trying to understand what positive, unifying chord Trump struck with his coalition that so effectively obliterated previous voter affiliations and so effectively confounded pollsters.
It would see there was no positive, unifying chord that motivated people to vote for Trump. Instead there was a negative chord of fear that resonated with millions of voters. Fear that Islam was intrinsically evil, fear of Mexicans flooding the border, fear of Obamacare, fear of ISIS, fear of immigrants, fear that America wasn’t great. Fear. Trump is an irrational pick for president, but when people vote their fears, they are by definition being irrational.
Year of the amygdala.
What Trump did to build his coalition was to effectively communicate a message of fear. To be sure, a message of fear needs no great policy paper to support it. It needs few facts. Trump was roundly criticized during the campaign for not having defined policies or even clear policy positions. In reality, he didn’t need them. What he was selling, and what his voters bought, was a message that precisely targeted the “fear center” of our brains – the amygdala.
Chris Mooney has written extensively about a possible connection between the big five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and activity in the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In one article Mooney described the role of the ACC as “the error-detecting region that is thought to be involved in causing us to stop repeated patterns of behaviour and change course.”
If Mooney is correct about neurophysiological differences influencing political behavior, then clearly this election should be remembered as the year of the Amygdala. It is a year when people left previous beliefs behind, or were highly motivated to turn out and vote simply because the Trump message of fear was irresistible.
The social amplification of risk
No discussion of why Trump appealed to so many voters would be complete without at least mentioning the role played by social media. In 1988, Kaperson introduced the concept of social amplification of risk whereby the perceived risk of an event could be exacerbated by social activities and communication. If Trump is nothing else, he is a master of social media. What a powerful combination – to sell a message of fear and then intensive the fear of that message through social media.
On social media, facts are irrelevant to the message of fear. Speaking of facts, it was recently reported that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.”
If this continues, we may someday find ourselves electing a person that’s never held political office, has no policy positions, but knows how to amplify messages of fear through social media.
It’s not just Trump.
It wouldn’t be at all unexpected to see Trump surround himself with amygdala-driven operatives. That is a discomforting thought – a room full of cabinet members or advisers, probably mostly white men, succumbing to the calls of their over-active amygdalas to react to events because they’re afraid.
Yes, there’s no doubt the world can be a scary place, but responding to frightful events is different than reacting to them. Trump will never change. Those of us who see the positive potential of America and the world must be vocal and visible in our optimism and must be ever vigilant to recognizing and responding to fear-based actions of a Trump administration.
 The Amygdala in 5 Minutes (YouTube video by neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux)
 The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans
 Political divides begin in the brain
 Kasperson, R. E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H. S., Emel, J., Goble, R., Kasperson, J. X. and Ratick, S. (1988), The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework. Risk Analysis, 8: 177–187. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.1988.tb01168.x
November 13, 2016
A date certain
February 19, 2017 will provide an early indication that will tell us if Trump has a chance of actually delivering on his campaign promises, or if he became president by pandering to a segment of the electorate desperate for simple solutions to complex problems. On February 19, Trump will have been in office for 30 days and according to him, his top generals will have delivered to him by then “a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”
“We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction.
They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”
Democrats and Republicans seek accountability
If nothing else, Trump’s winning the race for president established him as the unparalleled master of reading and reflecting the emotions of his base. Regardless of whether you love Trump, or hate him, there is wide-spread consensus that he never really offered substantive policies to support his emotion-based pandering and demagoguing.
Now that Trump will become president it is incumbent upon all of us to hold him accountable for the statements that swept him into office. Trump supporters will want tangible evidence that Trump is making America great again – whatever that means. And Trump detractors will want to diminish his credibility and degrade his effectiveness by exposing him as an ill-informed huckster, albeit one with finely honed manipulative skills.
Trump’s meandering ISIS “strategy” lands on a 30-day plan
Over the last year Trump presented a meandering approach to dealing with ISIS that ranged widely from sending in 30,000 more American troops to using nuclear weapons. And although Trump claimed he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he has given us a date certain for when those same generals must present him with a definitive plan to defeat ISIS.
At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina on September, Trump said without hesitation, but much bravado, that “We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They’ll have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” And the crowd went wild.
We’ll have an indication on February 19 if the crowd’s euphoria was justified, or if they were duped into believing that complex, global problems could be solved in 30 days. I wish there were simple fixes to hard problems, but that’s not the way it works. It is not reality – except on TV.
 “Trump is Calling for 30,000 Troops. Would that Defeat ISIS?” CNN, March 11, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/11/politics/donald-trump-30000-troops-isis/.
 “We’re going to hit them and we’re going to hit them hard. I’m talking about a surgical strike on these ISIS stronghold cities using Trident missiles.” http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-press-transcript-august-9-2015-n408516.
 “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me”, Fort Dodge, Iowa speech, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/elections/presidential/caucus/2015/11/13/trump-his-own-words-highlights-95-minute-rant/75729070/
November 9, 2016
Americans really did it. An angry majority of voters has launched us on a grand experiment called the Trump presidency. The country has elected a person who has no experience governing and who offered one-line slogans in lieu of reasoned policies. The vision of America he espoused was one rooted in testosterone-laden tribalism. It’s a vision where a President Trump could solve any problem, no mater how complex, with a snap of his fingers and make it so.
That vision, however unrealistic, resonated with that segment of society driven by emotion and fear. The segment that fears “they” are coming for me. Protect me, President Trump – make America great again. It’s not hard to decode that phrase. Make America great again by providing $100,000 manufacturing jobs with pensions and healthcare for any white male that wants it. It won’t happen. While the world has moved on, Trump became president by promoting the fantasy that we can go backwards. He was selling an anachronistic illusion and enough people bought what he was selling to elect him president.
A grim reality awaits Trump, and an even grimmer one for his legions. Trump will quickly learn that the inertia of the federal government will not yield to the snap of his fingers. He will become frustrated that a snap of his fingers only makes noise. He will not admit that his ineffectiveness is because he lacks the experience or skills to persuade or influence people not on his payroll or involved in a business transaction. Running a company, no matter how large, does not prepare one for being the leader of the free world.
A snap of his fingers will not build the wall, it will not eradicate ISIL, it will not lower your taxes, it will not replace Obamacare. His followers will eventually come to that realization. I can almost her them now:
“Well, if I knew my taxes would go up, I’d never have voted for him.”
“Well, if I knew he wasn’t going to build the wall, I’d never have voted for him.”
“Well, if I knew I still can’t get a $100k manufacturing job, I’d never have voted for him.”
“Well, if I knew there would still be criminals, I’d never have voted for him.”
“Well, if I knew there would still be terrorists, I’d never have voted for him.”
And that is the problem. The people that elected Trump based their vote on emotion and not reason. It’s not hard to know that Trump doesn’t have a magical snap that will solve all of your problems. It really isn’t hard to know that governing is hard work that yields incremental progress under the best of conditions. When that realization sets in, unfortunately, it will be too late. The Trump Presidency is now a reality. It’s also a grand civics lesson for voters to learn that voting your anger will never make America great again.
August 21, 2016
I recently returned to the home I had left 14 years ago. When I left, I was a runner, and when I returned I was a walker. The knee surgery removed my daily pain, but at the cost of having to give up running – an exchange I’d gladly do again. Today, when I walked my old running route I saw things I had never seen before.
I suppose part of it is just reminiscing. I passed the trees that were the source of leaves for grade school leaf collections. I walked through the field behind the school where we launched model rockets, and watched our greyhound run. Everything was familiar, but not the same. The predawn sounds were welcoming and relaxing. I found myself wondering if I had been aware of them when I was younger and was a runner.
On my way back to the house, I could see the steps I had left in the dew-laden grass. It struck me that life is made of paths and tracks, and I wondered if those were analogous to the decisions I had made as a younger man. When we look forward we are looking at a path, but only by looking back, by being introspective, can we tell what tracks the path left behind.
Some of us look back at our life’s path and see a straight line- one day progressing to the next, driven by some internal compass for constant, linear progress. Others look back and see they have taken a more meandering path through life. I doubt that either is better than the other. It seems the important thing is that there is value in occasionally taking a moment to look back from our path to see if the tracks we left make sense.
It seems like such a simple concept now that I am not a young man. Much like it seemed simple to run now that I can only walk. If I have learned anything, it is probably that I should stop now, and look back to realize that the track I just made in the grass as I walked will someday be a distant memory. Just as happened with running, it is inevitable that someday even walking will be impossible.
I am not writing this from a position of pessimism. It is a simple observation inspired by a few lingering footprints seen in the early morning dawn. What we take for granted today will someday be a memory we cannot relive. So my advice is to stop where you are, look back at the tracks of your life, and realize that they cannot be changed, but then look forward and endeavor to ensure the path you choose will be one without compromise. Choose a path that reflects your authentic self and regardless of whether the track is straight or meandering, you will know that it is the track that is you. That is something with which you can live.
Many surveys have shown that Americans are decidedly unaware of basic civics. As one example, a 2014 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 36% of respondents could name the three branches of the United States government. With that level of knowledge as a foundation, I have come to ignore (mostly) people’s ill-informed statements about the Constitution. The bar is disturbingly low for what the public knows about our government.
However, the bar for presidential candidates should be, and must be, much higher than the general public. It is my expectation that someone running for the highest office in the land should know more than the basics when it comes to how our government works and the Constitution. Statements made this weekend by some of those candidates indicated a profound lack of understanding of the First Amendment. The context of the misstatements was Trump’s cancellation of his campaign rally in Chicago due to protesters.
Using his favorite form of communication, Trump tweeted the following:
The problem is that his cancellation of his own rally had absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment which reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
To be crystal clear- The First Amendment applies to the government restricting religion or speech, not someone’s speech being curtailed by actions of private individuals. Remember, you can make any political statement at your place of employment you want and will not go to jail. However, should your employer disagree with your statement, he or she is within their rights to fire you on the spot.
Given Trump’s lack of knowledge about our political system I wasn’t terribly surprised by his ignorant statement. However, he was not alone. On ABC’s This week with Gorge Stephanopoulos that aired March 13, other presidential candidate put their ignorance of the Constitution on display. In an interview on the show Senator Ted Cruz stated, “Let’s be clear. First of all, the protestors were in the wrong, when you come up and use violence, you engage in violence, you threaten violence and when you try to shut down and shout down speech that’s not what the first amendment allows. The First Amendment gives every one of us the right to speak but not to disrupt others.” No Ted, you got this one very wrong. This one surprised me – I expected more from a Harvard Law School graduate. Maybe Ted knew what the First Amendment said but wanted to intentionally misinterpret it because it would serve as a campaign rallying cry for his low-information supporters.
Also on Sunday’s show, presidential candidate Marco Rubio was speaking about the protesters at Trumps rally and stated “They don’t have the right to disrupt an event.” That seems strange coming from an original Tea Party candidate. Wasn’t throwing all that tea into the bay a bit disruptive?
Finally on Today’s episode of Morning Joe, Guest Ben Carson ironically talked about the cancellation as an educational opportunity by saying “This is a wonderful opportunity for education in America. It gives Donald trump and other candidates to talk about first amendment rights and why they’re important.” Could he have missed to mark any further?
Maybe the education opportunity is for all the presidential candidates to actually read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and stop making ridiculous statements that feed the misconceptions of the poorly informed public. But then, maybe the strategy is that the candidates want to electorate to bee ill informed.
 Americans know surprisingly little about their government, survey finds. September 17, 2014 http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-know-surprisingly-little-about-their-government-survey-finds/
 “The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!” March 12, 2016 https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/708619775153475584