How magical thinking elected a president

July 2017

There has been a great deal of speculation about why so many people voted for Donald Trump. Xenophobia, racism, and fear of non-white people are some of the reasons given. But my vote is for magical thinking, “… the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world.” If we really want something to be true, then it becomes true.

A recent TED speaker, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of “Not in God’s Name,” says that “…magical thinking has taken over our politics.” We have come to believe, against all common sense, that a strong leader can do anything we want done.

President Trump makes a major investment in magical thinking. Let’s start with immigration. Trump has promised to expel all 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., and I know many otherwise rational people who have bought into this bit of magical thinking. Even if we increased the ICE budget enough to start deporting 1,000 people a day, every day, weekends included, year round, it would take more than 30 years to deport 11 million people!

Then there’s the wall. Trump is engaged in magical thinking when he says Mexico is going to pay for it. And even if it gets built with our money, it won’t work. Nearly half of our illegal population comes in through airports all over the country, legally, with visas that they then overstay.

On the economy, Trump tells us that cutting taxes and eliminating some regulations will increase government revenues, reduce the debt and double the annual growth in GDP. That’s serious magical thinking. And it’s magical thinking to believe that we’re ever going to get back all of those high-paid coal mining jobs, or that we can find a way to burn coal “cleanly” at reasonable cost.

Trump’s foreign policies are full of magical thinking. Russia is our friend. All of our trade treaties can be renegotiated to our advantage. We can get Israel and Palestine to make permanent peace. There is an effective solution to the problem of North Korea.

Then we come to the current debate on health care. Economist Paul Krugman points out that Trump and the other Republican leaders really want cheaper, better health care for everyone without spending so much government money. So they tell us (and they may actually believe) that their new plan will lower government expenditures while covering more people, making health care cheaper, and protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Even the experts they hire think they are wrong. The bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office has provided a very negative evaluation, while The American Academy of Actuaries, AARP and the American Medical Association all see huge problems with the new bill.

The truth is that all of us engaged in magical thinking when we were kids, and most of us revert to it from time to time as adults. But this time too many of us drank the Kool Aid, and now we’re swimming in its toxins.

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