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Krugman: Conservatives Insist They Are Never Ever Wrong

4 min read

Paul Krugman is always a pleasure to read, in that he is so often right, and so often cuts to the heart of the matter. This morning’s column is particularly insightful: Trump and His Infallible Advisers

Trump and company didn’t make a one-time mistake. They grossly minimized the pandemic and its dangers every step of the way, week after week over a period of months. And they’re still doing it.

And this is because . . .

At a time of crisis, America is led by a whiny, childlike man whose ego is too fragile to let him concede ever having made any kind of error. And he has surrounded himself with people who share his lack of character.

Now here is where it gets interesting:

What has struck me, as details of Trump’s coronavirus debacle continue to emerge, is that he wasn’t getting bad advice from obscure, fringe figures whose only claim to fame was their successful sycophancy. On the contrary, the people telling him what he wanted to hear were, by and large, pillars of the conservative establishment with long pre-Trump careers.

What these “pillars” share with Trump, Krugman writes, is an inability to admit mistakes. He singles out Kevin Hassett, an economist (I hesitate to say “fellow economist” because I like Krugman and don’t want to insult him). Hassett is, among other things, the author of Dow 36,000, a seriously flawed prediction of the stock market with, as Krugman says, major conceptual errors — but Hassett never acknowledged that, just as he never acknowledged his misreading of the housing bubble or other serious blunders. And Hassett — who has no experience in epidemiology — is the person Trump picked to lead a team to come up with a “better” model for predicting Covid-19 deaths because Trump didn’t like the answer the real experts were giving him.

Everyone makes mistakes; Krugman admits he has made some doozies. His point is that when one makes a mistake, one is supposed to correct it and do something different. But that requires self-reflection, and:

To engage in such self-reflection, however, you have to be willing to admit that you were wrong in the first place.

Trump’s inability comes more from his insecurity and fragile ego than from any adherence to conservative principles. But these conservatives suffer from the opposite condition: they are so secure in their ideology and so convinced they are right that any evidence to the contrary is denied, denounced, or simply ignored.

Trump surrounds himself not just with people who are not just sycophants but also people who, like him, can never admit they were wrong, even if for opposite reasons. And he easily finds these people because that mentality has infected the whole GOP.

Yes, Trump’s insecurity leads him to reject expertise, listen only to people who tell him what makes him feel good and refuse to acknowledge error. But disdain for experts, preference for incompetent loyalists and failure to learn from experience are standard operating procedure for the whole modern G.O.P.

Most of science is making mistakes and learning from them. True experts are people who have spent their careers making mistakes and making progress by fixing them. It is possible for a conservative mentality to do that, but the very idea of conservatism is to promote traditional values that have worked (or seemed to work) in the past and should continue to work today. This leads not just to an inability to admit mistakes but an inability to change. And that helps explain why Trump — and much of today’s GOP and their base — despises experts and expertise, believes that their uninformed opinions are as good as or better than people who have devoted decades working out their understanding of the world.

Jared Diamond wrote a major book on this topic: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. There are some flaws in the book, but his main point is largely valid: societies collapse when they insist on continuing trying to solve problems using prior solutions that no longer work. Krugman puts it in slightly different terms:

Trump’s narcissism and solipsism are especially blatant, even flamboyant. But he isn’t an outlier; he’s more a culmination of the American right’s long-term trend toward intellectual degradation. And that degradation, more than Trump’s character, is what is leading to vast numbers of unnecessary deaths.

Here is yet more evidence that it won’t be enough to get rid of Trump. Or McConnell, or even the rest of the GOP. Their hegemony is the product of a decades-long, carefully cultivated, dumbing down of America. This country has always had an undercurrent of disdain for “pointy-head intellectuals.” Now it has become the overcurrent, as it were; it is entrenched in the halls of power.

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