It’s a mental shortcut that puts Trump 2020 in the same triumphant place as 2016

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 8, 2020

Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

Will Donald Trump win re-election?

The truth is no one knows and anyone who says they do is deluded, delusional or just too darn sure they’re always right.

But we owe it to David Leonhardt of The New York Times to remind us why everyone seems to hope – or fear – that Mr Trump will triumph, come November 3.

Mr Leonhardt writes that it’s got quite a bit to do with a tendency described by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1974 as availability.

That’s to say the mental shortcut that leads people to make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind. In the process of using the availability heuristic, people often ignore other relevant facts.

In the case of the American presidential election, the availability of the 2016 outcome is seared into the collective national and global mind. Mr Trump managed a surprise victory, despite losing the popular vote and despite a whole year of slumping in the opinion polls. His unexpected triumph in 2016 allows people to take the mental shortcut of a comparable result in 2020.

Availability really does seem to be the best way to understand the vigour with which the media is writing about Mr Trump’s improving prospects, post-convention, and his challenger, Joe Biden’s declining chances of getting to the White House.

In actual fact, not a lot changed because of or despite the narcissistic paean to himself that Mr Trump staged in place of the Republican National Convention.

What has happened is two things, both of which help Mr Trump divide Americans even further, ensure there is more violence and thereby create a sense of fear for the future.

First, there has been more racial violence on the streets in the past few days, including deaths. Mr Trump has cheered on the far-right counter-protestors and slammed anti-racism protestors.

Second some anti-racism protests appear to have become violent. It’s not clear if that’s because of agent provocateurs or a few violent fellows who somehow joined up with the protestors.

Mr Trump keeps saying he’s the “law and order president”. But he isn’t really. Mr Trump is running on a platform that has him mouthing the words “law and order” while encouraging his supporters to break the law and to create disorder over racial and cultural issues.

Time to find a heuristic other than availability?