Gaffe after gaffe, over the course of more than a year, didn’t seem to change Donald Trump’s presidential prospects. His supporters pushed aside the attacks, leaving the press entirely befuddled and the campaign delighted. And it remains so today. And why? Because, as it turns out, right or wrong, people choose to think for themselves, defying every attempt to script what they are supposed to believe about a given issue or situation.
It’s been an enormous source of frustration for the mainstream media that Trump supporters have learned that the attacks tend to backfire. It was obvious even from the start of his campaign that the usual criticisms weren’t sticking, even when the criticism was completely valid and even worrying. No matter how many names big shots called him, no matter how many times he failed a fact check, his support kept rising.
The Aleppo Gaffe
Everyone who loves freedom has a reason to celebrate this tendency to doubt and even invert what powerful, influential, highly respected people tell you to think.And now we see the same thing happen to the Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. He was challenged on an interview to explain what he would do about Aleppo. Gary asked “What is Aleppo?” before realizing that it was a question about Syria and then proceeded to give an excellent answer about U.S. foreign policy.
I watched that interview while it happened and nothing about Aleppo “gaffe” struck me as particularly devastating.
But that’s not how the press saw it. Over the next 24 hours, the mainstream press went absolutely nuts with derision. Hundreds of news outlets piled on, as if to reinforce the caricature of the amateur outsider not cut out for the big leagues. Johnson’s mistake was treated as the death knell of his challenge to the two major parties.
But then something interesting happened. A candidate who has struggled to get any press at all, much less be included in the polls, shot up in all search trends. Google search trends went nuts. People searched his name for the first time. Twitter hashtags with Aleppo and the campaign dominated the news for 24 hours. What seemed like the worst possible gaffe actually turned into gold, his first break into the mainstream.
On the morning of the frenzy, that the mistake would become a gift seemed impossible. By later in the day, the reality began to dawn. It turns out that very few people knew what Aleppo was, not even the New York Times reporter who posted the story that landed on the front page. It had to be corrected, not once but twice. The tables had been turned, as regular people failed to pile on and instead felt a certain sympathy for any candidate trapped in such a “gotcha” game.
Two days later, he was in Manhattan at a rally that attracted, by my count, perhaps 1,500 excited fans – highly unusual for a third party. The people there were motivated in part by the desire to push back against the narrative of the press that this was somehow an awful thing that had happened.
Thinking for Ourselves
In the end, there is one thing we can control even under extreme duress and that is our minds.Everyone who loves freedom has a reason to celebrate this tendency to doubt and even invert what powerful, influential, highly respected people tell you to think. The persistence of incredulity speaks to the impossibility of controlling the human mind through intimidation, political correctness, money, or even power itself.
In the end, there is one thing we can control even under extreme duress and that is our minds. What goes on inside that powerful space is up to us. Absent some invasive substance, it is the ultimate locus of individualism.
The freedom to think for ourselves is the beating heart of freedom itself. It’s why censorship doesn’t work and often backfires. It’s why despotism doesn’t work. Since thinking comes before acting and living, how we think ultimately determines the narrative of history, even when people want it to take another course. The ability to disagree, to be incredulous, to doubt, to question, to come to a different conclusion than is being demanded of us: here is the mightiest way that we as individuals can remain free.
As Victor Frankl famously said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This powerful observation helps you understand so much about history. How is it that people defy dictatorship, reject propaganda, resist the demands of the mob, invent new things in defiance of the status quo? Why is rebellion so baked into the history of humanity?
It is because of this ability to think critically for ourselves. It is due to the unwillingness to turn over our thinking processes to an outside agent of control that we enjoy the freedoms and progress that we have today. In its absence, humankind would have never advanced beyond the most primitive conditions lorded over by a power-mad ruler.
It is not, however, always an easy thing to do. When the mob is screaming, when every powerful authority is shouting you down, when the whole of conventional wisdom is telling you that you are wrong and will and should suffer for it, this is when character is tested.
It doesn’t happen to us often in the course of life, but every once in a great while, we’ve all felt it. Think of grade school at that moment when your entire social circle is looking down on you. You feel the crushing weight of public disapproval. Or later in professional life when you have to think carefully before going against the prevailing wisdom of the group. It can happen at Church, at a business meeting, or in a civic association. You have to make a decision: go along or think for yourself and risk everything.
Imagine what it must be like for a famous public figure, a politician or pop star or actor. It can happen in an instant that Twitter is full of attacks on you or the tabloids fill up with ridicule. How can you be in the midst of this kind of pile on and stay calm and cool about it? It feels as if the whole world is against you, like the ceiling has fallen in and the floor has fallen out.
It should delight us all when powerful voices of authority ultimately do not get their way. At these moments, there are certain things you must remember. What seems like a pile-on could be an illusion. You are only hearing from the people who are against you, while those who support you are silent. Also, our minds are far more affected by criticism than praise; we feel targeted hate more deeply than we feel generalized affection. This was put to me well by a singer who told me how strange it is that she can get 100 positive comments and only 1 negative and remember only the latter.
In addition, it does us well under these conditions to remember that fickleness and malleability of the human mind itself. One day it might seem like the whole world backs you and the next everyone is against you. The reverse can also happen. It is always best to stay humble, stay real, stay true to yourself and try to turn the attention you are getting to the good.
In this sense, Gary Johnson handled his moment of crisis very well. He said he screwed up, apologized, and promised to do better. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to that kind of humility. Trump takes a different approach that has proven effective for him most of the time: he doubles down and hopes his refusal to admit error will be seen as strength. Both approaches reflect a confidence that people can resist a demand that they should think a certain way.
It should delight us all when powerful voices of authority ultimately do not get their way. In many ways, this is the foundation for why we enjoy the freedoms we have. It also underscores the beautiful unpredictability of the world. Our minds are always working to make messes of the best-laid plans for our lives. This tendency keeps our leaders somewhat humble and the rest of us somewhat freer than we would otherwise be.
Thanks to the ability we all possess to think for ourselves, this world will finally defy every attempt to control it.