Trump’s Hostility and “Alternative Facts”

Forcing events to fit with our constructions is something we all do, sometimes.

Posted Jan 23, 2017

Lots of people were befuddled when President Donald Trump got into a protracted debate with the media over whether more people attended his inauguration than President Obama’s. Despite photos clearly showing more people at the Obama than Trump inauguration, President Trump insisted his crowd was larger. The high (or low?) point occurred when Trump’s senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, went on NBC’s Meet the Press and objected to those claiming President Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, lied about the crowd size.

“You're saying it’s a falsehood,” Conway explained. But, she went on, it’s not. “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts," she said.

Trump critics went wild. Alternative facts are lies, they exclaimed! Trump is a liar! An amusing parody children’s book cover, The Little Golden Book of Alternative Facts, even made its way around the internet and featured incorrectly labeled photos (butterfly for bird, socks for mittens, etc.). Catching the new president in a lie was both satisfying and perplexing. How could anyone possibly look at those photos and conclude more people were at Trump’s swearing in than Obama’s?

Boing Boing, via Tim O’Brien
Source: Boing Boing, via Tim O’Brien

The incident is easily explainable from the perspective of psychologist George Kelly’s personal construct theory. As you may recall from an earlier post, in personal construct theory, everyone constructs personal meanings that they use to anticipate events. We all get pretty attached to our constructions. They are our own personal inventions; our own bets on how things will turn out. When they don't wind up accounting for things very well, we often get upset. Sometimes, personal construct psychologists warn, we even get hostile.

Hostility, in personal construct theory, is defined in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. Kelly stated that “hostility is the continued effort to extort validational evidence in favour of a type of social prediction which has already been recognized as a failure” (1955/1991, p. 7). In other words, when people get hostile, they try to force events to conform to how they already construe things, all the while insisting that everyone else construe it that way, too!

That’s precisely what Donald Trump and his minions are doing. They construe “The Donald” as the most popular, amazing, and compelling president to come along in a great while. Anything that threatens this construction cannot be accepted. Thus, they distort evidence to make it fit with their construction: “President Trump is super-duper popular, so his inauguration had to be the best attended.” Photos suggesting otherwise must be misleading. Is the president lying or merely insisting on sticking to a construction he personally "knows" to be true?

Whether you support President Trump or not, his hostility—if perhaps a bit over-the-top—is quite recognizable. “My baby is the most beautiful baby ever born!”, “Anybody who disagrees with me must be mentally unbalanced!”, and “There is no way Hillary could possibly have lost!” (too soon?) are all potentially hostile statements. Everyone gets hostile sometimes. President Trump is just especially good at it.

Hostility is understandable, but dangerous. In his 1957 presidential address to the clinical psychology division of the American Psychological Association entitled “Hostility,” George Kelly talked about the ancient legend of Procrustes. Procrustes was the inn keeper who was extremely hostile in his belief that all who stayed at his inn should fit properly in the bed he provided. His hostility was so great that he resorted to famously desperate measures (though they seemed reasonable to him). He stretched those who were too short and lopped off the legs of those who were too long. He didn’t think he was doing any harm. He just knew that his “alternative fact”—that anyone who didn’t fit his bed was the wrong size—must be spot-on. And he was willing to do damn near anything to prove it.

So again, hostility is understandable. We all do it. But it can be very bad.

We are entitled to alternative constructions. There are always other feasible ways to understand things. But some constructions just don’t work. They’re not viable. When we refuse to give them up and demand others accept them, we may not be lying, but we are being dangerously hostile. Moving beyond squabbles over crowd size, a hostile leader can readily do much harm, all in a desperate attempt to cling to preciously held constructions.

References

Kelly, G. A. (1991). The psychology of personal constructs: Vol. 2 . Clinical diagnosis and psychotherapy. London, England: Routledge. (Original work published 1955)