What Donald Trump and anti-vaxxers have in common


I’ve seen the speculation that Donald Trump is purposely trying to lose the presidential election.

The thinking seems to be that no one would purposely be so contemptuous of the truth, so offensive and so outrageous if they wanted to win. Surely Trump can see that he has reached the ceiling of his support and he has to broaden his message to sway those who are undecided.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For Donald Trump, as for anti-vaxxers, facts take a back seat to ego.[/pullquote]

But Trump wants to win. How do I know? His quixotic approach to the election seems remarkably familiar to me. I’ve been battling such tactics for years; they are the same tactics as the anti-vaxxers and for the same reasons. In both cases the fundamental issue is adulation and self-esteem.


1. Both have a striking contempt for basic knowledge

You might imagine that Trump would find it needful to educate himself about American history, American government, the Constitution, foreign relations and a myriad of other important topics to make it clear that he is qualified to become president. You would be wrong.

Similarly, you might imagine that anti-vaxxers would find it needful to educate themselves about immunology, virology and statistics to make it clear that they are qualified to opine about vaccines. You would also be wrong.

Why? Because both Trump and anti-vaxxers are walking, talking illustrations of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s the paradox that those who know the least actually believe they know the most. They are so lacking in basic knowledge that they are incapable of realizing that they are lacking in basic knowledge.

2. Both are fact resistant

Both Trump and anti-vaxxers aren’t merely evidence resistant; they are fact resistant. However, a good portion of what appears to be blatant lying by Trump or anti-vaxxers is more properly described as “bullshitting.” To lie, one must be aware of the truth; bullshitting, in contrast, is a form of arrogant ignorance. Trump and anti-vaxxers often have no knowledge of a particular issue. Rather than acknowledge that (or correct it), they issue streams of blather meant to dazzle equally ignorant listeners.

3. Both embrace blatant lying when is suits them

They do lie, or course, in addition to bullshitting. Trump is a pathological liar. He proclaims what he wishes were true, even when he knows it isn’t (e.g. the invocation of a non-existent aide with a brand new Twitter account) to blame for Melania’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech. Anti-vaxxers, particularly professional anti-vaxxers, lie when convenient (e.g. pretending polio was disappearing long before the advent of the polio vaccine).

4. Both give primacy to feelings (gut, intuition) over facts

Though neither Trump nor anti-vaxxers are cognizant of the fact, they are the ultimate post-modernists, believing that reality is radically subjective. For them, reality is what they feel, and has nothing to do with an objective evaluation. It literally does not matter to them what the facts are; they believe that “listening to their gut (or intuition if you prefer) provides better “facts” than any expert or textbook.

5. Both outsource blame

Both Trump and anti-vaxxers are always sure that it is somebody else’s fault. If it’s bad, it’s not their responsibility. It’s always the responsibility of the elites or the despised (sometimes both). For every untoward occurrence (whether that is stagnation of blue collar wages or a child’s autism), neither Trump nor anti-vaxxers ever ask, “What went wrong?” Instead they faithfully resort to a different formulation: “Who did this to us?”

6. Both are desperate for adulation and self-esteem

Trump entered the presidential race for the same reason he does anything; as a narcissist he has a hunger for adulation that can never be assuaged. It is enough for him that he can bask in the glow of carefully vetted crowds of supporters. That is far more immediate and real to him than the majority of people who view him with contempt.

Anti-vax advocacy has precious little to do with vaccines or with children. The combination of self-education and defiance of authority is viewed by anti-vax parents as an empowering form of rugged individualism, marking out their own superiority from the pathetic “sheeple” who aren’t self-educated and who do follow authority. Anti-vaxxers congregate on websites and in Facebook groups that validate this distorted view of themselves.

7. Their isolation is the key to their self-regard

Trump is obsessed with his supporters because they temporarily fill the maw of his narcissistic hunger. He can’t bother to convince anyone who disagrees because he cannot tolerate anyone who does not praise him. Anti-vaxxers carefully curate their online spaces, banning and deleting anyone who dares to present science that does not support them because they can’t tolerate the idea that they aren’t knowledgeable, uniquely insightful and special; they’re simply ignorant and deluded.

Anti-vaxxers want to convince everyone that they are correct but since they cannot abide anything or anyone that does not satisfy their desperate need for self-regard, they make little headway with the majority of people who disagree with them because they can’t tolerate engaging with them.

Similarly, Donald Trump wants to be president. But since he cannot suffer anything or anyone who does not satisfy his desperate need for adulation, he can’t make any headway with the majority of people who disagree with him. At this point, he isn’t even trying; he just doubles down on the prevarication, bigotry and outrageousness that so delights his core supporters.

Donald Trump is not trying to lose this election. He would like to be president, but that desire is utterly dwarfed by his desperate need to be praised.