When candidate Donald Trump was considering running for president, his advisors wanted him to focus being strong against both illegal and legal immigration — you know, those “bad hombres” that Trump cited during the third presidential debate.
Working for an undisciplined candidate who hated to speak from talking points and liked talking about himself, Trump’s advisors Sam Nunberg and recently arrested Roger Stone came up with the idea of getting him to talk about a “border wall” to give him a visual and keep him focused on immigration.
It didn’t really matter if the “solution” made any policy sense or not. The idea was intended to whip up a conservative base, create a “us” versus “them” visual, and was something Trump could relate to it since, in his words, he is a “builder.”
In his book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Joshua Green explains:
Inside Trump’s circle, the power of illegal immigration to manipulate popular sentiment was readily apparent, and his advisers brainstormed methods for keeping their attention-addled boss on message. They needed a trick, a mnemonic device. In the summer of 2014, they found one that clicked. “Roger Stone and I came up with the idea of ‘the Wall,’ and we talked to Steve [Bannon] about it,” said Nunberg. “It was to make sure he talked about immigration.”
Initially, Trump seemed indifferent to the idea. But in January 2015, he tried it out at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a presidential cattle call put on by David Bossie’s group, Citizens United. “One of his pledges was, ‘I will build a Wall,’ and the place just went nuts,” said Nunberg. Warming to the concept, Trump waited a beat and then added a flourish that brought down the house. “Nobody,” he said, “builds like Trump.”
By the time of his presidential announcement in June 2015, Trump would proclaim:
I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.
It is a “solution” that is in search of a problem.
The facts are that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, border communities are among the safest in the country, migrant border crossings are well below previous levels, drugs that enter the United States are disproportionately smuggled in vehicles through heavily patrolled ports of entry or by boat away from the border, and terrorists are far more likely to be home-grown and even those threats from abroad are not coming across our southern border.
If only “The Wall” (the President likes to capitalize it, use all caps, and add exclamation points when he tweets about it) were a harmless political tool. Unfortunately, the accompanying wreckage this policy has caused is immeasurable.
In fact, the policy is accompanied with the demonization of immigrants, family separation, the caging of children, the government shutdown, the deaths of children in government custody, the sexual abuse of children in government custody and in detention facilities, the seizing of private property by the federal government, the potential constitutional crisis created by declaring a “national emergency,” billions of dollars being spent on a vanity project and diverted from other priorities, the distraction from tackling real problems like gun violence, climate change, and child poverty, and the dismissal of basic facts that matter when debating public policy.
And like an infectious disease, Trump’s obsession over “The Wall” has been disturbingly spread to some Members of Congress. For example, despite the fact that not a single school shooting across the country has even been committed by an immigrant that crossed the southern border, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) enthusiastically but nonsensically proposed the “border wall” as the solution to gun violence at a recent congressional hearing.
The Law of the Instrument
So how does a politician become so attached to a single solution — such as a border wall — in the face of the reality that every single elected Member of Congress representing the communities impacted by the problem oppose that policy and point to a range of better policy options or solutions to any or all of the “problems” that have been cited?
The “law of the instrument”, also known as Maslow’s hammer or the golden hammer, was cited in a book by Arthur Kaplan in 1964. It refers to a cognitive bias that is caused by an over-reliance on a familiar tool.
I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand.
For Trump, the border wall has become his hammer seeking a problem — no matter how wrong, unrelated, or even strange.
Unfortunately, we see “confirmation bias” or the “small boy with the hammer” far too often in public policy.
When I was an intern a number of years ago, I recall going to hear Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) speak. He was viewed as an innovative thinker that also was interested in addressing important social problems such as poverty. Kemp had an impressive manner and expressed optimism, idealism, and youth to the packed room of college interns. His speech focused on his support for “supply-side economics” through tax cuts to spur the economy.
That was what he was famous for, but interns started whispering and giving each other sideways glances when he cited “tax cuts” as the sole solution to each and every question that were raised, including those related to the environment, health care, and even famine in Ethiopia.
We may have all been young, but we knew some basic facts about the world that caused Kemp’s answers to be rather perplexing. As one of my fellow interns said as we were leaving, “Actually, I am pretty sure that famine in Ethiopia is caused by the drought and civil war in the country and not by high taxes, right?”
Well yes, drought and civil war were the real problems in Ethiopia.
It was classic cognitive bias created by Kemp’s obsession with tax cuts and supply-side economics that caused it to become the gospel or his tool for just about each and every problem to which he was presented.
Confirmation Bias and The Wall
Today we see it with President Trump and his “Wall” and his “Zero Tolerance” policies related to immigration. Apparently, he did not always feel this way.
However, he bought into “The Wall” during the campaign in 2015 and now only hears affirmation of it at campaign rallies and and from anti-immigrant Fox News pundits and Administration staff.
Since Trump fires people who disagree with him or seek to provide him with facts are contrary to his position, the President is particularly susceptible to confirmation bias because the only voices he hires and hears support and reaffirm his position.
In his speech in El Paso, Texas, the President falsely claimed that El Paso had a high crime rate until the border wall was built. However, as anybody from El Paso could have told him, including both Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) and Will Herd (R-TX) that represent the community in Congress and El Paso’s Republican Mayor Dee Margo, the reality has been that El Paso has been known as one of the safest cities in the country long before the border wall was ever built.
He quickly dismisses such facts, even from Republicans that live and know the reality on the border.
The people who work for him won’t tell him why the policies either don’t comport with the facts or violate the law, so the Administration only hears voices that confirm support for his border wall or “hammer”.
If the facts do not back justify use of the political tool, they are condemned, dismissed, ignored, or hidden.
At a previous border event in Laredo, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel describes in detail how the President’s “roundtable” was set up to simply tell him what he already believed. She explains, “. . .nobody locally, no leaders from the community were sitting at that table.”
One person after another just reaffirmed the president’s choice to have a wall and congratulated him for being the outstanding person that he was, for being so strong. One of the worst was saying that he has such a strong backbone, like no one else has. That was the message: we’ll support you 100 percent and we’re so happy this is what you want.
Abraham Lincoln is one of our nation’s greatest presidents and he recognized the problem of “cognitive bias” and “group think”. As a great leader, President Lincoln dealt with this potential problem by purposely including close advisors and cabinet members in his inner circle that he knew would challenge him and present alternative viewpoints for his consideration and discussion.
Based on her study of numerous presidents, including Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes what makes a great president:
I can’t emphasize strongly enough the fact that you’ve got to surround yourself with people who can argue with you and question your assumptions. It particularly helps if you can bring in people whose temperaments differ from your own.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln.