Imagine the following magic trick: You are seated at a table. Your only prop is a lighter. You pick it up, and with a flourish of your left hand display it to the audience. With your eyes trained on the lighter, you light it, and a large flame shoots upward. You flick the lighter off, close it in a fist, and then seem to pass it across your body to your right hand with another flourish. When you open your right fist, you quickly snap the fingers of your hand, and presto, the lighter has magically disappeared.
But not really: When you turned the lighter off, and before you passed it across your chest to close it in your fist, you simply, and in plain view, dropped it into your lap. It was easy to see for anyone who bothered to look, but almost all of your audience missed it. Why? That is the question studied by a new field of science that studies what magic can teach us about neuroscience and psychology, and it has some relevance for understanding Donald Trump, particularly the question of why he has survived and even thrived with the support of almost 40 percent of the country.
In other words, the science of magic may help us answer the daily question posed by the Trump presidency: “How does he get away with it?”
The particular trick outlined above comes from a talk by Gustav Kuhn, a cognitive psychologist at the University of London. He asks, “Why do people fail to see such obvious events?” According to Kuhn, magicians don’t use sleight of hand to deceive their audiences; rather, they use “misdirection . . . to manipulate your attention so as to prevent (you) from seeing really obvious events.” How magicians do this is interesting; it has to do with how the eye is only able to focus on a narrow point in a field of vision, so as the eye follows the magician’s movements, it misses what’s happening out of field.
But that’s not all: The brain itself, in order to make sense of all the stimuli bombarding it, has become masterful at shutting out the irrelevant (in this case, the hand that supposedly no longer holds the lighter) so that it can keep track of the hand that supposedly does. Pickpocket artist Apollo Robbins, who also publishes in neuroscience journals, refers to this as “inattentional blindness,” which occurs when the brain is focusing so intently on some irrelevant thing, like a question or a movement, that it fails to see the wallet leaving the inside pocket or the watch clipped off the wrist.
Now let’s consider Trump in this context. Think of his constant tweets, rallies and press avails as misdirections. Take two recent examples: Bob Woodward’s new book and the New York Times op-ed from an unnamed “senior official” in the Trump White House. In the former instance, Trump calls Woodward, the dean of investigative journalists, a Democratic hack; in the latter, he says he is going to have his Justice Department find and prosecute the writer(s) of the op-ed.
These kinds of comments are like a magician’s manipulations, designed to concentrate the eye and attention away from the things Trump doesn’t want you to see. What Trump wants to obscure with this trick, of course, is that many on his senior staff think he is incompetent and ill-suited to hold the office. This, of course, is the exhausting pattern of Trump’s behavior as president. As he systematically rolls back environmental protections, undermines the rule of law, diminishes our ability to have allies in the world or makes the situation in North Korea even more dangerous, we fail to see or fully appreciate their significance because he has distracted us.
There are signs, however, that more members of the audience are on to Trump’s magic. A number of recent polls have his approval ratings dropping beneath what seemed to be a solid floor of support. More people are starting to see how Trump distracts and deceives. In the example of the magician and the disappearing lighter, Kuhn performed the trick twice in front of a TEDx audience. The first time most people in the audience followed his hands and missed the drop. The second time, however, they watched more intently, and this time they clearly saw the deception.
That kind of attentiveness could ruin Trump’s act.