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The Globe and Mail

How data journalists missed the truth about Trump

Stephen Metcalf is the host of Slate's culture podcast.

In the United States, we are now witnessing the spectacle of smart journalists trying to make sense of a stupid demagogue. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is a man who thinks the only thing missing in any situation, no matter how complex, is his own unrivalled ability to execute a primate dominance display. The journalists, meanwhile, are the pure products of a high-functioning meritocracy. The most prominent among them are "data journalists."

A data journalist is an adept of quantitative abstraction. He (and it is most often a "he") may not be an economist or social scientist, but he sure is comfortable with numbers – enough, at least, to make his liberal artsy competitors squirm. Graduate of an elite university, employed at a leading opinion outlet, he is an intelligent person who has achieved high social rewards. Coincidentally, he believes that success is a just reward for high intelligence. Maybe this is why he and his data brethren have done such an abysmal job in predicting Mr. Trump's rise.

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America votes: Coverage of the 2016 U.S. election night

The data journalists misestimated, to the downside, his initial appeal; failed throughout the primaries to take the measure of his staying power; then assured us he couldn't win. (He is now leading in many polls.) If we've learned one thing from a 30-year cycle of financial booms and busts, it's that numbers predict everything – until they predict nothing. When a paradigm shifts, even the most beautifully crunched number turns to dust. No historical pattern serves as a precedent for a bewitching and impulse-liberating simpleton preying upon a country's weakened psyche. None, at least, that shows up in the numbers. Could it be that the faddish love for "moneyballing" every facet of public life is, for all its pat brilliance, a form of blindness?

For a hundred years now, "merit" has been a euphemism for testable intelligence. The original hope behind the IQ test was enlightened and progressive; the concept of mental aptitude was invented to rescue bright but poor children from their dismal social circumstances. But a problem has bedevilled intelligence tests from their beginning: They favour people who grow up dealing with abstract symbols. They favour people who are cosmopolitan, have mastered a second language, studied Latin or Greek, or even learned musical notation. And they penalize those whose day-to-day lives are rooted in the tactile, the concrete, the face-to-face.

The good people I know who love Mr. Trump (and liberals will get nowhere until they accept the idea of decent people infatuated with an indecent man) live in a concrete, face-to-face world. That world, of tradesmen, farmers, factory workers, has been made obsolete by the forces of meritocratic abstraction. They experience themselves as losers in a mental-testing tournament, which rewards the pattern-recognizers at hedge funds and banks with nonsense wealth. Data journalists, also winners in the tournament, have an instinctive grasp for the malfeasance of bankers, the lies of bought-and-paid-for economists. But there was no way, they say, to understand who or what Mr. Trump represented.

Unless there was. Any society is a "complex unity which may be judged as a whole, rather as if it were a work of art," literary critic Lionel Trilling once said, to which I would add, as if it were a human being. In addition to its political and economic structure, a country is a society is a culture. And a culture is no more located in quantifiable things than is a sense of humour, is no more locatable precisely in space than a person's gait. If a literary writer has one gift, it is capturing the truth of a person as it reveals itself in action.

In August, 2015, David Denby, film critic for the New Yorker, wrote a brief essay about Mr. Trump, then still a long shot to win the nomination. He noted that when "Trump listens to a hostile question, his lips are closed, his head squares up to a solid block of orange clay, his corn-silk hair surges resolutely forward and backward at the same time." In his cartoon bearing, Mr. Trump reminded Mr. Denby of someone: "Mussolini and Trump … appeal to an appreciation, even love, of overwhelming ego strength and extreme machismo, however crass in expression."

I'll never forget reading that. For Mr. Denby is as liberal artsy as they come, and he didn't need a probability function to see Donald Trump for who and what he was.

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