Why Georgia Governor Brian Kemp Loves Playing Dumb | Opinion

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp dismayed many Americans this week by allowing nonessential businesses to reopen and then lifting the state's shelter-in-place order. Even President Donald Trump said it is "too soon." The state has over 26,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 1,100 deaths, and the governor's decision went against the recommendations of public health experts and the pleas of mayors, including Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta.

As restaurants began to offer dine-in service and nail salons started performing pedicures, dumbfounded Georgians thought back to a month ago, when Kemp made the astonishing statement that he had not known asymptomatic people could transmit the highly contagious COVID-19—though reports of this risk had long been circulating.

Kemp's remark left many people at home wondering: Was he really unaware? Or is something else going on? As a clinical psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I'm often faced with untangling this question: Are people honestly unknowing—or pretending not to know?

It is possible Kemp truly did not know that the coronavirus could be spread by asymptomatic people, who may make up an estimated 25 percent of carriers. Yet Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in mid-February that asymptomatic transmission was possible, and studies from as early as January showed evidence of it.

Or perhaps Kemp fully understood the risks of his decision to delay issuing a stay-at-home order until April 1 and then reopen movie theaters, tattoo parlors, gyms and other nonessential businesses less than four weeks later. He just realized his political survival depends on the success of these gambles.

After all, being a gun-toting, anti-government conservative has been essential to Kemp's brand. This is the man who said in a 2018 campaign ad: "I'm so conservative, I blow up government spending. I own guns, and no one's taking 'em away. My chainsaw's ready to rip up some regulation. I got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself. If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that's me."

My opinion? Kemp's preposterous claims to be the last governor in the country to know of the prevalence of contagious, asymptomatic COVID-19, despite repeated warnings from experts, followed by his ludicrous decision to throw caution to the wind and reopen Georgia this week, constitute pseudo-stupidity. The governor is playing dumb.

The elevation of pseudo-stupidity and disavowal of its consequences is a Trump characteristic that the president's followers laud as a strength, not a failing, in part because its aim is to upend and provoke. It celebrates ignorance and eschews strategic choices that transcend "winging it."

Finding solutions to complex problems is inherently demanding. A natural tendency is to shirk the work and blame others for poor results. Easier to plead ignorance, deride knowledge, scapegoat, blame, make excuses, deflect responsibility, tear things down and wallow in victimhood rather than accept that the buck really does stop here.

In this pandemic, we are witnessing the devastating result of failed work: over 1 million coronavirus cases and over 60,000 Americans dead. At its root is a regressive group psychology overriding better instincts and capacities. The refusal to think hard and strategize in the face of a major challenge and the celebration of pseudo-stupidity are dangerously intertwined.

What to do about it? There may be no cure for those invested in this way of thinking, since it involves deliberate but disavowed states of mind that are impenetrable. If a cure is elusive, next best option is a set of remedies. Effective communications to counter the appeal of pseudo-stupidity matter. Questioning an "official view" and demonstrating its consequences are crucial.

One could say: "Help me understand how you could have not known about asymptomatic community spread, with CDC experts within a stone's throw of your office. Same for how you decided to reopen businesses, despite the warnings of experts and the mayor of your largest city? Undoubtedly, you are concerned about your citizens and your health care workers. So what gives?"

Though such messaging is unlikely to get through to Kemp, it can reach the broader public.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks to the media during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on April 27 in Atlanta. Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Unfortunately, demonstrating the consequences in this pandemic is all too easy—from the tens of thousands dead to the 30 million who filed for unemployment over the past six weeks. These consequences are harder to disavow, though attempts to rationalize and blame them away already abound.

The longer-term remedy is to address the underlying conditions that make pseudo-stupidity appealing. Insecurity, fear and the wish for easy solutions are inevitable when large swaths of the population have had the rug pulled out from under them and when effective adaptation strategies remain elusive. Dignified, meaningful work for those displaced, along with health safety regulations to protect those who must return immediately to the workplace are in humanity's enlightened self-interest and grasp.

Indeed, in the Möbius strip that is life—with a logic that loops back on itself—the disaffected can feel the elite has been pseudo-stupid to neglect their plight, thus pulling for pseudo-stupid provocateur tactics to become their weapon of choice.

It is imperative that we address the large, complex societal challenges to weaken the pull of playing dumb. Otherwise, we may continue to see a doubling-down. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, "Pseudo-stupid is as pseudo-stupid does."

Wendy Jacobson, M.D., is an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, as well as a training and supervising analyst at Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.