Today’s press conference in the rose garden of #10 Downing Street gave interesting insights into how Dominic Cummings operates. Ian Dunt wrote in his analysis at politics.co.uk that Cummings appeared as a “slight and helpless figure”, but his meek performance may very well have been part of an act. If so, then it was quite successful because given the disastrous initial position, Cummings probably did about as well as he could have expected.
Cummings’ strategy was obviously to frame himself as the concerned father who, stuck between a rock and a hard place, made a difficult, but defensible decision. Facing the possibility of being stuck at home with both his wife and himself becoming seriously ill and having to rely on help from either his elderly in-laws or strangers, he decided to drive instead to his family’s estate where his teenage nieces – less vulnerable to the dangers of Covid-19 due to their age – were ready to take over childcare duties if push came to shove. Doing both what was best for his child and for the country at large by not endangering anyone of high risk, who would be so petty and call for an apology and his resignation even? Only the dishonest and campaigning media would, obviously.
That clearly was the narrative Cummings had committed to – and for the most part quite successfully in my opinion. And at the beginning, the journalists at the Q&A played into this narrative by asking the usual, rather unsubtle, bordering on embarrassing, “gotcha”-questions. And quite unsuccessfully, too, naturally. If you did not pay full attention, you could go out of the press conference thinking Cummings did not really do anything wrong and was vilified by a vengeful press. And given the facts, that was probably the best Cummings could have hoped for.
If that really had been the whole story, he might have escaped more or less unscathed. But of course, this was not the whole story and fortunately, some of the journalists at the later part of the Q&A reminded the audience of it. Being faced with the dilemma of having been identified by licence plate in Barnard Castle, Cummings had to come up with an innocent explanation and chose the following: Unsure whether he would be able to drive back to London following his Covid-19 episode, he decided to go on a test drive to Barnard Castle. Together with his wife and his kid, mind you. When a journalist later asked why he did not just did a quick round trip, he replied that he had not thought of that. You have to wonder whether he meant he had not thought of that question being asked because it made him look rather stupid. Unfortunately, the journalist did not follow-up with why he felt the best way to access his ability to steer a vehicle was to drive 30 miles away to a popular tourist location and why he took this wife and child along for the potentially dangerous ride. But the damage was done. That is what happens if you come up with excuses on short notice.
Another plot hole in his story was unfortunately ignored completely. Cummings explained that when he was spotted in a forest away from his family’s residence, it was only because his kid needed a wee on the way back from Barnard Castle. Ok, every parent knows that this happens. However, the same kid managed the whole trip from London to Durham, estimated at roughly 4.5 hours by Google Maps, without a single stop. Unless they drugged him, I take the under on that story being true.
Anyway, it was clear that Cummings had decided to admit only what could not be denied, and he did his best to frame everything as perfectly reasonable. Regret? Apology? Resignation? No. And why would you even ask that? Yes, sure, maybe someone could disagree with his decisions. This is a free country, after all. That person would be wrong though, since he had thought everything through and had come to the right conclusion as every other reasonable person in his position would have. End of story. Why do you have to continue to pester him?
This brings me to another point. I think Cummings really does not believe he did anything wrong. He really does feel the media is targeting him unfairly and malevolently. In my opinion, people like him, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump cannot lie in the sense that they know they are saying something that is not true, even if they just pulled their story out of their behinds. If you hooked them up to a polygraph and asked them if they were lying, they would answer “no” and the needle would not move a hair’s breadth. That is why their media blaming is not an act, but comes out of genuine conviction.
Assuming my hunch is right, why is that? I am not aware of any research on the topic (and admittedly, I have not looked for it), so I can only speculate, but indulge me anyway for I think the explanation is alluring, even if possibly wrong. A thought occurred to me when I dealt with my son today. He nicked some sweets from the kitchen and when I confronted him, he denied it despite clear evidence (wrappers!). When I pointed out that he was evidently lying, he got angry with me and complained to himself about how unfairly he was being treated. I vaguely remember I was just like that myself when I was his age and I assume that is true for most people. As we got older, however, at some point most of us realized that we were better off coming clean, owning up and moving on, so we stopped lying (mostly). I think people like Cumming, Johnson and Trump have retained that childish ability to mentally reframe everything to make themselves innocent victims in their own minds.
In addition to explaining why these people never apologise or admit mistakes, and engage in scapegoating and wallow in self-pity if things do not go their way, this explanation also allows the rest of us to feel smugly superior, which makes it easier to cope when they get away with their ridiculous lies again and again. So I will just go with it for now until I hear evidence to the contrary. Fingers crossed this is not one of these times though.
By the way, if any psychologist could offer any real insight into this, I would be very interested to hear it.