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A few years ago, I was treated to shocking news. One of my own relatives voted for Donald Trump! To protect his identity, I will call him “Z.” What’s so shocking about it, you might ask? It’s because I know that he believes in science. I wondered how on earth can you vote for Trump if you believe in science.

I thought I knew this young man. I have been in his life since his infancy. He has a great disposition and a good sense of humor. He is always optimistic, low-key, and level-headed.

He is also a great husband and father. He believes in education and made sacrifices so his children could attend college. Further, he is an executive in his company where he has to make judgments based on hard facts. In short, he’s a normal guy just like you and me.

And, as I’ve already said, he believes in science. So how could he vote for a president whose relationship with facts and the truth is so tenuous, to put it mildly?

Even more puzzling is that he still supported him even after Trump denounced climate change as a Chinese hoax? At the time, he lived in a state that was hit hard by a terribly angry Mother Nature, for heaven’s sake!

Who is the archetypical Trump supporter?

I have watched the crowds in Trump’s rallies with a mixture of fascination and horror. Why the horror? Because sometime after the 2016 election, I visited a museum in Nuremberg, Germany with the apt, though deceptively antiseptic, name: “The Documentation Center”. The displays in the museum documented, in minute detail, the rise and fall of the Nazi Party.

Although I am not comparing our president to Hitler, the film clips of the huge crowds in the Nazi rallies enthusiastically cheering every utterance of the Führer bore a chilling resemblance to what we witness when we watch the Trump campaign rallies on television.

The hateful chants of “lock her up”, the dog-whistle references to Latinos and Blacks, and the thuggish response to their leader’s incitement against the press are all eerily reminiscent of the German mobs lusting after the blood of Jews, journalists, academics, “degenerate” artists, and intellectuals in general.

Why is this happening? What do we know about Trump supporters?

What causes our American brethren to fall into this odious state of frenzy? Honestly, I am stumped. You can’t paint them with a broad brush as racists. After all, many of them voted for Barrack Obama.

And, they are not all religious fanatics. In fact, I doubt that most of them even go to church. Further, you can’t dismiss them with the euphemism of “low information” because many of them are college graduates, business owners, lawyers, and engineers. Some are even college professors.

So is the common denominator of all these people? What draws them to these events? Of all the myriad theories, spun by psychologists, pundits, and “strategic advisers”(whoever asked those strategists to “strategize”?), none sound convincing to me.

A scientific analysis of how Trump won

An article in Scientific American Mind titled “How Trump Won” by Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam made a light bulb go off in my head. Notably, the authors are both non-Americans.

Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. And, Aslam is a professor of social and organizational psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.

This is interesting because it allows them to examine the evidence more dispassionately than people from America. Given the intensity of emotions surrounding this presidency, I believe it is almost impossible for an American to maintain a purely clinical disinterest. I know I can’t.

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Here are the conclusions in a nutshell

  • “Donald Trump’s rallies enacted how Trump and his followers would like the country to be. They were, in essence, identity festivals.”

    Of course! How could I miss it? That’s exactly what I felt watching the German crowds shouting their Aryan superiority and their hatred of anybody who is not.

  • “Trump succeeded by providing a categorical grid—a clear definition of groups and intergroup relations—that allowed many Americans to make sense of their lived experiences.”

    If the Trump rhetoric strikes you as retrogressive, even reactionary, here is the reason. This is tribalism in its purest and most malignant form. Anybody who doesn’t belong to the white Anglo-Saxon tribe has no business living here. In fact, if the lady doth protest too much, she may have no right to live, as events in Charlottesville grimly demonstrated.

  • “Within this framework, he established himself as a prototypical American and a voice for people who otherwise felt voiceless”.

    Or as a Trump supporter once put it to Katy Tur, the MSNBC journalist who covered his 2016 campaign, “he saw us.” The rest of us were simply oblivious to their existence. I can imagine their feelings of insult and rage. Never mind that this new Messiah of the unheard and unseen descended from his golden Trump tower to enthrall West Virginians with promises that he would send the black-lung-afflicted back to the coal mines. His admirers were not looking for a message of hope—they wanted revenge.

  • “His rivals did not deploy the skills of identity leadership to present an inclusive narrative of ‘us’. In that context, Trump had a relatively free run.”

    Sorry, Hillary, your comprehensive analysis misses the mark: That’s what really happened.

It sounds right, but is it?

It’s an astute analysis and even sounds right. Except that Z, the subject of our case study, doesn’t fit in.

None of the theories that I read or heard explain this particular individual’s steadfast support for this bizarre president.

He is not filled with hatred against anybody who doesn’t look like him. He does not fit economically on the “categorical grid” of most Trump supporters. And, I don’t think he is the type to go to any rally, let alone a frenzied Trump rally.

To tell the truth, Z and people like him stump me. I don’t think there is an easy explanation. So, when we don’t have an answer to a difficult question what we do – and what I’ll do here – is to provide a non-answer that sounds credible.

The cult of personality

What makes people join cults is a problem that has occupied many a psychologist and sociologist. Many answers have been proposed, none all-encompassing or persuasive, but yet here we are: People join cults.

How can they keep believing in false prophets who predict that on a date certain the world will come to an end? And to believe so fervently that they sell all of their belongings. Or, as in the case of the Jonestown massacre, even willingly die for their dear leader?

Remember Trump’s infamous quote that he could kill somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and his fans will stick with him? He was (and is) probably right.

Is this a new phenomenon?

King David (Ecclesiastes 1:9) said it best:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall      be. and that which is done is that which shall be done. and there is no new thing under the sun.

Yes, King David, there is nothing new here. We’ve seen this phenomenon before.

Since antiquity, there have been all sorts of cults, the members of which were not always “low information.” On the contrary, many were highly intelligent, articulate, and even deep thinkers. But they followed a leader, a messiah, a guru, a holy man—all who eventually revealed in time not to be who or what they pretended to be.

More current examples

But we don’t have to dig into the distant past to find examples of brilliant people who believe deeply in things that seem antithetical to the scientific evidence. For example, Dr. Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project. He is also a devout Catholic. I wonder, does he square Catholic dogma of the creation with evolution and natural selection? Why doesn’t he suffer from a severe case of irreconcilable cognitive dissonance?

I also know a geologist who is an expert on the Cambrian explosion (an explosion of new animal species approximately 541 million years ago). He is also a born-again Christian. As such, he believes in the biblical story of the creation of the world that is said to have occurred less than 10,000 years ago.

He is not alone: 37% of Americans believe in Creationism. Coming to think of it, this is also approximately the same number as the percentage of rock-solid Trump supporters until very recently. Coincidence? Is this the size of the cult? If so, pretty disheartening.

But, we still didn’t answer the original question:

What compels otherwise rational, educated, loving, even compassionate people to believe in an obviously psychologically-impaired con man?

Personally, I don’t think we ever will:

What can be done about it?

With respect to the cultists among Trump’s ardent followers, who in my opinion are the majority, there is very little that can be done. Their “mind” is made up, and no amount of fact-based reasoning will change it.

For a while, I thought that talking to Z and people I know who think like him. I wanted to tell them that science has predicted everything that is unfolding every day right in front of our eyes. I hoped I could miraculously help them to see the light, so to speak. But boy, was I wrong!

Dan Kahan and his colleagues from Yale, Temple University, and George Washington University conducted a study to test whether the public knows too little of science to understand the evidence and avoid being misled.

In short, they found no support for this hypothesis. People with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones amongst whom cultural polarization was greatest!

Conflict of interest

How to explain this astonishing observation? The authors suggest it stems from a conflict of interest between the following two perspectives:

  1.  Individuals have a personal interest in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties 
  2. They also have a collective interest in making use of the best available science to promote the common welfare.

Put another way They, like most people, do understand the primacy of scientific facts in ordering our personal and public life. However, a more primal imperative usually wins out—that of tribalism.

If being an avowed Trumpian means denying climate change or proclaiming the pandemic a hoax, then so be it. How naive of me to think that if I could only show them the evidence, they would change their minds.

So what should I do about my wayward relative, Z? Probably nothing. I will never be able to comprehend the puzzle of his choice. So, I’ll just accept him and love him as he is, warts and all. And, hopefully, he will do the same for me. After all, none amongst us is perfect.

Related content: Election Day Reminder to Vote Like Your Life Depends On it

Epilogue

About a week after the original blog post was published, I heard from family members who are very close to Z. These are people who really know him.

Unfortunately, the picture is not as pretty as I painted it. They told me the guy is actually control freak and a bully to his family and employees.

Needless to say, I was disappointed to learn this. But at least the puzzle I posited at the top of the blog is no more: the guy fits the mold of the Trump tribe.


This was first published on 9/24/2017 less than a year after Trump took office. It is, unfortunately still relevant in 2020 just a few short months away from the 2020 election.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.

He was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco where he also taught biochemistry to medical students. During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.

He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.

He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, traveling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

5 COMMENTS

  1. A new scientific study shows has revealed the following:
    Current CO2 levels of 410 parts per million (ppm) were last seen on Earth three million years ago, according to the most detailed reconstruction of the Earth’s climate by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and published in Science Advances.
    Yes, you read that correctly, three million — million — years ago CO2 levels on Earth were the same as they are today, but there is one major difference between three million years ago and today…
    Three million years ago, we humans were not driving cars or eating the meat that requires cow farts; we weren’t barbecuing or refusing to recycle or building factories; there was no Industrial Age, no plastic, no air conditioning, no electricity, no lumber mills, no consumerism, no aerosols.

  2. I almost voted for Trump myself after Bernie Sanders lost the primary. It wasn’t because I liked Trump. I thought he was a moron and a scumbag, and I still do, but I liked the idea of someone that went against the grain over someone that’s part of the establishment like Clinton. Instead, I just didn’t bother to vote at all.

    The appeal to Trump for me was that, hopefully, he would piss people off that annoy me more than he pissed me off. Sort of a way to troll the idiotic SJWs and other forms of PC police with their polar opposite. I suspect a lot of people were like me, and simply wanting to rebel. Even though I hate the man, I still prefer him over someone that tries to tell me I have to call people with gender identity disorders by the gender they wish instead of the gender I perceive, or that I have privilege by being a white male, etc. The right tends to throw science out the window when it’s not convenient for their viewpoints, and the left does it in a more subtle manner when it comes to things like gender identity, but more with sophistry than outright denial. I’m not sure which is worse.

    • Basically, what you are saying is that you wanted change at all costs. That’s a problem: you have to critically think about what kind of change you want. Italians wanted change at any cost and got Berlusconi, a corrupt media mogul who is now facing jail (echoes of our own President?). The Filipinos wanted change and got a murderer, Duterte, in the bargain. And to reach even further back in history, the Germans of the Weimar republic were disgusted with the inept Social Democrats in power and wanted change at all costs: they got Hitler. This kind of uncritical, emotionally motivated voting is bound to end up in tears.

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