Two weeks ago, I was treated to shocking news: One of my own relatives, to protect his identity we’ll call him Z, voted for Donald Trump! What’s so shocking about it, you might ask? It happens to the best of us. I thought I knew this young man, having 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. He believes in science, and, as an executive in his company, he makes judgments based on hard facts. In short, he’s a normal guy just like you and me.
So how on earth, I wonder, could he vote for a president whose relationship with facts and the truth is so tenuous, to put it mildly? Even more puzzling is how he could still support him, in the face of Trump’s denunciation of climate change as a Chinese hoax? He lives in a state that was recently hit hard by a terribly angry Mother Nature, for heaven’s sake!
Who is the archetypical Trump supporter?
During the election campaign, I watched the crowd in Trump’s rallies with a mixture of fascination and horror. Why the horror? Because, a few months before, I had visited a museum 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 witnessed watching the Trump 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 were all eerily reminiscent of the German mobs lusting after the blood of Jews, journalists, academics, “degenerate” artists, and intellectuals in general.
What caused our American brethren to fall into this odious state of frenzy? Honestly, I was stumped. You couldn’t paint them with a broad brush as racists. After all, many of them had voted for Barrack Obama. They were not all religious fanatics; I doubt that most of them even go to church. You couldn’t dismiss them with the euphemism of “low information” because many of them are college graduates, business owners, lawyers, engineers, even a few brave college professors.
So what could be the common denominator of all these people? What drew them to these events? Of all the myriad theories, spun by psychologists, pundits, and “strategic advisers”(whoever asked those strategists to “strategize”?), none sounded convincing to me.
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. The authors are both non-Americans: Reicher is a professor of psychology at 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 would be almost impossible for an American to maintain a purely clinical disinterest. I know I couldn’t.
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 crowd 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 at 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 she protests too much, she may have no right to live, as events in Charlottesville have 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 put it to Katy Tur, an MSNBC journalist who covered his 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 recent analysis still misses the mark: That’s what really happened.
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 have 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, 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, to the point of selling all their belongings, or even willingly going to die, as in the Jonestown massacre? 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 met this phenomenon before. Since antiquity, there have been all sorts of cults, the members of which were not “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.
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 is 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) who is a born-again Christian and 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 the percentage of rock-solid Trump supporters for the first nine months of his presidency. Coincidence? Is this the size of the cult? If so, pretty disheartening.
But, we still didn’t answer the original question, and I don’t think we ever will: What compels otherwise rational, educated, loving, even compassionate people to believe in an obviously psychologically impaired con man?
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 like him—showing them that science had predicted everything and more of what is unfolding every day right in front of our eyes—would lead them to miraculously 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!
How to explain this astonishing observation? The authors suggest it stems from conflict of interest: Between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of best available science to promote common welfare. Put another way: They, like most people, do understand the primacy of scientific facts in ordering our personal and public life, but a more primal imperative usually wins out—that of tribalism. If being an avowed Trumpian means denying climate change, then so be it. They will fall in line. 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.
This is written a week after the blog was published. In the meantime, I heard from family members who are very close to Z, and really know him. And the picture is not as pretty as I had painted it. The guy is a control freak and a bully to his family and employees. Well, pretty disappointing. 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.