This article was first published on The Huffington Post UK on August 23, 2017
On August 22nd President Trump addressed a crowd of adoring supporters in Phoenix, Arizona during which he reverted to norm: criticising the press, defending himself against his late and equivocal remarks after Charlottesville, and remarkably stated“I don’t do Twitter storms.” The same day, The Washington Post broke a story detailing that Trump’s “list of false and misleading claims“ has now topped 1000. Despite some evidence of cracking, the man still appears to have the unwavering adoration of his base. How can this be?
While some have argued that this is down to Trump’s genius capacity to read “the people”, market himself to their desires, and use slight-of-twitter to create a media storm while darkly accomplishing his goals, he’s simply not savvy enough a politician for that. In actual fact, his approval ratings continue to tumble, his legislative accomplishments are abysmal, and has failed to “drain the swamp.” So how does he continue to maintain the backing of so many?
This is down to psychology, not politics.
I have previously argued that we should not be shy about using psychology to understand the president, and this must also include understanding the psychological motivations of his supporters.
Much was made of Trump’s surprising sweep into power on the backs of white working class Americans, who largely continue to support him. This is a segment of the population that has continued to suffer wage stagnation despite eight years under a relatively popular president. While many Democrats and socially liberal city dwellers felt positive about the Obama years, their counterparts in the rural areas felt quite differently, which is dramatically apparent on any electoral map.
Trump’s success is not a matter of political acumen, rather it’s a matter of the disordered chaos coming out of his mouth that happens to meet the psychological needs of his base. When groups are discontented, they tend to need safety and cohesion as a priority, and the easiest way to achieve that is through what psychologists call “splitting” – that is mainaining a simplified internal world with no nuance – all is black and white or good and bad.
This is why Trumpian concepts like the wall, coming out of NAFTA, and the “Muslim Ban” play so well to his base. They appeal to splitting by locating badness in Mexico, world trade, or Muslims. It is also why those who benefited from Obamacare fail to see it that way.
The whole point of “repeal and replace” appeals to the easy “all things Obama are bad” against the much more rational, but also more complex perspective of accepting what works about Obamacare while addressing what’s wrong with it. Basic bipartisanship.
When off the teleprompter, Trump frequently reverts to splitting. When asked tough questions, he behaves like a cornered man justifying the actions of white supremacists. When held to account, he dismisses inquiring journalists as “fake” and “bad people”; when his corporate advisors leave in droves, he diminishes them as grandstanders.
The psychological mechanism at play here is “attribution theory” on Trump’s part and “confirmation bias” on the part of his followers (his opponents, mind you, are equally prone!). Attribution is similar to “ad hominem” argumentation in rhetoric. Instead of arguing on the basis of facts, flaws are attributed to the character of the other instead. This is Trump’s regular fall-back when he attacks the press, foreigners, employees, former employees, Democrats, and even members of his own party. Trump’s disordered speech enables his followers to confirm all their existing beliefs about the man and his position because, in essence, he says everything.
For example, by redacting his qualifier “on many sides” when quoting himself in Arizona, he paints himself as a victim to fake news, while at the same time preserving his support for “alt right” implicitly. In other words, everybody gets to hear what they want to hear.
The bad news is that these psychological mechanisms are very powerful. The capacity to see what we want to see in others while ignoring contrary evidence is potent indeed. In fact, this kind of potency increases the more insecure, frightened, or discontented a group may be. Smart authoritarian leaders use this to their advantage: Trump does it by accident.
The good news is that these tactics aren’t sustainable: the truth ultimately wins out. Trump’s failure to meet his campaign promises are currently blamed on “very bad people” out to obstruct him, but this excuse cannot go on forever. Though it may continue to play well to his base, he’s becoming increasingly isolated. While it’s likely he’ll continue to retain the unwavering support of some, in practice his skid towards political impotence is having an effect.
What remains worrying, however, is how large his unwavering support continues to be, and it’s not just fringe. This is the result of the mass of the discontented looking for easy solutions to complex problems. Trump’s disordered and accidental rise to power is dangerous, but still not as dangerous as someone who actually knows how to wield it.
As we learned from the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election, blaming “the other” alongside easy answers to complex problems is a easier to sell than the hard slog of actually legislating change.