The Emotional Appeal of Donald TrumpPosted: November 12, 2016
Since Trump’s victory on Tuesday, I’ve broken up with America, tried to understand why white women voted for him, and showed my displeasure at the media’s role in this clusterfuck. Today I’m trying to get my head around why masses of people voted for Trump against their best interests by trying to understand why such an on-paper inappropriate choice was chosen.
There is definitely an element of class warfare going on – a rejection of the elite city-dwelling establishment, a reaction to wealth inequality. (Trump is not the answer to wealth inequality by the way. But this problem might take many years for Trump’s voters to recognise, if they are ever willing to admit it. I’ll no doubt be writing about this many times in months and years to come as Trump enables his Republican colleagues to roll out neoliberal reforms that further smash the working class, the working poor, what remains of the middle class and the economy with it. I feel sorry for Americans that they’ve made such a bad choice, but I feel sorrier for the Clinton voters who didn’t).
Race and racism also made a large contribution, where white people voted to take back control of their country, or as Lakoff puts it, reassert their dominance in the moral hierarchy. And whether people will ever admit it or not, there is no doubt that gender played a part; that many Trump voters, both male and female, just can’t accept that a woman can be President.
So with all these factors playing a part, and for some voters, all three influencing their vote, you start to get a picture of how Trump benefited from this pincer-movement against Clinton and the Democrats.
Then, of course, there were Trump’s slogans. As we all no doubt noticed, there was little, if any, policy detail in Trump’s campaign. That’s not to say he didn’t say anything. He actually talked and talked and talked and tweeted and tweeted and ranted and raved (I’ll build a wall, it will be uuuugge, I’ll fix everything, great, it will be great, grunt, grunt, waffle, incomprehensible, Muslims get out). There were huge inconsistencies and contradiction in his statements, so there was a bit of something for everyone; he promised both to bomb ISIS, and to end America’s role as an international police force. He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?). Within Trump’s jumbled rhetoric, zig zag, a little from here, a little from there, neoliberalism mixed with protectionism, mixed with anti-globalisation, mixed with anti-elitist, mixed with a likely Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at the heart of Wall-Street’s Goldman Sachs and represents everything Trump claimed to be promising to clean up, there was a clear narrative thread in Trump’s campaign. The narrative sounded something like this:
‘Everything is shit, everything is broken, you have every reason to hate Washington because everything Washington has done has made everything shit and broken. Vote for me and I’ll wave a magic wand and everything will be immediately fixed. I might not be perfect, but my imperfection is just like your imperfection. I am real, and only someone real can fix all your problems. Vote for me, and, whether you like me or not, your lives will be perfect again’.
It sounds ridiculous when you look at it like this, that people believed he really could fix everything. But I wonder if it’s the lack of detail, the obvious flaws, the selling of all this as politically-incorrect and therefore authentic that made it work. Therefore, did Clinton’s opposite image – the polished, policy-detailed, emphasis on experience, emphasis on Obama’s legacy and all the good the government had done – turn Clinton’s words into white-noise, words that didn’t even get a look in when the big, ugly, colourful (orange particularly), rude, obnoxious celebrity was yelling ‘lock her up!’.
And this brings me to emotion. One of my favourite political scientists, Drew Westen, who writes a lot about how the Democrats can improve the way they communicate to voters, has this to say about the importance of emotion and authenticity in political campaigns:
‘Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions. Richard Wirthlin, an economics professor who engineered Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns of 1980 and 1984, realized that all the dispassionate economic assumptions he’d always believed about how people make decisions didn’t apply when people cast their ballots for Reagan. As he discovered, people were drawn to Reagan because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions’.
They identified with Trump? Yes, he was nothing like them, living in a New York gold-plated ivory tower, apparently representing everything they aren’t (rich). But they identified with his flaws, and identified with his message. Their lives felt shit. He said he could fix them. Simple. They liked his emphasis on values over policy? Apparently. No policy detail required, asked for, demanded, or even considered. They trusted him? After all the obvious lies, the obvious flip-flopping, the obvious inconsistencies, they still trusted him. Yes. It’s not rational. He told them Clinton couldn’t be trusted because she had caused all their problems. She’s fired! Lock her up! He promised everyone would pay less tax, which is a red-rag-to-the-bull for people who hate government, and don’t have much money. He promised to be the hero and save them. They had to trust him. He was their only hope. They found him authentic in his beliefs? See above. They emotionally needed to find him authentic, because the problems he talked about seemed authentic to their lives. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions? Yep. It didn’t matter if they didn’t even really understand his policy positions, or how contradictory they were. An emotional reaction. Not a rational one.
It’s time to stop treating voters like rational decision makers when all of us, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Labor, Liberal, Greens, Hansons and people who don’t vote at all, all of us make emotional decisions when voting. We don’t quantify benefits and check off the list of policies against our lives to decide which candidate offers us the greatest utility of outcomes. We are emotional beings. We get a vibe. We feel it. We like it. We stick to it like glue and ignore anything that contradicts it. We make it part of our identity. We chant in unison. We will not be convinced otherwise.
Obama’s emotional message of hope triumphed twice in the last eight years, and now Trump’s message of hate, of resentment, of fear, loathing, and disgruntlement has triumphed. If the Democrats are building themselves from the ground up, they have hopefully learned the importance of emotion.