Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Trump’s Genius

Jan 22, 2016

Trump’s Genius

tags: election 2016,Hillary,Trump

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

If there’s one thing everybody – left, right, center, earthling or Martian – can agree on it’s that Donald Trump projects a larger than life image.  Wherever he goes he draws huge (HUGE!) crowds.  His poll numbers are eye-popping.  His ability to fend off the shooting arrows of fact checkers is little short of stunning.  Ladies and gentlemen:  We stand in the presence of political genius. 

But it’s here where I part company with the conventional wisdom.  His genius doesn’t lie in his ability to make himself look good in the eyes of his supporters.  Rather, it’s his genius to make his supporters feel good about themselves in his presence. 

But before I explain myself let’s first understand why we think the Trump campaign is all about Trump.  This almost seems like a foolish question.  Of course, it’s about Trump.  He’s the candidate!  When a person throws his hat in the ring he puts himself in the spotlight and we focus on him (or her, as the case may be).  We study the way they talk (in the case of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, we take note of their thick New York accents), how they style their hair (in Trump’s case, hair draws an outsized amount of attention), and their rhetorical ticks (Trump is rightly famous for his; his scorn for losers, fondness for the word “huge,” and his appropriation of the word “humane” for policies that are anything but, are sui generis). 

While the candidates put out position papers on various important topics from taxes to immigration, the media tend to focus on the candidates themselves.  This makes sense given the way the human brain is configured.  What we humans find most fascinating are other humans.  What we love to talk about more than anything else is how other human beings look, what they’re doing, and what we think of them.  This is called gossip and it’s our number one topic of conversation. 

So it’s natural for us to think that elections are about the candidates.  But in the end they are always about us.  What counts is not what the candidates look like or how they talk but how they make us feel about ourselves.  It’s not, then, as is usually argued, just politicians who are narcissistic.  So are we, the voters. How the candidates make us feel is paramount. 

Take Bernie Sanders.  How do his supporters feel in his presence?  They feel idealistic.  People who have been offended by the excesses of Wall Street hear his denunciations of bankers and demands for justice with profound sympathy.  This is why he’s connected so strongly with so many.  He’s constantly validating their feelings. 

This is what all successful politicians do.  It’s what Richard Nixon did when he ran for office and slyly suggested that the Silent Majority were right to resent hippies with long hair and war protesting draft-dodging students.  Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign validated the voters’ contempt for Washington corruption.  Four years later Ronald Reagan validated the voters’ feeling that the country under Carter was on the wrong track.  

Many were surprised by Barack Obama’s ability to draw support from whites in his first race for the presidency.  But he benefited greatly by his ability to offer them redemption from the choking accusation of racism, which had been hung around their necks for years.  As the conservative scholar Shelby Steele astutely observed, by voting for Obama whites finally could clear themselves of the charge that they were guilty of keeping the black man down and owed him something. 

Take almost any of the common explanations for voter behavior. What each one is really about is the voter’s feelings.  We hear, for example, that the voters this year crave authenticity.   What this is about is the build-up of frustration voters have long felt with slick Madison Avenue Ken and Barbie candidates.   

To be sure voters have multiple reasons for selecting one candidate over another. Some voters opt for a straight partisan ticket.  Others vote on the state of the economy.  Still others cast their ballot for the party they think will best meet their needs as measured purely by self-interest.  And some, of course, pick the leader they’d like to have a beer with. But all of these explanations turn on the voter’s feelings.  A partisan voter who goes for a particular party feels the reward of loyalty and bonding.  When the economy seems to be the driving factor in a voter’s decision it is the voter’s own feeling of prosperity that forms the basis of their choice.  The question is never really how the economy’s doing, it’s how the voter is doing.   

Pundits may fall into the trap of talking about elections as if it’s the candidates who matter, but the way our brain works only our own feelings count. Social science studies show that our choices are generally the result of automatic processes over which our conscious brain has little control and little awareness, if any.  (You can tell if your reaction is automatic simply by determining how quickly you reach a conclusion.  If your response is whip fast it’s an automatic reaction.) Because we’re complicated we may have multiple automatic reactions.  These have to be sorted out by the conscious brain.  But all involve the emotions.  Our brain ultimately makes the decision which is the most emotionally satisfying.  Once we make a decision our brain rewards us for our decisiveness by convincing us that we have made the right decision. 

Which brings me back to Donald Trump. How he makes his voters feel is not in question.  Like nobody else in this year’s election he has validated the feelings of voters who for years have felt neglected, put upon, and vulnerable.  The mainstream media may think of them as dumb – let’s be real, this is how they’re regarded by elites – in his presence they feel smart.  Here, after all, is a billionaire businessman running for president who continually validates their suspicion of immigrants and fear of terrorists.  Elites have made them feel badly for feeling what they’ve been feeling.  Trump makes them feel good. 

This is Trump’s genius.  He’s making people scorned as dumb feel smart.  This is the big irony of the 2016 election. Who'd have thought that Trump, who plasters his name on everything he builds, would be the one candidate most sensitive to how others feel? 

Say what you will about Trump he's figured out that politics isn’t about the candidate, it’s about the voters.  This is something long-time politicians like Hillary Clinton should have learned long ago, but often have trouble remembering after spending years as the center of attention.  The result?  Even at this stage in the campaign cycle, on the eve of voting, it's not clear what her voters are supposed to be feeling when they pull the lever for her.  Is it fear?  hope?  what exactly?  The answer to that question is unknown and that it is suggests she still hasn't made a convincing case for her election. She should learn from Trump, who, no matter what happens in Iowa, has proven he knows how to appeal to voters, whether he can get them out to vote for him or not. 

I am not recommending that Hillary or other candidates mimic his demagoguery.  Trump's appeals to fear are not good for democracy.  But there are many ways to reach people on an emotional level without providing cues that trigger fear responses. Sanders has figured this out.  Hillary needs to.


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