Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Why the Media Underestimated Trump's Appeal

May 5, 2016

Why the Media Underestimated Trump's Appeal

tags: election 2016,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).

With the triumph of Trump the media are now going into Deep Navel Gazing Mode. This is what they do whenever the conventional wisdom is upended as it has been this week.

In the New York Times there have already been two mea culpas (here and here) and one j'accuse.

Each of these accounts has merit. But what none seem to acknowledge is that the fundamental reason they got the outcome of the election wrong is that the model they carry around in their pockets is based on homo economicus -- rational man -- and he don't exist.

Trump's comments seemed insane to them as they would to any rational person. But the average voter is not rational. Voters go on instinct. And instinct is not rational, a point I have made over and over again. 

You may be thinking that you didn't fall for Trump so therefore I'm wrong.  But we are all irrational, if we're honest with ourselves.  We are just irrational in different ways and to different degrees.  Trump's appeals aren't going to resonate with people whose fundamental outlook is liberal.  So he's not going to take in someone likely to be reading this blog.  But liberals like me have our own blindspots. 

Think back to the election of 2004 and the reaction of liberals to John Edwards.  If you remember at that point he seemed very appealing, especially after he emphasized his working-class roots and his concern for the poor.  How refreshing!  What we didn't admit was that we also seemed to be enchanted with his looks.  Like the irrational voters who fell for John Kennedy because he was charismatic, liberals (me too) fell for Edwards.  It's hard to resist a politician who is both articulate and handsome who spouts views with which you agree.

Ah, you may be thinking, but what about 2016?  This year liberals fell hard for an old man who's often kind of cranky.  But the same irrationality was at work.  This just happened to be a year when the anti-politician was cool.  And nobody has seemed more anti-politician than Sanders.  His age didn't work against him, it worked for him. It insulated him from the charge that he was just another ambitious career politician. His supporters haven't cared that his policy numbers don't pencil out, as the economists say.  What mattered was that his heart was in the right place.

In short, we are all irrational, even when we try hard not to be. I thought the pundits finally were getting it. Alas, they still by and large seem clueless.

If you are a regular reader of my Facebook posts or this blog none of what I'm saying here is going to strike you as new. If, on the other hand, you have not been reading my posts, what I am saying must sound downright subversive. 

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