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Jul 23, 2018

Trump's treating his voters like chumps

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

This is excerpted from an interview I did with Salon's Chauncey DeVega.

How was Donald Trump able to become president?

There are ultimate causes and proximate causes. As for the first, once the Democratic Party became committed to civil rights that inevitably meant there was going to be a revolution in our politics. The Democratic Party for a century had been composed of people in the South and urban parts of the North and elsewhere. There was tension between those two elements but party elites kept things unified more or less.

But when Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights laws, Southerners bailed wholesale from the Democratic Party. The Republican Party saw all these Southern voters now up for grabs and they gravitated toward them. So now you've got the two political parties, one striking out in favor strongly of civil rights and the other party increasingly uncomfortable with its own past as a civil rights pioneer under Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party decided to use racial grievances and in some instances outright racism to win over the voters who abandoned the Democrats over civil rights. 

Considering that the United States has only been a full democracy (under the law) for approximately 50 years since the civil rights movement, is the white backlash that Trump represents in many ways just a return to the norm in America? 

I am more impressed with the similarities in Donald Trump's politics than I am with the differences when we look back over the long arc of American history. But of course I do see very real differences between Donald Trump and all previous presidents. 

He's like having elected Joe McCarthy as president. Trump is not only using racist tropes in his rhetoric but he's just a pure demagogue and we've just never had that kind of a combination in the presidency before. Trump is wrong for this country in so many different ways such as his egotism, his self-aggrandizement, his gross ignorance, his unwillingness to learn basic facts about the issues that he's talking about....

Donald Trump has little to no respect for or understanding of America’s democratic norms and traditions. He appears to lack basic human decency and seems to relish embarrassing the United States globally. His personal and moral failings also include his racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, cruelty and willful ignorance. Yet, Trump has an almost unbreakable hold over his followers. How do you explain this?

My explanation is informed by social psychology. That framework provides the best explanation, which is that politics is about group cohesion and group identification. Trump’s supporters have a shared sense of resentment which for many of them is not economic: It is social and cultural. Donald Trump is addressing that. Moreover, politics is all about making voters feel smart and Donald Trump did that for his public. Politicians on both the left and the right haven't been able to accomplish that goal for decades. Trump’s voters also feel smart because he's rich and powerful. 

He also validated the instinctive feelings of his voters and made them feel that their resentments are permissible and legitimate. 

Now consider what Barack Obama did in a much more positive way. Obama succeeded in winning a lot of white votes because he made people feel good about voting for a black man. He did not try to make white voters feel guilty or discuss topics which were negative in terms of race relations. 

Then Donald Trump comes along and he has figured out another way to make those white voters feel smart and that's by playing on racial resentments. 

When Trump makes these racist appeals he's deploying insights from social psychology. He's appealing to people such that they feel they are members of a group and feel strongly united as a result. 

So the more he gets attacked by others, the more united his followers feel. In a way this makes him more powerful. There is a way out of this cycle. We feel anxious if there is a widening gap between our view of the way the world works and the way the world is actually working. When that gap becomes so large that we can't deny it anymore, our brains are triggered to re-evaluate our commitments. We then change our commitments when the burden of hanging onto existing beliefs becomes greater than of changing them. 

Even with all the horrible things that have come out about Donald Trump, his voters are not getting anxious. Several things have to happen for this to change. Really important voices in the Republican Party have to come out against Trump. An indictment by Robert Mueller would also be something concrete that would change some of his supporters’ minds too.

Let’s entertain a scenario where Mueller presents irrefutable, obvious, watertight evidence that Trump and his allies colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. Furthermore, let’s also assume that subsequently more and more prominent Republicans begin to publicly condemn Donald Trump. Trump will say he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and that it's all “fake news.” Given that he leads a political cult won’t his followers just become even more devoted?  

The key turning point will be when people feel that supporting Donald Trump is a bad reflection of who they are. Suppose Trump is indicted and his tax returns show that he is worth much less than he claims. Well, that's the kind of thing that's going to make people feel like chumps and will drive a huge wedge between the supporters and the cult leader.  

There will be dead-enders of course. Even Nixon at the time he resigned was at 23 percent in the polls. You're never going to be able to change those people's minds.

But for the great bulk of the population, particularly the people who don't follow politics all that closely, they'll be more willing to shift their commitments … but hard evidence is going to have to come out. It can't just be a headline in the New York Times. It's going to have to be something really explosive that moves the needle. We're not there yet.... 

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