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The Emotional Appeal of Donald Trump

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 clusterfluck. 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.

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19 comments

  1. Arthur Tarry

    As do our major political parties need to counteract the emotional messages of Hanson and her ilk. However, I think it’s not only an emotional message but also weariness and disillusionment with the hackneyed methodology of the two major parties – the rubbish that passes for question time, the ten second media grabs about that is all about the others , and the infighting caused by factional politics . And the grasping behaviour for financial entitlements by some politicians is particularly obnoxious. And jobs for the boys (and girls) when there are many better qualified and experienced people who could and should do the job. I ‘m thinking of ambassadorial appointments and a host of other things like this, in this instance. And no acknowledgement of the difficulties of managing our society in a time of rapid change in the world and that Australia is affected by international events. Instead we get simple solutions to complex problems – stop the boats, no new big taxes, climate change is bullshit, etc etc etc. The major parties have a job ahead of them to rekindle confidence in the community in them and reset their entire approach to so many issues, otherwise we to will end up with a Trump too.

  2. David

    I believe the American voters saved us from WW III with Hillary, and instead, now face American Civil War II with Trumpf and George Swartz (Soros), No matter which way they voted, the Americans are screwed.

  3. Noel

    A bit like buying a car. People will weigh up all sorts of factors before buying a car but the research tells that when the final decision is made it will be made on what colour the car is. This is not the best way to deide who will lead your country for four years.

  4. David

    The people who have demonized Russia are ideologues in Washington and their surrogates among European governments and the Western corporate media. That negative image of Russia does not match reality as ordinary people perceive it, including many ordinary Americans. Russia did not destabilize Ukraine. It did not annex Crimea. Russia was not involved in shooting down a civilian airliner. It is not massacring civilians in Syria. In Syria, it is helping a sovereign state defeat terrorist mercenaries in a US-sponsored covert war for regime change.
    Russia is not a sports-drug pariah. It is not hacking computer systems nor subverting foreign democracies. These are all just false ideological constructs manufactured by the Western establishment and its subservient media.
    Why do I get the feeling that Trumpf is getting the same BS from the MSM?

  5. John

    Great analysis Victoria. We are indeed emotional beings. The 21st century voter is angry. We know we need change but not sure how to bring about that change. Capitalism has run its course, the future is in doubt. The major political parties of the 20th century are using 20th century ideas to solve 21st century problems such as poverty, inequality, limits to growth & climate change. We need new ideas & a vision of where we are heading. At the moment we are lost in the wilderness, frightened & lashing out angrily.

  6. David Stephens

    Warren missed her chance this time around. Will be too old in 2020 as will Chuck Schumer. Maybe they could go for his distant cousin Amy …

  7. Josella

    The media was overwhelmingly pro Clinton. It was shocking and embarrassing how pro Clinton they were. She was given a free pass on most of her corruption and she provided no policy detail. She called in her multimillionaire friends to help her entertain everyone. Yeah, that’s “the polished, policy-detailed, emphasis on experience” I guess you’re talking about.

    She did nothing but attack Trump and his supporters, certainly no policy on show. The email scandal in the last few weeks made no difference. People had seen her avoid scrutiny earlier and had seen her corruption over 25 years.

    People who voted for Trump or wanted him to win could see and hear the contempt in the media and from Clinton for them.

    The media played no part in Trump’s win. They played a huge part in promoting Clinton and are shocked at how wrong they were.

    Your blinkered analysis of the situation explains why Clinton lost and Trump won.

    I am relieved she lost. She is beholden to the Middle East (where they treat women and homosexuals appallingly) and her corruption is just sickening.

  8. Nato

    Are you serious? It’s like the only things you heard come out of his mouth were the half-sentence sound bites presented in a false-equivalence or some such with the manna from heaven dripping from the lips of a women who had 2 FBI investigations into her espionage activities. We’re being told that her parties appointment to the top job could accurately investigate 350,000 , and currently being investigated by the FBI and the IRS for corruption, selling access to foreign powers.

    I definitely get emotional when that is told to me.
    Being called racist for preferring a white candidate over a white candidate, less so.

  9. Kaye Lee

    Oh for heavens sake Nato. Can you tell me what was revealed by the FBI investigation that has you so concerned? And if you are talking IRS I would suggest that Trump is far more suspect in that regard. He is a self-confessed con man who entered the race with no expectation or intention of winning – it was a brand recognition marketing exercise.

    But I must disagree with Victoria…

    “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.”

    I certainly see that from those of you who are party members and I have often felt the wrath of those who will not have their party questioned in any way. Not all of us are like that. Some of us actually listen to what is being said, watch what is being done, and vote accordingly. I have no “party identity” and I am very open to having my mind changed by the truth. If I am wrong, I want to know.

  10. Annie B

    Good article Victoria …. tku.

    The slippery slope, sliding towards great division and possible outright anarchy, has been showing for some years now ‘over there’. This inclination includes at least two of the president-elects’ favoured attacks – on race, and on religion ( Islam ) … and adding a third, on ‘anyone else who isn’t us’ … promising to turf out 11 million ( I read that figure recently – someone please correct me if wrong ) legal immigrants who work their butts off for little in that country, just to have the basic requirement of something to eat, and somehow, a home. Plus, plus, plus his other horrid comments during his campaign, stated emphatically and sooo publicly.

    Of course it all appealed.

    The country is at breaking point, and a shrewd operator will launch attacks to repeatedly underscore the fears that abound. Which is precisely what he did. … He read the American state of mind, quite well.

    A small % of people have already protested the outcome, but small when compared to the large population there. As people start to talk together, an awakening may happen – and more unrest will follow as they deny these trends and the incredible uncertainty in every aspect, that Trump represents. … Not something I / we want to see, but I think could be an inevitability.

    There is a distinct – and distinctive mind-set over there. The entire farce was ripe for the picking.

    And it was picked. !!

  11. Annie B

    Kaye ….

    Re “ He is a self-confessed con man who entered the race with no expectation or intention of winning ”

    I believe that is totally correct. … Just what he will do, with what he has been handed, will be at least interesting to see, at worst dangerous for the world at large. … I do not believe he really wanted the job. … Just wanted the publicity kudos.

    Have seen a couple of items on TV, showing Trump … and he is not today, the bloke he was last week. ….. No longer full of bluster, nastiness, pop commentary, and pseudo concern for ‘his country’.

    Has shown the look of a frightened child in the brief video coverage shown so far, since the election.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if he *somehow* manages to turn the job over to someone else. … Have no clue what would happen then – would it mean another election ?, or does the job automatically pass to the VP ?

    More than interesting ( and perhaps frightening ) times ahead.

  12. silkworm

    “He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?).

    According to Modern Monetary Theory, taxes are not revenue and do not pay for anything. If anything, taxes take out of circulation the money that has already been put into the economy by government spending. Spend first, then tax. It is WHAT the government spends its money on that is the subject of debate.

  13. Ian Sprocket Muncher Parfrey

    As usual, like Kaye Lee, Lordy and yourself Victoria, you have written a painfully accurate article that is pointed and pertinent.
    There are many factors in Trump’s election, and one in particular that needs airing. This point is that the majority of the electorate is politically illiterate. Or to put it a bit more bluntly – thick as two short planks.

    Dumbed down by mindless drivel drip fed via the eye in the corner of the room, many of the voting public really don’t want to think, critically, about anything. Witness a reality show actor becoming POTUS.

    If more evidence is needed, Trump found the sector of the voting public and hammered nonsensical slogans, promises and denigrating remarks that were tuned to resonate with the non-critical thinker. NONE of the Trump policy announcements had ANY mention on HOW he was going to achieve what he promised. As seen already – not one week into the Presidency – he is already backtracking on core promises.

    So, in one fell swoop, he has thumbed his nose at those who voted for him on his platform of ‘Cleaning out the White House’ by becoming one in the first week.

    You think the gun-totin’, God fearin’ core demographic he targeted during the campaign will take too lightly to that?

    Prediction – Trump will end up much like our beloved tax-payer funded comedic genius Captain Clown Shoes himself, Abbott.
    Trump has promised the earth to a very tetchy demographic, and when they realise they had been ‘trumped’ all hell will break loose.

    I for one can’t wait.

  14. Annie B

    Tend to agree with your observations I.S.M.P. ….

    Largely politically illiterate nation, who cling to outmoded, outdated constitutional statements – made for the time they were made – and think of nothing further. … It is like a religion to them.

    Also agree that his avid followers, when they realise how they have been duped, will indeed have ‘all hell break loose’ … it has begun to do that now.

    Either the protests will continue and grow, or it will all die a natural … and life will go on much as before.

    I doubt however, that Trump will be at the head of things for long – one way or another.

    ………

  15. silkworm

    [blockquote]He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?).[/blockquote]

    According to Modern Monetary Theory, taxes are not revenue and do not pay for anything. If anything, taxes take out of circulation the money that has already been put into the economy by government spending. Spend first, then tax. It is WHAT the government spends its money on that is the subject of debate.

  16. Ian Sprocket Muncher Parfrey

    Quote – “I doubt however, that Trump will be at the head of things for long – one way or another.”

    Absolutely spot on, Annie B.

    Either the Rethuglicans will face enormous backlash from International Trade Partners and ratchet up pressure to Dump the Trump, or the Rethuglican base will eventually realise they have been dudded by a conman – just like those workers who he stiffed.

    He has yet to realise that some things are just not negotiable.

  17. Jexpat

    Josh Barro had this to say about Brexit:

    “Basically, Brexit was a tantrum. Britons looked at an institution that was flawed and unresponsive and did a thing that doesn’t fix the flaws and hurts Britain’s own economy.

    This vote reflects the error of direct democracy… it also reflects the errors and hubris of European political elites, who gave voters an institution so flawed and so allegedly irreversible that they felt compelled to act out in whatever way was available to them.

    The acting-out options available to voters on the continent — far-right parties like the National Front — may be worse than Brexit.”

    From what I observed, there was a fair bit of that going on in US for the past year, particularly in certain regions.

    Berbie Sanders concurs, and adds this bit: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/11/12/where-democrats-go-here

    People also have to grasp that in this election both candidates had unprecidented “high negatives” or “unfavorables.” Had Trump not been running, Clinton would have had the highest unfavorables of any presidential nominee since this sort of data has been recorded. Essentially, 2 out of 3 Americans didn’t like either one- which created unsual media dynamics and a largely issue-less campaign.

  18. Macx

    Sad but true….
    The Trumpster basically beat the political class at their own game, aspirational lying.
    Business 101: tell the customer what they want to hear, simple slogans, have we got a deal for you Let;s make America great again.
    Fear and hope !
    A sure fire manipulator for gullible people.

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