Donald Trump won the 2016 election after a polarising, scandal-ridden campaign amidst allegations of moral turpitude and foreign interference. Despite nepotism and manifest incompetence in his term as POTUS, in 2020 Trump won more votes (74M) than any other presidential candidate in history other than Joe Biden (81M).
Trump’s popularity can only be understood in the context of America’s political system and economic performance. The Jim Crow era may be over but administrative and logistical impediments to voting still favour Republicans over Democrats. The Electoral College system has seen Republican candidates such as George W Bush and Donald Trump (in 2016) win the presidency while losing the popular vote.
From 1994 when he took charge of Congress, Newt Gingrich began to polarise politics and radicalise the Republican Party, aided by partisan outlets such as Fox News. Later, social media siloed discourse, allowing fixed views to harden further and become disassociated from reality.
Compared to now there was low inequality in America from the late 1930s through the 1940s – “the Great Compression”. However, “the Great Divergence” beginning from around the late 1970s led to growing inequality. The rules came to favour capital over labour. The effective tax rate on labour in the 1980s and 1990s was around 25% whilst the tax on capital returns was only 15%.
China joined the WTO in 2001, and much American production activity shifted offshore or to Mexico. The financial sector grew bigger as a proportion of the whole economy. CEO compensation soared, and international tax avoidance occurred on a massive scale.
Americans were told for decades that globalisation would benefit all, yet the 1941 Stopler-Samuelson theorem predicted otherwise. Many benefited from globalisation, especially capital owners and consumers, however the impacts of liberalised trade and technological change hit workers hard in industrial areas.Democrat as well as Republican administrations failed to address the socio-economic downsides from this. Mainstream economists understood the Rust Belt pain intellectually but not palpably, and little effort was made to reskill workers and manage transitions into new jobs.
The Republican tax cuts in 2017 disproportionately benefited capital owners and the wealthy. It gave 79% of its benefits to people making more than US$100,000 a year.
America’s extreme inequality has destroyed dignity, eroded mental health and cost lives. Anne Case and Angus Deaton in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism noted that death rates for middle-aged whites without a college degree have risen steadily since 1999. The proximate causes have been opiates, alcohol and suicide, however more fundamental causes have been poverty, rising inequality, hopelessness and the healthcare system’s poor coverage and crippling costs.
In 1960, the US healthcare system absorbed five per cent of national income. The figure has now grown to 18 per cent. This burden has fallen disproportionally on lower income working people – the benefits have accrued to the big pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, and the medical profession itself.
The elitist Washington narrative was that America was a meritocratic society and if people failed to get to the top it was their own fault. However, the problem with meritocratic competitions is that someone wins them, which means others lose. This leads to rank status humiliation and resentment of those who Trump blamed for all of America’s problems – migrants, Muslims, elites living in Beltway swamps, the deep state, Chinese exporters and so on.
Political polarisation and economic problems provide context for Trump’s ascent in 2016 but do not explain his psychological appeal to voters.
Trump’s grandiose narcissism, abnormal need for admiration and prickliness at the slightest criticism reflects deep-seated insecurity. Many of his supporters had their own insecurities and connected to Trump as an authoritarian leader who would keep them safe.
Insecure people resent those who do better than themselves, and they delight in cutting “elitists” down to size and diminishing their status. The Apprentice was not reality TV; it offered a fantasy life as an Alpha Male who fires those lower than him.
People are especially conscious of their social rank status, and become more sensitive to it when their status is challenged by job loss or by perceived threats from out-groups such as racial minorities or immigrants. The MAGA slogan says effectively that “I once was great and am no more because someone took away my greatness and so making America great again means making me great again.”
Politicians such as Lyndon Johnson and poets such as Bob Dylan understood that poor whites were “pawns in the game” of manipulative politicians who encouraged them to look down on black people and draw psychic strength from their superior rank status. The alternative, devoutly to be wished, is for poor whites and their black brothers and sisters to organise politically to challenge exploitative business practices and economic inequality so that all may rise.
Donald Trump loves his children, grandchildren and other close kin, and no one else. His nepotism drives his business and political lives. Ivanka and his two oldest sons Donald Jr and Eric have been active in The Apprentice show and been key players in the Trump Organization business empire.
Trump’s nepotism might be explained through Bill Hamilton’s kin selection theory which shows how gene selection can occur through kin relatedness. Because other members of a population may share one’s genes, a gene can increase its evolutionary success by indirectly promoting the reproduction and survival of other individuals who also carry that gene. These individuals are typically close genetic relatives.
Nepotists are likely to favour close relatives over more distant ones. This means they can be generous to their close blood relations and be callous to others in direct proportion to their genetic distance. The more distant the relatedness, the more Trump puts people into stereotypical boxes. Black people came from “shithole” countries. Muslims, whether from Iran or Indonesia are lumped together. Florida’s Cuban minority are favoured, however everyone else from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn are “Mexicans”.
Insight into Trump’s appeal comes from Big Lie psychology. Trump understood that big lies told with confidence would stick, or at least leave a long and influential tail even after refutation. “I won the 2020 election by a landslide but it was stolen” is easily shown as false, however it will continue to sound in the echo chambers.
The most effective liars are those who believe their own lies. This makes a liar convincing to others because he gives away no micro-cues suggesting he is lying. In one Apprentice episode Trump, in challenging apprentices to sell high-priced art told them, “If you don’t really believe it yourself, it’ll never work”.
Daniel Kahneman argues there is Type 1 and Type 2 thinking. Type 1 thinking is fast, intuitive and unconscious thought that enables quick responses in most activities. It may be visual and concrete – “we will build that wall”. The Type 2 system is slower, calculating and conscious thought, for example about a maths problem or economic reasoning. Kahneman argues that Type 1 is fast but prone to bias, whereas Type 2 is slow but more resistant to cognitive bias.
Trump appeals to Type 1 thinking. He projects certainty and power that attracts those who lack both, highjacks their thought processes and numbs their critical faculties. The leader’s pathology then becomes contagious and spreads virally, mutating into delusionary beliefs that may be strung together into narratives and conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories fill a need in those who cannot handle complexity and uncertainty. They attribute events to others’ intentional acts. Conspiracy theories give order to what would otherwise be an inchoate universe, allowing believers to feel they are part of a privileged minority who know The Truth. This empowers them to attack those perceived as hiding the truth. In doing so, they are embarking on a mission higher than themselves – to oppose those who are behind the conspiracy and foil their evil plans.
Conspiracy theories are akin to mutating viruses. Peter Medawar said that a virus is a piece of bad news wrapped in protein. A conspiracy theory is out-group hostility wrapped in Type 1 thinking and vectored through social media.
Ever the innovator, Trump has invented a new type of “conspiracy without theory”. This starts with repeated fact-free assertions lacking any logical connecting thread. In some cases, Trump would simply arrive at a gathering, stand up and say the first thing that popped into his head. His credulous adherents then assume these random assertions have deep meaning, and they flounder around for a connecting thread that organises them into a coherent narrative. Eventually someone dreams up something plausible, such as Hillary Clinton running a paedophile ring from a pizza parlour, and outbreaks of cannibalism at Democratic party gatherings.
Once someone believes a conspiracy theory they find it difficult to abandon it. You can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.
The Democrats are best to change the socio-economic conditions that give rise to the hardship and humiliation that leads to collective psychosis. This means focusing on economics, not on the culture and identity wars that the Trumps and other populist politicians want to fight.
The Democrats have a complex fight on their hands. After its election defeat the Republican Party is not mellowing, and some elected members have links to extremist groups and networks. The Republicans will try and make it more difficult for Democratic Party supporters to vote – Stacey Abrams will have a busy four years ahead of her. With a few exceptions such as Mitt Romney the Republican Party is still craven to the Trump support base and morally directionless.
Perhaps even worse, conspiracy theories have been let loose in social media and they seem to be mutating; who knows in what direction?