Watching the increasingly one-sided race for the Republican presidential nomination seems at times to be an exercise in incredulity. We see Donald Trump, a caricature of the archetypal American big businessman, riding high in the polls: as of 2nd April, Trump has secured the support of 736 delegates, compared to Ted Cruz’s 463 (candidates need to reach 1,237 to win the nomination). The ‘movement’ driving Trump’s ascent is largely comprised of working-class, white Americans – a demographic not traditionally predisposed towards a trust-fund New York billionaire who, in many ways, embodies the grossest excesses of modern capitalism. And yet, Trump is dominating. When asked why she was supporting Trump, one Floridian voter explained that Trump’s march on the White House is the action of a man undertaking an altruistic mission “for the good of the American people”. No suggestion here of a megalomaniacal, quasi-aristocratic demagogue craving geopolitical, in addition to corporate, power. Trump, a scion of the American financial and social elite, is being held up as a working-class hero. What is going on?
The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume asserted that “it is in vain to expect that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage [the individual] to embrace sounder principles”. This quote is used to corroborate Hume’s assertion that the rational mind is no more than the slave of the passions. The theme is developed by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who posits in his book The Righteous Mind that man’s rational faculties are used largely as a post-hoc justification tool for decisions that are made intuitively and quickly at a sub-conscious level. Man is fundamentally and necessarily a passionate, instinctive animal rather than a cold, rational decision-maker.
It is a psychological framework which helps to shed light on Trump’s success. Voters are able to block out the rationally compelling, yet inconvenient, arguments that Trump is a policy-light, deeply privileged, power-crazed candidate, steeped in the traditions of unfeeling corporate gluttony. Rather, we are seeing a deeply emotional reaction from a disenfranchised and overlooked segment of American society – a segment which feels that it has been repeatedly failed and undermined by the Washington political elite in general and by President Obama’s liberal administration in particular. After years of insincerity and spin from career politicians, the blue-collar conservative voters of America (‘the silent majority’) are rallying behind an ostensibly successful man, unafraid to speak his mind, who has come from outside of the political establishment and has proceeded to overturn it. It is a massive, intuitive two fingers to the cosy Washington cabal: in the face of this tide of emotion, appeals to rational argument are comparatively impotent.
The problem is exacerbated by the immediate connotations of the name ‘Trump’. Not only does the word itself refer to a card suit which ranks above all others, it is also a name which has high ‘fame’ (to borrow from the vocabulary of research agency BrainJuicer’s respected System-1 Operating System). Donald Trump is a media personality in the United States, perhaps best known for his central role in The Apprentice. As outlined by the psychologist Robert Zajonc, the brain naturally identifies familiar things as good things – a phenomenon that he termed the “mere exposure effect”. This is a point which seems to have been instinctively understood by the comedian John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. In a comprehensive dismantling of Trump’s credentials as a presidential candidate on 29th February, Oliver concluded with the disclosure that one of Trump’s ancestors changed the family name from Drumpf to Trump. Oliver’s parting exhortation to those who may be inclined to vote for Trump is not that they examine his flawed policies or condemn his incitements to violence, but that they try to separate the positive emotional connotations of the word ‘Trump’ from the actual man running for presidential office. How? By thinking of him simply as Donald Drumpf, rather than as the gilded Donald Trump. It is an appeal to the baser passions rather than to the rational mind; to the swirling morass of psychological instincts that drive human decision-making.