I started to write this blog two weeks after the presidential election of 2016. I wanted to understand the reasons for Trump’s victory and I was hoping that writing about this would get the grief out of my system. After working on it for a while, I gave up because the conclusion I reached was so sad and depressing that I decided to abandon it. Even though I abandoned my writing, I kept thinking about it. I recently started to read a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book was written in 2012 and it has, as an epigraph, a quote from Spinoza: I have striven not to laugh at human actions not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them. This book made me to go back to my writing and turn from emotions to thinking and research.
Around 8 million people switched their vote from Obama to Trump in 2016 election. Given that the election was decided by 40,000 votes, it’s fair to say that the Obama-Trump switchers were one of the key reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss. The prevailing opinion in the mainstream media after election was that the desperation of white working class, especially in the rust belt, motivated people to vote for Trump. However, this opinion was not based on data and was completely speculative. As the social scientists and statisticians started to survey and analyze the results, it was abundantly clear that concerns about identity and race were the decisive issues in the 2016 election. Understanding the deeper reasons why race played such a pivotal role will help us to understand why racism and xenophobia will continue to have a vital impact on politics in US and globally for the foreseeable future.
The first question, which comes to mind as we look at results of these studies, is why American voters elected a black president for two terms if race and identity were so important. The Obama presidency would clearly indicate that racism is not a valid explanation and therefore other traditional economic-related factors are much more important. After election of Obama, there were a lot of voices saying that we live in post-racial society. Not so fast. If you look at the candidates Obama was running against, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both were moderate, traditional Republicans who were campaigning on the usual GOP platform of low taxes, pro-business, a strong military and containing the cost of social programs. Racism, xenophobia and immigration were not a part of their campaigns.
Now let us turn to Mr. Trump. Donald Trump is a man of great ego and no ideology. While he never associated strongly with any major political party, he had presidential ambitions all the way back in the 1980s. In 1999 he contemplated to run for president as the candidate for the Reform Party. Back than he bashed Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, saying that he has a “love affair with Adolf Hitler”. He stroked some leftist positions including saying “I believe in universal health care. I believe in whatever it takes to make people well and better. It’s an entitlement to this country if we’re going to have a great country.” As his presidential ambitions matured, he experimented with several themes and strategies including running with Oprah. His campaign topics kept changing and in 2010 he fueled the conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside of the country and was therefore ineligible to be president. That turned out to be a winning theme. Building on racism and xenophobia, he made the vilification of Obama, grievances of whites as victims of politically correct (PC) culture, and immigration from Latin America the major themes of his presidential campaign.
The rise of fascism is traditionally attributed to economic conditions, disenchantment with politics, corruption and anger at elites. The problem with the traditional analysis is that these conditions are persistent and always exist everywhere to some degree. They are attributes of the power structure in any state. The extension of this argument is that fascism happens when one or more of these attributes become extreme. Germany in the 1930s had extreme levels of poverty, unemployment and unsustainable inflation. There was no hope that the situation would improve, since Germany had to pay retributions after WWI. The rise of Hitler is attributed to this desperate economic situation.
After WWII the civilized world shouted Never Again! But less than 70 years later nationalism and fascism are on the rise again all over Europe. The political analysts are using traditional explanations and blaming the economic recession, following the 2008 stock market crash, and unrealistic underlying assumptions in the creation of the EU, which contributed to the misery in Spain, Italy, Portugal and especially in Greece. However, the welfare states in Europe protected their population from the worst impacts. People were not hungry, they didn’t lose homes and still had basic services and healthcare. But the nationalist parties were increasing their presence in most countries even if they were less or not affected by economic downturn.
Then, suddenly, new events provided a strong argument to the army of opinion makers: the refugee crisis and mass migration from the Middle East. Finally, the European countries had a rationalization for rising nationalism: unsustainable level of immigrants with a very different culture which feels like a real threat to European civilization. There are a couple things are important to note:
1. The rise of nationalistic parties preceded the refuge crisis
2. It affected some countries, while other with the same conditions did not experience this trend (Greece vs Spain).
Back across the Atlantic, we live in the country which prides itself as a country built by refugees and immigrants with famous poem by Emma Lazarus engraved in the most famous American monument:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
With that we elected the man who after multiple attempts to run for president finds a winning theme in railing against immigration. While the immigration issue was on the national agenda occasionally; it was never the number one concern. The racist and xenophobic rhetoric used by Trump was unheard of since the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago. This also happened in a period of extended economic growth with no apparent signs of weakness, at least, on the surface. The last economic recovery left behind a large segment of the working class. The recovery in the manufacturing sector produced very few jobs due to globalization and automation. In the US, with a weak social safety net, these global trends were particularly devastating. They led to the disintegration of communities, an opium epidemic and a population disenchanted with the American Dream. This economic devastation of the working class is a ready to use argument for the rise of nationalism. But there is a caveat to this argument. The number of manufacturing jobs in US peaked in 1979 at 19.4 million and it has been on a steadily decline ever since. The decline started not just before latest economic crisis, it started even before NAFTA which went in effect in 1994.
The more carefully we look for objective prerequisites for the raise of nationalism, the more elusive a eureka moment becomes. It feels more and more like a moving target.
That made me think that we are looking in the wrong direction. For a long time people accepted the Marxist approach to human history in terms of systemic processes, based on modes of production, the ways in which societies are organized to employ their technological powers to interact with their material surroundings. While this approach makes perfect sense on historical scale, it has been extended too far and has crossed the boundaries of political process, including how people behave as political actors. By doing so we assumed that specific economic conditions will determine how people will vote and what leader will come to power.
In societies where people are entrusted to elect their own leaders, most candidates campaign on assumptions that people will vote their interests and promise them a basket of goodies (health care, education, social security, pensions, low taxes, more police, jobs etc.) The results of these campaigns vary mostly based on how charming people found a candidate. With whom would you rather have a beer: with Bush or Gore? Remember that?
Jonathan Haidt’s book, which I mentioned earlier, talks about how humans make moral decisions and form their political preferences. When making moral judgments which support our political decisions people are subjects to moral intuition and make these judgments emotionally before they even review and analyze any relevant facts. After the judgments are made our brain kicks-in and creates justifications for these judgments. The real reason for leaning one way or another on a question usually has little to do with a set of facts and reasoning, and everything to do with minor variations in their evolved brains, and how they were acculturated. In other words, we normally respond to a situation emotionally, and figure out how to justify our positions later. This makes people an easy target for manipulation. Invocation of certain emotions (fear, disgust, anger, pride) can produce predictable results. His conclusions are supported by extensive research which is accepted by most political scientists.
Most people find it hard to accept that our political choices are not result of well-thought out principals and rational evaluation. The people including politicians and political scientists assume that citizens vote selfishly choosing candidate which will benefit them the most. This believe is based on the idea that people are reasonable creatures and can objectively gauge the safety of their environment and economic condition. While we continue to believe that people vote their interest, we observe and are flabbergasted when it doesn’t happen. There are plenty of examples: parents with children in public schools not more likely to support aid to schools than other citizens, people without health insurance not more likely to support programs like Medicare for All than people covered by insurance. Every time we are shocked at how stupid the opposition is but we find a rationalization and explanation for the results.
Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion is that people vote as a group. The group or tribe is generally defined not by who is in the group, but who is out. Candidates who understand this dynamic base their election campaigns not on promises of goodies, but on defining a group and eliminating others. This is done by the direct invocation of basic emotions and instincts such as fear, disgust and tribal instinct. In modern history, the first time it happened on a major scale was in the 1930s in Germany. It was shocking that the country which gave the world so many geniuses in many fields and made major contributions to the ideas of the Enlightenment could produce such monstrosity. And there were plenty of reasonable explanations that this horror was bound to happen.
This brings us back to Donald Trump. After testing the water for so many years, his winning election strategy was almost entirely based on the tribal attribute of human nature. He stroked the fear of the tribe losing its dominant position and projected himself as the tribe’s savior. This basic story sailed him through the Republican primary so fast, that the rest of the very crowded field of candidates didn’t even understand what happened. The general election played on the same themes and with a little shove from his Russian friend, Trump finally got his wish.
The race-based anxiety, which Trump arose in his campaign, could be a reason that for the first time election opinion polls were so unreliable. Because racism was a taboo in American politics and Trump’s campaign was so unapologetically racist and xenophobic, many people didn’t want to admit to the pollsters that they liked it, but when time came, in anonymity of the voting booth, the primordial instinct took over and the people voted their fears.
The surprising victory was analyzed over and over again, and the secret is finally out: there is a sure way for a Duce wannabe to get elected. Any existing issue, economical, demographic, cultural, racial can be exploited, manipulated and turned into a mortal danger to the group which the potential Duce will use as a base. What took Trump more than a dozen years to figure out by trial and error is now pretty much common knowledge among social scientists and ambitious political consultants. Steve Bannon travels around the world and advises political candidates on how exploit tribal instinct and fears to get elected. He recently was involved in election in Brazil and now the largest country in Latin America is led by a very dangerous Jair Bolsonaro, who some people call Trump on steroids. We humans have a very strong tribal instinct which in the past let us overcome multiple evolutionary challenges. However, technology moves much faster than evolution and in this new environment with powerful weapons and communication this instinct without being properly managed and tamed is rapidly becoming the major threat to civilization and maybe even to our species survival.
Haidt J. 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, New York