Yes, Donald Trump, the current Republican candidate for President of the United States, is a fear-mongering, narcissistic, opportunistic, reality TV celebrity with no experience in public office, little concern for the truth, and a strong penchant for racism, xenophobia and autocratic fascism.
But that is beside the point.
The history of the world is filled with such pathological persons. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Hirohito, Mao, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Tito, Idi Amin, Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, Charles Taylor, Joseph McCarthy, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, the list of strongmen is endless.
The focus of our attention should not be on these destructive, delusional men – their histories, personalities, psychologies, character or the food they eat. Really, who cares? At times like these we tend to focus on these individuals because, frankly, it is easier to understand, celebrate or attack single individuals than it is to comprehend and address the context that gives rise to them. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, the tendency to place undue emphasis on the individual rather than on the context that supports their behavior. But there will always be plenty of these tyrants around, and focusing so much energy on them just incentivizes their actions and feeds their egos.
Instead, our focus should be on understanding how such despots rise to power. It should be on comprehending the underlying conditions that spark such epidemics of hate and bring them to a tipping point where large majorities of people come to support dictators. We should be taking a hard, systematic look at why Trump’s brand of vile fear mongering, dooms-dayism and authoritarianism resonates so much today that 13 million American voters came out in record numbers during the Republican primary to offer their support. Leaders are only as powerful as the extent to which they attract loyal followers. So the crucial question should not be what is the deal with Trump, but rather what is driving the hordes of Trump supporters to see him as a viable presidential candidate?
Of course, the answer to this question is a complex constellation of factors, which differ in emphasis with different subgroups of Trump supporters. But to some degree they are driven by:
Economic loss and hardship. Many citizens are still struggling from more than eight years of economic downturn, which took their jobs and homes and hopes for their future and their childrens’ futures. They feel the current economic system is corrupt and unfair (see the $700 billion TARP program to bail out our financial system).
Humiliation. Losing one’s job and home is publicly humiliating, no matter what the circumstances. Humiliation has been shown to be a particularly toxic emotion that can result in increased aggression against oneself (see the recent spike in addiction and suicide among middle-aged whites) and others, particularly members of outgroups. The longer people ruminate on it, the more poisonous it becomes.
Relative deprivation. This is the increasing sense that you and people like you can no longer get what you deserve, while members of other groups (bankers, off-shore business owners, lobbyists, politicians and welfare recipients) are doing just fine. This is a particularly mobilizing political force that, under certain conditions, leads to rebellion and violence.
A dysfunctional and disingenuous government. For years, politicians have made lofty promises to cut spending, cut taxes, bring back jobs, and improve public schools and healthcare. Many citizens have seen little progress on any of these fronts, and are tired of the nasty, polarized infighting and unresponsiveness of their government. They would like to see it derailed.
Mortality salience. The news of the day is replete with stories and images of violent threats at home and abroad. When people fear for their life, they tend to cling more strongly to their traditional worldviews and become much more susceptible to charismatic leaders who promise to protect them. Some politicians know this and use this lever frequently.
Change. The current birthrate and flow of legal and illegal immigrants into the U.S. is leading to seismic changes in the demographic makeup of our citizenry, and to unprecedented political power-shifts that leave the dominant groups of yesterday (whites, Christians and males) feeling particularly threatened and disenfranchised. Losing power has been found to be much more motivating than the possibility of not gaining power.
The Media ethos. Since 60 Minutes began to make money for it’s network CBS in the 1970s, the role of mainstream journalism in this country has changed dramatically from a public service to a profit-centered business. In addition, since the establishment of Fox News and MSNBC, politics and mainstream journalism have become evermore entwined. When you add to this the effects of self-selection of media sources on the Internet, and algorithms that feed us more of what we have searched in the past, you start to understand how the media echo chambers surrounding our lives encourages more and more insulated ingroup-outgroup thinking. This is prime real estate for dictators.
Hyper competition. Our unabashedly Capitalist society believes in the power of competition to solve all problems. Over time, this dominant value has seeped into our parenting, the schooling of our children, our views of how our healthcare and justice systems should operate, even our preferred leisure activities (why should I garden when I can buy cheaper produce and save time?). Healthy competition serves our society in many ways, but when unchecked, the drive to win at all costs starts to eat away at the fabric of our relationships and our communities and can turn us against one another. And so we start to privilege leaders who are “winners” at all costs.
Legitimization of violence. Finally, we live in country that models, mythologizes, glorifies and institutionalizes violent problem solving. Our children’s media is saturated with violence with 90% of movies, 68% of video games, 60% of TV shows, and 15% of music videos including some depictions of violence (children see an average of two gun-related violent incidents every hour that they watch TV). Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a significantly higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life. Then we provide them with easy access to guns (the number of guns in the US today is larger than our population, with an estimated 380 million guns in circulation). Then we respond to their violent tendencies with institutionalized forms of violence, including harsh zero-tolerance programs in schools, abusive forms of policing in communities, and extremely high rates of imprisonment (the U.S. has the highest prison population of any nation in the world with approximately 2.4 million prisoners). Add to this the fact that we have the highest military expenditures in the world, roughly the size of the next nine largest national military budgets combined, and the pro-violence message becomes clear. This all points to the value of supporting strong-arm, hot-tempered leaders to run our country. Our violence is good violence.
Yes, the short game for American patriots who fear the consequences of an uninformed, inexperienced, hate-spewing President should be to focus on defeating Donald Trump in the general election this November. This will help make America great.
But the long game must focus on addressing the underlying conditions that make us susceptible to the likes of a Trump in the first place. Because after him, there will be a never-ending line of opportunists eager to take advantage of America’s vulnerabilities. The antidote is not to blame and cast aspersions on these actors, but to work tirelessly together to make America a place where this never happens again.