The Twisted Genius of Trump: His Appeals to Emotion Are Dangerous
Donald Trump delivered a devastatingly powerful coronation speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week. The event itself was a mass psychotic episode, a four day exercise in the grotesque and the macabre. Trump’s speech was the perfect capstone and climax.
Apparently, Trump’s coronation speech also resonated with Republican and independent voters: a new poll from CNN reveals that Trump has further expanded his lead over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by six points with a post-convention “bounce” which is one of the largest since the 2000 election when Al Gore faced George W. Bush.
Critics on both the left and the right have savaged it.
Trump’s speech was “dystopic” and “negative.” Of course, it was. This is by design. Donald Trump understands the political personalities and brain structures of his conservative-authoritarian supporters. The latter are fear centered in their thinking, fixate on disturbing and ugly images, and are easily manipulated by death anxieties.
During his speech, Donald Trump lied about the economy, immigration, terrorism, crime, and many other subjects. Yes, he did. Trump is a professional liar and political Svengali. Over the course of several decades, the Right-wing media and the Republican Party created an alternate reality for conservatives. The supposedly “liberal news media” enabled Donald Trump’s assault on the truth–and that of conservatives more generally–with the irresponsible narrative that “both sides do it.” Thus, the lies of conservatives and the Right-wing disinformation machine are presented as merely “different points of view” that must be included for the sake of “balance. Donald Trump knows that the corporate news media will not punish him for his serial dissembling. Moreover, Trump is adept at using the corporate news media to circulate his message.
The speech was “narcissistic” and offered no true “vision” beyond Donald Trump.Yes, it was. Trump is a strongman and proto fascist. He describes a “problem” in society and offers himself as the only solution. Trump’s conservative-authoritarian supporters seek out strong father figures and other saviors. They are also prone to social dominance behavior and hostility to people who are different from them. Donald Trump is their avatar, a bully who will protect them from (imagined) threats and a “scary” world.
Trump presents himself as a self-styled billionaire, who like Bruce Wayne in the Batman comic books and movies, will save the besieged (white) people of Gotham from rampaging gangs, hoards of illegal immigrants who “roam” the streets, Mexican rapists, black street thugs, and other criminals. If politics is popular culture and popular culture is politics, Donald Trump is more akin to Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars trilogies, a villain who promised to bring “stability” and “security” to the galaxy, than he is Batman.
Ultimately, what Trump’s critics and detractors have overlooked (or chosen to ignore) is how his coronation speech in Cleveland presented simplistic and superficial observations about American life and politics that are difficult for many in the public to dispute, ignore, or disagree with.
Concerns about crime, terrorism, prosperity, economic insecurity, and their children’s futures are easily manipulated. This is especially true of low information voters.
Style and aesthetics are central to Trump’s appeal as well.
For example, in Cleveland, Trump’s voice and delivery were a perfect fit for his message of fear and salvation. Trump deftly applied the lessons he learned from his long time association with the World Wrestling Entertainment. His cadence and volume were also that of a villain (or “heel”) professional wrestler cutting an epic “promo” on his opposition in the ring.
The pundits insist on talking about Donald Trump as though he is a traditional, establishment, presidential candidate. Because they continue with this obsessive habit, too many pundits, especially so-called “liberals” and “progressives,” are unable to properly account for the role of emotion, personality, and style in Trump’s ascendance to power over the Republican Party.
This is part of a broader pattern where liberals and progressives are often outmaneuvered by conservatives because off an inability to channel the power of emotion and storytelling in politics. The Republican Party and movement conservatives represent and advance policy prescriptions, as well as a broader philosophy, that is both intellectually bankrupt and based on assumptions that are empirically untrue. However, the American Right-wing has an outsized influenced on the public discourse and public policy because they understand how to use emotion (fear; anxiety; racism; bigotry; rage; anger) in ways that today’s liberals and progressives do not.
In an interview with Truthout, cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains this dynamic as:
"Cognitive scientists study how people really think – how brains work, how we get ideas out of neurons, how framing and metaphorical thought work, the link between language and thought, and so on.
But other academic fields have not been using these results, especially, political science, public policy, law, economics, in short, the main areas studied by progressives who go into politics. As a result, they teach an inadequate view of reason and “rationality.” They miss the fact that our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.
What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different. Cognitive linguists have learned a lot about how all this works, but few progressives have studied cognitive linguistics…
Progressives constantly ask how to “respond” to illegitimate claims by conservatives, whether about fear or anything else. That is because conservatives have an effective communication system and progressives do not, and conservative marketers better understand real reason. To deal with illegitimate fears, you don’t wait till you have to respond. You need (1) to build an effective communication system, (2) to communicate the general progressive value system, (3) repeat the truths that reveal what is right about those values, (4) act with courage to promote the sense of courage, confidence and hope that allows the truth to be meaningful and powerful. Within such a context, one can honestly and openly discuss the facts that undermine such fears, so that the illegitimate fears don’t get established in the first place. But no such system is in place."
Lakoff highlights President Obama’s communication style and intelligence as an example of this dilemma:
Obama is also a rationalist; that is, he has the false theory of human reason that many progressive policymakers have and that he mastered in law school and teaching law. According to classic rationalism, if you just tell people the facts, then by universal logic, people will reason to the right conclusion. For example, the president thought that if the public liked each of the major provisions of his health care bill, they would support the whole bill. They still like each provision. Conservatives never attacked the major provisions. Instead they attacked it on two moral grounds: Freedom (government takeover) and Life (death panels). These are not the same issues so far as our brains are concerned, and morality is more of a determinant of personal identity than the details of insurance. The conservative manipulation of real reason won out over the repetition of insurance provisions. Yes, the provisions work. And so does the conservative moral framing.
On the one side, Obama and other Dems are hemmed in by a false theory of human reason. On the other side, they are trapped by an overwhelming force: the consultant army, the infrastructure of PR firms, pollsters, consultants, etc.
Post-convention public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable. Other voting models show that Clinton still has a solid lead over Trump. In all, this is Clinton’s contest to lose. The challenge and dilemma she faces is what to do if her strategy of competence, maturity, experience, intelligence, and grace is insufficient to overcome the negative emotions, dark passions, and fears that are being summoned by Trump? Will Clinton be able to pivot from her script and successfully harness emotions, moral clarity, and storytelling to win undecided and independent voters? I worry that she will not.
Trump’s coronation speech was just one more moment in what promises to be one of the ugliest and dirtiest presidential elections in recent American history. America is not Plato’s republic. Trump is not a philosopher king. Unfortunately, large swaths of the American people prefer a reality TV show professional wrestling political performance artist and bigot to a competent and wise leader. This is Trump’s public. It would be wise for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats to not underestimate their broader power and influence.