The strange psychological phenomenon that could cause the Democratic primaries to function as a Trump re-election campaign

The strange psychological phenomenon that could cause the Democratic primaries to function as a Trump re-election campaign
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
Election '20

From an emotional standpoint, attacking character rather than policies can be a one-way street.

More than ever in the age of social media, when political opponents compete they focus on each other’s character flaws, missteps, and past bad behavior rather than differentiated policy proposals. Some call it the politics of denunciation, and at this point in the evolution of culture, denunciation often focuses on transgressions against identity: perceived racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, or insensitivity to immigrants.

Getting millions of people talking and tweeting about a serious policy proposal is nigh unto impossible, and even when they do, they are likely to hold their opinions with some degree of uncertainty. By contrast, denunciation can be a highly effective political tool because it elicits clear, strong emotional reactions like anger, disgust and righteous indignation, which make it viral. By triggering a visceral, moral reaction, it shapes loyalties and loathing in a way that few policies can. The candidate yells at her staff? He kissed a woman on the head without prior consent? She claims to be part native? He praised Israelis? She snarked at children? Can you believe it?!!!!!

Denunciation activates the mix of anger and disgust that we call moral outrage, which channels energy against something that violates our sense of right and wrong. As a moral emotion, outrage can be a powerful catalyst for social change movements.

But as a motivator, outrage has some serious flaws. For one, disgust can go from zero to sixty almost instantaneously, making it part of what behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls thinking fast—a set of thought processes that can bypass the rational cortex. Second, outrage isn’t necessarily proportional to harms done; our reaction to a dead kitten may be stronger than our reaction to a dead species. Third, we respond more viscerally to stories than statistics, which means we often channel our ire toward anomalous situations. Fourth, our sense of outrage is easily manipulated and socially contagious. Add it all up, and you have an unreliable roadmap to a better world.

But there is one reason in particular that a culture of denunciation during primary season on the left can build power for the right: Once the visceral outrage reaction has been triggered against a specific candidate, it is very hard to reverse.

Here is how it works:

Moral Emotions are Sticky

Socially, when outrage gets activated, it separates the target of the outrage from the community of the offended. In the language of sociology, it others the one perceived as a bad actor. For the group that has closed ranks, being outraged and expressing it—especially in a punitive way—makes us feel better about ourselves and the people around us, so it’s great for fostering ingroup loyalty and energy. But the target of our outrage becomes not one of us.

Cognitively, we abandon trying to see things from their perspective and we stop asking nuanced questions about context. The fundamental attribution error kicks in, which means that we explain their disapproved behavior as caused by something internal to them. (By contrast, we explain our own bad behavior or that of our group as being caused by external factors.)

Morally, we experience outrage as representing values that are binding. These values are not matters of taste or preference, but rather truths we see as non-negotiable. So, we don’t easily pivot once we have moral feelings about a person, situation, or class of situations.

If, during the course of the primary fight, we argue for the policies of our preferred candidate and they lose the primary, we’re likely to settle for the person next in line, meaning the person whose policies or political ideology is most like that of the person we wanted. But if we’ve been persuaded that the other candidates are morally reprehensible and we loathe them for it, we’re likely to keep feeling that way once the primary is over.

We saw this with some Bernie supporters during the last presidential campaign. Most started out preferring Sanders because his political ideas represented a radical break with the establishment and captured their imagination. It was a positive attraction. But months before the primary ended, the rhetoric among some shifted to focus on Clinton as a corrupt, greedy liar. They borrowed language and logic from the far right, when needed, to make the case. It was not so much about being attracted by Bernie as being repelled by Hillary.

When the primary ended, Sanders encouraged his followers to vote for Clinton, whose policy positions were often similar to his own. But it was too late. Many of his supporters couldn’t see past the narrative of corruption and greed, and years later some still can’t stop talking about it. They get viscerally angry and activated whenever they think about Clinton. For some, this passion is stronger than any loathing they may feel toward Trump, because by the time the battle was narrowed to Clinton and Trump their attitude was a pox on both of their houses. They had disengaged.

This dynamic—the fact that moral disgust has such a long half-life—is the reason that the left-wing politics of denunciation may function, in part, as a Trump re-election campaign. If contenders and their aficionados taint each other in a lasting way, reducing enthusiasm and breadth of support for the last person standing on the left, Trump is the obvious beneficiary.

Frustration Can Goad Us Off a Cliff

In the current presidential primary fight, denunciation has heated up even faster than in the last one. That may be partly because the language of grievance has sharpened overall and social discourse has become more fractious. But also, political operatives and activists have gotten better at stirring the pot; and it’s easier because we’re more networked than ever.

Paradoxically, the existence of Trump in office may contribute to dynamics on the left that help keep him there. That is because of a psychological phenomenon called displacement. When people are feeling frustrated by their inability to have harms or grievances addressed in one arena, it is normal that some of that energy gets directed into other relationships or situations where being heard is more possible. We are living with a government that is captive to greed, science-denial, racial fear, corruption, and religious fundamentalism—and is headed by a moral degenerate who has yet to be held accountable. The election of Donald Trump shook us, profoundly. Many progressives carry anger or anxiety near the boiling point. That makes us more likely to go after who we can when we can, because outrage focuses us on here and now, proportion and long-term consequences be damned. And that is exactly where Trump’s re-election campaign wants us.

We Don’t Have to Feed the Beast

Outrage tends to escalate when people perceive that their friends and community are unanimous in sharing their perspective and feelings. Under those circumstances, people—all of us—trend toward greater certitude and more extreme opinions even when our shared evidence is poor and our thinking simplistic. Conversely, each of us has some power to reduce pile-ons by simply making people aware that there are multiple perspectives present “in the room.” By pointing out denunciation dynamics when we see them and adding nuance or offering alternative thoughts and ideas, we keep at bay the false sense that everybody of conscience is in agreement (except when they actually are).

Smart candidates who are decent people are going to have personal flaws. They are going to have done things they regret. They are going to change their minds because they are capable of learning as they go. And every one of them is going to disagree with you or me about something we think is important, because smart, informed, decent people don’t always agree. Accepting that, rather than feeling betrayed by it, is part of what young folks call adulting. We can do it.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at

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