by Roy Eidelson
In my previous post, I noted that in my research as a psychologist, I’ve found that the psychological appeals used by people eager to maintain or extend their extraordinary wealth and power tend to target five key concerns in our daily lives: issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. In this current post, I provide specific examples of how Donald Trump manipulated these concerns in his campaign for President.
Vulnerability: Are We Safe?
When our security is in jeopardy, nothing else matters as much. The mere prospect of danger on the horizon can quickly consume all of our energy and focus. That’s why ensuring the safety of people we care about is such a powerful factor in determining the policies we support and oppose. Unfortunately, however, we’re not particularly good at accurately judging peril. As a result, we’re susceptible to manipulation by those who misrepresent dangers in order to advance their own agenda.
On the campaign trail, Trump consistently fed our worries about vulnerability. Describing himself as “the law and order candidate,” he warned that “our very way of life” was at risk, and assured us that only he could protect us from a wide range of purportedly catastrophic threats. Promising to build a “great wall” along our border with Mexico, he falsely claimed, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” With similar over-the-top rhetoric, he railed against bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. as “a personal invitation to ISIS members to come live here and try to destroy our country from within.” Trump also exploited fears in a different way: by issuing disturbing threats of his own. For example, responding to a protester at a rally, he told the crowd, “You know what they used to do to a guy like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” He also had a warning for media representatives who criticized him: “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
Injustice: Are We Treated Fairly?
From everyday slights to profound abuses, the recognition of injustice can be a powerful force for change. When we’re aware of mistreatment, it often stirs outrage and a desire to correct wrongs and bring accountability to those we hold responsible. But our perceptions of injustice are imperfect and uncertain. This fallibility can make us easy targets for those with a self-serving interest in shaping our views of right and wrong and misleading us about victims and perpetrators.
Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump portrayed his candidacy and platform as an effort to address wrongdoing on multiple fronts. When announcing his run, he lamented, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” Months later in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he feigned common cause with “the forgotten men and women of our country,” promising “to fix the system so it works justly for each and every American.” At the same time, Trump was quick to cast himself as an aggrieved victim of injustice as well. For example, prior to his victory he repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged against him (“They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths…voter fraud is very, very common.”). And on several occasions he insisted that he was being mistreated by the media (“I get very, very unfair press having to do with women and many other things.”).
Distrust: Who Should We Trust?
We tend to divide the world into people and groups we deem trustworthy and others we don’t. Unfortunately, the judgments we make can be flawed and imprecise. Sometimes these errors create unwarranted barriers of distrust that interfere with the building of coalitions and working together toward mutually beneficial goals. Those who have a vested interest in preventing such collaborative efforts often manipulate our suspicions in order to promote their own agenda.
Trump routinely characterized his political opponents as untrustworthy. For example, he referred to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” and to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.” He also cast doubt on the integrity of his media critics, arguing, “They are horrible human beings, they are dishonest. I’ve seen these so-called journalists flat-out lie.” Trump encouraged the public’s distrust of specific marginalized groups as well. He described the Black Lives Matter movement as “looking for trouble,” and placed American Muslims under a cloud of suspicion, expressing potential support for special identification cards and a registry database. Meanwhile, Trump presented himself as the only reliable truth-teller, one who shunned the deceptions of political correctness. When he accepted the Republican nomination in July, he told the attendees, “Here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”
Superiority: Are We Good Enough?
The positive and negative judgments we form about ourselves are often based on comparisons with others. The yardstick can be nearly anything: for example, our intelligence, attractiveness, professional success, community stature, or moral values. To reinforce our positive self-appraisals, we sometimes focus attention on the very worst characteristics of other people or groups. Not surprisingly, our self-evaluations are prime targets for manipulative appeals by those eager to turn our hopes and insecurities to their own advantage.
With his “Make America Great Again” campaign Trump aimed to instill a sense of pride and superiority in his supporters. In part, he lifted them up by viciously belittling his adversaries, describing them as “disgusting,” “total failures,” “idiots,” and “losers.” Likewise, he claimed that current leaders had failed the American people and the U.S. flag that proudly represents “equality, hope, and fairness…great courage and sacrifice.” For example, Trump complained that Americans “have lived through one international humiliation after another” and that “everyone is eating our lunch.” At the same time, he presented himself as a savior who would make sure the country and its citizens regained the stature they had lost. He claimed that his own accomplishments surpassed those of everyone else, boasting in one interview, “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far.” Trump also repeatedly insisted that his name — and everything he does — is synonymous with top quality, on one occasion explaining, “Nobody can build a wall like me.”
Helplessness: Can We Control What Happens to Us?
Control over what happens in our lives is very important to us, and we therefore resist feelings of helplessness. But if we nonetheless come to believe that our efforts are futile, eventually we stop trying. This is true for individuals and groups alike. That’s why a sense of collective helplessness is such a serious obstacle to effective political mobilization. Manipulating our perceptions of what’s possible and what’s not is a common strategy for those seeking to advance their own interests.
Throughout his campaign, Trump extolled his capability, his expertise, and his doggedness regardless of the odds against him. He told one interviewer, “My life has been about winning.” In his acceptance speech he denounced “the system” and claimed, “I alone can fix it”; he concluded with “I’m with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.” Memorably, he also told a crowd in Washington, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” Trump contrasted this purported track record of consistent success with the helplessness Americans would experience if his opponents prevailed. He warned of “uncontrolled immigration,” “mass lawlessness,” and “overwhelm[ed]…schools and hospitals;” and he described prospects for immigrants to join the middle class as “almost impossible.” On Twitter, Trump claimed, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse.” And he cautioned that efforts aimed at reforming gun laws would make Americans helpless to protect themselves: “You take the guns away from the good people, and the bad ones are going to have target practice.”
In my final post for this series, I will provide suggestions as to how concerned Americans should respond to the threats implicit in Trump’s mind games. We are not helpless.
Originally published in Counterpunch, December 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, former executive director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Roy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @royeidelson.
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