News and Blog

  • Understanding the Appeal of Trump

    I just read an article by George Lakoff, Ph.D., a UC Berkeley Professor of Linguistics, who is a long-time researcher of cognitive science and linguistics. He wrote a blog in the Huffington Post titled Understanding Trump. It’s a lengthy article, but he presents some interesting information on why so many people are attracted to Trump, which many progressives cannot understand.

    He starts by asking the question as to how conservatives and progressives can have policy positions, which don’t seem to hold together. Among conservatives, what does being against abortion have to do with being for owning guns? What does owning guns have to do with denying the reality of global warning? How does being anti-government fit with wanting a stronger military? How can you be pro-life and for the death penalty?

    The answer he presents comes from understanding our nation metaphorically in family terms. We have founding fathers; we send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. Trump supporters believe in the strict father family and Trump is presenting himself as that father figure to lead our nation.

    To quote Lakoff: In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

    He goes on to talk about direct versus systemic causation, with conservatives tending to support more direct causations, and many of Trump’s policy proposals are framed in terms of direct causation. For example, immigrants are coming from Mexico, so build a wall to stop them. The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to shoot the shooter. There is more in his blog, including the use of neural circuitry, much of which is unconscious, and how what Trump says moves people towards him, if they are leaning in his direction. These mechanisms include repetition (We are going to win, win, win and win big), Framing (Crooked Hillary), using well-known examples (citing shootings by minority groups to increase fear), grammar (radical Islamic terrorists to tie radical to Islam), and metaphors used in a variety of ways make him more appealing and opponents less so.

    Lakoff does present ways to counter this. He says not to repeat false claims and refute them with facts, but rather give truthful framing to undermine these false claims. Also, start with values, not policies or facts. This approach can be used outside of politics, be it in conversations with family and friends, when working with patients, or by people in sales. If you are interested in reading more go to his blog on Understanding Trump. If you have any comments, please email me at ken@psychsem.com. I look forward to hearing from you.