The Secret Sauce of Trump

The Secret Sauce of Trump September 29, 2020

Why is Trump president? That is a serious question for me. I mean I know that he is president because he received more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton. But what skill did Trump bring to the 2016 election that led to his presidency? Part of what surprised me about his election is that I did not see any discernable skill that he contributed to that victory. I watched as Trump won primary after primary during the Republican nomination process. Then I watched during the election night as he won state after state. All the while I wondered how Trump attracted so much support. It seemed that he was winning despite his actions instead of because of his actions.

To be clear I understand why some would support him depending on their political values. Someone who is pro-life and votes only on that issue, may hate almost everything Trump does but will still vote for him due to that single issue. I get it that this happens. It is not as if I did not expect Trump to get any votes. But I do not think that there are enough pure Republicans to win a national election. Trump had to win over some independents and even Democrats to have won in 2016. But I have been at a loss to consider what skills he brought to the race that would allow him to win.

To be clear this is not about whether I like him or not. I don’t. But I have not liked many of the elected presidents in my life and yet I have been able to understand what skills they bring and why those skills would attract voters. I understood why they were elected. Obama has incredible oratory skills. Bush the younger displays an uncanny ability to make you feel like he is one of you. Clinton possesses masterful political skills. Bush the older exhibited great organizational competency. Reagan may have had greater speaking skills than Obama. Whether I liked these men or not, I clearly could see why some individuals were persuaded by them to support them.

I see none of that in Trump. He is not a great speaker, does not have the potential to make you think that he is one of you, lacks organizational competency and has limited political skills. So why did he manage to win the 2016 election? Yes Clinton was a horrible campaigner but she at least was competent. Given who she was running against that should have been enough. She should have won, with or without the electoral college. What skills did Trump have that led to his win? For the past three years or so I had theories but none of them satisfied me.

Then I saw this video about how Trump wins debates. And it began to click for me. Trump did have a skill that I had not appreciated until now. He has a skill to appeal to the animalistic side of our minds. It is a side that impacts our decisions. We like to think that all of our decisions are rational. But there is an emotional animalistic side to us that also deeply impacts our decisions even when we do not realize that this is happening. Trump’s big political advantage, and it may be one he honed in his years in business, is the ability to touch our emotional side, for good or for bad.

My research on atheists provides a good example of the importance of emotions in decision making. In the early stages of my research I consistently heard atheists talk about the acceptance of atheism as totally a rational decision. Indeed, they argued that acceptance of religion was an emotional decision while accepting atheism was due to pure logic. Some of them even told me that if anyone was completely objective that they naturally would come to the conclusion that God did not exist. So, in the latter stages of my research I wanted to explore this rationally driven process. I asked the atheists what evidence convinced them that atheism was right. And I asked them if they ever had any doubts about their atheism.

Although I have done enough reading from Christian intellectuals to not personally accept the argument that atheism is the natural outcome of objective rationality, I was very curious to see how atheists would answer those questions. To the question about evidence most of them stated that they had no evidence for atheism but simply felt that there was not enough evidence for theism. To the question of doubts, most of my respondents stated that they never had any doubts. Given the confidence my respondents had that their beliefs were the natural outcome of rational thought, I expected more than an inability to doubt a thesis where there is no positive evidence. It seems to me that a purely logical decision would rely on some degree of positive evidence and would exhibit an openness to doubt. Thus, my research on atheists is a good reminder that individuals have a powerful ability to convince themselves that they are more rational than they truly are.

At times we are hit in our emotional core. We do not always recognize that we have been emotionally moved towards a certain belief or loyalty to an idea or person. But emotions often become a powerful force that moves us to our decisions. Trump has an ability to touch that emotional core that drives so much of our decisions. I have seen reports of grown men who cry at his rallies. Some vote for Trump simply for political reasons. Others have a passion for the man that clearly defies reason. Of course, this ability does not affect everyone. But it impacted enough people that he was able to swing the key battleground states he needed to take the presidency. Make no mistake about it. This is a skill and it does help to explain why he is now president of this fair land.

Of course Trump also inspires negative emotions. All presidents do in their political opponents but I must say that in my lifetime I do not think I have seen a political figure who generates so many negative emotions as Trump. And even that can work towards his favor. It moves his political enemies to make very dumb choices. Remember Rubio’s “hand” jokes? The mishandling of the Democrats in the Senate over Kavanaugh? I gotta believe that actions like this are not just logical mistakes but were heavily influenced by the negative emotions Trump inspired. I used to think that Trump is blessed by getting enemies that make him look better than he is. I have come to realize that Trump’s talent in touching our emotions has played a role in the creation of those enemies.

Let me be clear that I am not arguing that everyone who votes for Trump does so because he has touched them emotionally. Some do so simply because he is the Republican candidate. Others may do so because of his stance on issues. Many of my pro-life friends argue that his appointment of judges is enough for him to get their vote. Still others who have no emotional connection to the man may simply vote for him out of fear of a Democratic administration. They would vote for any Republican due to their fear of the Democrats. I have no data but my guess is that most who vote for Trump do so without having this emotional center activated.

But this is where Trump’s ability matters. He can gain additional votes above and beyond those who naturally vote for the Republican candidate. Those he emotionally activates would not be enough to win by themselves but with the others who normally vote for Republicans, he is able to achieve electoral success. Some of my friends told me that in 2016 that Trump was the only Republican candidate who could have beaten Clinton. I disagreed with them then and I still do. Clinton was such a bad candidate that I think that just about any Republican nominee would have won (Well maybe not Cruz but that is a topic for a different day). But they would have had to have done so with talents other than an appeal to an animalistic emotional core. They would have had to rely upon other talents to get that final margin. Trump’s ability to make this type of appeal is unique among politicians.

As I think about it few American politicians have inspired as much emotion as Trump. Clearly, he inspires a lot of anger and hate. Just watch MSNBC. But he also inspires an emotional loyalty and, dare I say it, love from his many fans. Touching the emotional core can have positive and negative effects. While Trump is not the original source of the polarization in our society, he has seemed to accelerate it. Inspiring both powerful loathing from his detractors and deep loyalty from his supporters explains how his presidency has deepened the conflict in the U.S.

Four years ago I made an observation about Secretary Clinton to my facebook friends. I observed during the primaries that I had friends who were excited about all of the major Republican candidates (Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush etc.) and I had those excited for Sanders but no one was excited about Clinton. Yes after she defeated Sanders many of my more progressive friends argued that we had to vote for her to defeat Trump. But even then the excitement for her was muted at best. I must say that I am seeing a repeat of history right now with Biden. I did have a few friends who supported Biden in the primary, but they argued it from more of a pragmatic reason. They simply saw him as the best chance to beat Trump.

I think we are seeing a replay of the 2016 election. Biden (Clinton) has a higher number of supporters than Trump. But Trump’s supporters are more passionate in their support of him. I am not predicting that Trump is going to win. He may. He may not. But now four years later I am seeing why such a race has shaped our country. It is due to Trump’s ability to motivate the animalistic side of our brain. Often that motivation produces negative emotions, as seen in the major efforts to remove him from office. But clearly this ability can also motivate positive emotions and move enough people so that he can win again. I underestimated Trump before. I will not do so again.


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