There are many things I don’t agree with but I understand the motivation behind them. Religion is an example. I am not a religious person, but I can easily see the appeal of religion. Religion offers consolation for death anxiety. People need to feel like their lives have meaning. Religion offers purpose. People want to believe there’s something more to life than everyday conscious experience because frankly, for lots of people, everyday experience just isn’t good enough. Everyday experience is dissatisfaction, disappointment and dukkha. People need hope that “this” isn’t all there is. Religion gives people that hope. Even if you’re nonreligious, it’s not hard to see why religion appeals to people.
Donald Trump’s appeal to half of Americans on the other hand is something that has puzzled me for years. It’s not that he doesn’t appeal to me. It’s that I haven’t been able to comprehend how he appeals to anyone, especially such a large fraction of American voters. I’m not alone in the confusion. Sam Harris has also admitted to struggling to understand Trump’s appeal.
I’ve made many inquiries to Trump supporters about what they find appealing about him. I get a wide variety of answers but none of the answers given, even taken altogether, seem to account for his appeal. Conversations I’ve had with Trump supporters have made me disinclined to take their word for why they support him. Here’s an example of how one such conversation typically goes:
Myself: “What makes Trump appeal to you?”
Trump Supporter: “He wants to build a wall.”
Myself: “If he didn’t would you still vote for him?”
Trump Supporter: “Yes.”
Myself: “So the wall isn’t the reason he appeals to you. At least it’s not the only reason. What else makes Trump appeal to you?”
Trump Supporter: “He tells the truth.”
Myself: “Here’s concrete examples of him contradicting himself.” (I show examples)
Trump Supporter: “So? All politicians lie.”
Myself: “So truthtelling isn’t the real reason he appeals to you either. What’s his strongest appeal?”
Trump Supporter: “He runs the country like a business. He’s a businessman, not a politician.”
Myself: “But he routinely blames everyone else for his failures. In a business setting, doing that gets you fired. So he’s not running the country like a business.”
Trump Supporter: “I don’t care.”
Myself: “What if he kicked a baby?”
Trump Supporter: “He wouldn’t do that.”
…and so on and so forth. So you can see the reason I’m not inclined to take Trump supporters at their word on why Trump is appealing. Even when I remove their stated reasons for supporting him it makes zero difference. They still find him appealing. I don’t think they’re purposely misdirecting me or being deceptive. It’s pretty clear there’s something else going on.
Studies in the field of psychology have shown that the color of the walls in a room, the temperature of a coffee offered to test subjects, and the wording of a question can all influence the outcome of an experiment. But the test subjects never cite those things as significant factors in their decision making despite the statistics indicating they were significant influences. The same sort of phenomenon is occurring when Trump supporters explain why Trump is appealing. The reasons they give are reasons they believe they find him appealing, but not the actual reasons. There are underlying psychological influences at play.
Sam Harris has a fascinating take on Trump’s appeal which suggests what one of those underlying psychological influences might be. I’ll let him do the talking: