How did Trump, a man with so little substance, become the prospective leader of the free world. Why did sixty million Americans vote him in, in full view of the man’s expressed biases, prejudices (alt-right wing ideals) and false beliefs about the world (from climate change to ethical norms)? The answer is buried deep in the socio-psychological drivers of a nation’s dominant population, which on some level refuses to fully integrate, ethnically, religiously or racially, and on another level resents how life has turned out, economically at least. When these two drivers converge, scapegoats appear. And, because of this intractable circumstance, that life might not get much better, they find themselves drawn to a messiah, or as others might characterize, a veritable “Wizard of OZ.”
Our successes and failures begin at the perceptual stage, a process that includes attention, selection and organization of the actions that come into the field of our senses. When an event, such as a political news piece, captures our attention we select certain elements. We then organize these occurrences in a way that makes sense, based on our intellect, culture, social experience, and unfortunately by our biases, prejudices and self-interests. When overload occurs, as it seems to for some during the past several years, attention turns to matters more directly associated with a dire sense of security.
Most lives are not consumed by the political machinations of candidates, so attention to what is going on ranges from little awareness, the kind we pay to advertising, background conversations, or matters communicated to us in the surrounds of an audience that may not involve us fully. In these cases we may be aware of some information, yet a part of what is happening or said does filter into our subconscious, that place where bias, prejudice, fear dictate how we behave.
The less one is involved, the less apt one is to use systematic information processing (good logic), that is, use all the available information in coming to a decision. But nonetheless we do act upon this information when we make choices, such as choosing a president. We refer to this as low-involvement decision making. We react to much advertising in this way, and unfortunately, to the propaganda (false portrayal of what the real world is, followed up by false promises) of politicians.
During an evening of television, we may be exposed to 60 different commercials, from soaps to political candidates, most of which do not draw our attention. We may be talking or reading and only hearing a background of the message being broadcast, unless something sparks our attention, something that we think bears on our security. And, even under these circumstances, our ability to listen critically and respond thoughtfully is often impaired because of our instinct to defend ourselves against that which we fear. What it takes to persuade us on a subject under conditions where we feel vulnerable, differs from what it takes to persuade us under conditions where we ordinarily deal with a subject objectively, rationally.
Some circumstances are simply unmanageable (such as job loss, with no prospects on the horizon) and when this happens, we are apt to either lash out, or shut down and adopt an avoidance behavior. If the threat remains unabated, we can experience anxiety, anger, depression and even apathy. For many Americans, especially those under economic assault, they chose the path that appeals in their gut, a sense that a particular messenger has the better chance of fixing what ails them.
During this past election, Trump recognized this, and his messaging went a step further than offering solutions. It amplified its prescriptions by injecting an undercurrent that “others” were responsible for the electorate’s wows. He appeared the stronger of the candidates to those wanting someone to lead them away from their malaise. I hesitate to use the word “messiah,” but to my way of thinking that is precisely the role Trump played, this past election. The “others” of course were, in no particular order, the elites, Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese, Jews, brown and black people. One could simply pick which one resonated with their worst prejudices. Sometimes we are given the chance to express ourselves, and we do not always make the right choices.