Donald Trump: The Fear Whisperer

I hate Huntsman Spiders. Correction – I am terrified of them. It doesn’t matter that I know they can’t kill me. They are a HYUGE, brown, hairy spider – and when I see one, my heart starts to race, the Adrenalin starts pumping and all I can think of is that it must die. IMMEDIATELY. OK, maybe they aren’t hairy – I wouldn’t actually know. By the time I’ve emptied half a can of fly spray onto one, followed by a frenzy of banging – it’s a little hard to tell.

There’s nothing logical about my fear. I know that. And ironically I’m not scared of all spiders – if I see the relatively small but extremely venomous redback spider, I will calmly and carefully get rid of it.

But that is the nature of an irrational fear or phobia – when it takes over, you’re not thinking, you’re just feeling. And no amount of reasoning is going to convince me that the eight-legged monster of death on my wall is not an immediate threat to life – or at least many limbs.

“What’s that got to do with Donald Trump?” I hear you ask. Good question.

The authoritarian voter and the Huntsman

Research released earlier this week confirmed an aspect of human nature that political scientists have been studying since World War II and which helps to explain one of the key drivers behind Donald Trump’s success with American voters. That research found that there is a high correlation between people identified as ‘authoritarians’ and people who support Trump. In the context of this research, an ‘authoritarian’ is described as being someone who:

  • is more fearful than other voters of two particular threats:
    • threats from ‘outside’ (such as terrorists and foreigners); and
    • the threat of social change (like marriage equality and gun rights);
  • wants to ‘impose order’ in the face of a threatening change; 
  • desires “a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force“.

What jumped out at me from this description is that the type of fear that seems to be driving the authoritarian’s behaviour is very much like the response you would expect from someone with a phobia. And that just like when I see a Huntsman spider, when the authoritarian Trump voter’s fear is triggered, they cannot be reasoned with and demand a swift and overly aggressive response.

“But terrorism actually is deadly” – I hear you say – “and a Huntsman isn’t”.

OK,  I’m not entirely convinced that’s true – the bit about the Huntsman not being deadly that is. But let’s go with conventional wisdom for now and assume that a Huntsman is not deadly and instead compare the authoritarian’s reaction with another common phobia – aerophobia, or fear of flying.

One in fifteen people have aerophobia – an irrational fear of flying – and as many as one in four people are ‘nervous flyers’ or ‘phobic’. And yet flying is far less dangerous than driving – by a huge magnitude. The fact is that you are far more likely to be killed in the car on the way to the airport than in the plane you catch from that airport.

However it would be inaccurate to tell an aerophobic that flying is completely safe and that planes never crash. They rarely crash – but very occasionally they do.

The same is true of terrorism. It would be inaccurate to tell an authoritarian Trump supporter that terrorists aren’t dangerous or a threat. But the probability of them being hurt by a terrorist is very low. As I wrote last year, you are far more likely to be killed by falling out of bed than by a terrorist under it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to protect ourselves against terrorists – just as the fact that flying is relatively safe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to regulate flying to keep it safe.

The issue is that the level of fear that the authoritarian Trump voter feels towards groups like terrorists, Muslim and foreigners – is completely disproportionate to the threat they actually pose, as is the corresponding action those authoritarians want to take. They may or may not have a phobia in the diagnostic sense, but they are definitely ‘phobic’.

And just as I can’t be reasoned with when it comes to the Huntsman spiders – nor can the phobic Trump voter be reasoned with when it comes to their fears – no matter how irrational those fears are. Here’s why…

The physiology of fear

At a physiological level, research shows us that when we feel fear, the amygdala – or the emotional center of the brain – is triggered before we even have conscious awareness of a particular threat. Basically we feel before we think. Unfortunately, when this is combined with stress, the activity in the amygdala (our emotional centre) suppresses activity in the cortex (which is where we generate thoughts and solve problems).

Social psychologist and Professor at NYU Jonathan Haidt has also done a significant amount of research into the authoritarian voter. His research confirmed that:

when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare“.

This is why it can seem so difficult to argue with an authoritarian Trump voter about these issues. And why even the likes of commentator John Oliver – who did a brilliant piece recently shooting holes in all the ‘reasons’ Trump supporters give – can’t convince the authoritarian voter not to vote for Trump. When it comes to who they support, authoritarian voters arguably aren’t being driven by reason, they’re being driven by pure unadulterated Huntsman-whacking fear.

Importantly – and I can’t stress this enough – this doesn’t mean the authoritarian voter is never in a rational state of mind, nor that they are stupid – it just means that in regards to this issue, their fear has control of their actions and while not impossible, it is very difficult to reason with them.

Hear the fear

Once you know this, it can help in understanding otherwise seemingly nonsensical comments from authoritarian Trump supporters. If you listen to the words of Trump supporters in the video below from vox.com, you will be able to spot some authoritarian voters. For example, one of the guys interviewed, when asked if it was fair to say that Muslims are ‘the problem’, responded with:

“If you break it down. Yeah. They’re a problem. Sorry to say it. But I can’t help it. I can’t help but feel that way. Right now – I don’t feel safe. ” [Emphasis is mine to highlight key words.]

The irony of course, is that while these authoritarian Trump supporters talk tough, underneath it all, when it comes to these issues at least, they are anything but tough. Their show of bravado, their talk of wanting to be tough disguises the fact that they are actually very very afraid. Trying to argue with them will just convince them that you don’t ‘get it’.

And this is where Donald Trump – the Fear Whisperer – comes in….

Donald Trump: The Fear Whisperer

Whether consciously or unconsciously – and I suspect it’s the former – Donald Trump is playing the tune that he knows the authoritarian voter wants to hear. To them – he “gets it”. And like flies to honey, they are drawn to him. Trump does this in two ways:

1.  He gives a voice to the authoritarian voter’s fears

The first thing that Donald Trump does to draw in the authoritarian voter is that he gives a voice to their fears. He calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’, and says things like “there is a Muslim problem in the world..there is something out there that brings tremendous hatred.

Trump expresses their fears in a way that authoritarian voters wish they could – but can’t for fear of being condemned if they do. In their words:

“He says what people think when no-one else can. He’s not politically correct.”
(unnamed Trump supporter from the video above)

A theme amongst authoritarian voters seems to be that ‘political correctness’ means they can’t voice their fear – across both sides of the political spectrum.

Certainly, while authoritarian voters are more likely to be Republican (or right-wing) supporters – there are also authoritarian voters who would traditionally be Democrat (or left-wing) voters.  And unsurprisingly, at least some of them are Trump supporters – albeit often in secret. The Guardian ran an article this week with quotes from traditional Democrat voters who are secretly Trump supporters.  Here’s what a 50 year old college professor who lives in California had to say about why he would vote for Trump:

I’m a liberal-left college professor in the social sciences. I’m going to vote for Trump but I won’t tell hardly anybody….. I’m also furious at political correctness on campus and in the media. I’m angry at forced diversity and constant, frequently unjustified complaints about racism/sexism/homophobia

2.  Trump promises to defeat their fears with decisive quick brute force 

Having given voice to their fears, Trump then promises a seemingly powerful, swift solution to the authoritarian voter’s fears saying things like:

This is the authoritarian equivalent of me spraying half a can of fly spray onto a Huntsman spider and then whacking it into oblivion. But Trump’s “simple, powerful, punitive” response – to use the words of political scientist Stanley Feldman – is very attractive to the authoritarian voter. Here’s what one of them- a 48 year old scientist and self-declared Democrat (left-wing) voter who lives in San Francisco – had to say:

“I voted for Obama. I am a closet Trump supporter and I haven’t told any of my friends or co-workers….I’m very concerned about radical Muslims, and liked Donald’s idea to stop all Muslim immigration. I’m a patriotic socialist, but my strong-borders patriotism wins over my socialism if I have to choose. As Donald says, we either have a country or we don’t.”

Aren’t authoritarian voters just Islamophobes, Homophobes and racists?

Technically, I guess this is true – although not all authoritarian voters will fear the same thing. But when people use the words ‘Islamophobe’ or ‘Homophobe’, even though they have the word ‘phobia’ right in the name, typically we are focusing on them as being descriptors of hatred rather than fear. We speak of ‘hate crimes’ and ‘hate speech’ as being expressions of this.

Now there’s no doubt that Islamophobia, Homophobias and any of the other phobias that come under authoritarianism do result in hatred. Just as an aerophobe’s fear of flying results in them hating flying. But the difference is that the primary emotion behind a phobia isn’t hatred, it’s fear. This is an important distinction.

Don’t get me wrong here – that doesn’t make the hatred right. But it does change the way we should think about how we respond to it. And this is exactly what Trump has done. Listen to the words of one of the Trump supporters from the video again:

“I – I don’t have a racist bone in my body – I’m not that way. I just think we need to vet people a little bit better and find out why they are here and that kind of thing.”

Authoritarians object to being called racists, homophobes, islamophobes etc – exactly because those words are associated with hatred, and the primary emotion they are feeling is fear – or more accurately terror. If you were talking to someone who was afraid of flying, you wouldn’t tell them off for hating aircrafts or call them stupid. Instead, if you were trying to change their behaviour, you would focus on dealing with their fear.

And this is how Trump has become the Fear-Whisperer to authoritarians – he’s made them feel understood. And then he promises them the destructive over-reaction that their fear desires

If Trump were playing ‘fear-whisperer’ to aerophobes, he would be promising them that he would blow up every aircraft on the face of the earth, or alternatively ban all aircraft from entering the United States.

keep-calm-at-least-it-s-not-a-spiderSo what’s the answer then?

Answers are always much more difficult than questions unfortunately…

In many ways Trump has half the answer – he’s speaking to the authoritarian’s fear rather than at the resulting hatred. That’s definitely a start. The key is to work out how to do that while at the same time promoting a solution to the fear that is constructive rather than destructive and generates less (rather than more) hatred.

I don’t know what the answer to that is. But if I had to throw an idea out there, I suspect it lies in appealing to the authoritarian’s bravery rather than – as Trump has been doing – encouraging a cowardly response. (And there is nothing brave about bombing something into oblivion with drones from the other side of the world.)

If you look at World War II, you could argue that Hitler manipulated the German people with hatred and fear while the many of the allies motivated their citizenry through a call to bravery. In the end, it was obviously the allies that won. There are some that say that Trump’s strategies are inspired by Hitler – that he was a student of Hitler’s speeches. I have no idea if that is true or not – but if it is, we know what won the day back then – bravery and courage. We need leaders who speak to peoples’ fears in these terms to counteract the proliferation of hate that could otherwise ensue.

A final footnote

Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that everyone who votes for Trump is an authoritarian, nor that this is the only reason people vote for Trump. Nor am I saying that everyone who is an authoritarian will vote for Trump – or even vote conservative. Authoritarians are just one subset of voters. But since the research shows that this group is not small and is likely to fluctuate in size based on the perceived threat level – which appears to be growing right now – they are a group large enough to potentially decide the next US election.

There’s also signs of a similar trend here in Australia. Our previous Prime Minister – Tony Abbott – was not above a bit of fear-whispering himself, and given half the chance, I’m sure he’d be all too happy to take that tack again.

 

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14 comments

  • There are solid rational reasons why flying is more scary than driving in your car. (1) Driving your car, you’re in full control. In an aircraft, you’re not. (2) In your car, you can see where you’re going, assess the risks, and act accordingly. In an aircraft, you can’t see where you’re going, you have no idea when you’re at risk unless the pilots decide to tell you (and they usually aren’t going to share ALL the information they have with you, for fear of causing panic). (3) This is the big one. If you’re going to be killed in your car, you’ll usually know about it 3 seconds in advance, at most, then you’ll die, often instantly. If you’re going to be killed in an aircraft, often you’re subjected to minutes (at best) or hours (at worst) of agonising knowledge that something’s going wrong, often without knowing the details or the likelihood of death or in what circumstances you will be ripped to shreds. That’s bad. Sorry to be so graphic, but the lesser likelihood of aircraft death compared to road death doesn’t make it less scary. Because likelihood of death isn’t the only factor.

    Not sure how this affects my assessment of a Trump-dominated world, but I’m thinking about it and will get back to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve done a lot of flying in my life. And luckily it’s not something that worries me. None of the things you mention worry me. Now Huntsman spiders on the other hand…..

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    • Pressed send too soon. What I was wondering was whether you might be a nervous flyer.

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      • No. Not a particularly nervous flyer, despite my comments above. Flying to Europe and back later this year, so I’d better not be. But the potential for a long agonising wait for impact, knowing your aircraft is in trouble, does occur to me from time to time. It’s all about lack of control, which I guess is relevant to the discussion of a Trump presidency. If that imbecile gets his hands on the buttons controlling the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, and decides the best way to deal with Vladimir Putin is to shirtfront him, who knows what could happen, and who, other than Trump and Putin, could exercise any control over it? Even Abbott wasn’t idiot enough to really shirtfront Putin, but I wouldn’t put anything past Trump, given his constantly confrontational rhetoric. He makes Abbott look wise, thoughtful and restrained.

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    • But look forward to hearing your conclusions when you’ve thought about it!

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  • Not sure I can agree with your thinking Arthur. Firstly you are not in full control in a car, the actions of other drivers, the state of the roads, your mechanic and your concentration remove much of the control. In planes you usually have two highly trained people driving in a superbly maintained machine (or it should be). The facts demonstrate this clearly, a 50 times chance of dying on the roads. Also if you are 50 times more likely to be killed in a car I would prefer to take my chances with waiting for 3 seconds or an hour to die.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rob. As the author of this piece makes clear in her statements about spiders, fear is not all about facts. It’s at least partly about perceptions. But still, there are a few relevant facts which, I maintain, make my position logical. (1) Driving safely and defensively can dramatically reduce, if not totally eliminate, your chances of death or injury on the road. In 50 years of driving, including 25 years as a professional driver (trucks, buses, taxis) I have never had to pay a speeding ticket, never failed an RBT, had only one accident (a minor tail-ender, my fault) 35 years ago, had no demerit points on my licence since 1986, and have never come remotely close to death or injury. That’s why I feel in control behind the wheel. (2) If your car fails on the road, you simply pull off the road and stop. If your aircraft fails in flight, you’re in real trouble, still hurtling through the air at several hundred kph and looking for somewhere to land. That almost defines the difference between control and no control. (3) If you watch “Air Crash Investigation” you find the main causes of air deaths are, in no particular order, (a) poor aircraft design, (b) poor aircraft maintenance, (c) pilot error, (d) air traffic control error, (e) rogue crew members, (f) terrorists. All of these are rare, but neither you nor I have any control whatsoever over them.

      Anyway, this forum seems to have deviated from its point, which was Trump and the way he plays on people’s fears, so I’ll butt out at this point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually Arthur – and Rob – I think the discussion is very much on point, which is the different perspective people have on fears. Ironically I was tossing up between picking aerophobia and a fear of heights – and I chose the former (obviously), probably because, as I said, I’m not even remotely nervous about flying. And nothing you’ve said convinces me I should be more nervous about flying. The discussions we’ve been having about aerophobia are – in my view at least – actually a good illustration of the challenges that we, and the US, are having in agreeing about what is an appropriate response to terrorists. Trump supporters clearly believe that the danger terrorists pose to their country is greater than I believe the danger is. The point of my article was to accept that there are different perspectives on this…

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  • Firstly, thanks for the article Kate, I should have said that first off.

    And thanks for your response Arthur, My take from Kate’s point is that our evaluation and responses to risks will be irrational without a rational analysis of the various risks. For example, I often travel across Australia (3,000 o 4,000 km). My analysis leads me to fly. If I drove I am reasonably confident that I would have fallen asleep at the wheel and killed myself long before now.

    Trump’s supporters’ fear of terrorism from Muslims who enter the USA has led to Trump’s proposal to exclude them. I am not sure that this action (even if the premise were true) would reduce the risk. Take Bush, Blair and Howard deciding that people in middle east were a risk and they needed to be bombed back to the stone age before they came to the US, UK or Australia. This may have reduced terrorism at home although I doubt it. It certainly hasn’t reduced the demand by the refugees to come to the US, UK and Australia or the desire of the outraged and newly terrorised to do some terrorising of their own.

    I think Machiavelli would have found a different solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Plainly, choosing to drive from Sydney to Perth is more of a tourist choice than a case of practicality. It wouldn’t be all that economical either. My point was that there are other things to be rationally worried about, other than the mere statistical analysis of the relative risks. But let it pass.

    Attempting to bomb ISIS “back to the stone age” would probably be one of the dumbest things Trump could do, since it would immediately become their best recruiting tool ever, especially if they took out (as inevitably they would) some civilians including children. See “Blowback” by Chalmers Johnston (2000). The problem is that Trump doesn’t strike me as the type of person to take potential blowback into consideration, nor as the kind who would readily accept advice along those lines from anyone.

    As an American friend of mine commented just the other day, if Trump makes it to the Oval Office, anyone attempting to present evidence or advice Trump doesn’t like will pretty soon get blasted out of his office with a volley of abuse ringing in their ears. The man’s default attitude seems to be that of a bulldog chewing a wasp, and I can’t imagine him changing that after becoming POTUS. That’s just his schtick – good enough to get him elected, good enough to continue with afterwards.

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  • Pingback: Was Brexit really democracy in action? (#ItsTime) | Progressive Conversation

  • Donald Trump’s success in catching the attention and support of many Americans is IMHO caused by exactly the same factors as drove Britons to vote themselves out of the EU. Although not unconnected, this phenomenon is not quite the same as the lurch to the xenophobic political right currently occurring across the western world. What underpinned Trump’s popularity and BREXIT was I think the perception (not without foundation) that established economic and political institutions were in multiple ways failing to protect the lifestyles of ordinary citizens and had been for decades. Trump supporters and BREXITeers may well have also been fearful for their futures but the dominant emotion driving their support was anger. If banks had been allowed to fail and bankers held responsible for the depradations of the GFC, if governments had rallied decisively behind their citizens in the wake of this disaster. Trump may well have never shown up on the big stage and England may well have been still safely in the embrace of mother Europe.

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