Why is Trump getting so much support? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, according to articles like “The Psychology Behind Donald Trump’s Unwavering Support” there’s a simple explanation for it all: Trump supporters are just less intelligent than everyone else. There are a lot of these sorts of articles floating around. They’re appealing, reassuring even, because they appear to offer an “inside look” into a phenomenon that lots of people just don’t understand. However, I think we need to look critically at these articles for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the one I linked to above, which is as good a specimen as any.
The biggest problem I have with this piece is that it completely decontextualizes (or recontextualizes) the results of the scientific studies it cites to encourage one, overly simple interpretation: conservatives are dumb, lesser beings driven by emotions rather than reason. I think this message is appealing to liberal intellectuals and anyone else who doesn’t support Trump, because it makes them feel superior, and allows them to avoid any sense of responsibility for what’s happening. But when you combine this with stereotypes about “white trash” and conservative “rednecks,” it gets pretty classist pretty fast. There are a lot of possible ways of interpreting these studies, the first being that heightened fear responses amongst conservatives are a response to repetitive exposure to stressful environments and more precarious living conditions. Without knowing anything about the studies’ participants, other than that they were identified as “conservatives,” it’s impossible to know how many of these differences are a result of past trauma, financial instability, recurring threats to physical safety, etc. The point about conservatives having a bigger amygdala implies that there are innate biological differences, and that no other explanation is necessary, which is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible way to frame a complex social phenomenon.
The argument that Trump supporters “aren’t smart enough to know they’re dumb” is even worse. I’ve personally seen just as many, if not more, instances of the Dunning-Kruger effect among liberals as I have among conservatives. In fact, I’ve probably had more productive discussions with conservatives, who are at least willing to admit that something is terribly wrong with how things are currently working (even if we completely disagree on the underlying cause of those problems and the solutions), than I have with the “America is already great” brand of liberals. And if anyone is tempted to say, “hey this is just anecdotal evidence, it’s not science!” then yes, I completely agree, but I’m also providing just as much scientific backing for this statement as the author is for theirs: none.
The conclusion to the piece, which states that there is nothing we can do because Trump supporters are just biologically wired to support Trump, is also incredibly suspect. One of the major reasons that people support Trump (that isn’t mentioned in this article) is because he seems to be the only alternative to Clinton, aka the establishment, aka the status quo, and people are sick and tired of putting up with a system that isn’t working for them and only seems to be getting worse. Both liberals and conservatives have pushed the “there is no alternative” message pretty hard, for quite some time now, both through media messaging, school curriculums, etc., and by concretely repressing any individuals or groups that threaten the two-party system and the neoliberal, capitalist agenda it supports. The Red Scare, the systematic undermining of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the violence committed against pipeline protesters and Black Lives Matter activists– all this stuff contributes to creating the “polarized” environment that we see emerging in the US, where you’re either for Clinton or for Trump, and no other position is possible. This benefits both the liberal and the conservative political class, as well as the ruling class which supports both sides, because the threat of one drives people into the arms of the other (the Canadian system works the same way). Both of these options are bad for the vast majority of people, but most people don’t know what to do about it, and articles like these aren’t helping. Personally, I suggest dismantling the whole system and/or working outside of it until it collapses in on itself, but that option is almost never put on the table, because it’s considered too threatening to the powers-that-be, and will probably get you fired.
I write this as someone who is virulently anti-Trump, so I have my own biases, but I don’t think alienating conservatives in this way is helpful. If you’re going to alienate conservatives (or liberals), do it by fighting racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and every other oppressive system. Relying on classist, ableist language and assumptions is a step in the wrong direction, no matter how good it might make us feel in the face of the terrifying spectacle that is Trump vs. Clinton 2016. We don’t need op-eds that dehumanize the “other side” through naïve appeals to scientific authority, especially when those narratives lead us towards some very scary places. What we need are collective movements and organizations that can build lasting, democratic alternatives. What we need is a way out.