From reason to reaction: Trump election shows what happens when we feel threatened

Donald Trump valued the importance of emotion over reason to correctly diagnose the emotional mood of American voters.

From reason to reaction: Trump election shows what happens when we feel threatened

How could a billionaire New York property developer who has never served in public office become the president of the US? While the answer to this question will fill thousands of column inches and spawn numerous books, I will focus on how Donald Trump valued the importance of emotion over reason to correctly diagnose the emotional mood of the nation.

A victory for fear and anger over hope

Robert Plutchik's psychoevolutionary theory of emotion identifies eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. The primacy of these emotions has been central to our survival and fundamental to our evolution. These emotions guide our decisions and play a greater role in forming our decisions than rational thought. Rationality would have us standing in front of a bush questioning the likelihood of the pattern we see being a tiger or not. It’s better to run away from fear and be wrong than to be eaten alive. 

These emotions, it could be argued, are particularly valuable in helping us take the "best" path when we feel under threat. More than any other contributing factor, Trump recognised that a substantial portion of the American electorate feel their way of life is under threat and they need a champion who will meet this threat, a candidate who will acknowledge the threat and act. 

Whether retreating from global free trade deals or running towards a conflict with ISIS, Trump consistently acknowledged the "threats" to America and he acted. By contrast Clinton appealed to Americans’ hope for the future. While an important emotion, Americans did not feel particularly hopeful. Leaning on our emotional instinct is a critical campaign device but first and foremost you need to make the right diagnoses. 

The power of the faithful

Having correctly diagnosed the emotional mood of the nation, Trump’s next success came from having a base of supporters who would accept his immoral behaviour when faced with a threat to their heartfelt beliefs. With 90 million evangelical Christians in the US (Pew Forum study 2011) Trump had a base of supporters who not only felt their belief system was under threat but were also willing to suspend their moral judgment when faced with this threat. In 2011, 30% of white evangelical Christians in America believed that a person guilty of immoral personal behaviour could behave ethically in a public role. In 2016 that figure stands at 72% (Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution). Fear has trumped moral outrage. 

The left behind: a word from the wise elephant

In his recent book on global inequality, economist Branko Milanovic describes "the elephant curve" that depicts how segments of the world’s population saw a rise in real incomes from 1988 to 2008. Between 1988 and 2008 there was a growth in global average household incomes, including a booming middle class in developing Asian economies. However, this rise was in tandem with stagnant or falling incomes in lower middle classes in developed economies and the growth in income of the world’s wealthiest 1%. Further, when you remove the impact of China, there is an enormous bearing on the curve and a significant levelling out occurs. This demonstrates the huge impact of China and how Americans feel global growth is driven by the growth of China. 

What Trump has so skilfully done is to identify China as a global bogyman and argue that he alone has the skill to take China on. That a rational examination of this threat would reveal a complex landscape where belligerence and sound bites are doomed to fail does not matter. What many Americans wanted was someone who would articulate their fears and act.

Reason flushed down the toilet 

So are Americans really worse off? The Economist leader from 5 November points out that 80% of Trump supporters say that for people like them America is worse off than it was 50 years ago. That feeling, the Economist argues, is false as "half a century ago six million households lacked a flushing lavatory." Clinton and Obama have called for hope and argued that Americans are living in better times than ever before, taking into account improvements in education, healthcare, crime rates, gender equality and race relations. While valid, this argument misses the point. Trump supporters feel poorer and no appeal for hope will cut though this feeling. 

Beware contagion: no end in sight

First Brexit and now Trump. His ability to diagnose the emotional mood of America, locate the "threats" to the lower middle classes and win an election based on the promise to lash out at these threats has shocked the world.  We appear to be living in strange times.

But should we be so surprised? Stefan Stieglitz and Linh Dang-Xuan at University of Munster in Germany conducted a study into the effects of emotion on information diffusion with particular focus on political communication on Twitter. They found emotionally charged tweets were retweeted more often and more quickly than neutral ones. What a new wave of populist politicians have been able to do is to latch on to this and circumvent mainstream media.

In a world where the information we see is increasingly driven by algorithmic filters and where highly emotive information is prioritised over rational argument, we are losing our ability to reason and moving to an age of reaction.

The end of the beginning

What the election result proves again is that it is how we feel that really matters. Do you feel poorer? Do you feel marginalised? Do you feel left behind? You may well not be, or those whom you blame may not be responsible. In a world where the Western middle classes feel the proximity of a huge array of threats, this does not matter when it comes to success in politics. What matters is the ability to latch on to the threats, promise to address them head-on and get a reaction. Let us hope the centre ground learns from Brexit and Trump before the West drifts even further toward aggressive, nationalistic, protectionist and simplistic politics.

Tom Laranjo is the managing director of Total Media