To defeat Trump, we must understand the reasons behind Americans consistently choosing to vote for him. Psychologists may hold the key | George Monbiot
There are various theories for the ongoing success of Donald Trump and the loyalty of his followers, despite the increasing number of scandals and legal issues. While many of these theories hold weight, there is one that has not been discussed but may be the most significant: Trump excels at appealing to external factors.
Certain psychologists suggest that our values often align with either “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” poles. Those who hold strong intrinsic values typically prioritize empathy, intimacy, and self-acceptance. They are also more open to change and challenges, value universal rights and equality, and are protective of others and the environment.
Individuals on the far end of the spectrum tend to be drawn towards notions of prestige, status, appearance, popularity, influence, and wealth. They are highly driven by the possibility of personal gain and recognition. This group is more inclined to view others as objects to be used and take advantage of, and may exhibit rude and aggressive behavior while disregarding social and environmental consequences. Cooperation and community do not hold much importance for those with strong extrinsic values. However, individuals with these values may experience feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, and compulsive tendencies.
Trump embodies external values. From the skyscraper adorned with his name in shiny letters to his exaggerated claims of wealth; from his constant emphasis on “winners” and “losers” to reports of him cheating at golf; from his objectification of women, including his own daughter, to his fixation on the size of his hands; from his refusal to prioritize public service, human rights, and environmental protection to his intense dissatisfaction and anger, which remained even during his time as president of the United States, Trump stands out as a perfect example of external values.
Our values are not innate, but rather influenced by the reactions and signals we receive from those around us as well as the prevailing customs of our culture. Our political surroundings also play a role in shaping our values. Living under an oppressive and self-serving political regime can lead to the normalization and internalization of its beliefs, resulting in the adoption of external values. This can then perpetuate the development of an even more cruel and self-serving political system.
In a country where poverty is non-existent and social norms promote kindness, empathy, community, and freedom from lack and fear, individuals are more likely to prioritize intrinsic goals. This phenomenon is referred to as policy feedback, or the “values ratchet”. The values ratchet applies at both the societal and individual levels, as a sense of insecurity and unmet needs often leads to the development of extrinsic values. These extrinsic values then perpetuate feelings of insecurity and unmet needs.
Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, society has become increasingly divided into those who are viewed as successful and those who are viewed as failures. Due to a lack of public support, more and more people are being left behind, creating an environment that promotes extrinsic values. Even as Democratic leaders adopted many of the same principles as Reagan, there was little effort to reverse this trend. However, research shows that when political parties appeal to extrinsic values, it often leads to their own downfall. This is because people who prioritize extrinsic values are more likely to support conservative parties.
However, the shift runs much deeper than mere political ideology. For well over a century, the United States, more so than other countries, has placed great importance on external values. The American dream revolves around accumulating wealth, flaunting it, and breaking free from the obligations of others. This mindset is perpetuated by harmful myths about failure and success, where wealth is seen as the ultimate goal regardless of how it is obtained. The prevalence of advertising, the rampant commercialization of society, and the emphasis on consumerism in popular culture all contribute to this narrative. Insecurities, particularly related to physical appearance, are marketed and unfulfilled desires are manufactured, creating a void in our minds that we may try to fill with money, fame, or power. For decades, the dominant cultural themes in the US (and many other countries) have served as a breeding ground for external values.
A clear indication of this change is the personalization of responsibility. In both Europe and America, this has now taken extreme forms. As stated in the current criminal justice legislation being passed by the government, individuals found sleeping on the streets can face imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500 if they are determined to be causing a “nuisance” or “damage”. According to section 61 of the legislation, “damage” includes having a bad odor. This is difficult to comprehend. If someone had £2,500 to spare, they would not be in a situation of homelessness. The government is proposing to provide jail cells for those sleeping rough, but not permanent housing. Most concerning of all, individuals are being held accountable and treated as criminals for their own lack of resources, which may have been caused by government policies.
We discuss the shift towards conservative values in society. We also discuss the growing divide and polarization among people. Additionally, we address the issues of isolation and the mental health crisis. However, at the root of these trends is a change in values. This is the main cause of many of our problems, with the other issues being mere indicators.
When a society values status, wealth, power, and control, it is inevitable that there will be feelings of frustration. It is not possible for everyone to be at the top. As the wealthy continue to accumulate more, others will inevitably have to lose out. Someone must be held accountable for this disappointment, and in a culture that glorifies winners, it cannot be those who are seen as successful. Instead, the blame is often placed on those who are striving for a more compassionate world where resources are shared, no one is left behind, and the well-being of communities and the environment is prioritized. Those who prioritize external rewards are more likely to vote for a candidate who embodies these values and possesses what they desire. This has been exemplified by the election of Trump, and the impact of the US’s decisions is often followed by the rest of the world.
It is possible that Trump will be re-elected – a terrifying thought. If this happens, it will not only be because of the racial animosity of older white men, his manipulation of cultural conflicts, or the influence of algorithms and echo chambers, although these are significant factors. It will also be a reflection of deeply ingrained values that we may not even realize are present.
who writes about social and environmental issues.
George Monbiot is a writer for The Guardian who focuses on topics related to society and the environment.