Exactly how did a man of wild ideas, ill will and no government experience rise to become the leader of the free world? Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Stephen Scher, explains.
In a 1983 cartoon from The Far Side, Gary Larson contrasted what a dog owner says to a dog and what the dog actually hears. The cartoon captures a puzzle about Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.
Trump is an uninformed, narcissistic, manipulative, misogynistic habitual liar who, despite being a billionaire, pays next to no taxes and regularly refuses even to pay workmen and others the contracted amount for services properly rendered or goods received. And yet he received nearly 63 million votes in the November presidential election, making him the most powerful person on the planet and the leader of the free world.
The disconnect is profound. Trump’s demonstrable qualities, other than his wealth, are so unattractive that it would be the rare parent who would encourage a daughter to maintain a relationship with such a person. People who work for a living (virtually all of us) would counsel others to stay away rather than rely on Trump’s providing full and fair payment. And if a person with Trump’s characteristics ran to become head of a high school’s student council, his fellow students would find the effort laughable.
And yet, to repeat, 63 million adult Americans—nearly half of all those who voted—found Trump, a man with the attention span of a flea, fit to take on the challenges of the presidency.
As someone who grew up in the American Midwest — I am a dual Australian-U.S. citizen (at least until Trump revokes the latter) — the pattern of the voting was especially puzzling. The Midwest, which went exclusively for Trump except for Illinois (Obama’s home state and a Democratic bastion), is a region in which honesty and straight talk is especially valued.
When one leaves the Midwest, as I did when I went (East) to college, one leaves something good and important behind, and the loss can actually be experienced lifelong.
Over the years, living in the East, I asked many, many Midwesterners whether they missed the Midwest, and in all those decades, I ran across exactly one who didn’t — a professor at Yale Law School who said she was embarrassed to admit that she came from the Midwest.
The upshot is that Midwesterners should have been the last to be taken in by the emotionally manipulative, ever changing act of Donald Trump, and yet they voted for him in resounding numbers, even in states that had consistently voted for Democrats in the previous presidential elections (going back nearly 30 years, to 1988). And it was two of these states — Michigan and Wisconsin, along with Pennsylvania — that were decisive in Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
So, in Trump’s election we see both a consistent disregard for information, for what is actually known and apparent, and also a departure from established regional patterns and customs in the face of information indicating that a departure is ill advised. Why did so many Americans behave, in effect, like Gary Larson’s dog, capable of ignoring everything but what they wanted to hear?
The current, and likely accurate, explanation of Trump’s attraction to so much of America is that vast stretches of the country have been adversely affected by globalization, with no end in sight, especially insofar as the country continued to be governed by Washington elites. That actually makes sense, but only up to a point.
The presidency of the Republican George W. Bush, from 2000 to 2008, was characterized by inertia except for the ill-considered invasion of Iraq. Domestically, the Republicans accomplished little except to privatize or otherwise undercut established federal programs.
In 2009, a scathing assessment of the Bush Presidency in The Atlantic noted that during the Bush years, “the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country’s condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton’s two terms, often substantially.”
The title of a broader, 2007 assessment in Harper’s speaks for itself – Undoing Bush: How to Repair Eight Years of Sabotage, Bungling, and Neglect. A similar assessment appeared in The American Prospect: How Bush Broke the Government.
During the first two years of Democratic president Obama, the historic Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was enacted, as were many laws to counteract the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, itself a product of the Bush administration’s failure to oversee financial institutions. But during the last six years of the Obama presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress effectively blocked everything. The only reason Obama accomplished anything during his second four-year term was that, toward the end, he chose to take the initiative with Executive Orders, thereby bypassing Congress.
That is, in the last 24 years, it was the Democrats who had actively pursued the interests of the American middle class. The Republicans had not, and they had actually blocked any legislative efforts that might have addressed the distress of many who ultimately voted to elect Trump and to continue Republican control of Congress.
The distress of many Trump voters was real. What was unreal, and without foundation, was that Trump and his fellow Republicans, a party solidly against change and against the interests of working Americans, were the solution. If Trump voters wanted change that would help the middle class and those affected by globalization, they voted for the wrong party and the wrong presidential candidate.
Here is where the second cartoon comes in. Last August, during the run-up to the November 8 election, the New Yorker ran this cartoon of what might be considered an exasperated lizard.
Though scientific questions remain about the description and evolutionary placement of particular brain areas, what seems settled is that various primitive brain areas are responsible for important baseline human emotional functions and reactions.
In The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (2012), Jaak Panskepp and Lucy Biven note that “ancient subcortical regions of mammalian brains contain at least seven basic affective systems” — those involving, among other things, fear (anxiety), rage (anger), and panic/grief (sadness).
These emotions are strikingly familiar. They are what we saw for months during the Trump campaign, in his incessant appeals to the raw emotions of his supporters. And what’s centrally important here is that the relevant areas of the brain, once triggered, are capable of overriding everything else.
Lizard brain or not, these primitive areas of the brain are capable of precluding, excluding, and displacing rational thought and assessment. And that’s exactly how one can understand how Trump supporters came to disregard the horrendous human flaws of the person they elected as president.
As everyone knows, the first week of the Trump presidency has been a disaster — even worse from a policy perspective, and more stridently anti-democratic, than just about anyone imagined. Comparisons with Orwell’s 1984 are now common (and justified). The situation raises the question, of course, whether the Republicans in Congress and in the Cabinet retain their moral compass and will be able to stand up against Trump and push back.
An impressionistic review of the Republican Party’s recent history (stretching back to the early 1980s) suggests that there is no reason to be optimistic. The party’s lack of moral vision and moral courage are long established. Consider the following:
Implemented immediately after the Second World War, the National School Lunch Program continues to subsidize lunches for 30 million children, ensuring that they are adequately nourished during the school day. But in 1981, in an effort to trim the federal budget, Republicans enacted a regulation that reclassified ketchup and relish as vegetables coming within the federal mandate for balanced meals. The regulation was retracted after Senator Henry J. Heinz 3d, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a member of the H. J. Heinz Co. family, stated in the Senate that ”Ketchup is a condiment… and I suppose I need not add that I do know something about ketchup and relish.”
No new taxes
In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush stated dramatically, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Two years later the force of fiscal circumstances demanded that Bush accept a raise in taxes. The outcry from the Republican lawmakers was immediate and vociferous. The need for a tax increase was, to them, irrelevant. What did matter is that Bush had gutted the ideological core of the Republican Party — to block all new taxes — and left the party with nothing to stand for.
Take back America
In his keynote, “culture war” address to the 1992 Republican National Convention (at which the presidential candidate is selected), Pat Buchanan presented what was arguably the most mean-spirited, vindictive speech ever given at an American political convention. The speech was commonly perceived as a manifesto for right-thinking white people to take back America not only from minority groups but from political liberals who believed in such things as feminism, gay rights, freedom of speech, women’s reproductive rights, and protecting the environment (referred to disparagingly as “birds and rats and insects”).
Guns and more guns
In 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to renew a ban on large gun magazines (more than ten rounds of ammunition), a provision that had been included in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 in response to various crimes using assault weapons against innocent victims such as schoolchildren.
The Tea party
The rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009—an internal phenomenon within the Republican Party—left the entire U.S. Congress paralysed. The Republican leadership did nothing.
Perhaps underlying this obvious lack of moral and political courage is a phenomenon that has increasingly tainted American politics (and which I’ve seen grow in importance here in Australia during my nine years living here): the rise of the professional politician whose overriding goal is to stay in office and be re-elected.
It is a dangerous phenomenon. And we’ll soon be seeing whether the Republican Party has the courage to put aside their personal interests and set themselves against a man who is setting himself against the interests of his own country, the free world and, indeed, the earth.