Only racism, bigotry or hatred could explain the call from presidential candidate Donald Trump for a temporary ban on Muslim travel into the United States or his months-old statements about Mexican immigrants. Right?
How can nearly 30 percent of the 40 percent of Americans who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning voters say they would vote for Trump today. Granted, his support from roughly 12 percent of the overall populace may not be enough to elect him President. Still, how could that many people find his exaggerated political statements anything other than repulsive?
It’s a question particularly perplexing, almost stunning, to liberal Democrats and libertarians, along with many traditional Republicans.
While I’m admittedly no fan of what I view as Trump’s Don Rickles campaign methodology, I’m convinced that the disparity in reactions to the Donald can be explained without labeling all of his supporters in terms so derogatory that no efforts to understand their motivations are necessary.
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt explores the question of why people so often assume “the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens.” The Trump phenomenon finds clarity in the research findings detailed in The Righteous Mind.
Across the variety of cultures that exist around the world, six values are commonly found to varying degrees. Social conservatives, who make up a sizable portion of Trump’s supporters, “have the broadest set of moral concerns, valuing all six foundations relatively equally,” according to Haidt. The six foundational values are: Caring for Others, Protecting Liberty, Ensuring Fairness (Republicans)/Equality (Democrats), Preserving Loyalty, Maintaining Authority and Ensuring Sanctity. The most sacred value of conservative Republicans, Haidt shows, is to “preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community,” though Haidt acknowledged that he was shocked that conservatives maintain a broader, more balanced value set than liberals.
American liberals value “care for the victims of oppression” above all else, with concern for liberty and equality also falling somewhat within their value set. Liberals typically have little to no concern for issues of loyalty, authority or sanctity.
So, how is Trump exploiting the values of Republican voters to attract his support?
For nearly seven years, Republican voters have seen their concerns about protecting the authority of institutions that protect their lives and the lives of the people they love largely neglected:
- Kate Steinle killed in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant: Not an issue to the White House. Illegal immigrants not welcomed into a community: Clear racism worthy of continuous debate.
- Funerals for Major General Harold Greene and many police murdered in cold blood in recent years: White House officials rarely bothered, let alone the President. Michael Brown allegedly beats a shopkeeper, attacks a police officer and tries to take his gun: Three White House aides attend his funeral.
- Bowe Bergdahl deserts his Army unit in Afghanistan: Trade five Taliban to get him back. Marine Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi takes a wrong turn while being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and crosses into Mexico with guns in his car: Months in a Mexican prison don’t warrant even a phone call from the many senior Administration leaders who could have demanded his immediate release.
The long litany of foundational value betrayals over recent years has been unconscionable to conservative Republican voters. Many desperately seek a leader who promises to protect the borders and institutions that protect those they love. With the pendulum, from their perspective, having swung to an extreme negligence, they are anxious to swing it back into place as quickly and fully as possible. Trump promises at least that ferocity, and in plain language.
To the extent Democrats are even aware of loyalty and authority issues (many are not given mainstream media focus on issues aligned with their care-, liberty- and equality-oriented value systems), they don’t share the deep anxiety of Republican voters over these issues.
I certainly can’t justify the dangerous extremes to which Trump bombast has strayed. But understanding the dynamics of what motivates different individuals allows us to understand their concerns, treat them as valid and solve their problems without compromising our own values. I’m not worried about Trump, but I do think we need to concern ourselves with engaging his supporters in more productive debate.
A few of Haidt’s conclusions seem particularly noteworthy. “Anyone who tells you that all societies, in all cases, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another,” he wrote. Put in my words, we all bring different values, concepts and experiences to the public debate. When we debate solutions in an atmosphere of respect, we are substantially more likely to reach optimal conclusions. When we vilify, demonize and divide as Trump is doing and President Obama has done, we almost certainly ignore important issues and elements of society, practically begging for a sharp, abrasive overreaction. Trump is that overreaction.
Perhaps most important is one of Haidt’s final wisdoms: “We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of a whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”
Much to my disappointment, President Obama has not led this transcendence. Donald Trump certainly won’t lead it.
Whoever ultimately wins this presidential race must transcend self-interest and bring us together as part of a whole. Further division risks too much.