It has become the curse of the current social season. Arrestingly, wherever I am speaking or consulting in Europe, once the people I am mingling with realise I am both a Republican and a person for whom – at least until a few moments before – they had some regard, the same depressing pattern repeats itself. Almost apologetically, my fellow cocktail-drinkers ask, “why has your party gone stark, raving mad for Donald Trump?”
I try to explain, through the use of history and ideology. Trump is not new; in fact, his band of American demagoguery is very old. As this column has made clear, Trump supporters are in many respects the direct political heirs of populist, segregationist firebrand George Wallace, the uncrowned king of the South during the tumultuous Civil Rights era.
Just as lower middle class white males once feared Martin Luther King’s social challenge, they now fear the endless onslaught of globalisation, which has made their way of life – where a high school education guaranteed a comfortable lifestyle – a relic of the past. In this sense they are right to be angry, as absolutely no one in the Republican elite has spared them a thought as the world has passed them by.
Trump shares with Wallace the authoritarian temptation, the siren call of simple, bold, unfettered “leadership” as the antidote to living in complex times. Trump supporters are essentially saying that “their leader” (almost universally mocked and hated by the whole of the US elite, as well as most of the country’s minorities) will simply overwhelm all the opponents in his path, restoring the country to the people (read “white people”) for whom its bounties were intended. That certainly lies at the core of Trump’s strident populist message.
All of this is true, and takes us a long way forward in understanding why he has proved so popular. But the psychological aspects of what has been happening in America during the Trump insurgency have been almost entirely overlooked, and complete the picture as to what is actually going on.
Modern neuroscience and psychology theorise that individuals have “multiple selves”, sub-divided parts of our consciousness that work on semi-separate circuits in the brain. While we aren’t necessarily aware of them, they can run the show if there is not a calm leader in control, allowing each to have its voice without abdicating control to any one part.
“How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills – how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of and keep them from sabotaging one another”, says psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk.
Without a leader among the selves of our consciousness, our actions are governed by the guardians-defensive, critical and insensitive to others. More primitive still are the disorganised selves-frantic, undisciplined displays of escapism, hedonism or aggression to ward off disaster. These emergency systems operate largely independent of the prefrontal cortex, and so are fast and quite literally unconsidered. You can see these qualities in action with Trump. Any engagement is attack, and he instantly intimidates, ridicules, dismisses or panders to neutralise the threat. He is in a near-constant state of disorganised responses.
In psychological and political terms, Trump’s supporters have been an “exiled self” for a very long time, one which has certainly not been taken care of by the country’s elite, which never stopped to think that there might be losers in the new age of globalisation, as they simply didn’t personally know any.
But the lessons of this psychological analysis also apply to the American republic itself. Seeing Trump supporters as neglected selves explains why, as a group, they feel absolutely no compunction in sabotaging the other voices in American life. In the Federalist Papers, which serve as the primary originalist commentary on what the US constitution is about, James Madison talked at length about these American multiple selves, the various factions and voices that comprised the stakeholders in the new republic. His way around factions endlessly trying to subvert one another mirrors our current ideas about the brain. The checks and balances in the US Constitution were necessary to keep any of the multiple factions from overwhelming the rest.
Critically, republican virtue has always been a prerequisite for this to work effectively, and it’s the precise opposite of the Trumpian authoritarian model. Calm, inclusive leadership, which recognises and tends to America’s multiple selves – not siren calls to escapism, hedonism, or aggression, Trump’s defining characteristics – are what safeguards the republic.
America, or any country that wants to avoid isolation or frenzied folly, needs to pick a leader who listens and accesses all parts of its consciousness. In this sense, psychology is both a route to understanding the Trump insurgency, but also a warning of what is to come if he actually wins.