Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Speculating about Trump supporters

Melanie Tannenbaum is doing a series of posts on Donald Trump and his political appeal in the Scientific American "PsySociety" blog. As of this writing, two installments have appeared.

In Decoding Trump-Mania: The Psychological Allure of Hating Political Correctness, Part 1 08/14/2015, she frames her topic this way:

Sure, you can easily find Trump supporters who are only fans of his because they're blatantly racist, nationalist, or sexist (or sometimes, if you're lucky, a winning combination of all three). For these supporters, it's likely just nice to have a candidate openly espousing the same distasteful feelings that they've always harbored. But for every one of these Trump fans, there are plenty of others who claim that even though they don't actually like the content of what Trump is saying, they appreciate the fact that he is openly saying it. In one supporter's words, Trump is "an a**hole, but at least he's honest, and isn't really into bullsh****ng people." Another claims to like Trump because he "isn't a pandering politician ... [and] the rest of the field looks slimy and self-serving [in comparison]."
There's a lot I like about Tannenbaum's analysis. Not least is that she uses the work of Else Frenkel-Brunswik, one of the co-authors of The Authoritarian Personality (1950).

But I do have a reservation about the framing just quoted. As we will see, she doesn't fall into the superficial notion of "authenticity" that E.J. Dionne did this week in explaining Trump's appeal.

But political psychology is tricky. For one thing, political preferences are overdetermined. Neither a single issue or a particular psychological trait can completely explain political preferences.

Also, in the United States, it is expected that everyone talk about their own political ideas as though they are one's own ideas, based on reflection and information. And sometimes they are. But people's political preferences are shaped in many ways, from partisan and other secular allegiances, business and career considerations, religious affiliation, family tradition (or rejection thereof).

So I'm hesitant to give too much weight to the notion that many of Trump's admirers "don't actually like the content of what Trump is saying, they appreciate the fact that he is openly saying it." Especially in primary season. Because it's pretty obvious that Trump is pitching his message as "racist, nationalist, or sexist." I doubt there are many people listening to him enough to like him who are entirely unaware of that.

But she makes a good point in discussing:

... a personality trait known as ambiguity (or uncertainty) intolerance, and research happens to show that people high in ambiguity intolerance -- those who feel uneasy or anxious in the presence of uncertainty -- are significantly more likely to be politically conservative. This correlation makes a lot of sense when you stop and think about the fact that political conservatism, at its ideological core, really just consists of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality that values tradition and stability over societal upheaval and social change.

However, it makes even more sense once you read the seminal research on ambiguity intolerance and learn more about other personality tendencies that tend to go hand in hand with it. For example, according to early researcher Frenkel-Brunswik, ambiguity-intolerant people tend to "like dichotomous conceptions of the sex roles...and of interpersonal relationships in general...are less permissive, and lean toward rigid categorization of cultural norms" (1948). It is likely not surprising that people with predispositions towards strict social role categorization and wanting a sense of "certainty" would be drawn more to political conservatism than to liberalism, which often values things like fluid conceptualizations of gender roles and the challenging/questioning of traditional cultural norms -- the exact opposite of what would make someone high in ambiguity intolerance feel comfortable.
In Part 2 (08/15/2015), Tannenbaum writes about the aspect of Trump's appeal that passes for pundits like Dionne as "authenticity." She raises the useful question of how it is that a man with Trump's record can even feign the authenticity so beloved by our Pod Pundits:

However, given obvious flip-flops like Trump's shifting stance on abortion, his candidacy as a member of the Republican party after years of close ties to Democratic candidates, and his very un-Republican suggestion in 1999 that the wealthiest 1% of Americans should pay a one-time 14.25% tax on their entire net worth to wipe out the national debt (an idea that bears very little similarity to his current stance in favor of huge tax cuts for the wealthy), why exactly do we think that Trump is somehow more "honest" than the average politician?
And she answers it by the confidence-inducing effect of speaking in a way that may sound like evidence-against-one's-own-interest:

When people say things that are non-normative, unexpected, or non-self-serving, those things are seen as more likely to be true, and outside observers are more likely to think they have a good chance of really knowing the authentic, deep-down, true personality of the person saying them. It doesn't matter what those statements objectively are. The marijuana example is a fun one (and was actually used in a lie detection study by Robert Kraut in the late 1970s, I didn't just make it up), but it doesn't even need to be quite so drastic. If you act bubbly and outgoing in an interview for a sales position, for example, people won't know if you're actually bubbly by nature, or if you're just putting on a front to get the kind of job that would value those attributes. If you act bubbly and chipper in an interview for a position as a computer programmer, people will feel much more confident that you are really a "bubbly and outgoing" person by nature and that they can make a confident judgment about what you're "really like," because those aren't necessarily attributes that you would ever expect people to think that they should fake for that kind of a position.

So, when a person says something that isn't seen as "self-serving" or "normative" for the position that they're in, other people are not only more likely to think that those statements are what that person truly believes, but they're also more likely to feel more generally like they can know what that person is truly like deep down. It makes the person saying those things seem more "authentic." And it makes us more likely to feel like that person isn't lying. Even though Trump has given us just as many reasons as the other candidates to think that he's a "flip-flopper," the fact that he's not saying things that you would expect a politician to say means that his audience will be more likely to overlook those flip-flopping reasons and assume he's actually a truth-teller. [all emphasis in original]
Jonathan Chait gives his own Beltway Village version of Trump's appeal in Trump Is the Republicans’ Nightmare and They Won’t Wake Up From It New York 08/17/2015. True to the conventions of High Broderism, Chait grasps for a way to display the disturbing Donald as somehow an outlier in the Republican Party. He does this by comparing him to Pat Buchanan and his Presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996.

The longer Trump remains the front-runner, the more the Village press is likely to start pointing to ways in which Trump isn't really all that far out. In fact, they can say, he takes flak for some positions he's taken that sound more moderate than the Republican "mainstream." Chuck Todd gave us a bit of a preview of that in his interview with Trump this past Sunday. (Meet the Press 08/16/2015)

Chait, meanwhile, is sticking to the absurd assumption that the Republicans are serious about outreach to Latinos. So in his analysis, the non-Trump Republicans are worried that he's spoiled that outreach plan:

Immigration did not represent the totality of the party elite’s strategic response to the 2012 election, but it did constitute its main tenet. The Republican brain trust hoped to resolve its image problem with Latino and Asian-American voters by passing immigration reform as quickly as possible. The purest version of this strategy, articulated by Charles Krauthammer, called for Republicans to fold completely on immigration, and change nothing else about their program.
Let's pause here for a moment to consider the idea that Charles Krauthammer counts as a major figure in the "Republican brain trust."

The idea was to take the short-term hit as quickly as possible after the midterms, allowing the base to vent its spleen and make up in time for the presidential campaign. Republicans in the Senate were able to make this happen, but the House proved typically impotent in the face of opposition.

In the wake of this failure, Republicans have vaguely hoped to finesse the issue. Trump is making that difficult.
Given how unified the Republican Presidential field has been in its anti-immigration position, those of us who aren't Village pundits might be tempted to wonder if there was ever more to the make-nice-to-Latinos idea than Krauthammer growling about it.

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