Thinking people have been caught by surprise at the huge number of people who are supporting Donald Trump. They mention that he is a blowhard, inconsistent, not a true conservative, a bully, a con artist, berates his employees, hires illegal foreigners, is getting sued by his Trump University students for false promises, swears a lot and is disrespectful toward women. It’s just not logical, they say, that people would vote for Trump.
But they are missing the point. It’s not about logic! It’s about emotion and relationships. It’s about the emotions of resentment and fear more than anything. Unfocused resentment for the losses of the last decade or so for a large section of the population that has lost income, lost houses, lost a sense of security, lost identity and lost status in our society. What Trump is doing is giving a focus to that resentment that feels good. He makes it feel reassuring. But why is this feeling more important than logic?
Right Brain Logic
Amazingly, our brains are designed to allow intense emotions to trump logic in certain situations. Here’s how this seems to work. The left brain is where most logical problem-solving activity occurs: linear thinking, analyzing details, use of language, planning for the future, applying lessons from the past, etc. The right brain is where much of our creativity and big picture thinking occurs. It’s also where we pay close attention to facial expressions, tone of voice and hand gestures—which can be highly contagious when they are intense enough. But most of all, the right brain is also where our defensive-protective emotions are active, which drive our fight or flight responses to crises.
Most of the time our left brain is dominant, solving most of our problems. But in a crisis or totally new situation our right brains become dominant and our more primitive defensive-protective emotions take over: “all-or-nothing” solutions; “splitting” people into all-bad (“them”) or all-good (“us”); everything is personal—some people are out to get me and others are totally on my side. Does any of this sound familiar?
Face and Voice Media
Usually our logical, left-brain thinking usually comes back into play after we have had a dose of fear or resentment. “Wait a minute – is that really true? Is this really the way to go?” But this can be prevented by constant exposure to the emotions which hook the right brain.
Trump is all over the airwaves: You constantly see his face. You constantly hear his voice. Print news is left-brain news—and it’s been losing ground rapidly to “face and voice” news – which is right-brain news. For the past few decades, news has been shifting more and more to right brain news, which grabs people’s defensive-protective emotions. Trump would be nowhere if people only read his words in a column somewhere. He has to be constantly on TV and on the radio! As soon as he lets up, he will start going away. In a way he really is a blowhard—a balloon that can’t survive without hot air. Why do you think he emphasizes his rallies so much? He can’t do without them. He relies on intense hysteria, because that’s all he has—but it works because people are already upset about their place in the world and because he keeps the emotions flowing.
One of the best examples in history was Adolf Hitler, who used constant intensely-emotional radio speeches and big rallies to keep his followers emotional and unthinking. In a recent book titled Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (2012), the author, Andrew Nagorski, quotes an American reporter’s conversation in 1932 with a young Nazi who was blaming Jews for all of Germany’s problems:
“Is that logical, is that clear thinking?”
“Ach, thinking!” the exasperated Nazi replied. “We are sick of thinking. Thinking gets you nowhere. The Fuhrer himself says Nazis think with their blood.”
And this lack of thinking was everywhere.
What We Can Do
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech trying to expose Trump as a “phony, a fraud” and to inform people about all of his illogical qualities. This is a step in the right direction, but the mistake they make is to emotionally and sarcastically attack Trump rather than to empathize with his followers. In fact, suggesting that they are “suckers” may actually push them further into his hands. This enables him to form a deeper emotional “us versus them” connection, which can be powerfully resistant to new information, if it comes from “them.” Trump is highly effective at claiming he is treated unfairly and gets his followers to join him in this, as they are already primed for resentments. He just points out the enemies.
Ironically, the other Republican candidates have adopted a similar approach to Trump in terms of emotionally attacking him, swearing and making personal insults. They can’t win by playing the same game.
Instead, they have to show empathy, attention and respect (EAR) for his followers, and they have to show the same for him. He doesn’t care, but the people who are watching care how you treat him—believe it or not. They can be emotional, but the emotions have to be positive. I know it seems like the last thing they’d want to do, but this approach works with high-conflict people in the workplace, in angry divorces and other legal disputes.
They can also be informative. People need to know that he is not as smart as he says, not as successful as he says and his plans are totally unrealistic. (Why do you think he has to keep saying these things?) They can point out the problems of his history and behavior, but they have to do it in a way that’s brief, informative, friendly and firm (BIFF). Just straight information, not sarcastic or judgmental. So long as they don’t attack him, his followers may just listen.
We need to recognize this pattern of media-fed emotional politics and how to deal with it—before it’s too late. It can happen here.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the President of the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, CA. He is the co-author of Splitting America (Unhooked Books, 2012) with Donald Saposnek, Ph.D. and author of It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (HCI Press, 2008) High Conflict Institute provides training for managing high-conflict personalities in the workplace, legal disputes, healthcare and education. For more information: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.