Donald Trump’s Appeal

The continuing strength of Donald J. Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination has dumbfounded his own party, the media, political scientists, donors and pollsters.

Trump himself is not much of a mystery (he’s the opposite of a mystery, in fact), but the depth and power of his support, of the emotional connection that his supporters feel with him, of his seeming indestructibility as a candidate — that’s the mystery.

Equally mysterious is the precise agenda of the 30 percent of Republican voters who say they will vote for him once they get into a voting booth and actually cast a ballot.

Despite the unpredictability of Trump’s future as a politician, we still need to understand the roots of his current success — perhaps no one more so than the leaders of the Republican establishment, who have to try to harness the Trump phenomenon without destroying their party in the process.

Perhaps the fields of psychiatry and political psychology can serve as a source of insight into Trump and the political intentions of those who say they will vote for him, whether or not they eventually compromise on another candidate.

David Berg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, responded to my inquiry with a perceptive interpretation. He observes that for many voters, perceived threats to their security are now coming

from both inside the group (e.g. changing demographics, Wall Street greed, immigration, income inequality repercussions) — as well as from outside the group (international disorder, ISIS, China, Russia).

Individuals facing multiple threats like these experience an instinctive choice between fight or flight, but flight is not an option, Berg claims, because

there is no longer any place to run to. The ocean no longer protects us and we are fearful of losing control of our boundaries, much like Europe, so unless we confront the threat, it will find us no matter how much we try to escape or erect walls.

At some level, deep within our primitive unconscious, those regions of the brain that process fear before the cerebral cortex construct a story to explain it. We are in search of someone to help us fight what we perceive as both internal and external threats to our ‘group’ as if such a fight will make us safe.

The need for security has intensified since the financial collapse of 2008 demonstrated to many voters that their economic security was imperiled.

Trump appeals to the anger, discontent and sense of entrapment that plague contemporary voters, Berg notes:

Many in this country are tired of having their speech and behavior constrained by the changing ‘sensibilities’ of the modern world. Many would like to ‘stand up’ to Putin and the Chinese (to say nothing of ISIS) in the belief that confrontation and belligerence will make the world safer.

Because of this, Berg believes that the Trump campaign “will have legs for quite a while.”

A number of Berg’s colleagues are also developing psychologically informed arguments.

John Gartner, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School and a practicing psychologist, views Trump as an example par excellence of a particularly American persona: the domineering, risk-taking, charismatic entrepreneur.

Gartner is the author of two books — “The Hypomanic Edge and “In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography,” in which he proposes the concept of “a genetically based form of mild mania” that “endows many of us with energy, creativity, enthusiasm, and a propensity for taking risks” to describe notable American men from Alexander Hamilton to Andrew Carnegie, from Clinton to Donald Trump.

This mild or subclinical state — “not in and of itself, an illness. It is a temperament” — characterizes many of the most successful American men, Gartner contends. He lists their distinctive traits:

He is flooded with ideas. He is driven, restless, and unable to keep still. He channels his energy into the achievement of wildly grand ambitions. He often works on little sleep. He feels brilliant, special, chosen, perhaps even destined to change the world. He can be euphoric. He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles. He is a risk taker. He overspends in both his business and personal life. He acts out sexually. He sometimes acts impulsively, with poor judgment, in ways that can have painful consequences.

Gartner warns that this constellation of traits, which compel loyalty and support, can also lead “to impulsive behavior (ready, shoot, aim) and confident leaders who glibly take their followers over a cliff.”

Trump makes white working-class voters, the core of his support, “feel safe,” Gartner told me in a phone interview.

Poll data from the Pew Research Center shows how much Trump depends on the politically restive white working class. His backing from voters with a high school degree or less is twice as high as is it is from those with college degrees; the percentage of men lining up behind him is eight points higher than the percentage of women; voters from households making $40,000 or less are 12 points more likely to cast a Trump ballot than those from households making more than $75,000.

Unlike most Republican candidates, Trump rejects cuts in Social Security and Medicare — programs strongly supported by the white working class. And, while he nods in the direction of the anti-abortion movement, he does not attempt to impose a repressive sexual morality (after all, he has been married three times).

Gartner warns that the qualities that “get you elected are not the same as the capacity for governing.” Hypomanic individuals do not necessarily make effective presidents, he said, unless their “energy, optimism, and drive” are balanced by capacities that he thinks Trump might lack:

the capacity to study and evaluate, to cooperate, thoroughness, caution, attention to detail, the ability to make a firm decision based on reasoning.

Joseph Burgo, a psychotherapist and the author of “The Narcissist You Know,” put the logic of Trump’s appeal in straightforward terms:

For many people, Trump’s braggadocio, contempt, and grandiosity come across as self-confident strength. When frightened by dangers from abroad or here at home, many people gravitate to the ‘strong man’ who promises to vanquish their fears and confusion.

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C., argued in a phone interview that Trump filled different roles for women and men:

Women right now feel an immense sense of insecurity, threatened by pervasive, random violence from shooters in Colorado to ISIS chopping off heads of innocent victims. To women, Trump represents security.

For less well-educated white men, Van Susteren said,

the last eight years have been humiliating. They have been emasculated by economic factors, unable to earn what they need — the jobs they want they perceive going to immigrants.” At the same time, these voters believe that “we are getting our butts kicked in the Middle East. For the white male, Trump offers a chance to have his sense of manhood restored. He conveys enormous confidence. Voting for Trump feels empowering in the sense that you can say what you believe without getting in trouble for it.

Stanley Renshon, a political scientist at CUNY and a psychoanalyst, also claimed in a phone interview that many in the electorate felt besieged. For these voters, Trump is “saying things what everybody thinks,” and in the process, he is

opening a public debate on subjects nobody wants to talk about, things that people feel misled or lied to about. Trump gives voice to the feeling of dismissal and mines the anger. And what is that anger, it’s the anger of ordinary Americans who feel they have been lied to, that the policies they have been promised don’t work, and, by and large, they feel they have not been taken into account. Trump says to them, “you are right. Watch me, I am making them take me into account. I’ll do the same for you.”

W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, noted in a phone interview that

Trust is at the lowest it’s ever been. There is a push for strong leadership, and Trump comes across as a strong leader.

Campbell, who distinguished himself from “liberal academics,” said “when I talk to normal people” the idea of “opening up to additional immigration when so many people are struggling to find good work just seems politically insane. Why should we bring in 200,000 Syrians?”

Trump is a high-risk candidate who is in constant danger of self-immolation. But not only has he outlasted a long list of controversies, he has thrived in their wake. As Campbell put it,

The fact that he is willing to do stuff that is completely against what a politician should be doing makes him seem all the stronger. He does not apologize.

Trump’s opponents fail to recognize that his apparent vulnerabilities — his hubris, his narcissism, his bullying, his boisterousness — have been strengths in a primary campaign premised on defiance of political correctness, left and right.

Regardless of the outcome, the somewhat brutish tenor of the Trump campaign will leave a significant legacy, a legacy implicit in the question posed by Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, “Will Trump eventually cross a line — or do the lines no longer exist?

At the moment, Trump leads in polls of Republican primary voters at 30 percent. Impressive as that is, more than 66 percent of Republican voters surveyed chose someone other than Trump.

Going a step further, if Trump’s 30 percent of Republican primary voters is a marker of his core support, that translates to just 7.5 percent of all the voters who will cast ballots in the general election next November.

Win or lose, Trump has made millions of Americans acutely aware of their dissatisfaction and prepared them to voice their resentment in the voting booth. The emotions he’s awakened and benefited from aren’t going away.

If Trump is not nominated, the Republican candidate is still almost certain to have one of the Democratic Party’s more polarizing figures, Hillary Clinton, as an opponent, giving Trump supporters an incentive to remain loyal.

But the larger problem Trump has created for the Republican Party is that his success has pushed all likely alternative candidates to the right, further from the mainstream, particularly on immigration.

If Trump achieves nothing else, he has already proved himself to be a one-man wrecking crew, demolishing the efforts of Republican leaders and consultants after the 2012 election to soften the harder edges of their party.

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