DID YOU SEE Donald Trump’s victory coming? I sure as hell didn’t. That Hillary Clinton would lose to a guy who says things like “My words are the best” seemed so improbable that last summer an artist friend and I wrote a comic fantasy about a Trump presidency.
Election night found me pulling my hair, biting the sofa cushions, and yelling at my long-suffering wife, “How can this be real?”
Of course, I’m no political pundit. But in trying to make sense of an event in which nearly 62 million Americans voted for a crude, narcissistic swindler with fascistic pretensions, I do have one advantage that you may not: I live in Nebraska, where in Grant County Trump took 93 percent of the votes (a figure topped by only two small counties in Texas.) I’ve also had the opportunity recently to speak to a distinguished political scientist and have some recommendations to offer.
For starters, if you want to understand what happened on November 8, you have to put aside the Nazi-saluting, gun-toting brawler at the Trump rally—not because he’s unreal or irrelevant, but because he’s atypical. There aren’t 62 million of him—not yet, anyway. Instead, you have to contemplate Karen.
Karen is a white, skilled, middle-class woman. A divorced mom and casual churchgoer, she makes her living as an office manager in a small business. Putting politics aside, which she does most of the time, Karen is a good woman. She works hard at her job, has a marketing business on the side, takes care of her kids, and volunteers her time to help others. Her volunteer work helps people of color, immigrants, and the down-and-out find better lives.
Yet Karen supported Trump. When I told her that I voted for Clinton, she raised an eyebrow and said, “Really? How could you?” That’s when I knew that, although we reside in the same state, we live in mirror-image worlds.
How can we understand Karen and millions like her? We have to delve deep into human nature and its civilizational flaws. This election was fought as much on the prehistoric plains of the Serengeti as it was in debate halls of Hofstra and Washington Universities. Our instincts evolved to cope with intense in-group competition for status, and even more intense intergroup competition as small bands of hunter-gathers clashed over territory, mates, and resources.
Political scientist John Hibbing has pioneered research connecting the deep roots of human nature with the noxious weeds of contemporary politics. “From an evolutionary point of view, people tend to see the world from an in-group, out-group perspective,” he said in an interview for this article. “This makes immigration, defense, and ‘law & order’ kinds of things the bedrock principle of politics.”
Hibbing, Foundation Regent Professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is not pontificating. For more than a decade he’s led experimental research demonstrating that people’s level of threat- and disgust-sensitivity tends to correlate with their political orientation. Genes don’t determine our political views, but the evidence shows that, just as genes make us more or less wary of snakes or repelled by rotting food, they influence our political orientation.
“For most of human history, the main threat has been from other human beings,” Hibbing explains, “and so we worry about the tribe over the hill or in-group violators.” The stronger those atavistic feelings are, the more a person tends towards conservatism.
On this view, terrorism and immigration might seem like modern issues, but they’re really proxies for innate fears that most of us possess to one degree or another. Terrorism plays on our maladapted intuition of risk, our innate xenophobia, and our berserk reaction to slaughter inflicted by a hostile “tribe.” We race to the airport then tremble while boarding a plane; we declare ourselves not racist but unconsciously bristle at people who look different; and when someone commits an atrocity we seek vengeance against an entire class of people who resemble the perpetrator. That’s human nature.
Peaceful immigration, or for that matter the granting of civil rights to an internal minority, especially a sexual minority, can also bring up an instinctively hostile reaction. “It’s the notion of being played for a sucker,” Hibbing says. And when such threats are evoked—by circumstance, propaganda, or both—“threat-sensitive individuals are attracted to candidates like Trump.”
An authoritarian candidate who promises to lead the fight against the tribe over the hill or the alleged degenerate quislings within the tribe will always be forgiven extravagant vanity and peccadillos. Indeed, these are seen as badges of the toughness fearful people crave. Two extravagantly vain and strutting dictators of the past, Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Benito Mussolini of Italy, remained hugely popular while they crushed opposition at home and led wars abroad; it’s only when they faltered that history cast a mocking verdict.
Globally we’re behind the curve: Trump enters office behind a string of similar types. Russia elected Vladimir Putin, Venezuela had Hugo Chávez, Italy voted in Silvio Berlusconi, Turkey backs Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Japan supports an increasingly hawkish Shinzo Abe, and the Philippines recently elected foul-mouthed Rodrigo Duterte, who ran on a platform of mass murder. Seriously.
But could decent, God-fearing Americans really follow suit? Evidently so. If they didn’t feel a mortal threat to their identity, Evangelicals might prefer a strait-laced, apple-cheeked candidate who walks his elderly mother to church every Sunday. However, believing as they do that North America is being invaded from the south, is under attack by Islam, and is being pulled down from within by politically correct LGBTQ abortionists, they’ll gladly settle for Trump.
The developing narrative on the left—that working class whites felt their economic losses were being ignored—falls way short of the mark. This narrative reprises the mantra of the first Clinton presidential campaign (Bill’s, in 1992): “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Here’s an instance from Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson:
The town [of Nelsonville, Ohio]—94 percent white and much of it impoverished—is a microcosm for what went wrong for Clinton in the election. …Her vulnerability with working-class voters cost her not just Ohio but Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Despite a lively downtown square with shops and art galleries, Nelsonville is still hurting for jobs. The old coal work is gone.
Whatever Nelsonville’s woes, the microcosm claim cannot be right. Bizarrely, it plays into Trump’s false claim that things are terrible. In truth, the economy is vastly better than it was when Barack Obama took office—and not just relatively better. As of Election Day, unemployment stood at 4.9 percent—a fraction below the standard for full employment. To read the election as a cry from whites for a jobs program could not be more wrong. “When Trump talks about trade it’s really not an economic kind of thing,” Hibbing points out. “He says ‘China’s killing us.’ …What ostensibly would be an economic issue becomes in the eyes of his followers a real group-based issue.”
In addition to manipulating our fears, Trump ignited a simmering “us and them” mentality by relentlessly and recklessly exploiting another powerful instinct: resentment. It springs from that “played for a sucker” well. Resentment likely evolved to protect us from loss of status and resources.
Wait. Is this an ad hoc fallacy? How do we know it’s an instinct? While working on her doctorate at the Yerkes Primate Center, biologist Sarah Brosnan led an experiment on fairness with capuchin monkeys. Researchers trained subjects to do an exchange for a reward, then paired them up with another monkey who got a reward for nothing. The monkeys who “played by the rules” and witnessed others getting something for nothing went into a rage. They refused to accept a reward, sometimes hurling it back at the experimenters. Sound familiar?
If you can find a single Trump voter who was free of resentment, I’ll buy you a root beer float with a cherry on top. In Karen’s case, it came burbling out in response to my mentioning the impending repeal of “Obamacare.” Sure, it would create a lot of uncertainty for people (including me) who signed up for health insurance via Healthcare.gov and hurt those who receive a subsidy, she acknowledged. “But at least it will end abuse of the system—like women who get pregnant over and over just so they can stay on welfare.” Nearly twenty years after President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act, the false belief that a woman can remain on welfare for more than five years lives on.
Why does resentment like that burn like a coal seam in the breasts of otherwise decent, generous voters? While we’re at it, why do women like Karen vote for a misogynist whose contempt for women could not be clearer? Why do people like Karen, who are personally kind to immigrants they know, vote for an anti-immigrant candidate?
The handy answers include: right-wing or corporate media, terrorism, class conflict, religion, identity politics, and political correctness.
There’s some truth in all of these, but even taken altogether they don’t form a sufficient explanation. For example, right-wing media have certainly influenced their audiences. But how? Mind poison it may be, but no one forces older white Americans to listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Fox News. Suspect news posts can be fact checked at the website Snopes.com. As for the media, claims of total corporate control on the flow of information are absurd. Anyone with Internet access can watch Al Jazeera, the BBC, or the English-language news channel Russia Today. If you pine for anti-corporate views, you can read the New Left Review or tune into Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!
The questions we should be asking are: Why did cable news networks devolve into highly partisan adrenaline pumps? Why did traditional newspapers like the Washington Post become charity cases rather than thriving bulwarks of democracy? Why do so many people believe chem-trail-crazy stuff on the Internet? Why does bigotry flourish at alt-right sites? And what can we do to counter the influence of fake news and screaming heads on Facebook, the reach of which is vastly greater than that of all the print and broadcast news media put together?
Useful answers to all of these questions will emerge from two fundamental facts: for most people, instincts outperform reason, and social allegiance trumps truth. If we are to make America kind again, we have to base our strategies on the uncomfortable truth that progressive ideals cannot vanquish human nature. Instead we must co-opt human nature.
In hindsight, we can see that Democrats set themselves up for failure by ramping up identity politics. It wasn’t so much the failure to talk economics the way Bernie Sanders did, but the implicit exclusion of white people, the religiously zealous, and the politically incorrect from in-group status that enabled the unthinkable to happen. As Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times, “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.”
Moreover, you had better not humiliate ordinary people with the perpetual word game we call political correctness. Those in the know—the trendy hipsters on campuses and in tech startups—humiliate latecomers by scorning them for using yesterday’s terminology. In group, out group. Raw social divisions are inflamed when victim groups reappropriate words they deny others the right to use: the n-word, the q-word, or the p-word, to (not) name a few.
Political correctness embodies a logical flaw. Its argument goes something like this: People express contempt for others in their choice of labels. Therefore, if we choose the appropriate label for them, people will be forced to express respect. “We [liberals] think if we just get these people to speak properly eventually they’ll think properly,” Hibbing muses. “I wonder if that’s really true.”
The human-nature problem is this: if you differentiate by politically correct (PC) labels and humiliate people in the process, you invite hostility toward the out-group. And that brings us to the most dangerous fact of all: when it comes to treatment of an out-group, there are no rules.
Need a citation for that claim? Read the Bible. Consider the Holocaust. Browse the biography of Thomas Jefferson. Look at what we did at Wounded Knee. Or Abu Ghraib. Humans are prone to treat one another decently, lovingly, sometimes heroically—but only when we recognize one another as members of the same extended family. Cast someone in the out-group, and there are no constraints.
So, what can humanists, progressives, and other compassionate people do? Here are my recommendations. Each one follows from the prior. Doubtless there are many more that should be considered, and nothing I can conceive will reverse our losses soon. But here, in my view, is where we must start.
Humanists are, by definition, universalists. Yet, even we can succumb to the tribalistic “us vs. them” instincts that lurk in our nature. We’re passionate about identity labels, but flame wars over “feminist” versus “humanist” and “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter” are counterproductive.
Be for fair and equitable treatment of everyone.
Political correctness has to give way to campaigns for mutual respect, which means you and I have to reframe not just our rhetoric but our conceptual approach. Classifying people into victim groups is perilous and morally dubious.
Laws on affirmative action are likely to tumble in the next four years. Rather than fight a rearguard action, I suggest we find new, more sophisticated ways to achieve equity. Believe it or not, Texas offers a model worth considering. By guaranteeing students graduating in the top 10 percent of every school in the state admission to the state university system, Texas ensures that talented minority students trapped in segregated schools have a chance at college. It’s not an adequate model—there’s no guarantee of financial aid, for example—but it’s a start on a nonracial policy that nevertheless assures diversity.
Give ground on losing policies and practices, but never on principles.
There will be much to protest in days to come—assaults on reproductive rights, the treatment of minorities, tax policy, social welfare programs, and who knows what else. To be effective, protests will have to resemble the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama—not those of the Yippies or the Black Panthers. Protesters should plan to make firm but respectful visits to elected officials.
It’s also important not to be divided in our protest. If, say, a bill to register all Muslims is introduced, we all need to be on the streets together—Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and humanists. Anything less would be an unconscionable surrender of civic duty and would encourage a further erosion of constitutional rights.
And in defending marriage equality, we must also reaffirm our support for freedom of religion. People are leaving “Old Time Religion” in droves. Let’s not give those who remain justification for their victim mentality.
Reach out—but not to start new clashes.
Our political landscape is like a dense and drought-stricken forest. The danger of American fascism igniting is just a lightning bolt away. And yet healing waters are within reach. Political scientists Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhotra find that Americans are much closer on most issues than we believe ourselves to be. Even on that most divisive of issues, abortion, most Americans still hold nuanced views. “Rather than saying ‘abortion in any circumstances without restriction,’ Democrats tend to say ‘abortion in most reasonable circumstances,’” Levendusky says in an interview with the Pennsylvania Gazette. “Likewise, most Republicans would not ban abortion in all circumstances, but rather support limited availability with some exceptions. People might take their party’s side of the issue, but they don’t necessarily go to the poles.”
Still, direct political dialogue is unlikely to end polarization. Research shows that when individuals with opposing political views discuss the issues, things often get heated. “You might think it would increase understanding and tolerance, but people dig in their heels,” Hibbing observes. “Simply bringing them together is not enough.” True that. How many votes flip over Sunday dinner?
But acts of friendship, collaboration, shared experiences—all of these can expand the circle of trust and bring us to see one another as Americans again. I’d love it if more liberal coasties would move to Lincoln, Nebraska, and places like it. You wouldn’t believe how good and fulfilling life in Lincoln can be. But assuming you’re not ready for that, here are some other avenues: volunteer in something apolitical in a suburb or rural area where you may find political opposites. Join a social organization like Rotary that brings people with differing views together to work on common-good charitable efforts. Join with a church in a roadside cleanup or other civic project.
Make it about the common good.
If you’re a humanist, you know we’re all in this together. We have to convey that message better. And we can’t do it by the tried and true method of selecting an enemy to hate. So, what’s left? It’s the economy after all—but in a somewhat different way.
Trump voters are as sensitive to economic unfairness as they are to social snubs. It turns out that state by state, the degree of inequality matches up well with the margin of Trump’s victory. The evolutionary message encoded in the election is this: if we want to restore the gigantic fictive kinship that unites us as Americans (and citizens of the world), we have to focus on universal inclusion and fairness. Keep in mind that for the archetypal Trump voter, everything from 1964 until now has felt like a grudging or forced surrender of power, status, and identity. Hence, “Make America Great Again.”
Too high-minded and abstract for you? Okay, here’s one concrete recommendation for shedding Democratic baggage and focusing on inequality. Let’s be honest: unions outside the public sector are all but gone and there’s no sign they’re coming back. Those private-sector unions that remain do not reliably deliver voters to Democrats (see Michigan). Research shows that union decline is linked to the rising share of top management income. So how do we build a new labor movement? Think outside the box. If industries can manipulate Congress by forming associations that hire lobbyists, what couldn’t a National Association of Working People achieve? Think that’s nuts? Look at the AARP.
And last, never doubt that love can trump hate.
We evolved to live in kin-based groups of 150 or fewer, not in mass societies of 300 million or more. That’s a problem. As Pogo the possum said in Walt Kelly’s great comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” But the miracle of civilization is that we’ve managed to gradually tamp down our natural inclination to inflict misery and atrocity on outsiders by building frameworks of reciprocal benefit. Within these, we’ve grown the circle of trust tremendously. The existence of humanism testifies to that.
Society is an imperfect moral good, yet the more we understand about ourselves the better we can make it. As Martin Luther King Jr. rightly observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Like the civil rights marchers, we must rise up to meet tribal fear, hostility, and hate with determined, courageous, humanistic love.