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Understanding the allure of Trump

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | August 1, 2016

TrumpStrongThere is a lot being written spoken about Trump by intelligent and articulate commentators whose insights I respect. But as a longtime researcher in cognitive science and linguistics, I bring a perspective from these sciences to an understanding of the Trump phenomenon. This perspective is hardly unknown. More that half a million people have read my books, and Google Scholar reports that scholars writing in scholarly journals have cited my works well over 100,000 times.

Yet you will probably not read what I have to say in the NY Times, nor hear it from your favorite political commentators. You will also not hear it from Democratic candidates or party strategists. There are reasons, and we will discuss them later this piece. I am writing it because I think it is right and it is needed, even though it comes from the cognitive and brain sciences, not from the normal political sources. I think it is imperative to bring these considerations into public political discourse.  But it cannot be done in a 650-word op-ed. My apologies. It is untweetable.

I will begin with an updated version of an earlier piece on who is supporting Trump and why — and why policy details are irrelevant to them. I then move to a section on how Trump uses your brain against you. I finish up discussing how Democratic campaigns could do better, and why they need to do better if we are to avert a Trump presidency.

Who Supports Trump and Why

Donald J. Trump has managed to become the Republican nominee for president, Why? How? There are various theories: People are angry and he speaks to their anger. People don’t think much of Congress and want a non-politician. Both may be true. But why? What are the details? And Why Trump?

He seems to have come out of nowhere. His positions on issues don’t fit a common mold.

He has said nice things about LGBTQ folks, which is not standard Republican talk. Republicans hate eminent domain (the taking of private property by the government) and support corporate outsourcing for the sake of profit, but he has the opposite views on both.  He is not religious and scorns religious practices, yet the Evangelicals (that is, the white Evangelicals) love him. He thinks health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, as well as military contractors, are making too much profit and wants to change that. He insults major voting groups, e.g., Latinos, when most Republicans are trying to court them. He wants to deport 11 million immigrants without papers and thinks he can. He wants to stop Muslims from entering the country. What is going on?

The answer requires a bit of background.

In the 1900’s, as part of my research in the cognitive and brain sciences, I undertook to answer a question in my field: How do the various policy positions of conservatives and progressives hang together? Take conservatism: What does being against abortion have to do with being for owning guns? What does owning guns have to do with denying the reality of global warming? How does being anti-government fit with wanting a stronger military? How can you be pro-life and for the death penalty? Progressives have the opposite views. How do their views hang together?

The answer came from a realization that we tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

Winning and Insulting

As the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” In a world governed by personal responsibility and discipline, those who win deserve to win.  Why does Donald Trump publicly insult other candidates and political leaders mercilessly? Quite simply, because he knows he can win an onstage TV insult game. In strict conservative eyes, that makes him a formidable winning candidate who deserves to be a winning candidate. Electoral competition is seen as a battle. Insults that stick are seen as victories — deserved victories.

Consider Trump’s statement that John McCain is not a war hero. The reasoning: McCain got shot down. Heroes are winners. They defeat big bad guys. They don’t get shot down. People who get shot down, beaten up, and stuck in a cage are losers, not winners.

The Moral Hierarchy

The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Am,erica above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.

We see these tendencies in most of the Republican presidential candidates, as well as in Trump, and on the whole, conservative policies flow from the strict father worldview and this hierarchy

Family-based moral worldviews run deep. Since people want to see themselves as doing right not wrong, moral worldviews tend to be part of self-definition — who you most deeply are. And thus your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like. When it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.

There is a certain amount of wiggle room in the strict father worldview and there are important variations. A major split is among (1) white Evangelical Christians, (2) laissez-fair free market conservatives, and (3) pragmatic conservatives who are not bound by evangelical beliefs.

White Evangelicals

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

Such a version of religion is natural for those with strict father morality.  Evangelical Christians join the church because they are conservative; they are not conservative because they happen to be in an evangelical church, though they may grow up with both together.

Evangelical Christianity is centered around family life. Hence, there are organizations like Focus on the Family and constant reference to “family values,” which are to take to be evangelical strict father values.  In strict father morality, it is the father who controls sexuality and reproduction. Where the church has political control, there are laws that require parental and spousal notification in the case of proposed abortions.

Evangelicals are highly organized politically and exert control over a great many local political races. Thus Republican candidates mostly have to go along with the evangelicals if they want to be nominated and win local elections.

Pragmatic Conservatives

Pragmatic conservatives, on the other hand, may not have a religious orientation at all. Instead, they may care primarily about their own personal authority, not the authority of the church or Christ, or God. They want to be strict fathers in their own domains, with authority primarily over their own lives. Thus, a young, unmarried conservative — male or female —may want to have sex without worrying about marriage. They may need access to contraception, advice about sexually transmitted diseases, information about cervical cancer, and so on. And if a girl or woman becomes pregnant and there is no possibility or desire for marriage, abortion may be necessary.

Trump is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence. And he knows that there are a lot of Republican voters who are like him in their pragmatism. There is a reason that he likes Planned Parenthood. There are plenty of young, unmarried (or even married) pragmatic conservatives, who may need what Planned Parenthood has to offer — cheaply and confidentially by way of contraception, cervical cancer prevention, and sex ed.

Similarly, young or middle-aged pragmatic conservatives want to maximize their own wealth. They don’t want to be saddled with the financial burden of caring for their parents. Social Security and Medicare relieve them of most of those responsibilities. That is why Trump wants to keep Social Security and Medicare.

Laissez-faire Free Marketeers

Establishment conservative policies have not only been shaped by the political power of white evangelical churches, but also by the political power of those who seek maximally laissez-faire free markets, where wealthy people and corporations set market rules in their favor with minimal government regulation and enforcement. They see taxation not as investment in publicly provided resources for all citizens, but as government taking their earnings (their private property) and giving the money through government programs to those who don’t deserve it. This is the source of establishment Republicans’ anti-tax and shrinking government views. This version of conservatism is quite happy with outsourcing to increase profits by sending manufacturing and many services abroad where labor is cheap, with the consequence that well-paying jobs leave America and wages are driven down here. Since they depend on cheap imports, they would not be in favor of imposing high tariffs.

But Donald Trump is not in a business that makes products abroad to import here and mark up at a profit. As a developer, he builds hotels, casinos, office buildings, golf courses. He may build them abroad with cheap labor but he doesn’t import them. Moreover, he recognizes that most small business owners in America are more like him — American businesses like dry cleaners, pizzerias, diners, plumbers, hardware stores, gardeners, contractors, car washers, and professionals like architects, lawyers, doctors, and nurses. High tariffs don’t look like a problem.

Many business people are pragmatic conservatives. They like government power when it works for them. Take eminent domain. Establishment Republicans see it as an abuse by government — government taking of private property. But conservative real estate developers like Trump depend on eminent domain so that homes and small businesses in areas they want to develop can be taken by eminent domain for the sake of their development plans. All they have to do is get local government officials to go along, with campaign contributions and the promise of an increase in local tax dollars helping to acquire eminent domain rights. Trump points to Atlantic City, where he build his casino using eminent domain to get the property.

If businesses have to pay for their employees’ health care benefits, Trump would want them to have to pay as little as possible to maximize profits for businesses in general. He would therefore want health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to charge as little as possible. To increase competition, he would want insurance companies to offer plans nationally, avoiding the state-run exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The exchanges are there to maximize citizen health coverage, and help low-income people get coverage, rather than to increase business profits. Trump does however want to keep the mandatory feature of ACA, which establishment conservatives hate since they see it as government overreach, forcing people to buy a product. For Trump, however, the mandatory feature for individuals increases the insurance pool and brings down costs for businesses.

Direct vs. Systemic Causation

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions:  A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes.  Systemic causation in global warming explains why global warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.

Direct causation is easy to understand, and appears to be represented in the grammars of all languages around the world. Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.

Empirical research has shown that conservatives tend to reason with direct causation and that progressives have a much easier time reasoning with systemic causation. The reason is thought to be that, in the strict father model, the father expects the child or spouse to respond directly to an order and that refusal should be punished as swiftly and directly as possible.

Many of Trump’s policy proposals are framed in terms of direct causation.

Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico — build a wall to stop them. For all the immigrants who have entered illegally, just deport them — even if there are 11 million of them working throughout the economy and living throughout the country. The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to directly shoot the shooter. To stop jobs from going to Asia where labor costs are lower and cheaper goods flood the market here, the solution is direct: put a huge tariff on those goods so they are more expensive than goods made here. To save money on pharmaceuticals, have the largest consumer — the government — take bids for the lowest prices. If Isis is making money on Iraqi oil, send US troops to Iraq to take control of the oil. Threaten Isis leaders by assassinating their family members (even if this is a war crime). To get information from terrorist suspects, use water-boarding, or even worse torture methods. If a few terrorists might be coming with Muslim refugees, just stop allowing all Muslims into the country. All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.

Political Correctness

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class and many are white men who see themselves as superior to immigrants, nonwhites, women, nonChristians, gays — and people who rely on public assistance. In other words, they are what liberals would call “bigots.” For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the unAmerican nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness” — public pressure against their views and against what they see as “free speech.” This has become exaggerated since 911, when anti-Muslim feelings became strong. The election of President Barack Hussein Obama created outrage among those conservatives, and they refused to see him as a legitimate American (as in the birther movement), much less as a legitimate authority, especially as his liberal views contradicted almost everything else they believe as conservatives.

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel — with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their ‘politically incorrect’ views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.

Whenever you hear the words “political correctness” remember this.


There is no middle in American politics. There are moderates, but there is no ideology of the moderate, no single ideology that all moderates agree on. A moderate conservative has some progressive positions on issues, though they vary from person to person. Similarly, a moderate progressive has some conservative positions on issues, again varying from person to person. In short, moderates have both political moral worldviews, but mostly use one of them. Those two moral worldviews in general contradict each other. How can they reside in the same brain at the same time?

Both are characterized in the brain by neural circuitry. They are linked by a commonplace circuit: mutual inhibition. When one is turned on the other is turned off; when one is strengthened, the other is weakened. What turns them on or off? Language that fits that worldview activates that worldview, strengthening it, while turning off the other worldview and weakening it. The more Trump’s views are discussed in the media, the more they are activated and the stronger they get, both in the minds of hardcore conservatives and in the minds of moderate progressives.

This is true even if you are attacking Trump’s views. The reason is that negating a frame activates that frame, as I pointed out in the book Don’t Think of an Elephant!  It doesn’t matter if you are promoting Trump or attacking Trump, you are helping Trump.

A good example of Trump winning with progressive biconceptuals includes certain unionized workers. Many union members are strict fathers at home or in their private life. They believe in “traditional family values” — a conservative code word — and they may identify with winners.

Why has Trump won the Republican nomination? Look at all the conservative groups he appeals to!

Why His Lack of Policy Detail Doesn’t Matter

I recently heard a brilliant and articulate Clinton surrogate argue against a group of Trump supporters that Trump has presented no policy plans for increasing jobs, increasing economics growth, improving education, gaining international respect, etc. This is the basic Clinton campaign argument. Hillary has the experience, the policy know-how, she can get things done, it’s all on her website. Trump has none of this. What Hillary’s campaign says is true. And it is irrelevant.

Trump supporters and other radical Republican extremists could not care less, and for a good reason. Their job is to impose their view of strict father morality in all areas of life. If they have the Congress, and the Presidency and the Supreme Court, they could achieve this. They don’t need to name policies, because the Republicans already of hundreds of policies ready to go.  They just need to be in complete power.

How Trump Uses Your Brain to His Advantage

Any unscrupulous, effective salesman knows how to use you brain against you, to get you to buy what he is selling. How can someone “use your brain against you?” What does it mean?

All thought uses neural circuitry. Every idea is constituted by neural circuitry. But we have no conscious access to that circuitry. As a result, most of thought — an estimated 98 percent of thought is unconscious. Conscious thought is the tip of the iceberg.

Unconscious thought works by certain basic mechanisms. Trump uses them instinctively to turn people’s brains toward what he wants: Absolute authority, money, power, celebrity.

The mechanisms are:

  1. Repetition. Words ore neurally linked to the circuits the determine their meaning. The more a word is heard, the more the circuit is activated and the stronger it gets, and so the easier it is to fire again. Trump repeats. Win. Win, Win. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get tired of winning.
  2. Framing: Crooked Hillary. Framing Hillary as purposely and knowingly committing crimes for her own benefit, which is what a crook does. Repeating makes many people unconsciously think of her that way, even though she has been found to have been honest and legal by thorough studies by the right-wing  Bengazi committee (which found nothing) and the FBI (which found nothing to charge her with, except missing the mark ‘(C)’ in the body of 3 out of 110,000 emails). Yet the framing is working. There is a common metaphor that Immorality Is Illegality, and that acting against Strict Father Morality (the only kind off morality recognized) is being immoral. Since virtually everything Hillary Clinton has ever done has violated Strict Father Morality, that makes her immoral. The metaphor thus makes her actions immoral, and hence she is a crook. The chant “Lock her up!” activates this whole line of reasoning.
  3. Well-known examples: When a well-publicized disaster happens, the coverage activates the framing of it over and over, strengthening it, and increasing the probability that the framing will occur easily with high probability. Repeating examples of shootings by Muslims, African-Americans, and Latinos raises fears that it could happen to you and your community — despite the miniscule actual probability. Trump uses this to create fear. Fear tends to activate desire for a strong strict father — namely, Trump.
  4. Grammar: Radical Islamic terrorists: “Radical” puts Muslims on a linear scale and “terrorists” imposes a frame on the scale, suggesting that terrorism is built into the religion itself. The grammar suggests that there is something about Islam that has terrorism inherent in it. Imagine calling the Charleston gunman a “radical Republican terrorist.” Trump is aware this to at least some extent. As he said to Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer who wrote The Art of the Deal for him, “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
  5. Conventional metaphorical thought is inherent in our largely unconscious thought.  Such normal modes of metaphorical thinking that are not noticed as such. Consider Brexit, which used the metaphor of “entering” and “leaving” the EU. There is a universal metaphor that states are locations in space: you can enter a state, be deep in some state, and come out that state. If you enter a café  and then leave the café , you will be in the same location as before you entered. But that need not be true of states of being. But that was the metaphor used with Brexist; Britons believe that after leaving the EU, things would be as before when the entered the EU. They were wrong. Things changed radically while they were in the EU.   That same metaphor is being used by Trump: Make America Great Again. Make America Safe Again. And so on. As if there was some past ideal state that we can go back to just by electing Trump.
  6. There is also a metaphor that A Country Is a Person and a metonymy of the President Standing For the Country. Thus, Obama, via both metaphor and metonymy, can stand conceptually for America. Therefore, by saying that Obama is weak and not respected, it is communicated that America, with Obama as president, is weak and disrespected. The inference is that it is because of Obama.
  7. The country as person metaphor and the metaphor that war or conflict between countries is a fistfight between people, leads the inference that just having a strong president will guarantee that America will win conflicts and wars. Trump will just throw knockout punches.  In his acceptance speech at the convention, Trump repeatedly said that he would accomplish things that can only be done by the people acting with their government. After one such statement, there was a chant from the floor, “He will do it.”
  8.  The metaphor that The nation Is a Family was used throughout the GOP convention. We heard that strong military sons are produced by strong military fathers and that “defense of country is a family affair.” From Trump’s love of family and commitment to their success, we are to conclude that, as president he will love America’s citizens and be committed to the success of all.
  9. There is a common metaphor that Identifying with your family’s national heritage makes you a member of that nationality. Suppose your grandparents came from Italy and you identify with your Italian ancestors, you may proud state that you are Italian. The metaphor is natural. Literally, you have been American for two generations. Trump made use of this commonplace metaphor in attacking US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is American, born and raised in the United States. Trump said he was a Mexican, and therefore would hate him and tend to rule against him in a case brought against Trump University for fraud.
  10. Then there is the metaphor system used in the phrase “to call someone out.” First the word “out.” There is a general metaphor that Knowing Is Seeing as in “I see what you mean.”  Things that are hidden inside something cannot be seen and hence not known, while things are not hidden but out in public can be seen and hence known. To “out” someone is to made their private knowledge public. To “call someone out” is to publicly name someone’s hidden misdeeds, thus allowing for public knowledge and appropriate consequences.

This is the basis for the Trumpian metaphor that Naming is Identifying. Thus naming your enemies will allow you to identify correctly who they are, get to them, and so allow you to defeat them. Hence, just saying “radical Islamic terrorists” allows you to pick them out, get at them, and annihilate them. And conversely, if you don’t say it, you won’t be able to pick them out and annihilate them. Thus a failure to use those words means that you are protecting those enemies — in this case Muslims, that is, potential terrorists because of their religion.

I’ll stop here, though I could go on. Here are ten uses of people’s unconscious normal brain mechanisms that are manipulated by Trump and his followers for his overriding purpose: to be elected president, to be given absolute authority with a Congress and Supreme Court, and so to have his version of Strict Famer Morality govern America into the indefinite future.

These ten forms of using with people’s everyday brain mechanisms for his own purposes have gotten Trump the Republican nomination.  But millions more people have seen and heard Trump and company on tv and heard them on the radio. The media pundits have not described those ten mechanisms, or other brain mechanisms, that surreptitiously work on the unconscious minds of the public, even though the result is that Big Lies repeated over and over are being believed by a growing number of people.

Even if he loses the election, Trump will have changed the brains of millions of Americans, with future consequences. It is vitally important people know the mechanisms used to transmit Big Lies and to stick them into people’s brains without their awareness. It is a form of mind control.

People in the media have a duty to report it when the see it.  But the media comes with constraints.

Certain things have not been allowed in public political discourse in the media. Reporters and commentators are supposed to stick to what is conscious and with literal meaning.  But most real political discourse makes use of unconscious thought, which shapes conscious thought via unconscious framing and commonplace conceptual metaphors. It is crucial, for the history of the country and the world, as well as the planet, that all of this be made public.

And it is not just the media, Such responsibility rests with ordinary citizens who become aware of unconscious brain mechanisms like the ten we have just discussed. This responsibility also rests with the Democratic Party and their campaigns at all levels.

Is the use of the public’s brain mechanisms for communication necessarily immoral? Understanding how people really think can be used to communicate truths, not Big Lies or ads for products.

This knowledge is not just known to cognitive linguists. It is taught in Marketing courses in business schools, and the mechanisms are used in advertising, to get you to buy what advertisers are selling. We have learned to recognize ads; they are set off by themselves. Even manipulative corporate advertising with political intent (like ads for fracking) is not as dangerous as Big Lies leading to authoritarian government determining the future of our country.

How Can Democrats Do Better?

First, don’t think of an elephant. Remember not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive. Give a positive truthful framing to undermine claims to the contrary. Use the facts to support positively-framed truth. Use repetition.

Second, start with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying. For example, progressive thought is built on empathy, on citizens caring about other citizens and working through our government to provide public resources for all, both businesses and individuals. Use history. That’s how America started. The public resources used by businesses were not only roads and bridges, but public education, a national bank, a patent office, courts for business cases, interstate commerce support, and of course the criminal justice system. From the beginning, the Private Depended on Public Resources, both private lives and private enterprise.

Over time those resources have included sewers, water and electricity, research universities and research support: computer science (via the NSF), the internet (ARPA), pharmaceuticals and modern medicine (the NIH), satellite communication (NASA and NOA), and GPS systems and cell phones (the Defense Department). Private enterprise and private life utterly depend on public resources. Have you ever said this? Elizabeth Warren has. Almost no other public figures. And stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life.

The conservatives are committed to privatizing just about everything and to eliminating funding for most public resources. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Start saying it.

And don’t forget the police. Effective respectful policing is a public resource. Chief David O. Brown of the Dallas Police got it right. Training, community policing, knowing the people you protect. And don’t ask too much of the police: citizens have a responsibility to provide funding so that police don’t have to do jobs that should be done by others.

Unions need to go on the offensive. Unions are instruments of freedom — freedom from corporate servitude. Employers call themselves job creators. Working people are profit creators for the employers, and as such they deserve a fair share of the profits and respect and acknowledgement. Say it. Can the public create jobs. Of course. Fixing infrastructure will create jobs by providing more public resources that private lives and businesses depend on. Public resources to create more public resources. Freedom creates opportunity that creates more freedom.

Third, keep out of nasty exchanges and attacks. Keep out of shouting matches. One can speak powerfully without shouting. Obama sets the pace: Civility, values, positivity, good humor, and real empathy are powerful. Calmness and empathy in the face of fury are powerful. Bill Clinton won because he oozed empathy, with his voice, his eye contact, and his body. It wasn’t his superb ability as a policy wonk, but the empathy he projected and inspired.

Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. They matter, but they always support values.

Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues. Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom issues, human issues. And address poor whites! Appalachian and rust belt whites deserve your attention as much as anyone else. Don’t surrender their fate to Trump, who will just increase their suffering.

And remember JFK’s immortal, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Empathy, devotion, love, pride in our country’s values, public resources to create freedoms. And adulthood.

Be prepared. You have to understand Trump to stand calmly up to him and those running with him all over the country.

Cross-posted from Truthout

Comments to “Understanding the allure of Trump

  1. I have thought along these lines for many years. Ever since I went to church with my family while on a visit. Southern Baptist. The preacher told them who to vote for. I’ve never revisited that church or gone to any church since them and resist any mention of going to church. It’s become clearer to me that the White Evangelicals can not think beyond what they are told in church. They need someone to think for them and do not question their instructions. They dare not think for themselves, it would be heresy. This pours over into all subjects, not just political or religious. If it’s not covered by doctrine, it’s not worth a moment’s thought.

    This does explain today’s political atmosphere in the Republican party as concerns Evangelical Christians. They do not listen to anything beyond what the church tells them, simply because it’s doctrine and must be what they believe in. They can not and will not believe anything Trump says or does is wrong. They can not think for themselves. It drives me crazy and has caused a rift between my family and myself. I had not understood how deep this core belief was until Trump came along. The previous Republican candidates had not brought out the robotic performances and artificial intelligence. I knew they were against abortions and welfare. They were pro gun (as am I) and are totally resistant to giving up assault rifles (I advocate this action constantly). The fact that most mass killings of children and adults have involved these guns is immaterial. The thought that they could overlook sexual assault, pedophilia, ruining the environment, giving the country away to the rich, promoting racial bias has shocked me beyond speech. These are, or were, decent people and would have given their shirts off their backs to any latino or muslim. They still would but are still for sending them out of the country or keeping them out of the country. How can they not see the conflict within themselves?

  2. since learning about the ubiquitous power of metaphor from Lakoff in a 1960’s UG course, it has guided my thinking & understanding ever since, especially as an academic

  3. Family moral systems certainly are strong influences on how adults will view the political and social environment, but they are not destiny. A certain number of children raised in strict father families will reject that model when they have children, and a certain number of children raised in liberal “nurturing” families will seek more authoritarian structures as adults. Professor Lakoff does not discuss the impact of cognitive dissonance: the strict father who violates his own principles by, say, having an extra-marital affair; the “nurturing” parents who the child sees as prostituting themselves to gain social or economic advancement; the children who are turned off by their parents’ specific materialistic choices.

    Professor Lakoff wants to give constructive advice to Democrats, so he goes lightly on the corruption of the Democratic party. The Republican Party already has had its wheels come off because of cognitive dissonance: e.g., the rank and files sees the problem as immigration, but the Republican business elite wants “immigration reform” that will continue to suppress domestic wage rates (without having to pay for the social service costs that often accompany high levels of immigration.”

    The problem with the US health care system is that it is the most expensive in the developed world with poorer statistical outcomes and greater degree of uneven provision of care than most if not all other systems. This, in turn, seems due largely if not entirely to the fact that it is privatized and largely unregulated. Neither party is willing to reign in the gouging and profiteering that is endemic in this system because both parties like the donations they receive from the industry players. The ACA merely forces/cajoles millions of people who either can’t afford insurance or don’t think purchasing it is economically rational given their situation, to purchase “mandated” insurance, largely at taxpayer expense. The health insurance/care industry bought into it because it promised new taxpayer subsidies and forced new private participants. Have some people benefited from the ACA? Yes, but others haven’t. People aren’t stupid (all the time), they can see that a lot of what they have been fed on both sides of the aisle is bunk.

    Trump is a master salesman with a history of selling deals good for him but not so good for most others. He understands the “truthiness” of reality TV. For people who haven’t yet realized that reality TV is just as scripted as fiction TV, only the writers get paid less, Trump seems refreshing. Since neither major party actually supports policy outcomes favored by voters, Trump’s declaration that he will carry out the voter’s will is a very powerful pitch. If elected he might well successfully enhance the all-powerful executive by further emasculating the legislative branch and ignoring/demeaning the judiciary while giving voters, at least for a while, the perception/illusion that he is making government work for them.

    The Democratic Party pitches empathy (plenty of that at the convention), but in its policies, not so much. Talking the values isn’t enough — the values need to be carried through to actions. That is how a true political base can be reestablished. A large majority of the public thinks the country is going in the wrong direction. The Democratic promise of “more of the same, but better” isn’t very enticing if you don’t think things are already relatively good. The actions that would substantively (and not just by marketing tricks) motivate a renewed Democratic party base are not compatible with the Democratic Party donor base. Unless and until the Democratic party or some other movement chooses the interests of voters over big donors, Trump or his progeny will attract large swaths of the public.

  4. Dr L,

    Brilliant piece, thank you. I guess I am more intrigued by your comment of “science denial” more than anything else (comment section).

    I see many signs of both psychoanalytic and symbolic discourses within your writing here. So why the philosophical dig? Certainly, even if one is to accept science as universal truth, one day long after us it will be replaced by and with something else.

  5. academic overthink baffle gab.
    trumps appeal is primitive, he’s a “stick it to the man” kinda guy.
    what he says is irrelevant. slanderous insults are sucked up by the dems and news media for analysis and dissection….and derision…but his supporters don’t care. he doesn’t even remember saying it two sentences later. he’s immune, the dems are attacking smoke.
    the public doesn’t get it. he’s a hustler working a con…..he’ll say anything to make the sale.
    scrutiny of the content of his drivel babble is amusing and pointless. my dad was a “professional” con man……this is deja vu of dinner every night.
    you need a less schooling and a lot more street.

  6. Prof. Lakoff, thank you for your most enlightening explanation of the Trump phenomenon.

    While studying your post I thought of other perspectives such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Theory of Mind, Power of Money and Institutionalized Moral Failures, WWII speeches by Churchill, FDR and Hitler, etc. But your post presents the best set of explanations I have read so far for understanding the Trump phenomenon in the 21st century.

  7. Trump will be remembered as an epic loser in the history of U.S. Presidential races. Replace “allure” with “repugnance.”

    • Would you hold the same thoughts if for some reason he were to win? I’m not a Trump supporter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another 1968. We have a foundering administration, a reviled Democrat candidate for president, large groups of embittered and alienated people on both sides of the political spectrum who think the system is rigged against them, a war with Americans being killed wondering when it will ever end, racial conflict, rioting and looting in major cities, and a growing sentiment among the electorate that things are out of control, and that the old guard in both major political parties doesn’t give a rodent’s behind about the average guy/gal going to work each day and trying to make a living. Those who seem to make careers out of pseudo-intellectual pontificating don’t seem to have a clue that when push comes to shove, nobody punching a time clock or sitting up late at night trying to figure out how to pay the bills cares about such academic flatulence. They perceive problems, and they want a leader who sounds (rightly or wrongly) like he’s willing to take a course of action and not fret over what the professional hand-wringers think…

      • Stan Rothwell, methinks larry smith’s comment above might well describe you.

        tRump did lose the popular vote.
        And American history will view him as a loser president.

        “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.
        His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”
        “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
        “We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded.”

        (quotes from NYT book review of “A Higher Loyalty” by James Comey)

  8. Hi George
    I’ve become very skeptical about your idea that empathy is a core progressive value. A value to me is what is, not some abstract ideal. From what I am seeing, progressives are mirroring conservatives in terms of attacking and judging conservatives. Just look at Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Donald Trump. There is plenty of judgment going both ways. Conservatives see and feel the judgments coming their way. Also see MSNBC and Fox going at each other.

    Also the self-righteousness of progressives is quite intense. There’s an attitude of, ‘we are right and you all are wrong’. We are for the good of everyone and you are essentially jerks, idiots and even evil. There’s also the idea with progressives of truth telling, if we just tell the truth people will come around. The truth they tell are often just judgments or they are just analyzing conservatives. I’ve seen progressives get very angry when their self-righteousness is pointed out. Self-righteous, judgments, analysis, from my experience, block empathy.

    I see and have experienced that empathy is the way forward and it is not easy to fully manifest. Empathy is also difficult in a competitive political system since the system works against it. I.E. ‘competition’ is another block to empathy.

    I think we need a separate empathy movement that can act as empathic mediators between the conflicting progressives and conservatives. Something like an empathy party or movement that is clear from the ground up that we value a social relational and mutual empathy between all people. It seems to me both progressives and conservatives are like a dysfunctional family (or couple) that needs outside empathic support. Both sides seem to be in desperate need to be heard and understood and for someone to bring them together to work out their difference and work together to solve their problems..

    They both do not seem to be able to do it on their own and are just drifting further and further apart. I’ve seem progressives and conservatives really value and engage in empathic dialog if someone can hold empathic space for them. I just don’t see progressives able to do this on their own. I feel it takes a new empathy movement that can manifest and hold empathic presence for all sides and advocate for a culture of empathy.

    So I agree that empathy and care are the most foundational values. However I don’t see progressives (or conservatives for that mater) manifesting this.

    Edwin Rutsch

    • “the self-righteousness of progressives is quite intense. There’s an attitude of, ‘we are right and you all are wrong’. We are for the good of everyone and you are essentially jerks, idiots and even evil. There’s also the idea with progressives of truth telling, if we just tell the truth people will come around. The truth they tell are often just judgments or they are just analyzing conservatives. I’ve seen progressives get very angry when their self-righteousness is pointed out. Self-righteous, judgments, analysis, from my experience, block empathy.”

      An issue that is conveniently overlooked in both progressive and academic circles. The attitude of “we’re the intellectual elite, we know what’s best for you, and if you dare disagree, it’s only because you’re stupid and evil and hate humanity” is heavily projected onto those who don’t march lockstep with their views. Whether one is discussing minimum wage laws, immigration policies, or esoteric issues such as public restroom access for transgendered people, there is a tendency to not even consider that those who object to certain issues of the progressive agenda even have sincere legitimate concerns. Similiar to what happened in 1968, there’s a “silent majority” that may not necessarily agree with Trump’s views on the issues, but they feel a certain satisfaction watching Trump give many in the Democrat Party and the media a dose of what they consider to be their own medicine.

  9. As a female, millennial, protestant, Bay Area raised, UC Berkeley graduate, daughter of a legal immigrant, and outspoken Trump supporter. . . I cannot explain how much fun it is to see intellectuals in crisis mode. Please, more blogs explaining what my motives are!

    • “As a female, millennial, protestant, Bay Area raised, UC Berkeley graduate, daughter of a legal immigrant”

      You left out ‘compulsive liar’, which, ironically, would explain your one truthful phrase, ‘outspoken Trump supporter”

  10. Thanks, Avi, for your comment.

    I was not trying to convince, only to explain what many people find mysterious, namely why so many people are supporting Trump, who they are, and how he manages to convince so many people.

    It is scientific fact, not a matter of materialist philosophy, that people think using neural circuitry and that ideas do not float in the air. There is a difference between scientific fact and outdated philosophical speculation. If one is not “operating in a realm where science is considered epistemically superior” to views like ideas can just float in the air, you are engaging in science denial. Sad in the academic world. Understanding how thought works is a good thing, especially in the humanities and social sciences — and in politics, it is vital.

  11. Yes. Yes. Yes. This for the most part is true. However, the reason you won’t hear the liberal media, or any for that matter talking about your writing is because they have already been employing these strategies for sometime. Years in fact. Decades. Trump, is merely doing what it takes to win, by beating them at their own game, because he knows that’s how he has to do it. And he has so much more ammunition for his gun. And he has so much policy detail and more coming out as the election draws near, if you care to read it. Which is why he has my support. i.e. the wall, immigration reform, 7 steps to repealing and replacing the ACA. Among many others. All his policies reflect improvements of current policies and fall within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. I think his biggest strength is that he is actually representing the majority of his constituents, while his opponent is pulling the same old establishment tricks to get elected. Trump is slicing through all the red tape at once. He he is playing a strategy within the boundaries set in place. I like that Trump can talk to the room from the heart, which no other politician can do in the stump or on the campaign trail anymore at any great length. Because they are so dishonest. Trump is kind of a throw back, somewhat old fashioned, but more when it comes to his values. Many Americans have had it with being told what their values are and having them constantly undermined. Trump literally has the truth on his side…where as Democrats are so far removed from truth that they have lost their compass and can’t seem to find their way back. Doing so would force them to reverse on current positions. For they are aligned with power and advantage, and whatever will get them there. But my personal favorite reason for supporting Trump is because he believes in America and that our best days are in front of us. When we stop to consider the greatness of this beautiful and plentiful land, we realize that a candidate that truly represents us would also have to be great…and when we look at the two choices, we can clearly see there is only one who could possible fit that requirement. And it has nothing to do with race, or sex, or anything other than a resume and a vision for America. This year, I think we the people finally are seeing front and center the failed left policies for what they are: political manipulation and emotional scapegoating for the ends of personal enrichment. Don’t forget: the worst nightmare for the Democrat and Republican establishment status quo, and now more than ever before, is awakened citizens speaking and thinking for themselves. When the majority starts doing this, they have reason to be afraid. Anything is possible. We don’t have to live with this current state of affairs anymore.

    • Looks like the astroturf PR firms are experimenting with ‘bots, rather than bothering to actually hire telemarketing firms that use humans to spread their paid propaganda.

      What a laugh to think that anyone who reads this website would take any of this cornpone seriously, or believe that anyone in America really thinks Trumpism is even mildly plausible. “Trump literally has the truth on his side”? Could anything besides a ‘bot have typed that without quotes or a winky emoji?

      • “What a laugh to think that anyone who reads this website would take any of this cornpone seriously”

        I guess it’s easier to ridicule and belittle other posters than refute their ideas with specific arguments. It’s the arrogance and condescencion of people like you who drive voters to the likes of Trump, because they are fed up with being treated as if their own concerns and views aren’t even legitimate.

  12. Great observations and advice like this are consonant with the discipline of Rhetoric.

    Perhaps, though, normative appeals belong within the realm of the humanities. Moral suasion is not necessarily improved by imputing a physiological underpinning — by claiming a materialist basis for one’s arguments. Just as most thinking is unconscious so as attractive as reason and rationality are, they shouldn’t overshadow the rest of what’s going on in people’s minds, along the same lines, materialist arguments only strengthen one’s position if one is operating in a realm where science is considered epistemologically superior. And how many places is that true these days?

    Lakoff’s outlook is on my mind often, most recently in the NBA Finals rivalry between LeBron James and Steph Curry. The dominance of the conservative frame of mind seemed pretty clear in the general agreement that James’ win illustrated that ~Might Makes Right~ He deserved to win because he’s the bigger actor. Curry’s success is seen as illegitimate because his team is too much of a team, not enough of individual standouts. It was presumptuous of Curry to oppose King James with dedication and teamwork, nearly feminine (horrors!) qualities. As they say in the South, it’s the big dog that eats. People derisively nicknamed Curry ‘the honor student’ because he used wily tactics like intelligence and accuracy to try and steal what everyone deep down knows belongs to the big guy.

    My candidate for the most insidious and deeply ingrained domain of framing in modern America is car culture. Car culture thinking is pervasive, and combatting it is a great way to get people to recognize that communal action, paradoxical though it appears when looked at through the lens of car culture, leads to more personal freedom, to greater liberty, than each one of us taking responsibility for owning and servicing a car. A society designed for people rather than for cars would free up so much labor and natural resources that each one of us would be richer. But cars are so far into the wiring in our heads that we can’t see just how crippling they are.

    • Avi…really? The people who liked the Cavaliers are not conservatives. They are folks from Cleveland, a thoroughly Blue island in a red state. What fans gravitated to in the case of the playoffs was the underdog, desperate team play of the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers have been in the playoffs repeatedly with one great player and a mediocre team — and lost. What they added this year was an emphasis on team play. That plan occasionally broke down, but it was the goal of the Cavaliers during the year. You are ignoring the power of the additions of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, as well as Kevin Love.
      Fans also recognize the sacrifice LeBron James made to return to his small market team from a celebrity life in Miami. So there are stories in sports. And the story of Steph Curry’s willingness to work at his game is a great one. But it is silly to state that LeBron James or Kyrie Irving don’t possess intelligence and accuracy.

      • Behavior and events are both overdetermined, that is, they have multiple causes and multiple meanings; I’m sure that your take on the Cavaliers has merit.

        So it’s interesting to notice that I’m claiming that the Finals tended to reinforce a strict-parent mental framework because they activated individualistic (non-communal) interpretations of experience in fans’ minds, while your contextualization is part of a claim that the same events activated (maybe) caring/communal/cooperative interpretations of experience.

        What does this imply about Lakoff’s ‘biconceptuals’ ideas? Which pathways really get reinforced? Is there some necessary and inevitable neurological result when Dad yells, or could that be a trauma to one child and a comfort to another?

    • “A society designed for people rather than for cars would free up so much labor and natural resources that each one of us would be richer.”

      Tell that to poor people who can’t afford a car, who can’t afford to live near where they work, and who have to spend 3-4 hours per day dealing with a public transportation system that is often set up more for the convenience of the labor union of the transportation workers than the riding public. Do you think most people acquire cars because they want to be poorer? Sounds like the type of comment written by somebody who has never experienced a typical daily commute…

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