Reprinted from www.counterpunch.org
Smooth-talking con artists are familiar figures in American folklore. The well-dressed hustler arrives in an unsuspecting town. He pitches some miracle cure or get-rich-quick scheme, door-to-door or from atop a soapbox. Then before his customers realize they've been duped, he steals away in search of his next mark. It's a risky vocation, one that demands quick feet, a keen understanding of human nature, and a talent for telling stories that both arouse and reassure.
But when it comes to profiting off people's hopes and fears, by far the most successful purveyors of lucrative lies and false promises are some of the denizens of this country's palatial estates, corporate boardrooms, and corridors of political power. And unlike their small-time counterparts, they're never on the run -- despite the misery they leave in their wake. Enter Donald J. Trump, soon to be the 45th President of the United States.
In a country beset by extreme and distressing inequality, America's premier hustler sold the electorate a wagonload of beguiling and deceptive tales about what's gone wrong, who's to blame, and how he'll make things better. He persuaded not through rational argument, analysis, and truth-telling, but rather by manipulating our imperfect reasoning and our unreasoning emotions. Although this playbook has been around for a long time, Americans have never witnessed this level of mastery before. Trump's unanticipated success dramatically illustrates the importance of understanding the "mind games" that allowed him to win, despite breaking almost every rule of evidence, logic, and propriety.
In my research as a psychologist, I've found that the psychological appeals used by those eager to maintain or extend their extraordinary wealth and power tend to target five key concerns in our daily lives: issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Each is a fundamental lens through which individuals and groups make sense of the world, evaluate their circumstances, and decide what actions, if any, to take. Each is also linked to a basic question we ask ourselves every day: Are we safe? Are we treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?
Let's consider several examples of how Trump targeted these concerns in charting his path to the White House.
Vulnerability: Are We Safe?
When our security is in jeopardy, nothing else matters as much. The mere prospect of danger on the horizon can quickly consume all of our energy and focus. That's why ensuring the safety of people we care about is such a powerful factor in determining the policies we support and oppose. Unfortunately, however, we're not particularly good at accurately judging peril. As a result, we're susceptible to manipulation by those who misrepresent dangers in order to advance their own agenda.
On the campaign trail, Trump consistently fed our worries about vulnerability. Describing himself as "the law and order candidate," he warned that "our very way of life" was at risk, and assured us that only he could protect us from a wide range of purportedly catastrophic threats. Promising to build a "great wall" along our border with Mexico, he falsely claimed, "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." With similar over-the-top rhetoric, he railed against bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. as "a personal invitation to ISIS members to come live here and try to destroy our country from within." Trump also exploited fears in a different way: by issuing disturbing threats of his own. For example, responding to a protester at a rally, he told the crowd, "You know what they used to do to a guy like that in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks." He also had a warning for media representatives who criticized him: "We're going to open up libel laws, and we're going to have people sue you like you've never got sued before."
Injustice: Are We Treated Fairly?
From everyday slights to profound abuses, the recognition of injustice can be a powerful force for change. When we're aware of mistreatment, it often stirs outrage and a desire to correct wrongs and bring accountability to those we hold responsible. But our perceptions of injustice are imperfect and uncertain. This fallibility can make us easy targets for those with a self-serving interest in shaping our views of right and wrong and misleading us about victims and perpetrators.
Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump portrayed his candidacy and platform as an effort to address wrongdoing on multiple fronts. When announcing his run, he lamented, "The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems." Months later in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he feigned common cause with "the forgotten men and women of our country," promising "to fix the system so it works justly for each and every American." At the same time, Trump was quick to cast himself as an aggrieved victim of injustice as well. For example, prior to his victory he repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged against him ("They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths"voter fraud is very, very common."). And on several occasions he insisted that he was being mistreated by the media ("I get very, very unfair press having to do with women and many other things.").
Distrust: Who Should We Trust?
We tend to divide the world into people and groups we deem trustworthy and others we don't. Unfortunately, the judgments we make can be flawed and imprecise. Sometimes these errors create unwarranted barriers of distrust that interfere with the building of coalitions and working together toward mutually beneficial goals. Those who have a vested interest in preventing such collaborative efforts often manipulate our suspicions in order to promote their own agenda.