Trump's voters want him to be strong, even when he's wrong.
President Trump's pledge to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea has raised alarm across Asia, been condemned by Democrats as weak and clueless, forced White House aides to counter that he didn't mean it, and even led a GOP consultant to compare Trump to movie villain Dr. Strangelove and urge U.S. generals to stop him.
But there is likely to be one slice of America taking Trump's side in his latest us-versus-them improvisation, even if he's holding out the specter of a nuclear confrontation. Those likely to be cheering Trump, as inexplicable as that seems to politically blue America, are the same people who mobbed his rallies by the tens of thousands and elected him president. That's the conclusion of post-election analyses of Trump's psychological appeal, which place his nuclear outburst beside many rants during the campaign that rallied those in his base.
"The remarks are indeed a continuation of Trump's style -- but not the more sober responses of [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis who understand the danger of such confrontations, given the nature of the North Korean and United States presidents, and the horrifying potential use of nuclear weapons," said Mari Fitzduff, author of Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump, in an email to AlterNet.
Fitzduff, who is the director of a graduate program in conflict resolution at Brandeis University, labeled Trump's 2016 rallies "identity festivals," where he promised to reverse America's decline, revive past greatness and surmount disruptions that left many whites struggling and feeling voiceless. Trump's base wants him to be decisive, she said, whether or not they agree with him.
"A sizable number of people prefer leaders whom they see as decisive, and prefer displayed strength and certainty, even more than agreeing with the substance of their positions," Fitzduff said. "What they do not like is people who they see as compromisers, or not knowing their own mind, or even consulting/discussing with others what they should do, or indeed changing their mind re red lines, no matter how sensible that might appear at times to be. Strange as this may seem, research has shown that many people prefer 'strong and wrong' leaders to 'weak and right' leaders. (Hence, for many people, Obama was anathema because he was perceived by them to be weak.)"
George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley scholar who has written extensively on how liberals and conservatives think differently due to different views of male roles in families, said Trump's base views him not just as a moral leader, but as an embodiment of the nation.
"Trump constantly lives by the metaphor that the president is the nation," Lakoff said. "And similarly, he takes countries as being people when he talks about them. So, we will have a knockout punch to ISIS, as if ISIS is a person. And constantly talks about North Korea as if North Korea was a person -- just knock them out, destroy them, as if North Korea was not millions of people and can also threaten 25 million people in South Korea. That is just not in their worldview."
In short, Lakoff said Trump's supporters think like he does -- they support strict fathers who take care of business, are strict disciplinarians and embrace the use of force as necessary.
"You can only understand what your brain allows you to understand," he said. "If that's what's in the circuit in your brain, that's all you can understand."
Profiling Trump's Appeal and Base
A Scientific American magazine feature on Trump's psychological allure suggests his base will embrace his belligerence rather than abhor it.
"It's easy and common to dismiss those whose political positions we disagree with as fools or knaves -- or, more precisely, as fools led by knaves," write Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam. "Indeed, the inability of even the most experienced pundits to grasp the reality of Donald Trump's political ascendency in the 2016 presidential race parallels an unprecedented assault on the candidate and his supporters, which even went so far as to question their very grip on reality."
So what did Trump critics miss then and what are they missing now? Foremost, that Trump and his base want the U.S. to be strong, unapologetic, patriotic and responsive to whites. And that their villains are the economic and political establishments, and foreigners, who are perceived as taking advantage of and harming people like them. This is not about parsing facts from fictions, it's about how people are wired, as Lakoff explained.