Back in 2004, I found myself perplexed by the results of the latest presidential election. I was sure that getting the United States into yet another war in Iraq and having an approval rating below 50% would spell certain doom for the incumbent candidate, President George W. Bush. If nothing else was certain, I knew Florida wouldn’t vote the same way it did in 2000, when the presidency hinged on a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a recount of ballots cast in my home state. Given how close the election was last time, there was no way Florida would turn red again. After all, I only knew four Republicans. Judging by bumper stickers alone, everyone else around me must be a Democrat, or so I thought.
When I sat down to write my undergraduate thesis on the 2004 election, I came to a startling revelation — my perspective had been colored by geography. As someone who was raised in South Florida and attended college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I regularly shuttled between two blue counties, Broward and Alachua. What I had ignored on all those drives north and south were the many red counties I passed along the way. I was hopping from one blue island to the next, while the ocean itself was deep red. It was then that I realized that my personal experiences in large, diverse, highly educated areas were by no means indicative of the political sentiment in the rest of the state. It was hard to fathom how Florida voted again for George W. Bush, but now at least I could comprehend why I had been wrong. I was out of touch with much of the Florida electorate.
Fast forward to November 9, 2016. After staying up almost all night watching the presidential election results with friends who had worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign, a wave of déjà vu crashed over me. There I was, twelve years after Bush had been reelected, stricken with the same uncomfortable feeling that I did not understand what had just transpired. How could a political outsider, New York billionaire, and erstwhile reality TV star famous for his failed casino project in Atlantic City, playboy lifestyle, and absurd hair win the presidency?
Much ink has been spilled in response to the question, “Why did Trump win?” While I do not have any novel statistical insights to offer, I have come to the realization that there are a few common threads linking all the conclusions about Trump’s improbable victory, and they hark back to dynamics at play during the Bush years. In fact, they speak to tendencies present since the dawn of human evolution — fear, anger, and pride.
Research from political science and sociology offers two main competing theories alleging to explain Trump’s victory — economic hardship and status threat. The first theory suggests that people who had been left behind by globalization, deindustrialization, and the economic recovery that occurred during the Obama years were tired of their financial position not improving. The second theory entails that people who enjoy high societal status (i.e., Christians, males, and Whites) came to see their position as being threatened by racial progress, demographic changes, and greater international interdependence. Peer-reviewed academic studies find evidence for both of these theories, although the degree to which one explanation proves more influential than the other in explaining Trump’s election remains a point of contention.
What unites both of these theories are three human emotions — fear, anger, and pride. But if every human experiences these emotions, why should it lead some people to vote for Donald Trump and other people to vote for Hillary Clinton? The answer lies in another concept — Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). This theory explains that human morality rests on five universal foundations — 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) loyalty/betrayal, 4) authority/subversion, and 5) sanctity/degradation. The first two foundations, also called individualizing morals, refer to the ways individuals relate to each other. The latter three, also called binding morals, refer to morals that help groups stay cohesive. In the United States, liberals typically privilege individualizing morals, while conservatives tend to rate all five foundations as important, although they assign greater value to binding morals. Knowing the moral foundations underlying the two main political ideologies in the U.S. helps us to understand why Trump came out victorious.
The issues Trump highlighted in his campaign, along with the way he talked about them, cut straight to the heart of the moral foundations of the electorate, activating the powerful emotions of fear, anger, and pride. Take, for example, the cornerstone of Trump’s political agenda — immigration. Trump’s position on immigration was telegraphed to the public with extreme clarity, as was his preferred solution for the immigration “crisis” — building a wall. For liberals, immigration touches on the plight of fellow humans seeking a better life in the United States, and willing to risk everything to get here. For conservatives, immigration is a matter of law and order, with illegal migrants flouting the sacred U.S. border, arriving in droves to take American jobs, bring gang violence to our streets, and change the culture of this country. Whereas liberals see the issue through the lens of care/harm, conservatives view the topic through lenses of fairness/cheating, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Same issue, but totally different perspectives depending on one’s political orientation.
The issues that were central to Trump’s campaign — immigration, international trade, globalization, abortion, and Islamic terrorism — all hit on moral foundations in powerful ways. Importantly, they also invoked fear, anger, and pride among members of the electorate. Psychological literature tells us that fear is a strong, if short-lived, motivator. As such, Trump’s steady drum beat about the ills of illegal immigration, shadowy elites offshoring American jobs, and late-term abortions stoked the fears of many Americans. Anger was also an ever-present undercurrent flowing through Trump’s rhetoric, but with interesting electoral side effects. As political scientist Davin Phoenix demonstrates in his new book, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics, anger provokes political mobilization among Whites to a far greater extent than it does among people of color. It should be no surprise then that Trump performed particularly well among White, less-educated voters.
Pride is perhaps the least well-explored emotion that I argue is crucial to understanding the outcome of the 2016 election. As a recent article in Medium showed, the unbridled ebullience with which Trump supporters embrace their President is telling. What Trump has done for these people is something no politician in recent memory has been capable of achieving — making them feel good about being American. On a purely anecdotal note, if you ask people why they grew to despise President Obama and blame him for “dividing the country” (since many of them were one-time Obama voters), you will often hear talking points about his attitude towards the police or military, and his efforts to repair relations the Middle East, a part of the world important to U.S. strategic interests. What some have interpreted as political faux pas are significant because they shattered the presumption of unquestioned loyalty that many hold for institutions of authority. When Trump entered the political scene, he offered to restore this loyalty that many felt was lagging in the Office of the President. Given how integral patriotism is to the identity of so many Americans, Trump’s unwavering support for the police and military, along with his explicit “America First” approach to foreign policy, was greeted with enthusiasm by those who felt that their fidelity to the U.S. had been criticized, dismissed, or even mocked. The joke, however, was on the Democrats, as Trump rode a surge of fear, anger, and pride into the White House.
As the 2020 election heats up, Americans wonder whether Trump will once again defy expectations and defeat a Democratic challenger. Given that the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party has yet to be declared, it may be too soon to tell. However, Trump has already shown his capacity to tug at the moral foundations of many Americans, activating powerful emotions that drive decision-making. For instance, it is a virtual certainty that no matter who the Democrats choose as their nominee, he or she will be painted by Trump and the Republican Party as a radical socialist, evoking the fears of many Americans. While political science research tells us that incumbents usually enjoy an electoral advantage over their competitors, less well-known is the role that morals and emotions will play this time around.
Can a Democratic presidential nominee talk about key issues in a way that mobilizes independents, progressives, moderates, and the #NeverTrump wing of the Republican Party? A lot depends on the kinds of issues that become central to the candidate’s campaign and the extent to which they garner emotional reactions that compel people to vote in their favor. For now, President Trump has a formidable campaign war chest, a head start on social media advertising, and the key to the hearts of many Americans. It’s his election to lose.