Onetime presidential candidate Donald Trump is now President Donald Trump. In his first days as President, let us consider the social psychology of his winning, but misunderstood, campaign. 

Pundits got it wrong. President Trump did not win on a campaign of bigotry. Yes, he made bigoted statements. But whatever his particular statements about groups, Mr. Trump had one clear message and it was not "make America great again." It was "make America simple again."

Turns out that, “make America simple again” was the core message underlying the mix of statements that made up Mr. Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Drain the swamp.” “Lock her up.” “Build a wall.” “America First.”

Human psychology prefers cognitive simplicity. We carry in our brains a cognitive economic motivation that pushes us to use a lot of the cognitive shortcuts. No matter, who we are, what our station in life, we carry around with us a cognitive economic system:  “…those cognitive processes that serve to reduce and simplify the vast amount of information that floods most people’s lives, thus allowing efficient processing and avoiding an otherwise overwhelming overload.”[1]

We prefer the “keep it simple” rule. The problem is that in times of rapid social change, the real world is complex. That real world complexity requires complex information processing that puts a strain on our psychology. That is why, in times of rapid social change as are these times in which we are living, we are drawn to simple messages. 

It is in that way that the psychology of Mr. Donald Trump’s winning presidential campaign has been misunderstood. No doubt, Mr. Trump’s campaign statements have awakened bigotry from its fitful hibernation. But that is a side-effect, not the main motivation. Turns out Mr. Trump was elected to make America simple again.     

Make America simple again has the side effect of unleashing simple emotions and awakening hibernating bigotry. You see the idea of making America simple again easily connected with the intergroup anxiety that lots of Americans are feeling. That intergroup anxiety is attached to the neo-diversity situation[2] of America in which all of us have to encounter and interact with people from many different groups. 

An ironic part of today’s complex, digital world is that we can customize and streamline the flow of information we expose ourselves to; we can keep ourselves in a stream of information of only like minded voices. But we can’t control the people we see on the street, in Walmart, going into the movies, eating at a restaurant, in television commercials.

Look, the 21st century desire for the simple has been with us for a while. How else to explain vitriolic responses to TV commercials with interracial couples? Sure, it’s easy enough, simple enough to see the bigotry of those responses. But what motivates the bigotry? Bigotry, you see, is not free-floating. Bigotry is always activated, motivated and supported by something in the social world. Could it be so simple that it all has to do with the new structure of our society? 

We got rid of Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. With that dramatic change, a number of simple group-certainties began to disappear.

Things were simple when homosexuals were less… in the law.

Things were simple when women were less… in the law.

Things were simple when blacks were less… in the law.

Things were simple when transgender-persons were less… in the law.

Now all those groups demand respect. Members of all those groups speak out when others use offensive language about their group membership; when others try to tell them where to use the bathroom; when others make jokes. But then the opposing cry goes up about too much “political correctness.” 

Make America simple again connects very strongly with the anxiety some people are feeling about so-called political correctness. Talking about Mr. Trump’s winning campaign, and the revolt against political correctness that became attached to his campaign, one columnist put it this way:

“Political correctness is an unwritten and constantly changing code of forbidden language and practices and most Americans sense its unfairness.”[3]

“Constantly changing code of forbidden language” is a very telling description.

“Who can’t I talk about now?” 

“What words can I not use today?” 

“It’s not fair.”

Rapid social changes have come to us because we have moved from a segregated, to a desegregated, to a neo-diverse, everyday social environment. Now no one wants to be melted. Now people from many different, once shunned, groups are demanding respect. That’s not simple. 

Resistance to that complexity can easily show up as bigotry. Bigotry, you see, is based on simple thinking about group membership. Bigotry is based on the simplistic us-versus-them idea that is the minimal group bias. A demand to not have to serve homosexual people, based on religious freedom is a cry for that us-versus-them simplicity.

“Even though I do public business, I have private beliefs that I only want to think about. I don’t want to have to give in to political correctness.”

In that psychological struggle, “make America simple again” becomes a comforting, seductive, siren song.

Right now in America what is motivating the need for social simplicity is rapid social change. Social customs have fallen; social arrangements are changing and keep changing. For some it’s just too much. Some have been looking for a way to slow it all down. Some have wanted to find a way to make America simple again.

“Drain the swamp.” “Build a wall.” “America First.”

 And that voice was heard.

Rupert W. Nacoste is Alumni Undergraduate Distinguished Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University and is the author of "Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect" (NY: Prometheus Books)

References

[1] Mischel, W. (1979).  On the interface of cognition and personality: Beyond the person-situation debate.  American Psychologist, 34, 740-754.

[2] Neo-diversity is the interpersonal situation of America in which we all have to encounter and interact with people from different racial, national, sex-of-person, bodily-conditioned, ethnic, gender-identified, religious, mental-health-conditioned and age groups. (Nacoste, R.W. Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015)

[3] Barton Swaim, “The revolt against political correctness has backfired,” News & Observer, November 4, 2016, p. 11A.

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