The psychology of the Trump voter.
Posted Oct 31, 2020
Why do some voters vote against their own interests?
Marxists called this problem “False Consciousness,” the idea that workers often act against their own interests. For instance, instead of supporting labor unions, aimed at improving their lives, they would be skeptical and even support their capitalist bosses. Freud had an even broader version of this problem. Essentially he saw “neurosis” (the kinds of psychological unhappiness that come to clinicians in the form of a mix of anxiety and depressive symptoms) as a kind of false consciousness inside oneself. The id, your unconscious emotions and wishes, is suppressed by the ego, your conscious self, in the interests of the outside world. Your deeper interests are sacrificed to those of others. And you can’t blame someone else: You do this to yourself. The reality principle of the world triumphs over the pleasure principle of the self.
In part, Freud did blame someone else; he blamed society, which teaches us to suppress our internal emotions in this way. Part of the work of his psychotherapy was to create a safe place where the therapist and patient could think and feel free of society’s impositions. False consciousness would be made true.
Another approach, which Freud didn’t take personally, would have been to change society so that it wouldn’t impose so much on individuals. In fact, the impact of Freud on the cultural climate, partly through a loosening of Victorian morals, was such a social effect.
In the last century, the political problem remained for those who read Freud and, under the influence of Marx or otherwise, wanted to understand why the poor and working classes didn’t seem to act in their own interests. The classic example of course was Nazism in Germany, but other examples abounded: Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain.
These fascist leaders all were supported by masses of lower and middle classes in their country. They were populist, to use a common phrase, but not in the interest of the people. Of course, they claimed to support the interests of the majority, but they didn’t in fact do so. The psychological question was why masses of people bought into those populist claims, while rejecting other groups, in the center and left of the political spectrum, who also sought their support.
One solution to this dilemma famously came from the Frankfurt School, in the classic concept of the “authoritarian personality.” The idea was that the masses could be transfixed by a special leader, like Hitler and Mussolini, and be fooled, forgetting their own practical interests. In short, reason was replaced by passion.
Today, many supporters of the current president claim that he has done an excellent job with a viral pandemic that has killed, so far, over 225,000 persons in the US, while in most other developed nations in Europe, population-corrected death rates are lower. One voter in North Carolina admitted that two relatives had died of COVID-19, but he laid the blame on underlying medical conditions, not the virus.
Obviously, this voter hasn’t heard of the medical concept of comorbidity. A comorbidity, or second disease, may kill you, but not unless you have something with which to be “co”, i.e., a first disease. Hypertension alone didn’t kill that voters relative; but COVID-19 kills more if you have hypertension, which is the most common comorbidity associated with COVID-19 related mortality. By the way, hypertension is extremely common in the US, affecting nearly half the population, which is about 100 million people. But 100 million aren’t dying today or tomorrow just because of hypertension.
One cannot reason on such matters, though, with such voters, because reason is not the main mechanism in such decision-making. Instead, emotion makes the decision, and reasons are merely rationalizations.
False consciousness is a problem for every human being, but it’s also a larger social problem. A great American political psychologist, to whom one of the current candidates likes to compare himself, knew about this problem when he remarked that you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Maybe Lincoln's point was that voters aren't voting against their own interests, but rather are fooled into thinking they're voting in their own interests when they aren't. This is a generous interpretation by a generous man. But even if true, in our democracy, if you’re an authoritarian populist, you only need to fool some people for a short amount of time to get what you want.