The Real Fear That Elected Donald Trump

We are all more afraid when we feel we are losing control over our lives

Posted Dec 08, 2016

     62,676,271 people voted for Donald Trump, and given Mr. Trump’s myriad glaring flaws, lots of people are trying to understand why. Several demographic groups – whites, males, people with lower incomes, people with lesser education, evangelical Christians - are getting much of the focus. But while each had unique motivations to vote as they did, they all shared one thing, and that one thing is the real reason America is now facing four years of President Donald Trump. For one reason or another all these groups feel threatened, powerless and vulnerable and worried literally for their wellbeing and safety because they no longer feel they have any control over the political system that controls their lives. 

Certainly Trump’s bigotry appealed to millions of Americans who remain either quietly or virulently racist. He won the vote of whites 58% to 37%. But not all of Trump’s supporters are racists.

Certainly his crude sexist remarks appeal to millions of Americans who still consider women second-class citizens and sexual objects. Trump won the male vote 53% to 41%, and 42% of the female vote as well. But that’s not enough either.

Many credit Mr. Trump’s success, especially in rust belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to the millions of Americans who have come out on the short end of the economic stick of globalization. But that’s insufficient too. Mrs. Clinton carried the lowest income brackets by eight to nine percent, while Trump won every bracket making $50,000 or more by between one and four percent. This was more than a revolt of the economic underclass.

And it was more than just the revolt of the lesser educated. While Trump had a larger edge among those with no high school degree (51% to 45%) and those with some college or an associates degree (52% to 43%), four out of every ten voters with post graduate degrees cast their ballot for Donald Trump too.

And yet four Trump voters out of ten, across these demographic groups, said Trump - the person they voted for - was unqualified for the job, and did not have the temperament for the job. One out of three Trump voters don’t trust him.

What could compel someone to put control of nuclear weapons, or the world’s largest economy, in the hands of a person they believe is temperamentally untrustworthy and generally unqualified? Or compel millions of Americans who are not overtly racially bigoted, or sexist, to put someone in charge of America who manifestly is. What could cause people who are not struggling financially, or who have plenty of education, or who have a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, to vote for a vulgar, twice-divorced, woefully ill-informed businessman whose history is soiled with multiple major bankruptcies and a long record of contractors he and his company have simply failed to pay?

In a word, fear. Real profound fear, far deeper than fear of immigrants or terrorists or crime in the streets. Across their demographic differences, Trump’s voters were motivated by the deep fear that eats at all of us when we don’t feel like we control what’s happening to us. The study of the psychology of risk perception – why we worry more about some things than we need to and less about some things than we should – has found that a sense of control helps us feel safe. Without a sense of control (think about sitting in the passenger seat of a car rather than sitting behind the wheel), we feel powerless, vulnerable, unsafe, threatened.

Subconsciously a lack of control makes us wary. It impacts how we think and reason. It makes us more likely to see threats where they don’t really exist. It makes us more likely to believe what the leaders of our tribe say, so we assert our loyalty to and earn the protection of our tribe, and so we can contribute to our tribe’s cohesion and power as it competes – in each member’s interest - to control how society is run. This deep fear explains why so many people could disregard so many profound flaws in Donald Trump. His disqualifying inadequacies didn’t matter to people who are afraid enough to believe the promise of a serial liar that he will restore their control of the federal government. The promise of a sense of control – of safety – trumps reason itself.

Consider how the desire for control motivated the demographic groups that voted for Trump. The whitelash of Trump’s election is the response of racists wanting control of a political system that imposed on them a black president. The rejection of a female candidate for President is the response of millions of Americans, predominantly male, who want a man in control. The susceptibility to fear mongering about immigrants and global trade of millions of Americans who feel worse off economically today – one third of the electorate identified that way, and they went for Trump eight to two - is about what immigrants and global trade represent, a threat to the control of their financial lives and futures.

And the overwhelming support for Trump among white evangelical or born-again Christians, or among conservatives (Trump got 81% of the vote in both categories), reflected a desire to get control of government back in order to get society running by the values those people believe in. Never mind Trump’s checkered history on all sorts of moral issues, or the fact that, as most of the intellectual leaders of the conservative movement have observed, Trump is way off the reservation on a range of conservative issues. Trump was closer to conservative than Hillary Clinton, so having him in charge gives conservatives more a feeling of control.

More broadly than these specific demographic groups, many observers simply (and correctly) call Trump’s victory an overthrow of “the elites”, of “the politicians and insiders”, of “the establishment”. But even this is insufficient. Those phrases only label the underlying psychology behind such movements. Brexiteers in England said basically the same thing. Populist revolts all do. They are people saying “I don't have control, and I need it, to feel safe. And I need a sense of control over my life so badly that the details don’t matter, not as much as having control matters.”

     So we have the stunning result of November 9, which settled nothing. It just flipped who is up and who is down on the see-saw of power. Half of the voters in the country got that important feeling of control, but half lost it. (Don’t forget that only about half of the eligible voters in the country voted, so slightly less than one quarter of the potential electorate actually elected Trump. Claims of a mandate are ludicrous.) People on the losing side are feeling just as Trump voters did before the election. Powerless. Vulnerable. Magnifying the threats they perceive, to Muslims or women or the environment or the economy. But more fundamental than all these emotions is the fear they feel for their own personal futures in a world they now don’t control. That helps explain the unprecedented street protests against a President-elect.

This all bodes poorly for the not-so-United States. For many reasons the fight over who is in control, so vital for everyone’s sense of safety and well-being, has devolved into a zero-sum game of winner and losers, with no room for compromise and sharing. That ‘If you disagree with me you are the enemy” attitude is certainly what Trump’s combative style is all about, and what his supporters – including the millions who don’t trust him or think he’s up to the job - voted for. And despite initial pieties about bringing people together, Trump’s picks for his cabinet and advisers promise an administration that won’t really serve all Americans, just the ones who support him.

Given the profound importance of a sense of control for how safe or threatened we feel, the Us Against Them state that American society has devolved into all but guarantees a self-perpetuating conflict that can only continue to tear the nation apart. It will take a remarkable turn for President Trump to recognize what this election demonstrated - the deep need that all people have for a sense of control over their lives. Nothing about him to date suggests he will make that turn, but he must, if he is to avoid profound harm to the country he claims to want to make great again.

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About the Author

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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