Why have so many people in America — and Israel — ceased to think rationally when they vote for their leaders? Why has irrational politics become the norm in these two countries in recent years?
These are questions that have been on my mind since the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the repeated elections of Benjamin Netanyahu in the last decade or more. I have been perplexed by the lack of logic that has led so many voters to vote for people who are perennial liars, mired in corruption and in the view of many people I know, including myself, present themselves in arrogant, boastful, deceitful and dishonest ways most of the time.
Recently I read an excellent essay by Professor Mari Fitzduff in a new book that she has edited entitled Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump (Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, California, 2017). Fitzduff — and all the distinguished scholars who contributed essays to this book — help us understand this old/new phenomenon in a comprehensive fashion.
Right at the beginning, Fitzduff explains that her raison d’etre for compiling this book is that it was hard to believe that “such an apparently outrageous personality, without any governance experience or any moral consistency, could become the Republican candidate”.
Indeed, it was — and still — is hard to believe. Many commentators in the mainstream news — CNN, MSNBC, The NY Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, etc. — express their shock and dismay every day, even every hour, to the point where it is so repetitive, that it is borders on an obsession, which continues to reveal their permanent state of disbelief that this has actually happened.
It is as if our media — and ourselves — are constantly asking: how did this happen?
Fitzduff explains this phenomenon by telling us that “contrary to what most of us believe, our capacity for rational judgment is much shallower than we think.” Referring to the work of Professors Micha Popper and Christopher Reina, she reminds us that our emotions are often much stronger than our rational aptitude:
Our capacity to make thoughtful leadership choices is often limited by our nature as human beings whose very existence throughout history was dependent on instincts and emotions to survive….When Trump tells us that we are being threatened from all sides by law and disorder, terror attacks, and influxes of immigrants, many of whom are taking our jobs, he taps into our amygdala fears, which often overwhelm the cortex thinking that is needed to rationally respond to complex and changing situations.
This helps us to understand why Trump rallies — and Netanyahu/Likud rallies — are places where the prevailing emotional atmosphere is one of excitement, emotionalism, and even hero worship, reminding us of dark times in previous centuries, especially in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. These rallies are designed to appeal to the fundamental fears of their base of voters, and they have been very successful in recent years.
Not only this, but another problem that we are facing more and more lately is TRUTH. We have been told by some commentators that we are in the “post-truth” era. Every day, we hear more and more about “fake news”, especially by Trump — and his friend Netanyahu. “Fake news” is any news which doesn’t agree with their highly distorted and deceitful narrative. Indeed, ignorance of the facts has become irrelevant for Trump and his advisors (in this way, Netanyahu is probably somewhat different) but it does not bother his supporters who are equally if not more ignorant. Fitzduff helps us understand this too:
Not only are many of our beliefs based on ignorance, but also that what we see as ‘truth’ is often determined by our innate needs for beliefs and values and the cultural context in which we live. Many of our beliefs are what Haidt (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion) terms ‘groupish’, rather than necessarily true. In other words, beliefs often come from our social context and from our capacity to tolerate uncertainty and fear.
Politicians like Trump and Netanyahu — and their populist counterparts in Europe — have become experts on stirring up fear and getting elected based on their voters’ hatred of the other, whether the other be peaceniks, leftists, immigrants, or others.
Fitzduff ends her excellent essay with some very important comments on the politics of hope, and a warning to all of those who disparage supporters of Trump (and I would add Netanyahu) without trying to understand what is really going on in their minds and hearts of late. She brings to bear the work of other scholars who debunk Trump rallies as simply mindless mobs led by primitive urges and stirred up by a narcissistic demagogue. Rather, she and some of her colleagues are able to understand and analyze Trump rallies as an identity festival which embodies — surprisingly to many of us — “a politics of hope”. She warns us that “those who do not understand the apparent irrational appreciation for Trump fail to understand the logic of his supporters’ feelings.” Moreover, she adds “Trump has offered his supporters hope, a new vision, and even some solutions, even if those solutions do not seem to us to be workable or effective”.
I must admit that I had never quite realized that Trump was about a “politics of hope.” I had never thought about it in this way. For me, he — and Netanyahu — are both hopeless and they offer nothing but more conflict, hatred and ongoing violence.
Finally, Fitzduff ends her powerful essay with some very important food for thought for liberals and rationalists like me when she writes:
Like it or not, they (Trump’s hope, vision and solutions), bring his supporters more hope than that which is being offered by most of the existing political, economic and social institutions of today. In that sense, Trump’s success may actually be our collective failure, and one that we need to acknowledge and urgently address if more Trumps are not to become the norm for leaders in all of our futures.
This is an important warning, one which we should take very seriously.
Thank you, Professor Fitzduff, for helping us understand what brought Mr. Trump to power, and in my view, what keeps Mr. Netanyahu in power, although probably not for too much longer. You have assisted us in trying to fathom this complicated phenomenon and to search for ways and means to deal with it which are not reduced to superficiality or obsessiveness.