Speaking of Trump Voters… They Have Reasons, Too.

By David Ottlinger

I was as surprised as anyone by the rise of Donald Trump. I feel no superiority to the many commenters who, faced with what seemed impossible, have been scurrying around looking for what they had missed. I have been doing the same. In fact, it has been one of those rare moments when the seas of ink spilled on a media fixation felt justified. I believe a great deal has been uncovered and the average person who reads political journals and newspapers is now in a much better position to understand the average Trump supporter than when Trump entered the race. We have new insights into the roles partisan media, distribution of wealth, trade, and much else play in forming our electorate. But for all that, the more I read, the more I feel this inquiry is in an important way drifting in the wrong direction. It is not so much that it is asking the wrong questions, as phrasing the questions in the wrong way. And because the  questions it asks are mis-phrased, so are the answers they receive.

A good example was Thomas Edsall’s “The Anti-PC Vote” in The New York Times. [1] The title made me very hopeful. Dan has already entertained the idea that rampant liberal censoriousness is driving conservative resentment. [2] Probably not surprisingly, I tend to agree. With this in mind, I began reading expectantly. Edsall began in the familiar way, gesturing at all the usual explanations for voter unrest: “resentment of elites, of the political class, of illegal immigrants, of protesters, of the media”. Certainly no objection there. But then, with a hard thud, I hit the following sentences: “[O]ne question has nagged at me. What is the psychological mechanism underpinning this resentment?”

The psychological mechanism. For Edsall this hefty terminology seems to require no explication. He seems to find its meaning self-evident, but he does attempt to justify it as the correct question. Before getting down to work with it, he runs down the litany of the usual anti-PC complaints, apparently as a kind of ground clearing exercise. By showing they are all inadequate he implies that other explanations must be sought. Certainly none of the usual suspects seem to impress him very much. The anti-PC voices decry perceived pressures on speech as “Stalinist Orthodoxy”, Edsall marvels. (This is substantiated only by a link to a 1990 NYT story which contends that the term “political correctness” carries a “suggestion of Stalinist Orthodoxy”.) [3] They seem to view admirable “government-enforced diversity and other related regulations” including “the network of state, local and federal anti-discrimination laws and directives” as something “censorious and coercive”. In reaction to America’s increasing demographic diversity and growing non-European populations, they seem to resent the loss or erosion of their former privilege. They “believe they have been dispossessed” and feel they have lost “power and stature to ascendant minorities and to waves of immigrants from across the globe”. For Edsall all such arguments are clearly unsupportable, so much so that the fact that someone would make them requires some further explanation. He seems to shake his head at the voters’ inexplicable behavior and goes in search of “mechanisms”.

The hunt begins with the ever-present Jonathan Haidt. Haidt supplies the notion of “psychological reactance” as a candidate. (Certainly this term is plausible in that it offers an answer which completes the heavy cadence of the question. “What psychological mechanism underpins voter resentment?” “Psychological reactance.” It sounds quite sufficient.) Haidt defines it as “the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.” That is to say, when ordinary people do things and are excoriated by social justice warriors, “psychological reactance” causes them to react by doing, emphatically, more or more of the things that have been labeled “un-PC”.

Now that this is true, I do not doubt for a moment. But I would not put it that way. I would rephrase it to say: When people are told they are told to stop doing something for no good reason, they get pissed off and do it more. I prefer this paraphrase in much the same way I prefer “Opium makes you sleepy” to “Opium causes sleep due to its dormative powers”. Scientific concepts are not required here and when employed they yield little insight. The important concepts are those drawn from common moral and political discourse: “anger”, “resentment”, “defiance” etc. In fact, not only are these ordinary concepts adequate, their scientific substitutes are inadequate in this context. And to say why is to say something crucial about describing human behavior.

Human beings can be viewed through a variety of lenses. [4] Such lenses emphasize different aspects of human beings. Viewed through one lens, human being are like a sack of dirt. Push a sack of dirt off a ledge and it falls. Kick it, it moves and gives an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true for people. But that level of description is rarely interesting in regards to people. Generally you think consciously about it only when you trip on something and find yourself wondering how hard you’ll hit the floor. The same goes for chemical descriptions and most biological descriptions. The really interesting descriptions are those that deal with beliefs, intentions, desires, inferences and so on. These concepts are usually normative, meaning in one way or another they involve judgments of good or bad, well or poorly, right or wrong. One can have right or wrong beliefs, reason well or poorly, have good or bad intentions.

Most of our descriptions, including the descriptions that underlie our basic, daily interactions with one another, treat of human beings as self-determining creatures. We treat them as not just subject to norms but following them, and sometimes failing to follow them. Their reflection determines what they believe and what they believe they ought to do. Not only are their beliefs subject to judgment but so are they. They are good or bad reasoners, actors etc. This is particularly perspicuous when we come to moral description. When we assign moral praise or blame, we presuppose that people act freely and in such a way that they can be held responsible for their actions. But this can also be true for non-moral judgment. If a kid gets a bad grade on an English exam, he is being held responsible for something. He should have gotten better at reading and writing and is being held responsible for not having done so.

Accordingly we can break descriptions into two broad categories. There are those that view human beings as causally determined, law obeying things. But there are further those which treat humans as self-determining, rule following things. These differing kinds of descriptions provide two basic lenses through which we view humanity. The essential point is that the ways of describing people that Edsall and like-minded people favor fall into the former category. That is to say that in their mode of description, people feature less like self-determining moral agents, and more like sacks of dirt.

This may seem surprising. After all descriptions like the “psychologically reactive” one make use of some of those terms of common discourse which feature essentially in moral discourse. They impute to people beliefs, desires, inferences and so on. None of these feature in the physical description which makes the human equal to the sack of dirt. But while this cognitive language uses many of the same terms, it uses them in an essentially different way. It describes people as causally determined. In such descriptions, stimuli and causal processes of the mind typified by “psychological reactance” are related to whatever results from the two. Edsall calls this thinking “mechanistic,” and he is right. The stimuli are related to the resultant thoughts, behaviors and affects according to laws and causal processes. But this fact places such description squarely in the first camp. That is to say, it treats people as causally determined, law obeying things. It is quite true that, due to the nature of the terms, the kinds of laws and the kinds of events being determined by them are strikingly different from those which figure in, say, physical description. But what matters is not so much the terms used, but rather the way the terms are used. As different as psychological and physical description are, they both seek to describe a causally determined system. In this sense they are both set equally apart from moral and ordinary folk-psychological description.

The problem with such descriptions is that it moves us out of what Wilfrid Sellars called “the space of reasons”. [5] When we describe people this way we fail to describe them as acting on reasons. We see them only as acting as the result of causes. Indeed it is not clear that, under such description, people should be thought of as “acting” at all. They are exhibiting behavior, certainly, but that is not necessarily the same thing. No more so than we “act” when the doctor hits our knee with the rubber hammer. Rather, the hammer strikes and the knee moves. We are not involved. (More on this in a moment.)

But, of course, Donald Trump voters do have reasons for giving Trump their support. David Frum is one of the relatively few writers to consider them. [6] He writes:

The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.

There is more in these few sentences than there is in yards of academic psychology. This kind of description has voters reflecting, evaluating and emoting. They are offended and suffer from a sense of injured merit. Above all they are doing something. Their behavior is not a mere output of some mechanism and its stimulus. It is rather the settled result of a process of reflection. In such descriptions, reasons relate to actions not by causal relations but by relations of justification. To put it more simply, it respects the fact that people actually have their reasons for voting for Donald Trump and arrive at their choice by reflecting on these reasons. In fact, it has the audacity to view Trump voters as much like any other kind of voter.

Frum helps us to see what these voters’ reasons are. He quotes from research on the Tea Party which was led by Harvard sociologist Theda Scokpol: “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients. The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology.” [7] Frum believes such an attitude exists outside of the Tea Party and is driving a great deal of Trump support. When cuts were made in Medicare and transferred to the newly insured under the Affordable Care Act, voters with similar attitudes were incensed that, as they perceived it, their benefits were going to be cut to benefit the uninsured, knowing that the uninsured often meant immigrants, minorities and other groups they did not think of as “workers”. This transfer, argues Frum, was seen as “the ultimate example of redistribution from a deserving ‘us’ to an undeserving ‘them.’”

Michael Sandel struck a similar note in an interview for the New Statesman in the wake of Brexit. [8] Speaking of both American and British voters, he argued that:

A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties.

Sandel sees both the Trump phenomenon and Brexit as strongly parallel in view of being driven by these similar concerns. “What Trump really appeals to”, remarks Sandel, “is the sense of much of the working class that not only has the economy left them behind, but the culture no longer respects work and labour.”

These accounts of voters’ motivations reveal another thing that goes missing from “mechanistic” description: values. Causal descriptions of agents impute no values to them. If I say X exhibits B under condition C, I have no idea what X values. The subject, X, could value the behavior, be indifferent to the behavior, or disvalue the behavior. The description “X drinks wine at 5 o’clock” could equally correctly describe an aesthete who strongly looks forward to his daily wine, a social drinker indifferent to wine but willing to drink to be with people, and an alcoholic who is desperate not to drink but succumbs. In considering the truth or falsity of the statement “X drinks wine at 5 o’clock”, we are indifferent to all of this.

Of course in positing a psychological mechanism, psychologists are doing something more than this. The above three people are spurred to drink by different causes: desire for wine, desire for company, compulsion to drink. Psychologists would be looking to control for all variables. But really it makes no difference. Examples, even very plausible examples, could be contrived to show how different values can be consistent the same “mechanistic” description. In fact, there is no reason to go beyond “psychological reactance”. We can imagine three people who evince “psychological reactance” in a laboratory setting. When confronted with this fact, one might think “Yes of course I reacted like that! Never accept anyone’s domination!” Another might be nonplussed and say “I didn’t know that about myself.” A third might think “That’s terrible! How do I stop myself doing that?” All are equally “psychologically reactant”, but all three have very distinctive values. The roles these values play, or don’t play, are not at issue in establishing the mechanism.

Of course, in spite of all I have said, I would not want to entirely discount other kinds of descriptions. That would only be to slip into a kind of mindlessness and make the same mistake that I believe Edsall makes in the other direction. Many “mechanistic” types of descriptions have purchase on human beings and yield their own, unique kinds of insights. This includes the kinds of descriptions provided by cognitive psychology. Terms like “cognitive dissonance”, “confirmation bias” and “schema” have considerable use. Through them, we can state facts about the mind that we would otherwise be unable to express. Such facts are often useful and aid our understanding. My only point is that I doubt such concepts will be of much use in this context. When we try to explain why voters choose who they choose, we require a very rich kind of description, one that will have to deal with values, attitudes and moral commitments. With Trump voters in particular, notions of outrage and a loss of dignity deserve to take center stage. “Mechanistic” language is just too thin to do the job.

Neither am I at all interested in arguing that the justifications for voting for Trump are at all adequate. I am not even close to believing they are. In fact, I think they are balefully, tragically inadequate. I am not arguing that there are good reasons, only that there are reasons. I am not arguing that these voters are engaged in a good thought process, only that they are engaged in a thought process. In one way, I believe, I am more sympathetic to Trump voters than those writing in Edsall’s vein. I feel obliged to acknowledge that these voters are autonomous, reasoning agents and pay them the respect that comes with such an acknowledgment. But by the same token, my view places a burden of responsibility on Trump voters in a way more “mechanistic” views cannot. If we look at voters mechanistically, they cannot be held responsible for their mistakes, because such a view does not allow the autonomy necessary for responsibility. At best they can be considered defective. Their actions are the product of unfortunate “mechanisms” over which they can hardly be said to have control. On my view, however mistaken the voters’ decisions may be, they are responsible for them because they issue from their own free reflection.

I said at the outset that I did not undertake this essay to feel superior. Neither did I do it to abuse Mr. Edsall who I believe to be a very worthy writer. (I also do not believe Edsall is alone in making these kinds of mistakes. I think many of those who want to attribute Trump’s rise to mere racism fall into similar traps but that will have to wait for another day.) Trump presented us all with a considerable mystery and we all have to try to solve it as best we can. What I do want to suggest is that before trying to give answers regarding Trump’s improbable rise, we take a moment to reflect on the questions. If we do not, we are very likely to go astray before we have begun.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/opinion/campaign-stops/trump-clinton-edsall-psychology-anti-pc-vote.html

[2] https://theelectricagora.com/2016/03/20/provocations-5/

CF: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/04/29/provocations-6/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/28/weekinreview/ideas-trends-the-rising-hegemony-of-the-politically-correct.html?pagewanted=all

Interestingly, this article appears to be ground zero for the modern use of the term “Political Correctness”. Those interested should see Paul Berman’s introduction to his collection Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses.

[4] Much of the argument that follows is based on the work of Wilfred Sellars. The locus classicus for his views on this subject is the classic essay, “Philosophy and The Scientific Image of Man”. The metaphor of “lenses” is drawn from that essay. Sellars is in turn drawing on Kant. Particularly interesting in this connection is the Critique of Pure Reason, A 532/B 560 and following.

[5] This concept is developed is Sellars’ Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. A brief account can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars/ See especially section 4: Epistemology.

[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/the-great-republican-revolt/419118/

In my judgment this is this most important article yet written on Trump’s candidacy.

[7] http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/williamson/files/tea_party_pop.pdf

[8] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/michael-sandel-energy-brexiteers-and-trump-born-failure-elites

Elsewhere in the New Statesman is great commentary from the redoubtable John Gray:


A particular highlight:

“Telling voters who were considering voting Leave that they were stupid, illiterate, xenophobic and racist was never going to be an effective way of persuading them to change their views. The litany of insults voiced by some leaders of the Remain campaign expressed their sentiments towards millions of ordinary people. It did not occur to these advanced minds that their contempt would be reciprocated.”

(“Leave” refers to the campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, “Remain” for the campaign to remain.)


  1. I applaud your call for a search for reasons, but I don’t think that it is sufficient to explain Trump. The reasons are the same reasons that created the Republican establishment. I believe that Trump reflects the conclusion by the Republican “base” that their loyalties are not being rewarded with governance that reflects their goals. He’s the “a pox on all your houses” candidate, to the degree that he is able to sustain support despite promoting policies (er – “self-justifications”?) that contradict their declared preferences.

    On way of putting it is “Trump is the anti-reason.” To ask “Why?” of his supporters is to try to interpret noise on a telephone line.

  2. Trump himself likes to call his campaign a movement and keep in mind he is a media professional as well as a member of the power elite by virtue of his wealth. What I think he is really up to is a revolt against the media and power elite who some theorize control the masses via the media.


    My own take on the liberal media, is that liberal encompasses a broader audience and of course the media is in the business of making money by exposing the larger market to its advertisers. Murdoch, Ailes and FOX scooped up the disenfranchised conservative “minority” and made billions of dollars.

    Though I agree Trump is a con man, inexperienced and irrational. The Sanders voters are just as caught up in delusion and resentment, however the Sanders crowds are characterized by the media as “well behaved”, just committing the horrible sin of “shouting down” Hillary supporters at the Nuremberg…woops I meant Democratic Convention. Both Conventions were packaged infomercials.

    Just trying to solve this mystery as you say.

  3. Brian,

    I thank you for your comment but I have to say I found it disheartening. Your “static on the phone metaphor” is exactly the kind of metaphor I resist. I want to say, people just are not like that. Their motivations are too intricate their behavior too complex for such easy explanations. I tried to sketch some story on which Trump voters do have some very real motivations and are to a very real extent acting rationally. Basic principles of charity would seem to make my story more plausible. It is more plausible to believe that voters have some justification than that their speech and behavior are just “static on the telephone”. They are, after all, rational agents. Why do you not find the more charitable case more compelling?


    Thank you for your comment but I have to say I think you are way out of line comparing a Clinton rally to a Nuremburg rally. So much so that I’m not going to go into why the comparison is ridiculous. I’m going to treat that as a momentary slip but I’ll ask that you keep the rhetoric more down to Earth. Thank you.

    As to the substance of your comment, I could not characterize the Trump insurgency as the candidate against the media so much as the media against the other media. Trump was driven by conservative media at every point. (In fact I am considering a separate essay on that same point so I guess stay tuned.) That conservative media (well beyond Fox) was well established well before Trump came along.

    Also I never really did buy the Chomskian conspiratorial view of the role of the media. No doubt it does often reinforce status quo but I doubt very much that it does it in the way Chomsky tends to think it does.

  4. De haut en bas explanations of the Trump phenomenon drive voters towards him in droves. From the other side of the Atlantic I see what is happening as more a reflection of the first past the post electoral system and the personality cult of the presidency. If you had proportional representation as in most other advanced democracies then the polarisation would not be so acute and you would have coalition government. Britain and France with similar systems show the same lurching from side to side and the great potentiality for the disruptor Brexit or La Pen.

  5. Just yesterday I had a facebook dialogue with an anti-Trump friend. The friend initiated an anti-Trump post regarding Trumps tweets towards Khizr Khan. He said he recognized the political calculation of refraining from repeatedly speaking out against Trump, but stated it was simply the right thing to do, and that not speaking out was immoral.

    I responded by pointing out how he had just labeled me as immoral. I added whether placing me into that category despite my general agreement with him on the majority of issues was wise. I asked him to contemplate how this approach would affect the discourse even among those who tend agree on the issues, and how then would it affect the discourse among those whose viewpoints differ. I stated that I felt the growing incapacity for discourse was a bigger problem then Trump, and that this type of moralizing feeds into and sustains the dynamic that has elevated Trump. He actually took it pretty well, although I suspect he might have preferred I didn’t do it so publicly.

  6. David,
    Excellent article for the link you provided above. It definitely qualifies for submission to all of the on line sites, The Atlantic, New Republic, Huffington Post etc. I recommend those who have not read it, to do so.

    However applying your cited criteria in that article for writing to an agenda, I take issue with the negativity you applied in THIS essay to a small minority of the Trump voters, which does not apply to the fourteen million who did vote for him. I think as an organization, the Trump campaign is a disaster. Trade deals and immigration are legitimate issues, and win or lose, lack of a properly run campaign does reflect on how poor Trump is as a political manager. As a New Yorker however I do buy his other argument about a failing infrastructure. The NYC streets I drive on every day do meet third world criteria. I can take some issue of agreement with a large immigrant population because the infrastructure is overtaxed by a larger population than it was designed for. I can also agree with the corruption and mismanagement which Trump cites concerning why public works organizations do not succeed.

    Many of those Trump supporters are middle class people who live in nice homes and communities. I take issue with a media that makes them appear as the ignorant xenophobic masses. Likewise the Sanders supporters also meet the same middle class criteria, yet very little media issue is made of the extreme left minority who support him as well.

    They used to say that Reagan made us feel comfortable with our prejudices.
    Sadly the first Clinton Presidency made us feel comfortable with our corruption.
    I don’t see much hope.

  7. Sorry haven’t been writing much comment here lately. Life sometimes intervenes.


    You’re bring together a number of different issues here, but perhaps they need to be brought together. Certainly knee-jerk reactions to the current political crisis and its participants are not really helpful and need unpacking. I’ll need to think this through.

    Trump is the ultimate protest candidate, but he is also the ultimate ‘personality cult’ president. Possibly for the first time (at least in my lifetime) has the candidate for a major party effectively campaigned on the ‘strength’ of his personality alone. And what is interesting about his followers is that they are not only protesting the elitism of the system, but they are expressing trust in that personality, even when he says things they don’t agree with, or even dislike.

    Such desperation is palpably intense, and, unfortunately has a long history. I don’t think it wise to get into the psychology of it until we’ve grasped the sociology of it. And I think that will take some doing.

  8. Hello all,

    Thank you for the comments. I want to address a few general points before turning to individual comments. A lot of people seem to think that we can’t read much about the culture off of Trump because Trump is merely a protest vote or merely a “cult of personality”. Comments seem to make the Trump candidacy to have all the content of a middle finger or, perhaps better, a tilde. At most he is a rejection, a not-that. I think this is deeply mistaken. Trump is a protest candidate and a cult of personality certainly. But why *this* protest? Why *this* personality? These are questions that I think are answerable and in fact important. I’m starting to think they may warrant another essay.


    The republic has stood for 240 years under roughly the same constitution and in most of that time there has been consensus, coalition government. It seems strange, in view of that history, to blame our current problems on the constitution. Also France has a system quite like ours but Britain does not at least as regards the chief executive.

    Keep fighting the good fight. I too find that if you just challenge people calmly you can get a better reception than many people would expect.

    Victor P,

    Thank you for the very kind words.
    I’m sorry that you saw me as being “negative” about Trump voters. I certainly was not out to caricature or ridicule them. Neither was Sandel, neither was Frum. Could you say where you think I go wrong about Trump voters?


    No worries about your relative absence. I respond to your point above. I suppose the answers I sketched to the questions of Trump are at least as sociological as psychological. I think that’s a big part of what writers like Frum, Skopol, Grey and Sandel get.

  9. Everybody has reasons. That’s a trivial point. The interesting question is whether they’re good reasons. And bad reasons don’t look like reasons at all. When we try to explain why voters choose who they choose we have to factor in knowledge and lack thereof. Dumb beliefs are much less costly in the political realm. One person’s vote isn’t at all likely to change the outcome of an election, so the incentive for attaining rational political beliefs is very small. I’m sure Trump voters are highly rational when they’re buying a car because they have a lot of power in choosing a good car, and they directly suffer the costs of a bad car. But I see no reason to assume that voters are rational at all, given their lack of incentives.

  10. Hi David,

    “But why *this* protest? Why *this* personality? These are questions that I think are answerable and in fact important. I’m starting to think they may warrant another essay.”

    I was wanting to do an essay on this myself. To my mind the reason both Trump and Hillary are the candidates for both major parties is pretty much down to one thing… brand recognition.

    If people were actually voting based on adherence to stated “values” of the parties, we would likely have two very different candidates. But so many people in both parties seem willing to “hold their noses” and “forgive mistakes”, while decrying the same activity in their counterparts.


    Hi Victor,

    “The Sanders voters are just as caught up in delusion and resentment,…”


  11. Jake,

    It is not a trivial point. I can’t stress this enough. We talk about politics now in technocratic language. We describe “behavior” (never decisions or actions) as a kind of function of our natures and our circumstance. What goes missing is autonomy and choice. Political action becomes a matter of passive influence rather than rational appeal. We try to shape people’s behavior by controlling their environment. If we punish people for making jokes about rape or making questionable statements about sexual assault we will eliminate a “culture of rape” and thus prevent people from committing or abetting sexual assault. If we want people to vote and vote intelligently we must provide them with the right “incentives”. If we do they will behave as desired, if not then not. We never think of appealing to their sense of values and their sense of self-determination. We don’t say, “You don’t have a good incentive to vote but we don’t vote because of incentives. We vote in *spite* of incentives. We vote because we realize we have an obligation and we desire the dignity of being a good citizen.” We never ask people to change their behavior by appealing to their values, to their sense of dignity in themselves and respect for dignity in others. And the worst part is that when we daily assume that people are passive causal mechanisms, outputting behavior based on incentives, that is what they become. They lose at least part of the autonomy and potential for self-determination which made them worthy of dignity in the first place. It makes a difference.

  12. David, I honestly think we are splitting hairs here and if you subscribe to Chomsky’s thesis of doing exactly what the elites want us to. Yes a lot of the Trump voters are racists, bigots, spiteful. Spiteful to me is akin to the ‘psychological reactance’. Another description is that they are also acting indigenously tribal. Unfortunately what they don’t get credited for is having positive values which they feel are being ignored or eroded. I think a second positive value is they are smart enough to know they are being played and lied to.

    I’ll put on my Trump Hat and say we need to build that wall but not to keep out Mexico but to keep out Latin America. Not the Latin American people who I love but the Latin American corruption of their hopelessly divided class system. I think Trump made a brilliant move irking the Mexican government which drips with corruption by the drug lords who own many of their pols, as opposed to purs who are owned by super packs, wall street etc. Whether you are talking drugs or capitalism, you are talking corruption and I think writers like Haidt are feeding the classical red herring that we need to split hairs over.BTW he also made the pope look like the puppet he is.

    One of the 20th Century’s great ironies is that Castro turned his Island into a prison and basically threw our most of the upper class who were basically white Europeans because they were so in bed with one American corporation that turned the Island into a sugar plantation. In circa 1984 Pepsi went from using expensive sugar cane which was in short supply to Iowa corn fructose which was cheaper. The following year Coke introduced New Coke which was made with fructose as opposed to Classic Coke which was made from sugar. The Coke execs told America that ‘taste tests’ proved New Coke simply tasted better which was total bullshit. We are being played and the left needs to wake up as well. BTW check the Wikipedia and Youtube videos on the Coke debacle before you reply.

  13. Jake Z: And let me guess. Your reasons *are* the good ones, right?

    Look, I’m anti-Trump, but I think part of the point is that this effort to completely de-legitimize the political choices of tens of millions of people by blanket characterizing them as non-rational only pushes them even more strongly into the arms of Trump and other demagogues. This sneering and jeering and dismissal of “flyover country” is largely what got us Trump in the first place.

    How about just making arguments about the merits or lack thereof of the various proposals being made?

  14. David, In answer to a mechanism, I would vote for survival instinct which is based in our limbic system. Everything from gun control, Trump’s sexual remarks, territoriality etc. point towards it.

    But on the flip side, people risking their lives and breaking the law to cross the border plus all of the corruption I cited also point towards it.

    We look for the better angels of our nature but the US Constitution is based in mediating our human instincts.

  15. Dan K thinks we should just concentrate on judging the merits of arguments, but Jake Z alludes to the idea that sometimes there is just no merit to some positions that are vehemently held. Pragmatically, if we want to avoid fissuring of a society we must sometimes act as if the reasons given for wrong actions are worthy of respect. This is true of several senators elected in our recent Australian
    election who will hold a balance of power. But we don’t have to like it, and sometimes people say what they feel.

    “In the case of people who are particularly stupid, or psychotic, we rightly wave aside their explanations. We attribute intentions and
    actions to them in terms they do not accept and may not even understand. The familiar claim that a speaker’s description of himself usually needs to he taken into account in determining what action he is performing is sound enough. But that description may perfectly well be set aside. The privilege attached to it is moral, rather than epistemic. The difference between his description and ours may mean, for example, that he should not be tried under our laws. It does not mean that he cannot be explained by
    our science.”

  16. I can’t help but think how unfair it is to act as though the Trump voters are some strange phenomenon that need to be scientifically understood. I will give you a profile of two that I know: they have jobs, own homes, pay mortgages, pay their taxes etc. Better put as people who follow the law and engage in proper ethics.

    If Trump is also running his campaign based on concern of a national debt and impending financial crisis that could tank the economy, well maybe his voters feel they have the moral high ground because they followed the right ethics.

    In light of media and corporate interests who hold significant protected wealth, penniless immigrants and others requesting more debt raising entitlements, why shouldn’t this be perceived as some alternate universe where the Trump voters are being demonized, analyzed, marginalized etc.

    The juxtaposition seems to be that the right offers no acknowledgement or solution for climate change while the same applies for the left and the national debt.

    Once again I will double down and say that the power elite who run the media and benefit by not having an interest in solving either of the above problems are playing us all as fools.

  17. David:
    A couple of small points about electoral reform. Nothing is forever. The French adopted a run off system in their presidential elections and the British offered a weak form of proportional representation in a recent referendum. It failed but both the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments and Northern Ireland use P.R.
    The standard anti-Trump rhetoric is failing. As this sinks in I expect the Clinton campaign to begin with ‘We feel your pain but this is not the way to go about it’ and almost imperceptibly gradually borrow a plank or two from Trump. Bill will find a magic formula. From this distance it’s all a spectator sport .

  18. Hi all,

    It so happens that I have been trying to have the same argument we are having here with friends and former colleagues on Facebook. That turned into thermo-nuclear war pretty quickly. It just made me appreciate that while we annoy each other we could be doing way, way worse. So, I guess, thanks all around.


    “I was wanting to do an essay on this myself.”
    Well I called so now you can’t. I don’t make the rules I just live by them.

    Victor P,

    I am having a hard time finding the thread here. Can you try to state clearly and distinctly our disagreement. I do not accept Chomsky’s thesis incidentally.


    We need not always respect the reasons but we should always the people giving them in at least a minimal way of recognizing them as autonomous.

    The culture is and must be the focus of attention. If we don’t change that, no electoral reform will help.

  19. David, I admit I may have strayed from the discussion some but I believe Frum’s remarks are revealing. He uses the term workers which has had the connotation in the past of the less educated, labor class or low skilled etc. I am a degreed engineer and every day I drive to work and see my fellow workers driving to places of business like schools, financial firms, hospitals etc. A more descriptive term may be taxpayers or better put, the workers label hold because traditionally the working class is tied to a system of taxation via money collected directly from their paychecks by employers. Many businesses owned by wealthy folks who easily can afford their taxes. Beside the wealthy who have a bigger say in the taxation system, add in the others who pay no taxes at all, namely new immigrants, disabled etc. and you can see where it leaves the ‘workers’ observing a govt which spends ‘their money’ in ways they can’t control as they drive to work over pothole filled roads which are part of an overburdened and corrupt system. Also factor in constant talk of the 19 trillion dollar debt and you can see an obvious trigger MECHANISM that eludes the writers.

    I subscribe to the conspiracy theory because of how the media only portrays the Trump voter block in terms of a fringe minority.

  20. Hi Victor,

    “… add in the others who pay no taxes at all, namely new immigrants, disabled etc.”

    Uhm… immigrants, disabled etc still pay taxes. They just don’t pay taxes on income. And the reason “immigrants” happen not to pay that is because their employers don’t want to pay their share of taxes (among other things) for having employees. It is likely most if not all “immigrants” would be happy to pay their fair share of taxes.

    And “immigrants” always have to watch as gov’ts spend “their money” in ways they can’t control. Often against them, and at their expense.

  21. Victor,

    I still don’t believe I got everything in your last comment, but I will say what you describe does not sound at all mechanistic. It has to do with complex notions including moral notions and notions of justice. Take the argument I used in the article. Trump voters are not just motivated by resentment they are endorsing that resentment. They are expressing a moral commitment. Neither do I think that this can be described in terms of a “survival instinct”. House cats have survival instincts. House cats do not have politics.

  22. I am not arguing that there are good reasons, only that there are reasons. I am not arguing that these voters are engaged in a good thought process, only that they are engaged in a thought process. In one way, I believe, I am more sympathetic to Trump voters than those writing in Edsall’s vein. I feel obliged to acknowledge that these voters are autonomous, reasoning agents and pay them the respect that comes with such an acknowledgment.

    Bravo! It is high time that someone said this. I want to go one step further and say that you must fully immerse yourself in their world to appreciate their point of view. After I finished my military service I worked for two years as a bus driver(lots of good paying overtime) to support my mother and three sisters, and to save up university fees. These were two years spent immersed in the working class. It was an astonishing revelation for me that left me with a great deal of respect for them. I found that they were intelligent, caring, hard working, moral people, doing their best to survive in a system stacked against them. Once in their environment I found their point of view made a great deal of sense.

    Fast forward a few years and I was a project manager tasked with introducing a large computer system on the assembly lines of a large motor company. As preparation for this I worked for some months on the assembly lines. I wanted to really understand the environment where my computer system would work. Once again I was immersed in the working class. I found that every management stereotype about our factory workers was wrong. There was this vast divergence between the management point of view and the worker point of view and management failed to perceive it. Instead of “rampant liberal censoriousness” we had ‘rampant management censoriousness‘. This rampant management censoriousness was extraordinarily damaging. It blinded management to the facts on the ground. It prejudiced all their management decisions. It condemned the workers to unfair working conditions. And management provided inadequate facilities for the production process. When this had the predictable result of poor quality and low productivity, management pulled out their trump(hee hee) card and proclaimed the workers lazy, incompetent, stupid and obstructive.

    My months working with them on the assembly lines convinced me that this was plainly untrue. Instead the management class were isolated in their corner offices and blind to conditions on the shop floor.

    Rampant management censoriousness amplified the problem, deepening the divide between management and the workers until it became an unbridgeable gulf.

    Is this what has happened in the politics of the US? As an un-American I remain dispassionate while admitting that I may be more than a little ignorant of your conditions. My own experience says one must go down onto the shop floor to discover the truth at ground level. Maybe liberals should get their hands callused and dirty. Mine were and I have seen the world differently ever since.

    Oh, in case you wonder, my computer system on the assembly lines was an unqualified success. The workers loved it and it achieved all the management goals.

  23. rampant liberal censoriousness

    When you are the one being censorious there is a delicious feeling of superiority and power, a feeling of schadenfreude. It is an addictive state that feeds on itself, demanding increasing levels of censoriousness. This is all well and good if you are one of the self-proclaimed elite, but turn it around and ask what happens to the victims of this censorious behaviour.

    1. There is a retreat into the solidarity of strong, fundamentalist views. It is a reactive state, a defensive state, a response to attacks on deeply held ways of viewing the world.

    2. As former ways of understanding the world become discredited by these attacks, people inevitably seek out alternative ways of understanding. This has led to religious fundamentalism, the growth of the counter-knowledge movement and to the growth of esoteric, mystical beliefs.

    3. It also leads, I believe, to a retreat into strong tribalism where the tribe becomes the final refuge. The tribes are defined by strong simple narratives and visible, decisive leaders.

    And now we can enjoy the delights of double jeopardy as we blame the victims, the tribes, for their reaction to our attacks. Very satisfying. But is it useful? Did any one of the self-proclaimed elite stop to think that their superior intelligence imposes on them a duty, a responsibility? Surely the thought leaders should be defining viable solutions and providing leadership out of the impasse? After all they are gifted with superior intelligence. And if the thought leaders are unable to do this then they have failed. Yes, I know there are a thousand excuses. Failure has many excuses while success needs none. Intelligence is defined by success, not excuses.

  24. David, I think trying to draw a distinction between mechanisms and psychology is another one of those false arguments. Many would contend that psychology is a complex system of mechanisms or heuristics, which is why I agree with your view. The brain is very complex and needs to be viewed more as a social organ of group cooperation, although groups themselves can be classified politically between those who live in groups in the red states, counties, districts vs blue states, counties, districts etc.

    I did mention the limbic system and I think this video is pretty awesome because he not only describes the physiology but also a lot of accompanying social behavior. If you research him, you see he spent the early part of his career researching other primates like baboons. So if you are looking for mechanisms like male leader dominance that Trump may trigger, you may find some validation on some of the things he describes.


  25. labnut,

    I absolutely agree with you about imagining other people’s perspectives. People often look at others who have radically different beliefs and say “How can anyone think like that?” without seeing this as an answerable question. If people have deeply differing educations are from deeply different environments and are present with deeply different information it is no surprise, ought to be no surprise, that they end up with such different beliefs.

    “Rampant management censoriousness amplified the problem, deepening the divide between management and the workers until it became an unbridgeable gulf.
    Is this what has happened in the politics of the US?”
    It’s not what has *happened* to the US. It was ever thus. The distinction between “God’s poor, the unfortunate who are usually the sick or injured, and the rest of the poor goes back to the earliest days of the republic. The latter are often demonized as lazy and shiftless and their circumstances are blamed on their lack of initiative. These themes were already being explored in Hawthorne and they still resonate today with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan making distinctions between “takers” and “makers”. Actually there just happens to be a great article on this in the Boston Review:

    I also agree with you about the obligations of the educated. But no that doesn’t appear to occur to many people.

    I think we’ll have to leave it there. I will take a look at the video if I can.

  26. I agree that a lot of people seem to want to avoid addressing the actual opinions of Trump supporters.

    It reminds me of Quebec politics. Over the years citizens have been becoming more and more disillusioned with political parties, and when politicians have been forced to engage the subject, beyond dismissing voter opinion, all they suggest are advertising campaigns promoting political participation and painting politicians in a good light.

    I think it’s probably disrespectful and surely counter productive.

  27. David, I would like to recast your concept of mechanisms and psychological reactance, useful as it is, into a tripartite framework, which I think might be more useful. Inclinations, urges and ideas shape our behaviour. Expanded, these are

    A. Natural Inclinations*(the True, the Good and the Beautiful).
    1. The inclination to knowledge of the truth;
    2. The inclination to the good;
    3. The inclination to the beautiful;

    B. Natural Urges*.
    4. The urge to self-preservation;
    5. The urge to sexual union and the rearing of offspring;
    6. The urge to live in society.

    C. Ideas(the binding force that holds communities together: money is just an idea, a fiction).
    7. Knowledge(factual and narrative);
    8. Conceptual frameworks;
    9. Values.

    Life is a sequence of decisions and every decision is a balancing act where we weigh our inclinations against our urges and our ideas. Our reasoning process mediates this balancing process and the balancing process is contained in an environment which may alter the balancing process.

    When the environment becomes unfavourable, e.g. a group is placed under threat, whether it be psychological(‘rampant liberal censoriousness‘) or material(poverty, unemployment, etc) or physical(crime, unrest, etc) it retreats from its natural inclinations. In a threatening environment they are seen as superfluous. Instead it gives priority to its natural urges and ideas that strengthen its natural urges.

    Thus, seen in terms of this framework, Trump supporters see their behaviour as entirely reasonable. We, ensconced in a comfortable, supportive environment, free from imminent threat, our natural urges satisfied, direct our attention towards our natural inclinations(the true, the good and the beautiful). Seen from our perspective, the behaviour of Trump supporters seems unreasonable. However it should be noted that some of us think that satiety blunts our natural inclinations but that is a subject for another day.

    It should also be taken into account that primates, for the most part, achieve their aims through vocal threats and not actual violence. For that reason we are hypersensitive to vocal threats as a possible prelude to damaging violence. This sensitivity acts below the level of conscious thought and is felt as a powerful emotion. Thus when we unleash our ‘rampant liberal censoriousness‘) we are tapping into a deep emotional system that bypasses rational thought, achieving exactly the wrong effect(other than satisfying our need for schadenfreude).

    * A and B are derived from Aquinas’ writings in Summa Theologica.

  28. David, that is a very interesting article by Elizabeth Anderson and would make a good subject for a future essay. I thought this was spot on:

    The paternalism argument fails to recognize the importance and scarcity of fiduciary relationships in finance. Most people are financially naïve and have no desire to undertake the costly labor needed to master the details of investing. Ordinary savers have little reason to trust the private sector in a financial world characterized by extreme information asymmetries; pervasive conflicts of interest between financial agents and principals; weak or nonexistent fiduciary responsibilities of financial experts to their clients; innumerable zero-sum, risky, and fraudulent games peddled as sound investments; high fees; and unstable markets. Casting people’s fates to business cycles—and into the hands of casino capitalists who boast about dumping gussied-up toxic assets on widows and orphans—has been catastrophic, as evidenced by recent financial crises.

    Casino capitalists indeed!

  29. labnut,

    Well….you’ve certainly picked up Aquinas’ taste for systematicity. Three sets of three even. The Ox would approve. I’m not going to to fully take on your new system but I’ll make one comment. Every thing hangs on how you elaborate words like “incline” and “urge”. Are these passive forces are are they at least in part active? That is the real central issue.

  30. David,
    Every thing hangs on how you elaborate words like “incline” and “urge”. Are these passive forces are are they at least in part active? That is the real central issue.

    I would call our ‘inclinations’ attractants. We are universally attracted to the true, the good and the beautiful even when our behaviour is often a denial of these transcendent inclinations. On the other hand I think the term ‘urges’ is self-explanatory. You could put it this way, we are driven by our urges and attracted by our inclinations. Our rational mind is the playground where we reconcile our inclinations and urges, appealing to the world of settled ideas for guidance.

    We pursue happiness or eudaimonia. We find it in two ways. We find it in the pursuit of excellence in the true, the good and the beautiful. We find it in the satisfaction of our urges if they are harmoniously reconciled with our inclinations. Thus, for example, if I have a sexual liaison outside my marriage, I may have brief satisfaction but this is unlikely to give me happiness since I have been dishonest, disloyal and broken my marriage vows, all contradictions of our natural inclinations.

    Our capacity for the true, the good and the beautiful may be blunted by culture, environment, circumstance or satiety. Individuals or groups may deny them for a while. But the remarkable thing is in the long run, and on a larger scale, no-one denies the desirability of the true, the good and the beautiful. They have been the compass for our species for all of recorded history. They are the true North for homo sapiens. We may, more often than not, wander off course, but we always know that we are off course and ultimately strive to return to the true course.

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