Democracy is a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them. With this power comes the responsibility to be an informed electorate. Studies have demonstrated that a politically knowledgeable electorate accepts democratic principles, understands important issues, and considers voting a civic responsibility. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ political knowledge has been at the same low level for more than half a century.
A 2014 national survey conducted by The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that: Only 36 percent of the respondents could name all three branches of the government; 35 percent could not name any branch of the government; and only 27 percent know that it takes two-thirds vote of the U.S. Congress to override a presidential veto.
“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of senses; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost. … All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre. … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron,” predicted H.L. Mencken, a journalist and social critic, in 1920.
Modern neuroscience has validated Mencken’s assertions.
Neuroscience can and does provide an accurate explanation of Donald Trump’s popularity, i.e., his efficacy at amplifying and reinforcing the emotions of many Americans. A couple of examples: Adapting to voters’ anger toward the establishment by presenting himself an anti-establishment candidate; exploiting anxiety many Americans have about Muslims by proposing “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Hearing a presidential candidate express the views that voters share only privately makes them feel emotionally validated.
Humans perceive themselves as rational thinkers. However, cognitive science research indicates that rational thinking is only a small component of our mind. Most of our mental processes are controlled by emotions and intuitions. These emotions and intuitions make fast decisions that are correct most of the time. Yet sometimes the decisions are incorrect and erroneously direct us to predictable and systematic ways. With critical thinking we can use the rational part of our mind to detect and intercept these errors.
The problem is that many people either lack proficiency in critical thinking or find it too onerous. Consequently, their mental processes are controlled only by emotions and intuition.
Trump chooses rhetoric that effectively communicates with the most powerful part of our brain—the emotional one. Therefore, he is able to exert influence over the emotional part of people’s brain, resulting in their making systematic errors in thinking. It enables him to get what he wants from his supporters—unqualified loyalty. Greek philosopher Plato called rhetoric “the art of ruling the minds of men.” He warned that it could be abused by exploitative persons for personal gain. The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Kathleen Parker raises the question, “Is Trump the huckster that Plato predicted would someday organize an angry mob into a proud army of anti-intellectual patriots inoculated to facts and reason?”
A fundamental flaw in Trump’s campaign speeches is the litany of issues he opposes without offering any proposals to solve the nation’s problems. Among others, he opposes: The United Nations, President Obama, mainstream news media, NATO, the Geneva Conventions, globalization, and the establishment. His well-documented views on many ethnic groups, women, and individuals are repulsive. A few examples:
A complete ban on all Muslims’ entry into the country “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Forcing all Muslims already in the U.S. to register.
“Laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is; I believe that.” It makes one wonder why the South fought the Civil War if the economy of the region did not depend on “lazy” blacks. Trump also tweeted fake statistics falsely asserting that most killings of whites are done by blacks.
Those coming from Mexico are “bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists. … It is coming from more than Mexico. It is coming from all over South and Latin America, and it is coming probably, from the Middle East. But we don’t know.”
Using “Jap,” a racial slur, for Japanese.
The way to handle women: “You have to treat ’em like shit.” Fox News debate moderator Megan Kelly had “blood coming out of her whatever.”
While addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, calling himself “a negotiator like you folks,” which is one of the Jewish stereotypes.
The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank summed it up, “Let us not mince words: Donald Trump is a bigot and racist. … Trump in this campaign has gone after African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, and now the disabled.” The last one (disabled) refers to Trump publicly mocking the movements of a New York Times journalist who has a chronic condition limiting mobility.
Trump dismisses climate change as a Chinese “hoax.”
Last month, Trump delivered his only policy speech, to delineate his foreign policy positions. The editorial board of The New York Times critiqued and rejected all of his foreign policy approaches. “Mr. Trump repeatedly states outright falsehoods, often based on wrong assumptions,” noted the editorial board, and made this damning observation, “Mr. Trump did not display any willingness to learn to correct his past errors. For someone who claims he is ready to lead the free world, that is inexcusable.” Trump has expressed disapprobation over a shrinking American military and deterioration of the nuclear arsenal. The U.S. military’s budget this year is approximately $600 billion; more than the combined total of the next nine countries, including Russia and China. And a $1 trillion project to strengthen the nuclear force is already in progress.
Clear evidence of Trump’s hypocrisy is the revelations made by his campaign manager Paul Manafort before members of the Republican National Committee in a closed door meeting, with doors guarded by security. Manafort candidly stated that Trump’s firebrand style was just an “act” to build a loyal following. Now Trump would like to “link in with the establishment institutions that are part of our party, what you represent … .”
“If a man is willing, as Trump clearly is, to say or do anything in the name of self-promotion, if he shape-shifts and contradicts himself on a whim, if he says things he knows to be untrue and dangerous because he thinks it will win him the news cycle, does that not reveal his character? Trump is either a nihilist or a fraud,” commented online magazine Salon.
This stunning revelation had no impact on Trump’s die-hard supporters. Six days later they rewarded him with five primary election victories. Clearly, the answer to Kathleen Parker’s question is: Yes, Trump supporters are inoculated to facts and reason.
Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to the New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.