It’s almost two weeks now since the Trump victory, and people are still grappling with the enormity of the verdict. 2016 has been the year for unexpected events: Brexit, Leicester City winning the Premier League and now President-Elect Trump. A betting man has good money to earn in these remaining weeks.
Of course in analysing all this, we often forget that as outsiders, our view is very much skewed. When we are outside looking in, a very different view of America, or indeed, the UK, France or wherever. The USA of our television sets are cities such as New York or Los Angeles, the UK that we see is really London or Manchester. Even in times of atrocity, the Syria that we see are not beyond the warzones of Aleppo. This limited view – which still persists even with 24-hour television and the Internet – often oversimplifies what we see and it makes us think we understand; when really, we don’t. Real life in these countries are lived in Sioux Falls in Iowa and Jaywick in Essex; not in New York or London where inhabitants of these metropoles are so international that very few of them really even have the right to vote.
Despite this, collectively, as a world, we are trying to drill down the reason behind why Trump is President-Elect to a soundbite, to a digestible summary of reasons. Why? My conjecture is that by being able to simplify this, we are able to also categorise and it creates a way for us to assign blame to others; and in effect, absolving ourselves of blame from the cause of the atrocity, the undesired event, the disaster.
We do this a lot, whether we realise it or not. When we hear of a death, we often ask: why? Oh he had a heart attack. We probe further: did he smoke? Yes. If at this point we identify ourselves as a non-smoker, then the questions often end: for we are unlikely to perhaps meet a similar end, as we do not smoke. If we are a smoker, we probe further: how many packs did he smoke in a day? Was he already warned about this? We ask and we try to simplify and categorise, so that we carve ourselves out of association. It isn’t me. Nothing is more unsettling than hearing, “oh, he had a heart attack, but he was otherwise super healthy”.
While such behaviour seems ingrained in society, I have mixed feelings about singling out specific factors. There are complexities that are often intertwined with others, a mixture of variables that are often benign on their own, but taken together can bring out the worst of people when a catalyst rears its ugly head.
My conjecture is that the catalyst behind all this is that most basic of needs as defined by Abraham Maslow: survival. The physiological needs – when threatened, threats one’s survival, and if you know how to light a fire under this catalyst, you have in your hands a very powerful tool of manipulation.
People talk about how sane people could vote for a racist, sexist, misogynist – shaking our heads in disbelief. But we discount the fact that we live in a time where racism, sexism, misogyny etc are outweighed by a more basic need: that of survival. You simply vote for the candidate who is more likely to help you survive: be it by way of better jobs, lower taxes, less competition for limited funds – when it is a matter of survival you feel guilty about the black / Muslim / native Americans that may struggle but hey you’re struggling too.
This is the fallout of fake promises of guaranteed home ownership: where sub-prime mortgages that you trusted would finally bring you into the suburbs instead led you to the trailer park. This is the fallout of the desire to better oneself through education; only to see education being something you are increasingly priced out of – or if you’re not, then something that leaves you crippled with debt for the rest of your adulthood. This is the fallout of fake promises made by people who don’t stay around long enough to help you scoop the shit off your walls after it hits the fan.
Sure, we all want world peace and all the fluffy things that go with it, but how many of us can really afford to dream about it when the next plate of food is even more visually vague? We discuss, condemn legislate against racism, sexism, misogyny but no one is fixing the real small cut that is now growing to be a festering, pus-filled wound.
A large part of the disenfranchisement, I feel, is symptomatic of the failures of capitalism. I say this not because I champion socialism or communism as an alternative, but in its current form, the abject worship of capital – that is, wealth – has now managed, over a few generations, to create class systems that are more apparent; and worse still, an attitude of individualism and not being able to care: note that I argue it is not being able to care, rather than not wanting to care. Nowhere is capitalism more rampant than in America, and in that sense you begin to understand that survival may be what underlines what and how people vote. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs exemplifies this: while people are sympathetic towards the plight of others, they are unable to vote for self-actualising reasons when the more basic needs are unfulfilled.
But how does this explain the voters who are affluent who also chose for Trumpian presidency? The thing is, you don’t have to be in dire straits to be swayed this way – for many, the very threat of a possible change in the way we live our lives is enough. Wine consultant Robin Moore, in an article in the Financial Times, said she voted for Trump because “I have a problem with people coming in illegally, abusing our healthcare system, being given things that other people have worked for, social security benefits, being paid under the table and not paying taxes”. Eerily similar to those who opted to vote for Brexit.
I have not yet fact-checked whether her claims are backed up by facts and statistics, but even if they aren’t, it doesn’t matter: the very thought of something that threatens their basic needs – healthcare, benefits, the way they live – is enough to push buttons. Fear mongering works when you tap into the more basic survival instincts of man. It doesn’t work as well when you tap into the higher echelons of the pyramid – esteem or self-actualisation.
[There is space for research here to evaluate the extent to which candidates win election by using campaign language that targets at lower levels of the hierarchy of needs. I just wish I had the time (and the political science expertise) to do it.]
And so it is. We can only look forward now, and we need to stop playing Schrodinger’s President and keep wondering what if. I want to say, hang on baby it’s a bumpy ride but you know what? Only time will tell how well paved that road really is.