One of the most impressive and perplexing things about the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2015-16 is what appears to be a stubborn 35% of the electorate who support him regardless of any policy positions he might take or statements he might make from day to day. As Mr. Trump himself has boasted “I could walk down 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for me.” How could a candidate who has changed his political party seven times and who isn’t seen as a true Republican by much of his party’s establishment capture the nomination? And who is this unique 35% slice of the American voting public?
Trying to describe Trump supporters based on education and socio-economic status appears to capture only some of the variance. But to see this 35% as simply the poor or the uneducated misses a critical, and I believe defining, characteristic of the Trump supporter-their psychology. More specifically, Trump supporters can almost universally be described as angry. The level of hateful, vulgar, and violent talk at Mr. Trump’s rallies is well documented. As legendary columnist Mike Barnacle on Morning Joe has asked, “what are these people so angry about?”
Instead of looking at poorly educated and lower socio-economic voters as reacting to their current situation by supporting Mr. Trump and his anger-based campaign, instead we must consider a completely reverse effect: that early childhood attachment experiences have shaped these now-grown-up Trump voters to process and experience the world in a way that denies the importance of information in favor of “‘gut instinct” or intuition. Furthermore, this over-reliance on personal intuition and its related mistrust of “facts” or information comes with a cost. As education and intellectual pursuits are undervalued and marginalized over time, the long-term result is lower wages and lower socio-economic status (and more anger!). What early childhood attachment experiences could lead someone to dismiss information, over-focus on their own intuition, and feel so angry?
Answers to these questions come from the well developed field of attachment theory (Bowlby & Ainsworth) and some basic understanding about early human development. There are only three answers to life’s most important early questions, “am I safe?” and “are my needs being met?” The three answers are “yes,” “sometimes,” and “no,” and each individual child’s cumulative answer to this question powerfully shapes how they process information, view the world, and view themselves for the rest of their lives. Because nature values diversity, it seems that people fall roughly into thirds (33%) with their life-long answers (yes, sometimes, no) to these questions. So, if your early childhood answer is “yes I’m safe and my needs are generally met” you grow to believe the world is safe and predictable. These secure folks balance information and gut instinct in making decisions. If your early childhood answer is “sometimes I feel safe and my needs are sometimes met” you grow to believe the world is confusing and hard to predict. These anxious folks value data and information at the expense of gut instinct in making decisions. And finally, if your early childhood answer is “no, I’m not safe and my needs are not being met” you grow to believe the world is unreliable and even stacked against you. These angry folks mistrust outside information and value gut instinct. It is these “no” folks who have grown into the third of the nation who follow Mr. Trump blindly.
How does a “not safe, needs not met” childhood translate into later voting? It is not an unreasonable jump to believe that relationships with caretakers growing up can come to parallel the later relationship of that individual with the government as caretaker. For the roughly 1/3 of people with secure/comfortable levels of organization who’s need were generally met as young kids, the government can be later expected to take care of some things but certainly not all. These people make up the political center. For the roughly 1/3 of people with anxious/ambivalent levels of organization whose needs were sporadically met as kids, the government is later expected and asked to take care of many more things than might be feasible. These people make up the political left. And for the final 1/3 of people with angry/avoidant levels of organization whose needs were just not met as kids, the government is seen as a failed enterprise that needs to be revealed and dismantled for the illusion of an “every man for himself” lifestyle with its accompanying sense of victimization (“this game is rigged”). People vote for those who view the world as they do.
So, the reason roughly 35% of America sticks with Mr. Trump is psychological vs. political. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t stay with him in spite of his dubious and fluid relationship with facts, they stay with him because of his dubious and fluid relationship with the facts.
Last week, in an interview on CBS, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort applauded Paul Ryan with the statement, “I support him as speaker and after next week I’m going to be supporting him for a candidate for President.” This awkward gaffe was laughed off quickly, but what do “Freudian slips” really mean and why are they even call that?
Freudian slips, slips of the tongue, or more formally called “parapraxes” by Freud himself, are generally seen now as humorous blunders that might suggest something deeper. But in Freud’s thinking, these slips were not random errors but rather windows to the unconscious, moments when the speaker’s true feelings and beliefs are expressed. Freud’s argument was based on the observation that these slips almost always revealed a deeper meaning to the statement rather than simply a random error.
Let’s look at Mr. Manafort’s slip again. He didn’t say “next week I’m going to be supporting him for doctor” or even a slip that sounds similar like “next week I’m going to be supporting him for sneaker” instead of “speaker.” No, this slip was based on the underlying reality that Mr. Manafort may secretly and deeply believe that Mr. Ryan is better qualified and prepared to be president than the man Mr. Manafort is promoting, Donald Trump. Sometimes the truth can slip out at the worst time…
This year’s presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has baffled, excited, and dismayed various parts of the populace. As my earlier postings and the general premise of my proposed book “Red Baby, Blue Baby: You’re a Democrat, Independent, or Republican by the Age of Three” suggest, early experiences powerfully shape an individual’s personality and later functioning in all major areas- how we love, worship, and vote. From this Love’s Three Faces (L3F) perspective, what do we know about Mr. Trump’s early life, and how might those factors impact who he is (or at least purports to be) today?
We know that young Donald was born the 4th of 5 children to parents Fred and Mary Anne Trump and spent his early years in Queens. He attended the Kew-Forest School where his father Fred served as a member of the board of trustees. Young Donald was described as having “behavioral problems”there, and his father described his son Donald as “a pretty rough fellow when he was small.” It appears that Donald’s difficulties in getting along with others go way back (and have persisted to this day). What kind of attachment organization might be associated with a pretty rough fellow with behavioral problems?
In earlier postings, I have outlined the three broad categories of attachment style, or the Love’s Three Faces (see postings from 1/30/12, 2/6/12). In addition to Mr. Trump’s personality issues described in my last posting, we can say with some certainly that Mr. Trump’s attachment style, or love face, is clearly angry-avoidant. This love face is characterized by a dismissal of data (playing free and easy with the facts), by a pervasive posture of anger, by difficulties with emotional issues and intimacy, and by a clear preference for vertically organized relationships (see blog posting from 1/24/12). Mr. Trump’s signature line “you’re fired” can only occur in a vertical, boss-employee relationship. His admiration for brutal and punitive leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un speak to his fondness for rigid, vertical relationships. For those people with an angry-avoidant love face, a reliance on others for comfort and support is generally absent, leaving the child to turn inward with distrust and distain for others while over-valuing their own beliefs and personal view of the world.
Young Donald’s behavior was bad enough that his father, despite (or maybe because of) being on the board of trustees at Kew-Forest, sent his son off to New York Military Academy at the age of 13. Military schools are not know for their warm-and-fuzzy treatment of students, and it seems likely that Donald’s experience at the school only proved to solidify his angry-avoidant approach to the world and relationships. He was known for bringing exceptionally beautiful women to campus on dates, and never the same one twice.
We can also learn something about Mr. Donald Trump by looking even farther back at his paternal grandparents, Frederick and Elizabeth Trump. Donald’s grandparent were immigrants from Kallstadt, Germany who settled in Seattle and bought a restaurant there. Donald’s father Fred reportedly denied his German heritage while living in New York City and claimed his family was “Swiss” so as not to offend Jewish customers and tenants in the real estate business. His son Donald maintained this ethnic deception for much of his adult life (e.g. in his book The Art of the Deal in 1987) but later owned up to his German heritage, acting as grand marshal in a 1999 New York City German parade. Could this initial shame of the family’s immigrant status have left Donald with a lasting distain for immigrants from other countries?
In addition, Donald’s paternal grandparents Frederick and Elizabeth first settled in Seattle where they purchased and ran a restaurant named “The Poodle Dog.” This establishment was well known for and advertised “private rooms for ladies” upstairs that were occupied by prostitutes. While his grandparents did change the name of the restaurant, it is deemed unlikely by historians that they gave up the income produced by the upstairs business of sexual trafficking. It seems likely that an early family attitude about treating women as sexual objects may have found its way down to young Donald, who today has become a collector (three marriages) as well as professional viewer of beautiful young women through his beauty pageants.
By looking back at Mr. Trump’s early history, as well as his family of origin, we can see some of the factors that help explain his current functioning while wearing an angry-avoidant love face. He was a behaviorally troubled child who has difficulty sustaining intimate relationships, who maintains a posture of anger and dismisses his impact on others, who plays free and easy with the facts, who holds immigrants in distain, and who treats women as sexual objects. It seems like Donald still has some growing up to do.
While still in the womb, newer sonograms with 3-D imaging have the ability to show remarkable pictures of the developing child. Gone are the days when the technician has to point to a blurry image and explain “this is the head right here.” Instead, parents are left looking at a clear picture that not only reveals the gender of the child, but whether the growing fetus looks more like Aunt Millie or Uncle Fred. Of course in reality, all new-born children closely resemble an aging Winston Churchill.
Once a new baby arrives, the child’s nursery can be outfitted with both audio and video monitoring devices so that the child can be seen and heard 24 hours every day. This clearly provides some reassurance to new young parents who want to make sure their precious new child is resting comfortably and still breathing. Obviously, a newborn baby has no idea it is being monitored by audio and video equipment. A baby does, however, sense the difference between a parent’s gentle hand resting on his or her back to check on their breathing versus the same parent looking at their phone to check the baby-cam. Touch is very, very important for new babies.
As the child grows and begins become more aware of their surroundings, parents must soon struggle with how old a child needs to be before the need to monitor is over-ridden by the child’s need, and right, for privacy. It’s possible a young child could develop an odd sense of paranoia around parental omnipotence if their parent seemed to know everything about them even when they weren’t in the same room. And when the child is old enough to understand cameras and the specifics and being monitored, will they feel they must always be performing somehow? There are few lines in Christmas songs that can strike fear in the heart of a child more than “he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows if you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!” This feeling that you’re being watched and judged is now magnified for young kids by the “Elf on the Shelf” phenomena where a monitoring elf is moved around the house in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and whose sole role is to watch the children and report back to Santa.
When children enter school and begin to have homework, parents can now monitor their child’s daily performance in school through “parental portals” where grades and completed homework are posted on-line. While it clearly helps a child to have parents who are invested in their schooling and keeping track of their progress, this ability to track a child’s school progress can go too far. I find myself saying to worried parents “you’ve already been through 6th grade, right?” It also seems plausible that when kids know their parents are watching and monitoring every homework assignment, there is less need for the child themselves to be as vigilant. School is for the kids, and a balance must be struck between making sure kids are involved and up to date while also making sure that it’s the kids who are taking over charge of their own work.
As kids grow old enough to be leaving the home on their bikes, in cars with siblings or friends, or driving by themselves, new fears develop as the stakes for potential problems increase dramatically. Parents can monitor their child through any variety of means including GPS tracking of their child’s phone, video monitoring inside a car, and/or surveillance of their child’s FaceBook or other social media activity. But where is the limit on this for parents? Do we really want to watch our child’s first romantic kiss, or to witness the day-to-day drama of teen peer relationships?
One guideline in what is truly the art of parenting teens and young adults is you don’t want to catch them doing everything wrong, just the big things. In the delicate and evolving process of individuation, it is incumbent on the parent to carefully watch as their child grows, but to know when to turn away (and turn off the technological monitoring) and give them room to be themselves when it’s safe. And it usually comes a little faster than most of us parents are ready for….
Today, March 15, is a big day in presidential primary races, as well as being the Ides of March. It is likely either the day the Mr. Trump essentially clinches the Republican nomination for president, or perhaps the day that establishment forces will defeat him in Florida (Rubio?) and/or Ohio (Kasich?) to prolong the race. What is so familiar about Mr. Trump’s sudden and startling rise, and the way his own party is conspiring to bring him down?
Let’s harken back some 2,060 years ago to March 15, 44 B.C., and the assassination of Julius Caesar by his own senate. Then, an absolute ruler who presided with the power of presence, personality, and cruelty was murdered by a collection of conspirators. Now Mr. Trump, a maverick candidate who hypnotizes his new audience with presence and personality (nurtured as a reality TV character), is on the threshold of a hostile takeover of the party of Lincoln. His rise in the party is about him, his persona, “The Donald,” and not about any organizing doctrine or integrated and coherent beliefs. He asks people to pledge their allegiance to him at his rallies, not to their country or to a cause. And now, in addition to the presence and personality that parallels Caesar, there are clear signs of cruelty in Mr. Trump’s rhetoric (wanting protesters “punched in the face” or “taken out on a stretcher,” pledging to do “way more than waterboarding” to prisoners). And like Caesar, those who surround him are now bound and determined to bring about his downfall.
So be careful Mr. Trump, there’s something about this day and the personality culture of absolute power that seems to be a risky combination.
This year’s competition for the Democratic nomination for president is surprisingly close between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. In last week’s New Hampshire primary, Mr. Sanders dealt the expected favorite Ms. Clinton a surprising defeat, and his victory rested in large part to his especially large advantage over Ms. Clinton among younger women voters. What can account for young women’s rejection of their party’s highly qualified female candidate?
One way to try to answer this question is to use issue-driven demographic information, such as “maybe younger women favor Sanders because of his focus on free college education or income inequality, which speaks to a younger generation growing up during the great recession.” This might explain some piece of the phenomena, but taking a look through the lens of psychology seems to sharper this question, and the roots of its answer, in a different way.
One of the basic tenets of psychodynamic therapy is the idea of transference, or the generalization of feelings and beliefs from one relationship to other new and different relationships. A simple and classic example would be the woman who believes all men are selfish and cruel just because her father was, or the man who believes all women should treat him in an extra special way because his mother always did. These powerful feelings of transference develop in a therapeutic relationship, as well as other relationships beyond familial or treatment boundaries. What might be the transference young voting women have for Hillary vs. Bernie?
For young women with Hillary, the transference is likely to their mothers. A daughter’s relationship with her mom is often a difficult and complicated relationship for young women. They are faced with the unique developmental challenge of identifying with their mother as an important attachement object, while at the same time trying to push away from their mothers to form their own differentiated identity. To these young women voters, Hillary may feel like a demanding mother who expects loyalty just because of who she is, a notion that many young women appear to chafe at.
For young women with Bernie, the transference is clearly to their grandfather or favorite uncle. This is a much less complex relationship for most of these young women than the relationship with their mother, and it’s only sweetened by his message that it’s time for income to flow from the top down vs. the bottom up. There’s something easy and cool about loving Bernie that isn’t as easy or as cool when it comes to loving Hillary, and some part of this ease is likely rooted in young female voters’ experiences with nice older men like their grandfather.
Now we can go even a step farther in this analysis by remembering that the young women in question were voting in a democratic primary, meaning they are an above-average liberal or progressive leaning group. A Love’s Three Faces (L3F) perspective suggests that liberal thinking is rooted in an anxious/ambivalent attachment style or love face (see blog from 1/30/2012). How does knowing about a young women voter’s ambivalent attachment style inform our understanding of her reactions to Hillary vs. Bernie?
Interestingly, the forces of transference and the forces of politics appear to align in these candidates. If you are a young female voter struggling with ambivalence, its hard to make up your mind and there is a chorus of guilty voices ringing in your ears about making the right choice. Any choice that has some simple clarity is appealing. So the alignment is that just as it is hard for young women to both identify with and differentiate from Hillary the mother figure, it is hard to view candidate Hillary as both an establishment candidate as well as the antidote to the establishment. And just as it is easy to see Bernie as a warm and understanding grandfather figure, it is also easier to see him as a separate fellow from the establishment offering new ideas.
This year’s electorate is more fickle and unpredictable than any on record. Maybe today’s voter behaviors can be better understood by exploring their basic psychological beliefs versus simply through traditional demographic methods.
The campaign of Donald Trump has excited one part of today’s electorate while mystifying and frustrating another part. Political pundits have tried to explain Mr. Trump’s enthusiastic support among some by examining demographic trends and pointing to changes in the American landscape. Many political observers have emphasized that aging white males without a college education appear to be a key part of this Republican base. Even President Obama, often reluctant to wade into the fray of what is now a presidential election cycle, commented that “particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy.” But clearly, many of Mr. Trump’s supporters are not older white men, and many more do have college educations. If demographic factors can’t adequately explain the surge of support he is enjoying, what can?
Contributions from the field of “neuro-politics,” or the psychology of voting behaviors, can add considerable insight into Mr. Trump’s appeal. This field has been termed by Scientific American as”the dangerous intersection of politics and psychology” because most people hold very strong beliefs about their own and other’s politics that are highly resistant to change. In my writings to date, I have explored the ways in which psychological theories of attachment (see blog postings from 1/30/2012) can powerfully inform our understanding of the developmental underpinnings of how and why people vote the way they do. As my proposed book title “Red Baby, Blue Baby: You’re a Democrat, Independent, or Republican by the Age of Three” suggests, early attachment relationships powerfully impact the default posture a person adapts early in life, and subsequently impacts the way the world is perceived and responded to across the life cycle. Because attachment theory evolved around how infants and their caretakers react to the dangers of predation, a person’s default response to fear is central to the theory and therefore relevant to understanding Mr. Trump’s fear-based campaign.
President Obama went on to add “there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear…some of it justified, but just misdirected…I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.” Perhaps a better way to understand Mr. Trump’s surprising level of support is to look at how people respond differently to fear. Since attachment theory is based on different reactions to the fear of abandonment and dangers of predation, it can add significant insight into how adults react to fear in their world. In a previous posting “New Brain Research Supports L3F Political Differences” (Feb 19, 2013) I highlighted a study suggesting that brain activation in response to challenge could reliably predict conservative vs. liberal political leanings in ways consistent with a L3F (Love’s Three Faces) perspective. Specifically, those people who reacted to challenge by activation of their amygdala (emotion center) self-identified as politically conservative, while people who reacted to challenge by activation of their insular cortex (information center) self-identified as politically liberal. These findings parallel a L3F view that those who are conservative politically focus more on emotion and gut instinct (internal focus) and can be described as “angry/avoidant,” while those who are liberal politically focus more on data and information (external focus) and can be described as “anxious/ambivalent.” Perhaps the unifying themes and energy that are drawing crowds to Mr. Trump are not about simple demographics., but more about psychology and how different people react to fear.
So, what are the psychological characteristics of someone with an angry/avoidant attachment posture that appear to be supporting Mr. Trump? Where does all this anger come from? Infants with an angry/avoidant attachment posture have turned away from their caretaker as a reliable resource. When separated from their mothers in the “Strange Situation” (see blog entry 2/6/2012 “Love’s Three Faces and the Basics of Attachment Theory””) at one year of age, 2/3 of children become distressed and rush to their mother at reunion. But there are approximately 1/3 of children who don’t seem to even notice that mom has left, and don’t pay much attention to her at reunion. These angry/avoidant children don’t appear to be distressed when their mother leaves, but research on their internal level of physiological arousal shows that they are highly distressed at separation but are essentially keeping it to themselves….they are swallowing their anger and distress. It is a short developmental jump to imagine a child that who starts out not trusting their caretaker to sooth and protect them may ultimately become an adult who doesn’t trust that others (like the government) will be competent in caring for them. Trump supporters aren’t people who found issues that anger them and then decided to speak out… they are instead fundamentally angry people who have now found issues (and a talented spokesperson) to attach their old anger to.