How do we account for the almost messianic popularity of presidential candidate Donald Trump? It’s a question you may well have been pondering yourself for months now, with a mounting degree of confusion and concern. He has lied blatantly, insulted almost every demographic, incited the second amendment against Hillary Clinton and has even banished a crying baby from a recent rally. Yet bizarrely he has managed to retain 40% of the republican base. We sought the expertise of Rick Shenkman, author of the new book Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics in order to find out just what makes this man so popular?
“To those taking a strictly rational approach to politics, Trump’s appeal is hard to fathom. But for most voters what matters is not reason so much as what they feel.” Shenkman argues that our political decisions have very little to do with logic and a lot to do with instinct. One example he uses is John Edwards, whose devastating good-looks saw him become the Democratic Party nominee for vice president in 2004 despite being wildly under-qualified for the position.
It turns out that voters can be relied upon to consistently nominate candidates that are deemed more attractive. This is because “we often apply the same criteria to our choice in a leader as we do to our choice in a mate, resulting in our favoring leaders who are better looking.” Says Shenkman. “We all naturally respect and admire healthy people, and good looks are an evolutionary sign of good genes.”
So good looks win votes. But I know what you’re thinking – Donald Trump is no hunk. However, falling for good looks is just one way in which our primitive brains can trick us. There are all kinds of other irrational decisions we make when it comes to choosing political leaders. “In war-time we are drawn to leaders with squarish faces and in peacetime to those with round faces.” Says Shenkman, “Studies show that college students taking the measure of a face shaped like George W. Bush versus a face shaped like John Kerry preferred the face that resembled Bush’s. This was back in 2004 during the Iraq War. As with everything involving human beings, there’s usually no one criterion at play in our behavior. We are drawn this way and that by multiple instincts.”
Perhaps the most fundamental factor aiding Trump’s success has been the position of hardship that many white middle-class citizens have found themselves in. “Incomes are flat. Millions have lost good-paying manufacturing jobs. And in the Great Recession many lost their houses.” This makes people look to members of other ‘tribes’ in search of someone to blame. In recent history, “Blacks got civil rights. Gays began to marry. And men lost the right to rule the roost,” says Shenkman. “What science tells us is that when people face circumstances like this they vote against the incumbents and go for outsiders or for politicians who exploit their fears. That favored Trump.”
In the same way that John Edwards’ symmetrical face won the hearts of the public back in 2004, Trump has his own collection of qualities that our brains are hard-wired to respond positively to. “He clearly projects strength, which is always a high priority for voters,” says Shenkman. “He’s also narcissistic, and we know from studies of corporate leaders that narcissism is often helpful as an individual climbs the greasy pole.”
One simple and surprisingly crucial factor is that he’s tall. “In US elections the taller candidate almost always wins,” Shenkman tells us. “Back in the Stone Age an individual’s sheer size would have mattered to people. It’s no surprise that we favor tall leaders, therefore.”
The truth about our own innate biases is difficult to admit. Shenkman acknowledges that, “we’d all like to believe in the Enlightenment view that politics is about the settling of differences through the exchange of views based on hard evidence. But this simply isn’t true.”
But despite the fact that we’re stuck with our often misguided stone-aged brains, Rick Shenkman is far from fatalistic. “I want to make sure your readers don’t walk away dispirited,” he tells us. “People who understand how their instincts shape their responses can second-guess those responses. That’s what makes me hopeful. Science is giving us the chance to act more rationally.”