Fear 101 and Why Trump Won


Many Americans have spent the last couple of days in a state of shock — wondering how exactly it is that we find ourselves here, with a candidate that has defied the odds, the polls and a majority of the American public to become President-elect.

I wish I could say, in good conscience, that we couldn’t have seen this coming. I wish I could chalk this up to an anomaly, or a “rigged system.” But we truly haven’t given Donald Trump enough credit. Had we done so, we would have seen that his win is a result of a stunning constellation of factors, carefully choreographed by a man who capitalized on the American electorate’s biggest weakness: its fear.

Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions and one that — along with pain — plays the biggest role in self-preservation. When we’re children, fear keeps us from trusting strangers, from sleeping peacefully in the dark or from trying to pet a barking dog. As adults, our fears are quite different. A 2016 survey found that Americans’ top five fears are government corruption, a terrorist attack on the United States, not having enough money for the future, personally being a victim of terror and government restrictions on firearms.

Right out of the gate, Donald Trump addressed the fear of government corruption by distancing himself from the establishment candidate — “crooked Hillary” — and reminding us that he is a successful businessman, not a politician. In doing that, he not only placed himself decidedly against the other candidates, but also with the voting public. I’m one of you guys. Already, he addressed the fear that people have of the American government, their disenchantment with and resentment towards an elite that — they feel — doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

Along the way, Trump started giving his opponents catchy yet diminutive nicknames. By doling out these labels, he appealed to our subconscious tendency to order and categorize. This tendency goes back to early humans who had to immediately distinguish friend from foe in order to ensure survival. We are “programmed” to fear ambiguity and the unknown — and in giving nicknames to all of his opponents, a tactic called “essentializing,” Trump did the sifting for us.

He also artfully turned his lack of experience in government, compared to his opponents, to his advantage. When the people who voted for Donald Trump looked at him, they saw potential. A very interesting study out of Harvard Business School found that people prefer potential to achievement when evaluating candidates. Essentially, it showed that Person A’s potential to achieve something is valued more highly than Person B’s past achievement of that very same thing! It’s very likely that Clinton’s experience in government and civil service counted against her, whereas Trump’s novice status was seen as an advantage.

Trump pulled in an audience with his wild and unexpected public persona, complete with nicknames and fluffy words. Initially, he was seen as simply entertaining, not threatening. Over time, it became clear that he was winning support among the electorate at the expense of his more conventional Republican counterparts. Why is this? Well, people tend to perceive rule breakers as being more powerful than rule followers. By violating the norms of behavior in elections, Trump essentially promised those watching: I can do whatever I want — and look, no repercussions.

In his rhetoric, as well, he created a very clear partition: we vs. they. They — the others — aren’t just the political establishment. Trump again exploited the human tendency to fear strangers, or people who look, behave, or believe differently than we do. In his speeches, he often singled out immigrants, Muslims and minorities.

Exit polls have shown, over the last few days, that Trump also managed to build a racial divide in the electorate. He beat Clinton in almost every category among white voters, except for white women with a college degree. Clinton won the black vote by 88%. This left social media abuzz in the wake of the election, with many people disheartened that so many of their peers would vote for someone that they deemed racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist.

However, a national survey of white and black Americans shows that this racial divide isn’t exactly surprising. The survey asked people to indicate what level of discrimination still exists in the U.S., and whether that has changed since the 1950s. Interestingly, the study found that white people felt there was a rise in “anti-white” bias, or reverse racism, and a fall in perceived bias against black people. But that’s not all. The study found that white people treat racial discrimination as a zero-sum game, meaning they feel that any drop in racism against black people comes at a direct cost to white Americans.

There’s a very obvious fear of our changing national landscape and the threats to it. To tap into that fear, Donald Trump only had to make certain promises and use certain words, which triggered a lamentation for the good old days, thus his slogan: Make America Great Again. It didn’t really matter that not very much of what Trump was saying was factual or scientific, or that he often didn’t answer the questions posed to him at all. What people responded to were his mannerisms, his confidence, the words he used.

For those who sought a very different future for America, the important thing is to not respond to this election outcome with fear, to not turn against one another and feed into the frenzy of other-ness. Fear makes us respond irrationally and angrily, and we cannot afford to do that at such a critical juncture in American history. It’s a time to understand and stand behind the ideals that we cherish, to engage each other in honest and logical dialogue, and to come together under these ideals as a united, fearless, nation.

Read Leandra’s take on what Trump winning means for all of us, and check out our list of resources for how you can take action, donate and help. 

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @ClistconfessionIllustration by Emily Zirimis.

Helena Bala

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession.

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