The psychological underpinnings of 2016, the year America went nuts

February 17, 2016
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump takes a photograph as she attends a Trump campaign rally at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A Donald Trump supporter at a Trump campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Is the American electorate going nuts? The 2016 presidential campaign is turning into the least rational in recent memory. Both leading contenders, Donald Trump for the Republicans and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the Democrats, seem disturbingly out of touch with reality.

Trump is a “candidate who will promise just about anything.” He has vowed to “be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” have Mexico pay for a wall at the border, solve all U.S. security problems, defeat Islamic terrorism and stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons once and for all. He promises this without a shred of supporting evidence about his ability to deliver — beyond his self-proclaimed business acumen and mastery at “the art of the deal.”

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump cheers during a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Sanders’ campaign promises seem equally imaginary. His proposed single-payer health-care plan has been called “vague, unrealistic and irresponsible, a puppies-and-rainbows approach” and even left-leaning economists question the high costs of his proposals. His “political revolution” has been criticized as a dreamy fantasy blissfully oblivious to realistic constraints.

The source of both candidates’ appeal is deeply psychological and rooted in the dynamics of wishful thinking. Each is tempting voters with highly alluring prospects that they passionately yearn for. Each exploits the inestimable powers of human motivation to bend reality to desire, thus sweeping rationality aside. The voters’ motivation derives from a reservoir of dissatisfaction that both candidates vow to replace with contentment.

Here the similarity ends, however. Trump’s and Sanders’ campaigns couldn’t differ more both in the human needs they arouse and in ways they propose to address them.

Trump appeals to people’s motivations for safety and comfort. His message resonates with people who struggle for subsistence or fear sliding back economically. They worry about losing their jobs to competition from immigration or globalization. Many might see themselves a paycheck away from homelessness. They feel insecure and abandoned by their leaders and society. They find Trump appealing because of his self-advertised power, his chest-thumping avowal that “he can!” protect them. His campaign exploits the psycho-dynamics of prevention and defense.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan, United States, February 15, 2016.   REUTERS/Jim Young

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan, February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Sanders invokes an entirely different desire: the need for people to feel that they matter and have personal worth and significance. It resonates with voters who yearn to change the world. Young idealists, perhaps, who set their sights on an impossible dream, on a utopia of justice and equality worth fighting for. Sanders invites voters to commit to a cause, proclaiming “they can!” pull off a revolution. His campaign thus rests on the psycho-logic of promotion and offense.

Psychological research attests that when persons lose their personal sense of being in control, they often cede it to external agents: the federal government, a dictator, God. Trump supporters exemplify such yearning for a powerful protector.

“They live in a childlike fantasy land,” one writer quipped, and “want a daddy, not a president.”

Trump encourages a relinquishment of control that leaves it all up to him — because he proclaims himself the proven “winner.” His campaign exploits people’s resignation and their sense of frailty, whereas Sanders’ champions empowerment through commitment to a cause.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo with a supporter after a campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 7, 2016.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Donald Trump poses for a photo with a supporter after a campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Consider the respective demographics of Trump’s and Sanders’ supporters. Trump’s are older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican. About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34 percent above age 65 and less than 2 percent younger than 30. Half of his voters have a high-school education or less, and only 19 percent have a college degree. More than a third of his supporters earn less than $50,000 a year, while only 11 percent earn more than $100,000 a year.

Sanders’ supporters skew far younger: Sanders beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 84 percent to 14 percent among Democrats under age 30 in the Iowa caucuses. More than half his admirers are under age 35. They are also more likely to be unmarried, white, male and to have at least some college education. Unlike Trump, however, Sanders has also received strong support from voters making more than $50,000 a year.

All in all, then, Trump’s supporters are older, poorer and less educated than Sanders.’ They are less likely to respond to a clarion call for “revolution” and more likely to seek help from a powerful benefactor.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves as he arrives at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States, February 14, 2016.   REUTERS/Jim Young

Bernie Sanders arrives at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Both Trump and Sanders, however, have managed to harness the powers of essential human needs. This is the secret of their surprising success — never mind the unrealism of their proposals.

Yet, the motives tapped by the two candidates diametrically differ. Trump admirers seek safety and comfort; they cower before an authority that vows to provide it. Sanders’ troops, meanwhile, “itch” to embark on activism that lends their lives purpose.

Should both contenders secure the nomination of their respective parties, the 2016 presidential campaign would be headed for a polarization of unprecedented intensity. Because it is built on fantasies born of desire, however, the consuming fire in this case might produce appreciably little light — and the American people would be left to foot the bill.


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It’s not the year America went nuts. It’s the year that America’s internal voice became externally evident. The presidential election is just a vehicle for that.

Posted by AlphaBob | Report as abusive

The author complains about the heat not generating enough light, but All Light is generated by Heat. A scientist would know that, rather than these ‘social psychology’ just-so stories.

This guy is simply anti-politics. According to this attack on the two most popular candidates, he shows himself to be in favor of the current set up, likely Clinton, judging from his biased sources. Austan Goolsbee is supposed to be a lefty economist? My face aches from laughing. I wonder what Dean Baker thinks of Sander’s plans?

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

The Establishment: “No, we can’t.”

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

The people are running out of blood to feed the vampire 1%.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

While the psychological angles are interesting, and I do not disagree, a similar recent example to the USA is Greece. The centre-left Pasok and centre-right New Democracy and associated political elites and interests became discredited and distrusted by most of the population. Politics became polarized between Syriza and Golden Dawn. Power passed to the leftist majority, but rather painfully to ideals and promises, pragmatic adjustments had to be made for reality.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Ketchup boy and OBOZO are going to have LOL “serious talks”. these 2 buffoons are driving this country into the ground

Posted by youmustbejokin | Report as abusive

Trump promises to build a wall on the border. That’s good enough for me.

Posted by Mkelley12000 | Report as abusive

Best explanation of what is really happening with the rapid evolving human psyche in today’s society , its a false pretense to believe that we will have catastrophic good change in our way of life if either trump or sanders were elected, its an illusion or delusion and politicians are feeding on the insecurities of individuals who are not thinking with integrity using introspection and too much simplistic thinking, meet your own shadow find your own weakness, you can learn and grow, be productive and prosperous without Trump he is not your answer for success, people need to stop scapegoating, lying to the self and expecting a president and goverment to solve your individual needs, pain and struggles are part of how we grow, stop laziness and encourage work, we need to remain humanistic keep the moral compass straight, I met a hardcore republican the other day and he stated if my party’s nominee has horns on his head that he would still vote for him, scary stuff, Great article Thank You!

Posted by Putsch | Report as abusive

That’s right!!!!! #FEELTHEBERN

We’re tired of this OLIGARCHY!
We want our DEMOCRACY back !!!!!!

A Sanders Vs Trump matchup is a dream come true!!!
Good VS Evil. Right VS Wrong. We’ll see who wins. :)

(It isn’t Trump)

Posted by Revolution2016 | Report as abusive

Why are there only 4 comments? Bull Sghit.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

Pretty simple, Trump supporters who are “older and less educated” and like most republicans love to be lied to. Their media, radio, TV, internet, and email propaganda, is mainly about feeding the sheep spin, half truths, and flat out lies.
Sanders supporters are young and like to feel like their part of a movement larger than anything they’ve been involved in before, regardless if what Sanders is selling isn’t attainable. Nothing he is proposing will get by a republican controlled congress or even a split congress.
There are two adults in the room, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich. It doesn’t appear Kasich has a chance of winning the nomination. And hopefully Sanders supporters will educate themselves on the realities of politics and come to their senses before we end up with a stalemate in Washington for the next four years.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

People are sick and tired of illegal aliens, mostly Mexicans, trying to tell America and Americans how to run our country, to change our laws to let more of them in. I’m with the POPE: I DO NOT WANT MEXICANIZATION.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Hillary is the “adult” who repeatedly attempted to steal valor, repeating “We ran under sniper fire in Bosnia” then when confronted with VIDEO EVIDENCE, simply lied again, “I misspoke”. There’s your “adult in the room”- a child like mentality blindly following Billy the sex predator around, getting govt positions based on his failed presidency that gave us the mortgage as racist vote buying Democrat scam when he instructed the Fed to stop checking credit and caused the housing/banking collapse.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

“Their media, radio, TV, internet, and email propaganda, is mainly about feeding the sheep spin, half truths, and flat out lies.”
You appear to be a victim.

“Trump’s immigration views ‘not Christian\': Pope
“Pope Francis said Donald Trump’s views on immigration are “not Christian” and the billionaire businessman rebuked the religious leader for questioning his faith, calling him “disgraceful.”
Real class act this blowhard your so fond of. Don’t even start talking about lies, Trump holds the record for lies and he’s not even in politics yet. But then republicans love being lied to, but you know that.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Sorry to hear you have to compete with illegals for a job. I guess if I had no skills or education I might feel the same way you do.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

I would rather fail miserably struggling forward than succeed at standing still.

Analyze that.

Posted by Chadwick575 | Report as abusive

“If someone who works for $4 an hour stole ‘your job’….. you’re probably not worth as much as you think you are.” Louis CK

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Medicare is immensely more efficient than private insurance. The amount we spend on private health insurance in America is far more than any other country in the world spends on health care. Expanding Medicare to everyone as a replacement for private insurance would either be a boon for the federal government (win) or amount to massive savings to American individuals and families. If I could buy public insurance instead of private insurance I would in a heartbeat. This was the only example that the author cited of Bernie’s unrealistic idealism. I haven’t heard any logical deconstruction of a “Medicare-for-all” argument. I’m using my head as well as my heart in my support for Bernie. And, yes, I’m one of those idealistic millennials who doesn’t know how the real world works.

Posted by Arreyo | Report as abusive

I know 9 trump supporters. 7 of them did not go to college, and could not pick out Arizona on an unmarked map (which is actually covered in the 4th grade, not college). 2 of them have had traumatic brain injuries.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive