Donald Trump is not doing well. He has managed to get almost nothing passed despite nine months of uproar. He was going to end Obamacare, drain the great swamp in Washington, and build his Great Wall to keep out Mexican rapists. He was also going to bring back jobs in coal and in manufacturing for the enthusiastic attendees of his rallies. Now, hundreds of tweets later none of that has happened and none of it appears to be going to happen. Meanwhile, although it is mostly hidden, much of the government is in disarray. Some of the halls of departmental buildings in Washington are piled high with unused furniture because the administration hasn’t found the time to hire the people it should have or to keep the employees that those departments really need. So, are his rally inspired voters unhappy? Not at all. They are pretty much as supportive as ever.
Donald Trump seems to have a “base” of somewhere between thirty and forty million voters. Despite nine months of bad news their supportive poll numbers have hardly varied. How can his voters be so loyal? Many of the more liberal talking heads seem to be genuinely mystified. They should not be. To understand why let us spend some time thinking about the way people really operate. As we grow each of us develops a smaller world of our own inside the larger one. Think of it as a kind of personal universe. The larger world out there is unknowable, maybe dangerous. We really don’t know what is out there. We do know the world right around us. We know our parents, our friends at school, the church we go to. Later we add in the people we know at work, our adult friends and relationships.
We use that personal universe to keep down the internal conflict which we experience as anxiety. Our personal universe may itself be uncomfortable for reasons beyond our control. If the small world we’ve created doesn’t respond to our need to express love or anger, we may project that love and anger onto things outside; on to people or on to causes. Once we adopt those, because of the anxiety reducing function they perform, we find them very hard to give up.
Think about what that means: We will be very likely to take the same political positions as the other people in the universe we’ve created. If the people around us are devout Republicans, the chances are we will be too. We need the approval of the people around us to keep anxiety down.
If the people around us have adopted Donald Trump as a love symbol, we will too. It would be too uncomfortable not to. For politicians, the ultimate good fortune is to be adopted as a love symbol by voters because for those people the candidate can do no wrong. People will always find an excuse for their actions. Everything is forgiven. That is true whether we are talking about a Ronald Reagan, a Barack Obama or Donald Trump.
Although we prefer not to believe it, people do not want change! They will resist change fiercely. That is because any change in the universe that we have created including those symbols we have adopted, will cause anxiety and we are trying to keep anxiety down. That is true whether we think of ourselves as being liberal or as being conservative (Liberals can be rigidly liberal. Conservatives can be rigidly conservative.).
We also will often resist changing our surroundings (they are part of our universe) even though those surroundings seem uncomfortable. Think about all those people in coal country when the mines have closed. They can certainly see that their future is grim, but they don’t leave. For some, there will be less anxiety in developing an opioid habit and finding people to blame (usually the wrong ones), than it is to leave and face real change.
Knowing all that, Donald Trump being such a successful campaigner makes sense: His audiences were made up of often angry and unhappy people who certainly believed that they needed change. But, the change they wanted was not change in themselves, but change from outside. Someone should open the mines again. Someone should stop foreign people from taking jobs. And, Trump told them that only he could do that. He would bring back their jobs and punish their enemies, like Hillary Clinton, and all those other people in far off Washington who looked down on them. And, they wouldn’t have to change at all! They wouldn’t have to move. They wouldn’t have to get more training. They wouldn’t have to do anything.
So now, nine months into a four year term, for those people nothing has happened. Nothing much has changed. No help has arrived. Parts of the government in Washington that might have helped have almost ceased to function. What change there has been has been the weakening of regulations designed to protect the same people who supported Donald Trump. But, it is should not be surprising that the Trump supporters are still loyal. For most of his supporters their families, friends, and other associations have remained unchanged. And, the symbol that is Donald Trump continues to be an important part of their personal universes. Partly that is true because many simply don’t realize that Trump is not delivering on his promises (They selectively watch only the news that “protects him as a symbol.”). Negative reporting can be dismissed as fake news. If there is continuing coverage of a suspected Trumpian collaboration with the Russians, voters will reduce conflict by arguing that it is a Democratic plot. Our minds produce the world we need to see.
We have been writing about supporters of Donald Trump. But for all voters the dynamics are the same. All voters operate from personal universes that color what they see. All of them project virtues or evil intent on to the political figures that they use as anxiety reducing symbols. It happens that Donald Trump was the perfect symbol. A big powerful rich guy who would defeat all their enemies and make their America great again! Hillary Clinton simply did not function well as a symbol: A little lady in a pantsuit, whose personality made her seem standoffish, is simply not someone voters emotionally identify with.
The irony here is that the love and anger that we project has very little to do with the actual candidates. We project love and anger on to symbols that our minds create because of difficulties in our own worlds. Our own world is where the real problems are and where change needs to be made. The candidates take advantage the voters’ need for symbols and use them to win elections. So, Donald Trump, the symbol, is building walls, draining the swamp, and protecting his voters from imaginary enemies. At the same time, Donald Trump the actual man may do relatively little (He still spends a great deal of effort trying to appeal to his old rally supporters.). But, the people he has appointed are steadily at work, weakening health care, taking away protections for those people at the rallies that his predecessors fought hard for, while budgeting for a huge increase in the Debt. The victims of all this remain supportive because some of their psychological needs are being met. They really need to believe. They keep an eye on each other. And that is why Donald Trump can still play his base!