Smooth-talking con artists are familiar figures in American folklore. The well-dressed hustler arrives in an unsuspecting town. He pitches some miracle cure or get-rich-quick scheme, door-to-door or from atop a soapbox. Then before his customers realize they’ve been duped, he steals away in search of his next mark. It’s a risky vocation, one that demands quick feet, a keen understanding of human nature, and a talent for telling stories that both arouse and reassure.
But when it comes to profiting off people’s hopes and fears, by far the most successful purveyors of lucrative lies and false promises are some of the denizens of this country’s palatial estates, corporate boardrooms, and corridors of political power. And unlike their small-time counterparts, they’re never on the run — despite the misery they leave in their wake. Enter Donald J. Trump, soon to be the 45th President of the United States.
In a country beset by extreme and distressing inequality, America’s premier hustler sold the electorate a wagonload of beguiling and deceptive tales about what’s gone wrong, who’s to blame, and how he’ll make things better. He persuaded not through rational argument, analysis, and truth-telling, but rather by manipulating our imperfect reasoning and our unreasoning emotions. Although this playbook has been around for a long time, Americans have never witnessed this level of mastery before. Trump’s unanticipated success dramatically illustrates the importance of understanding the “mind games” that allowed him to win, despite breaking almost every rule of evidence, logic, and propriety.
In my research as a psychologist, I’ve found that the psychological appeals used by those eager to maintain or extend their extraordinary wealth and power tend to target five key concerns in our daily lives: issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Each is a fundamental lens through which individuals and groups make sense of the world, evaluate their circumstances, and decide what actions, if any, to take. Each is also linked to a basic question we ask ourselves every day: Are we safe? Are we treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?
Let’s consider several examples of how Trump targeted these concerns in charting his path to the White House.
Vulnerability: Are We Safe?
When our security is in jeopardy, nothing else matters as much. The mere prospect of danger on the horizon can quickly consume all of our energy and focus. That’s why ensuring the safety of people we care about is such a powerful factor in determining the policies we support and oppose. Unfortunately, however, we’re not particularly good at accurately judging peril. As a result, we’re susceptible to manipulation by those who misrepresent dangers in order to advance their own agenda.
On the campaign trail, Trump consistently fed our worries about vulnerability. Describing himself as “the law and order candidate,” he warned that “our very way of life” was at risk, and assured us that only he could protect us from a wide range of purportedly catastrophic threats. Promising to build a “great wall” along our border with Mexico, he falsely claimed, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” With similar over-the-top rhetoric, he railed against bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. as “a personal invitation to ISIS members to come live here and try to destroy our country from within.” Trump also exploited fears in a different way: by issuing disturbing threats of his own. For example, responding to a protester at a rally, he told the crowd, “You know what they used to do to a guy like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” He also had a warning for media representatives who criticized him: “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
Injustice: Are We Treated Fairly?
From everyday slights to profound abuses, the recognition of injustice can be a powerful force for change. When we’re aware of mistreatment, it often stirs outrage and a desire to correct wrongs and bring accountability to those we hold responsible. But our perceptions of injustice are imperfect and uncertain. This fallibility can make us easy targets for those with a self-serving interest in shaping our views of right and wrong and misleading us about victims and perpetrators.
Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump portrayed his candidacy and platform as an effort to address wrongdoing on multiple fronts. When announcing his run, he lamented, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” Months later in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he feigned common cause with “the forgotten men and women of our country,” promising “to fix the system so it works justly for each and every American.” At the same time, Trump was quick to cast himself as an aggrieved victim of injustice as well. For example, prior to his victory he repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged against him (“They even want to try to rig the election at the polling booths…voter fraud is very, very common.”). And on several occasions he insisted that he was being mistreated by the media (“I get very, very unfair press having to do with women and many other things.”).
Distrust: Who Should We Trust?
We tend to divide the world into people and groups we deem trustworthy and others we don’t. Unfortunately, the judgments we make can be flawed and imprecise. Sometimes these errors create unwarranted barriers of distrust that interfere with the building of coalitions and working together toward mutually beneficial goals. Those who have a vested interest in preventing such collaborative efforts often manipulate our suspicions in order to promote their own agenda.
Trump routinely characterized his political opponents as untrustworthy. For example, he referred to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” and to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.” He also cast doubt on the integrity of his media critics, arguing, “They are horrible human beings, they are dishonest. I’ve seen these so-called journalists flat-out lie.” Trump encouraged the public’s distrust of specific marginalized groups as well. He described the Black Lives Matter movement as “looking for trouble,” and placed American Muslims under a cloud of suspicion, expressing potential support for special identification cards and a registry database. Meanwhile, Trump presented himself as the only reliable truth-teller, one who shunned the deceptions of political correctness. When he accepted the Republican nomination in July, he told the attendees, “Here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”
Superiority: Are We Good Enough?
The positive and negative judgments we form about ourselves are often based on comparisons with others. The yardstick can be nearly anything: for example, our intelligence, attractiveness, professional success, community stature, or moral values. To reinforce our positive self-appraisals, we sometimes focus attention on the very worst characteristics of other people or groups. Not surprisingly, our self-evaluations are prime targets for manipulative appeals by those eager to turn our hopes and insecurities to their own advantage.
With his “Make America Great Again” campaign Trump aimed to instill a sense of pride and superiority in his supporters. In part, he lifted them up by viciously belittling his adversaries, describing them as “disgusting,” “total failures,” “idiots,” and “losers.” Likewise, he claimed that current leaders had failed the American people and the U.S. flag that proudly represents “equality, hope, and fairness…great courage and sacrifice.” For example, Trump complained that Americans “have lived through one international humiliation after another” and that “everyone is eating our lunch.” At the same time, he presented himself as a savior who would make sure the country and its citizens regained the stature they had lost. He claimed that his own accomplishments surpassed those of everyone else, boasting in one interview, “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far.” Trump also repeatedly insisted that his name — and everything he does — is synonymous with top quality, on one occasion explaining, “Nobody can build a wall like me.”
Helplessness: Can We Control What Happens to Us?
Control over what happens in our lives is very important to us, and we therefore resist feelings of helplessness. But if we nonetheless come to believe that our efforts are futile, eventually we stop trying. This is true for individuals and groups alike. That’s why a sense of collective helplessness is such a serious obstacle to effective political mobilization. Manipulating our perceptions of what’s possible and what’s not is a common strategy for those seeking to advance their own interests.
Throughout his campaign, Trump extolled his capability, his expertise, and his doggedness regardless of the odds against him. He told one interviewer, “My life has been about winning.” In his acceptance speech he denounced “the system” and claimed, “I alone can fix it”; he concluded with “I’m with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.” Memorably, he also told a crowd in Washington, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” Trump contrasted this purported track record of consistent success with the helplessness Americans would experience if his opponents prevailed. He warned of “uncontrolled immigration,” “mass lawlessness,” and “overwhelm[ed]…schools and hospitals;” and he described prospects for immigrants to join the middle class as “almost impossible.” On Twitter, Trump claimed, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse.” And he cautioned that efforts aimed at reforming gun laws would make Americans helpless to protect themselves: “You take the guns away from the good people, and the bad ones are going to have target practice.”
From Bad to Worse
To be clear, it certainly makes sense that our core concerns — about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness — should be front-and-center when it comes to thoughtful deliberations about matters of public policy and the common good. Meaningful, far-reaching progressive change requires nothing less. But it’s profoundly destructive — and deeply immoral — when these concerns are instead exploited in a manipulative and disingenuous manner to advance narrow interests that bring harm and suffering to so many. That’s the legacy of Trump’s successful presidential campaign. It’s also a disturbing preview of what we should expect from him and his administration going forward.
At the same time, we shouldn’t mistake Trump’s targeting of these concerns as unique. Indeed, back when he was known as just an ethically impaired real estate mogul and entertainer, other plutocracy-enabling leaders in both major parties were relying on similar psychological mind games: to block climate change initiatives (Senator James Inhofe in 2003: “Could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.”); to justify voter suppression tactics (Texas Governor Greg Abbott in 2006: “In Texas, an epidemic of voter fraud is harming the electoral process.”); to defend discriminatory law enforcement practices (former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk in 2014: “Every American has a right to walk down the street without getting mugged or killed.”); to oppose wage hikes (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2012: “Here’s what’s going to happen — they’re going to have to lay people off.”); to preserve healthcare as a profiteer’s paradise (Senator Rand Paul on healthcare as a right in 2011: “I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.”); to protect tax breaks for the super-rich (U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means, on the estate tax in 2015: “The death tax is unfair and in conflict with the American Dream”); to turn public education over to greedy privatizers (former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the 2010 premiere of a pro-charter school, anti-teachers’ union film: a “Rosa Parks moment”); and to galvanize support for deadly wars of choice (President George W. Bush in 2002: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”). Those are just a handful of examples.
In some ways, then, Trump’s move to Washington will simply reinvigorate a well-entrenched predatory agenda that already enriches the few at the expense of everyone else. But there’s also something that clearly makes him qualitatively worse than many other prevaricating one-percenters: he brings to the White House a toxic brew of bigotry, belligerence, and brutality. This has obvious and far-reaching significance. It means that those who are now disadvantaged — especially people of color and other marginalized groups — will face even tougher times ahead as scapegoating and misdirected hostility intensify.
But Resistance Isn’t Futile
There are avenues for withstanding and rebuffing the coming onslaught. The mind games used by Trump and others like him are primarily designed to mislead, to confuse, and, most importantly, to suppress broad opposition to extreme inequality and the withering of democracy. That’s why their worst nightmare is the formation of strong coalitions that bridge stubborn cultural, racial, religious, gender, and class divides. Building and nurturing these coalitions must therefore be a top priority. It’s an endeavor that will require unwavering support for those most immediately at risk and, simultaneously, a clear recognition of what we share in common: voices that have grown weaker, opportunities that have grown scarcer, and children whose futures have grown dimmer. In short, organized and unrelenting resistance will be a key element in obstructing the new administration’s calamitous ambitions.
It will be equally important to directly counter and debunk the President-Elect’s continuing barrage of duplicitous psychological appeals. During the election campaign, this effort proved inadequate. In part that’s because there was a widespread failure to fully appreciate the extent to which Trump’s false claims and assurances rang true for millions of disgruntled voters eager for change. Just as problematically, his final opponent was ill-suited to persuasively offer a compelling alternative narrative, one that would energize an electorate yearning for a candidate who’d take their fears, doubts, frustrations, and hopes seriously.
The 2016 election is over. Now it’s time to work together to make sure that Donald Trump’s hollow tales lose their luster and his self-aggrandizing motives are laid bare for all to see. In the weeks and months ahead, Americans of all stripes must come to realize that, through artifice and manipulation, super-sized hucksters have fleeced and betrayed the country and the people that made their staggering wealth and power possible.
NOTE: This essay first appeared on Counterpunch.