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Inside The Head Of Trump Voters

Understanding the moral psychology of this moment in US politics -- and how liberals are making it worse



Here is the keynote speech the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association last week. It’s about an hour long, and well worth your time. If you only have time to watch half of it, start at around the 29 minute mark:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAE-gxKs6gM]

Haidt devotes his address to the theme “The Centre Cannot Hold” — which is, of course, a line from the famous Yeats poem The Second Coming. Haidt’s point is that we are at a dangerous time in American public life, one in which everyone is “filled with passionate intensity,” to quote Yeats. And Haidt can back it up with data.

He says three graphs demonstrate the reality of our situation. I can’t figure out how to reproduce them here, but if you click on the PowerPoint page on this Haidt post, you can see them. The first shows that Congress is more polarized now than it was in the Civil War. The second shows that the American people are also highly polarized, but only by political party. And the third shows that we really hate the Other Party.

One of Haidt’s point is that while the lower middle class and the working class really have suffered economically, the real divide in our country (and throughout the West) right now has to do not with income, but with moral psychology. So yes, it’s still the culture war, stupid. It’s just that the battlefield and the terms of engagement have shifted dramatically.

Here’s something critical: at around the 22:30 part of his talk, Haidt says you can’t blame Bush or Obama for this polarization. There were ten deep cultural trends that started in the 1990s that pushed us to this point, and neither man could have done anything to stop them.

Then Haidt gets to the gist of his address: the dilemma produced by the axiom that morality binds and blinds.

If you look back far enough in humankind’s history, you will observe that you don’t see civilizations starting without their building temples first. Haidt, who is a secular liberal, is not making a theistic point, not really. He’s saying that the work of civilization can only be accomplished when a people binds itself together around a shared sense of the sacred. It’s what makes a people a people, and a civilization a civilization. “It doesn’t have to be a god,” says Haidt. Anything that we hold sacred, and hold it together, is enough.

The thing is, this force works like an electromagnetic field: the more tightly it binds us, the more alien others appear to us, and the more we find it impossible to empathize with them. This is what Haidt means by saying that morality binds and blinds.

Haidt quizzes the 700-800 people in the hall about their Hillary vs. Trump feelings. The group — all psychologists, therapists, professors of psychology, and so forth — were overwhelmingly pro-Hillary and anti-Trump. No surprise there. But then he tells them that if they believe that they could treat without bias a patient who is an open Trump supporter, they’re lying to themselves. In the America of 2016, political bias is the most powerful bias of all — more polarizing by far than race, even.

Haidt turns to the work of social psychologist Karen Stenner, and her 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic. The publisher describes the book like this (boldface emphases mine):

What are the root causes of intolerance? This book addresses that question by developing a universal theory of what determines intolerance of difference in general, which includes racism, political intolerance, moral intolerance and punitiveness. It demonstrates that all these seemingly disparate attitudes are principally caused by just two factors: individuals’ innate psychological predispositions to intolerance (“authoritarianism”) interacting with changing conditions of societal threat. The threatening conditions, particularly resonant in the present political climate, that exacerbate authoritarian attitudes include, most critically, great dissension in public opinion and general loss of confidence in political leaders. Using purpose-built experimental manipulations, cross-national survey data and in-depth personal interviews with extreme authoritarians and libertarians, the book shows that this simple model provides the most complete account of political conflict across the ostensibly distinct domains of race and immigration, civil liberties, morality, crime and punishment, and of when and why those battles will be most heated.

Haidt says Stenner discerns three strands of contemporary political conservatism: 1) laissez-faire libertarians (typically, business Republicans); 2) Burkeans (e.g., social conservatives who value stability); and 3) authoritarians.

Haidt makes a point of saying that it’s simply wrong to call Trump a fascist. He’s too individualistic for that. He’s an authoritarian, but that is not a synonym for fascist, no matter how much the Left wants to say it is.

According to Haidt’s reading of Stenner, authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. Most people are not naturally authoritarian. But the latent authoritarianism within them is triggered when they perceive a threat to the stable moral order.

It’s at this point in the talk when Haidt surely began to make his audience squirm. He says that in his work as an academic and social psychologist, he sees colleagues constantly demonizing and mocking conservatives. He warns them to knock it off. “We need political diversity,” he says. And: “They are members of our community.”

The discourse and behavior of the Left, says Haidt, is alienating millions of ordinary people all over the West. It’s not just America. We are sliding towards authoritarianism all over the West, and there’s really only one way to stop it.

At the 41:37 point in the talk, Haidt says that we can reduce intolerance and defuse the conflict by focusing on sameness. We need unifying rituals, beliefs, institutions, and practices, he says, drawing on Stenner’s research. The romance the Left has long had with multiculturalism and diversity (as the Left defines it) has to end, because it’s helping tear us apart.

This fall, the Democrats are taking Stenner’s advice brilliantly, says Haidt, referring to the convention the Dems just put on, and Hillary’s speech about how we’re all better off standing together. Haidt says this is actually good advice, period. “It’s not just propaganda you wheel out at election time,” he says. If we don’t have a feasible conservative party, we open the way for authoritarianism.

To end the talk, Haidt focuses on what his own very tribe — psychologists and academics — can do to make things better. They can start by being aware of their own extreme bias. “We lean very far left,” he says, then shows a graph tracking how far from the center the academy has become over the past 20 years.

Haidt says we don’t need “equality” — that is, an equal number of conservatives and liberals in the academy. We just need to have diversity enough for people to be challenged in their viewpoints, so an academic community can flourish according to its nature. But this is not what we have. According to the research Haidt presents, in 1996, liberals in the academy outnumbered conservatives 2:1. Today, it’s 5:1 — and the conservatives are concentrated in engineering and other technical fields. Says Haidt: “In the core areas of the university — in the humanities and social sciences —  it’s 10 to 1 and 40 to 1.”

The Right has left the university faculties, he said — and a lot of that is because they got tired of the “hostile climate and discrimination”

“People who are not on the left … are often in the closet,” says Haidt. “They can’t speak up. They can’t criticize. They hear somebody say something, they believe it’s false, but they can’t speak up and say why they believe it’s false. And that is a breakdown in our science.”

Until they repent (my word, not his), university professors will continue to be part of the problem, not the solution, says Haidt. He ends by calling on his colleagues to “get our hearts in order.” To stop being moralistic hypocrites. To be humble. To be more forgiving, and more open to hearing what their opponents have to say. Says Haidt, “If we want to change things, we need to do it more from the perspective of love, not of hate.”

It’s an extraordinary speech by a brave man who is a true humanist. Watch it all here, and read more about it. 

Here’s what I think about all of this.

I don’t think the center can hold anymore. It’s too late. The cultural left in this country is very authoritarian, at least as regards orthodox Christians and other social conservatives. On one of the Stenner slides, we see that she defines one characteristic of authoritarians as “punishing out groups.” Conservative Christians are the big out group for the cultural left, and have been for a long time.

We are the people who defile what they consider most sacred: sexual liberty, including abortion rights and gay rights. The liberals in control now (as distinct from all liberals, let me be clear) have made it clear that they will not compromise with what they consider to be evil. We are the Klan to them. Error has no rights in this world they’re building.

If you’ll recall my blogging about Hillary Clinton’s convention speech, I really liked it in theory — the unity business. The thing is, I don’t believe for one second that it is anything but election propaganda. I don’t believe that the Democratic Party today has any interest in making space for us. I wish I did believe that. I don’t see any evidence for it. They and their supporters will drive us out of certain professions, and do whatever they can to rub our noses in the dirt.

I know liberal readers of this blog will say, “But we don’t!” To which I say: you don’t, maybe, but you’re not running the show, alas.

The threat to the moral order is very real, and not really much of a threat anymore; it’s a reality. As I’ve written in this space many times, this is not something that was done to us; all of us, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and non-Christians, have done this to ourselves. At this point, all I want for my tribe is to be left alone. But the crusading Left won’t let that happen anymore. They don’t even want the Mormons to be allowed to play football foe the Big 12, for heaven’s sake. This assault is relentless. Far too many complacent Christians believe it will never hurt them, that it will never happen where they live. It can and it will.

There is no center anymore. Alasdair MacIntyre was right. I may not be able to vote in good conscience for Trump (and I certainly will not vote for Hillary Clinton), but I know exactly why a number of good people have convinced themselves that this is the right thing to do. Haidt says that the authoritarian impulse comes when people cease trusting in leaders. Yep, that’s where a lot of us are, and not by choice.

This week, I’ve been interviewing people for the Work chapter of my Benedict Option book. In all but one case, the interviewees — lawyers, law professors, a doctor, corporate types, academics — would only share their opinion if I promised that I wouldn’t use their name. They know what things are like where they work. They know that this is going to spread. That fear, that remaining inside the closet, tells you something about where you are. When professionals feel that to state their opinion would be to put their careers at risk, we are not in normal times.

The center has not held. I certainly wish Jon Haidt well. He’s a good man doing brave, important work. And I hope he proves me wrong on this. I honestly do. Because if I’m right, there goes America. On the other hand, reasoning that this must not be true therefore it is not true is a good way to get run over.