Tag Archives: fear politics

Trump, Clinton and the Psychology of Fear

2 Aug

Fear Blog.001

     A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas created one of the greatest narratives of good vs. evil.  In a curious twist of art imitates life, the archetype is very much alive in the 2016 presidential race.  Darth Vader vs. the Jedi.  The dark side vs. light.  Fear vs. unity.

     The deep political divides in America skew the perception of who is Darth Vader.   To the significant number of voters who don’t trust the Clintons, it’s definitely ‘Crooked Hillary.’  Likewise, to  a majority of immigrants and highly educated Americans, it’s ‘Demagogue Donald.’

     However, the campaign strategies now cast in the nomination acceptance speeches of both candidates paint a stark electoral narrative based on fear.  And Trump has doubled down. Trump Clinton Fear.003

     “America is far less safe and the world is far less stable,” Trump told the Republican delegates and the nation.

     Trump painted a picture of lawlessness and rampant terrorism with the clock set at midnight and an illegal immigrant hiding in every closet.  “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” said Trump.

     As a campaign strategy, Trump’s politics of fear is grounded in well-established psychological and economic theory.  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University established in 1979 that people when presented with a set of known risks are more motivated by loss than gain.  The resulting research is called Prospect Theory and it won Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.  In short, Prospect Theory holds we are motivated by fear.

     Trump’s campaign strategy is clearly to use fear as a factor in the complex decision making process that voters will go through in deciding whether they can commit to him in the voting booth.  His strategy is well grounded in the fact that the vast majority of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.  When combined with the consumer behavior Theory of Trying by Richard Bagozzi, it establishes a clear framework for leading voters on the path toward supporting Trump.

     In the Theory of Trying model, there are three dimensions of attitude. (Figure 1)   One is toward success, one is toward failure and the other is toward trying.   In Trump’s case the attitudes toward success include better pay, secure jobs and safer streets.  In other words—attitudes framed as personal and social gains.  

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Figure 1

     The attitudes toward failure include stagnant income, job insecurity, fear of crime and terrorism—Prospect Theory’s framing of loss.   All of those are balanced against the efficacy of trying supporting Trump based upon his reputation as a successful businessman, and the perception that he’s not a quitter and on our side.  All three of those attitudes combine to influence the behavior on whether to vote for Trump.

   Hillary Clinton has taken a different approach based not on fear, but the social norms of rejecting fear. Trump Clinton Fear.004

     In her speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination, Clinton exclaimed, “We are not afraid!”

     She spent considerable time reinforcing universally held social truths that America is not a nation of bullies, and that “we are stronger together.”   In supporting her central thesis, she quoted FDR in saying, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

     In forging such a strategy, Clinton is employing the Theory of Reasoned Action as advanced by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen.   This too, is a psychological consumer research theory based upon behavioral intentions and attitudes toward social norms and expectations.   In this model, the consumer/voter is weighing their behavior based on their attitudes toward Clinton, and their attitudes toward societal pressure. (Figure 2) 

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Figure 2

 

     The attitudes toward Clinton range from her experience and competence for the presidency, to her trustworthiness (or lack of) as a public figure.  The attitudes toward social norms include the notions that Americans stand up to bullies, that they don’t ban religions, and that Americans are stronger when they stand together.

     To be clear, Clinton is using her own fear factor.  One of the more striking passages from her acceptance speech implored voters to consider the risk of Donald Trump as president.

   “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” Clinton said.  “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

     The tactic was stolen straight from the playbook of LBJ in 1964.  In that presidential campaign, President Johnson exploited the fears of a nation still jittery from the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, had famously campaigned on the notion that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”   The Johnson campaign responded with an advertisement called “Daisy.”   The ad aired just once–so powerfully based in Prospect Theory that it never needed to air again.  LBJ won in a landslide.

     Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have laid out their archetypal strategies both grounded in solid behavioral theory.  Fear of loss is a strong psychological motivator and one that Trump clearly hopes is a message he can ride to the White House.  Clinton’s arguments based upon established social norms of working together and rejecting fear are equally as accessible in the minds of voters.  The wild card in all of this may come down to individual personalities.  In other words, do the powerful negative attitudes toward either Clinton or Trump actually swamp the attitudes towards loss and social expectations?

     We’ll find out on Election Day which theory “Trumps.”

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