I published this in Huffington Post, September 19, 2016. Like my earlier post on Hillary Clinton, “Everybody’s Mother” it address the importance of understanding unconscious processes in voters. Voting choices, like all other decisions people make, are deeply effected by emotions and unconscious narratives and fantasies. Messaging that takes unconscious but ubiquitous hidden psychological processes into account can outsmart resistances and have a much stronger impact. You can read the blog post here on Huffington.
Rational Arguments can’t win this bizarre presidential campaign but emotion-stoked messages that speak directly to the unconscious can
Do you remember when you were a child and a cataclysmic thunder storm lit up your back yard? You were terrified that lightening would strike your house. And your Dad said, “No it won’t. There’s a one in a million chance of that. We’re totally safe. I promise.” You probably sought and received similar reassurances about plane crashes, child abductions, large bears and murderers. “I promise, you’re safe.” This is The Big Daddy Lie. (And please forgive me, I know in some families it’s the Mom, or the Grandmother issuing the Big Daddy Lie. I’m talking about a role and a function here).
The Big Daddy Lie is psychologically essential. As children we need to believe there is a powerful grown up who knows more than us. We need him to tell he knows reality better than our fearful minds do and that he’ll keep us safe. We need this omnipotent, omniscient father even when we suspect he’s not telling the truth. And we carry that dependence into adulthood, reassuring ourselves, “Well, yes, planes crash, but I promise, not this one I’m getting on.” It’s not true, we don’t know that, but we have to let ourselves believe the lie, or we couldn’t go anywhere. Without the Big Daddy Lie in childhood and in its integrated version in our adult minds, we’d be too paralyzed by fear to do anything.
I’m convinced that The Big Daddy Lie is a big part of Donald Trump’s current (and terrifying) rise in the polls. I wish my Dad were around to tell me we were safe.
Habituation to Trump’s bad behavior (fairly widely discussed as “normalization”) paves the way for a new emotional response to him, a positive tilt towards the comforting Big Daddy Lie. Trump harnesses the power of the Big Daddy Lie masterfully, and the anxious child lurking within everyone basically laps it up.
I’m not saying voters are children. But emotions powerfully effect voter decision making (see Drew Westen’s The Political Brain). And childhood emotional experiences are dormant and revivable—they become unconscious narratives or experiential templates that stay with us and are aroused in times of stress or fear. Or when they are skillfully manipulated. This in part explains the rise and popularity of strongmen everywhere. The rational observer sees the destruction they will wreck upon their people. The child inside all of us can be drawn into the illusion of safety that the Big Daddy promises to provide. He will take care of us.
Over and over from Donald Trump, like a drumbeat: “I’ll fix it, I promise”. “That’s not going to happen when I become President.” “The pipes [in Flint] will be changed. It will be done right. It will be done quickly. I know how to do it.” “I’ll fix the inner city” (ok, the Big Daddy Lie from Trump didn’t work so well that time). “Those terrorists, they won’t get to you when I’m president. Okay? Okay?” Notice that sometimes his voice drops to a soothing murmur. “Okay? I promise. Okay? I promise.” He implies, and sometimes says, and “Only I can do it.”
It’s painful, but understandable that Trump will appeal to 35-40% of the electorate. We know this from studies on authoritarian personality. (see Amanda Taub in Vox
But how to account for the 10-15% rise bringing him neck and neck with Clinton? I’m suggesting the operation of a psychological one-two punch—(1) the widely discussed (by Democrats anyway) “normalization of his bad behavior” (2) leads to conditions in which the Big Daddy Lie can exert a powerful appear. Luckily, I think there are a couple of ways to counteract its influence.
The Normalization of Bad Behavior
There’s solid psychology behind the normalization-of-bad-behavior phenomenon. In other words, it was predictable. People can get used to anything if they are exposed to it long enough. We’re so used to Trump saying things that are patently, outlandishly false, like claiming that Clinton doesn’t have a child care program, or wildly inappropriate, like calling a US Senator “Pocahontas.” So when we hear a new lie or an old insult, nothing gets stirred up inside us except a sense of resignation. The psychological explanation behind this normalization phenomenon is pretty simple: the familiar outrageous fails to evoke a strong emotional response in the listener. This is a normal, self-protective psychological defense mechanism. No one can function when continuously aroused to a state of fear, shock or outrage. But in this Presidential campaign, it’s frighteningly dangerous.
Repeatedly exposed to Trump’s objectively ridiculous, outrageous or even, yes, deplorable speech and actions, our emotional activating systems are desensitized and habituated. Our alerting systems take a snooze. Emotional sensors don’t flood our bodies with stress hormones. That feeling of being punched in the guts? Doesn’t happen. We all join the chorus of “That’s just Trump” as Mike Pence once put it in his genial manner.
What can be done?
Raise a passionate ruckus. The desensitization to bad behavior can be overcome by making a louder emotional noise, to break through the numbing and cut straight through to the voter’s emotional brains. A number of Hillary’s advertisements, like the one showing military families who have clearly made enormous sacrifices watching, incredulously, as Trump claims he too made sacrifices by building “structures,” powerfully connect to the voter’s emotions. Videos from groups like Correct the Record’s The Trump Project, skillfully use razor sharp editing to over-ride numbed emotional reactions. Our limbic systems are no longer going to react when Trump calls Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”, though we should by rights be flooded with outrage and fear. But a collage of clips of him repeatedly calling people names still can slice through the desensitization.
Elizabeth Warren herself is a master of emotional power—listen to one of her speeches, dripping brilliantly with articulately expressed outrage, and suddenly the numbness evaporates. I’d like to see Bernie Sanders out there every day, breaking through the numbness, because his rhetoric also arouses passion in his followers.
But the best way to combat the Big Daddy Lie is for Mrs. Clinton to offer something just as powerful— messaging that similarly speaks to and reassures the anxious child that lives within every voter. She needs to use emotionally evocative language that targets buried memories of and longing for a powerful, protective mother who takes care of us and keeps us from harm. I’ve written elsewhere about the pitfalls for women in positions of power. But the image of a powerful, protective female force is also there to be harnessed. In a speech in the 2008 primaries, Clinton met the challenge magnificently and provided an image of distinctly female power that could not help but exert a tremendous positive appeal. The speech developed a riff on the Emma Lazarus poem about Lady Liberty, Clinton offering herself symbolically as a version of that much larger than life figure, a steady, welcoming, embracing, protective powerful female presence. Take that Big Daddy.