How to understand Trump and his base? Begin by dismissing facts as neither absolute nor relevant.

I must confess that I’m growing weary of hearing Trump’s critics expressing their incredulity at his actions. The refrain from this group is that Trump’s actions are irrational and are almost always at odds with the facts.

I couldn’t agree more, but at some point, it’s important to understand that no amount of fact checking is going to change the mind of an ardent Trump supporter. In fact, the backfire effect would indicate that the opposite could occur – providing contrary evidence to a person with an emotionally held position may actually reinforce the position they hold. [1]

Mooney has written about the concept of how neuroanatomical differences in the brain may influence an individual’s perception of what is fact versus fiction. [2] It’s an interesting mental exercise to try to wrap your head around the idea that “facts” may not be absolute and may depend on the relative activity of your amygdala versus your anterior cingulate cortex. Mooney’s suggestion is that conservatives have a more active amygdala – the brain’s fear center – and as such their actions are driven more by “protecting self” versus openness to experience.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Demagoguery is the bedrock of Trump’s messaging to his base. Fear of migrants, fear of Muslims, fear of skin that is not white. His supporters, driven by their active amygdalas, will not change their views even when presented with clear facts showing they are wrong. [3] Facts are a distraction to these people – they’re in survival mode and all they need is a strong protector to ensure their survival – a strong chief for their tribe.

How did we get here?

Emotions are easy and are encoded in our DNA. If you think about how humans lived a few hundred thousand years ago, emotions were critical to survival. One did not reason with a saber toothed tiger. There were two steps for survival: Identify the threat and react. In that historical scenario, thinking would lead to hesitation and being the tiger’s dinner!

I would suggest that the fear response in humans has not evolved all that much in 100,000 years. At some primal level, our actions are guided by the imperative to survive existential threats. A fact-based, logical approach to human life is relatively new on our evolutionary pathway. We’re still struggling with it.

What’s changed in the last decade is that technology has enabled us to self-select information that reinforces those threats. Haidt has suggested that it is a natural human tendency for humans to take a position based on emotion and then find “facts’ to support that position. [4] With today’s internet and 24-hour self-serve cable, it’s trivial for that to happen. One need only look at Twitter to see how effectively people can self-organize into information cocoons forming highly effective positive feedback loops that reinforce whatever position one wants.

Trump is the inevitable nadir of a world where technology has enabled humans to abandon critical thinking and effortlessly embrace the emotional side of our nature. He is a charlatan who has recognized that facts are irrelevant in motivating a segment of the population and that stoking fears is an effective way to gain support – at least for some. Fear is a formidable adversary in a confrontation with facts.

Influencing the fearful

If one’s goal is to persuade a Trump support they are wrong, then first and foremost – good luck! Second, forget citing facts and figures – even those that unambiguously show that Trump’s policies are hurting them. The only way to influence is to converse and connect on an emotional level. For some of us, that’s nearly impossible when there are so many facts at our disposal.

Save the facts for your social media accounts where they will be enthusiastically received and validated by your like-minded friends, However, if you find yourself wanting to engage with a Trump supporter (good for you), tell them your visceral fears of where America is heading – they will probably relate to your being afraid and you may have a springboard for a discussion.








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