The Donald Trump Problem

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A Wall Street Journal poll published yesterday (Sunday) revealed that more than half of American voters don’t care if their president is a sexual abuser.

That finding sent a shiver through the people of Western Europe.  You could feel the sense of bewilderment rolling out across social media, in texts and emails.  How could this possibly be?

We’ve long been told that Trump is the response to globalisation, disruption and industrial decline, a champion of people who are ill-equipped to deal with the 21st century.  This has become something of a global narrative – explaining the Brexit vote, the rise of Marine le Pen and the National Front in France and more.

But 53% of US voters believing allegations of Trump’s long-standing sexually predatory and abusive treatment of women shouldn’t rule him out of being the leader of the free world is not anger about lost jobs.  It’s not a response to declining prospects or the inchoate rage of the Left Behind.

This was a mirror held up to the face of America and it showed something particularly ugly.

The problem with Donald Trump is not Donald Trump.

Except there may be a different way of seeing it.

While the allegations against Trump have moved some voters into the Clinton column, there’s a hard core that seem unshakeable in their support, however horrendous the revelations levelled against the businessman-turned-politician.  The usual response is a kind of gallows humour and multiplying memes of what terrible thing Trump would have to say or do to get these people to flee, finally.

They never will.

The truth is, to them, Trump is not a man, he’s a symbol, and that makes him bulletproof.  Any allegation can be levelled at him and they will all be discounted because those allegations are about Trump the man, which is an irrelevance.  Trump the symbol of all that is wrong with someone’s life will always shine through, because symbols cannot be degraded.  They’re lodged in the unconscious mind, the secret language we all speak yet don’t realise that we do, where one symbol can contain behind it a library of reasons, thoughts, feelings, all tangled up.

The symbolic voter may not be a new phenomenon, but thanks to the Communication Age which has linked up so many disparate tribes, that bloc has now become connected, and organised.

This is not peculiar to Trump, or to America.

All the Remain campaigners who thought the public would swing against a Brexit vote once they were faced with the stark facts of the economic fallout were deluded.  They were fighting a completely different referendum from the people they were trying to convince.  The Leave side got it.  They just made stuff up to knock off a few Remain voters at the margins, knowing their core support came from symbolic voters who were not being engaged, even slightly, by the other side.

These people were wholly buying into the Liberation Myth, the idea that Brexit would result in a new-found freedom.  On the surface, this meant simply an escape from what was perceived as suffocating European laws.  But when you hear these Brexit voters speak about their decision – and there are many accounts online, not just this one – you realise it wasn’t about Europe at all.  Many were voting for a symbolic freedom that would reach down through all aspects of their lives, lifting them out of a stultifying job, an oppressive relationship, the poverty trap, wherever they felt constrained or beaten down.

As with many psychological drives, the people who succumb to them are sometimes just as bewildered by what they’ve done as the people who vote with their heads.

You can see the same response from some supporters of the UK Independence Party, which has gone from strength to strength despite mockery of its leaders and allegations of racism and sexism and recently a fistfight among its elected representatives which left one of them in hospital.

And with supporters of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who has proven so immune to attacks that some have branded his followers a cult.  Corbyn remains a prime draw for the symbolic voter, because, to many, he’s a tabula rasa.  His policies are so few and so high-level it’s possible for many to project all their hard-held beliefs into that void.

Symbolic voters break down into two groups: the victims, the kind of people who use the word ‘gatekeepers’ or engage with a whole range of conspiracy theories – they’ve tried hard but things aren’t working out for them, and because they know they’ve tried hard their failure can only be the fault of someone else/the system; and utopians, for whom it’s most important to imagine a better world at the highest level possible before delving down into the nitty gritty of how to get there.  Both are immune to facts, statistics, evidence, for different reasons, and both attach their political beliefs to symbolic figures.

These are usually gut people, not head people.  There’s no value judgment in that statement.  Psychology shows us people divide quite clearly along these lines (these aren’t binary choices – it’s a spectrum like most psychological states, but we’re looking at the fringes here).  Their response to a piece like this would be emotional – anger, contempt – not a reasoned argument.

Symbols are important – they speak louder than anything.  And as Brexit shows, they can crush puny facts and policies.  If their political opponents want to win, they need to engage the symbolic aspect rather than simply throwing more mud, or making more reasoned arguments, and that needs a good deal of lateral thinking.