Now that Trump has been beaten in the Iowa Caucus, it is much easier for people to write him off as a reality star who played with fire. Many Americans (and non-Americans) gave a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday night, but Trump’s campaign successes cannot be ignored. His blunt and often childlike statements and arguments are easy to write off as uninformed and unplanned bravado from a man whose presidential bid wasn’t founded in anything serious, but I disagree.
When President Obama stated that Trump was “exploiting” anger and fear among “blue collar men,” he was right. From the advent of his campaign, this anti-politician has been playing on one of the greatest weapons in a politician’s arsenal: fear. Nothing else drives public opinion quite like it. President George W. Bush gained the highest presidential approval rating ever recorded by the Gallup polls with his declaration of a war on terrorism. President Obama’s approval ratings jumped 9% after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. This idea that fear can rule politics or at least public opinion has also been coined as the ‘rally round the flag effect.’ In times of crisis or threats to national security, people demand strong and immediate answers. Donald Trump offers this and more to his followers. The simplicity of his plans: building a giant wall, bombing “the hell” out of ISIS, and cutting our enemies off from the Internet are all oversimplified one-liners that have been eaten up by much of the nation.
However, this does not mean his supporters are being naïve or insane. Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, wrote “neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”
America is now responding to a great fear and finding solace in a man who promises quick and simple results and works to distance himself from any form of recognizable political rhetoric or strategy. His impressive climb in the polls and second place finish in the Iowa Caucus could still seem surprising, but it’s important to recognize just how powerful fear can be as a motivator for polling. A common issue pollsters face in obtaining information from respondents is inconsistency in answers and even ideological positions. For a long time this inconsistency in Americans’ answers (and even political knowledge) led political scientists to believe Americans were ignorant.
This would make an easy explanation for Trump’s strong support: ignorance. It does not, however, take into account the fact that in polling, heuristics drive almost everything. Heuristics are the immediate, ‘gut-rationality’ response where a person brings the most salient information they can recall to any answer they give to a polling question. This means that even the most informed respondent would inevitably make decisions based on their most immediate information, just as an uninformed respondent would. This means that Trump’s exploitation of fear should be seen as a legitimate strategy and a real concern as those exploited are responding to the same heuristic primers that we can all be made susceptible to.
Mistler-Ferguson is a member of the Class of 2018.