Vicky Newham


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Making sense of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

The allegations which arose about Hillary Clinton’s health and stamina a few weeks ago got me curious. Following the Trump ‘locker room banter’ débâcle, which surfaced over the weekend, and the allegations which followed, I tuned into C4 last night to watch the second presidential debate. I wanted to get an idea of how the two candidates come across; to try and understand Trump’s appeal and what people think of Hillary. Commentators were saying Trump was likely to go into attack mode to deflect attention. When I saw that, prior to the live show, Trump had gathered a bunch of women who claimed that Bill Clinton had made inappropriate sexual advances to them, it set the tone: it came across as him using them to mitigate his own behaviour by slinging mud at Hillary via her husband. Trump didn’t seem interested in what the women may have suffered.

One key thing intrigues me about Trump. Given the content of his communication, how can people in the US seriously think he’s going to deliver the sort of changes the country needs? I cannot claim to have listened to everything he’s said, but his modus operandi appears to be to make pronouncements about what he will achieve without stating how he proposes to go about them. I don’t know how this strategy convinces people. It doesn’t work for me. Or maybe it doesn’t convince them, and they’re simply projecting their hopes onto him and ignoring the stuff they don’t like? I’m not sure which worries me most. ‘I’m going to make America great again,’ he repeats ad nauseam, with his finger in the air. In last night’s debate he said he was going to get rid of ISIS. Right. How?

When I watch people like Trump speak in public, it reminds me of some of the footage of Hitler. Although Trump isn’t articulate, he has a sort of charisma, and he’s adept at zooming in on, and exploiting, people’s fears, and whipping them into a frenzy with adrenaline-fuelling slogans. Individual fears and life stressors quickly become universal ones we can all relate to, and ‘I’ becomes ‘we’. Identification results in de-individuation and robust group dynamics in exactly the way that social psychologists such as Zimbardo and Moscovici have described and demonstrated for years. In addition, when fear and stress are high, evolutionary theory tells us that people drift towards survival-enhancing decisions. Often this is instinctive (and explains why alpha behaviour is influential) and unconscious. It can mean that the decisions are ill-assessed and not the best option.

Related to this is the fact that much research has shown that voting habits are often dictated by self-interest anyway. The problem is that what people think they want might not be what they actually want, and in the words of the Rolling Stones … might not be what they need to make their life better. And self-interest can be a knee-jerk thing. Research has also shown repeatedly that when you want to persuade someone of something, you need to take various factors into account, especially if you want to change core beliefs in a lasting way. The main considerations are: consistency of message; confidence in the message; providing evidence to support the efficacy of the message; being impartial and flexible; whether the message rings true.

It’s interesting to consider these two candidates in terms of these factors. I have always found Hillary Clinton intriguing. I often wondered how she coped with her husband’s behaviour, alleged and otherwise. This is now her chance to be President Clinton, to continue the dynasty in the White House. I keep reading that she’s not ‘popular’. Have the email server accusations damaged her? What about the allegations that she got involved with some of the women who accused her husband of inappropriate sexual advances (as CNN calls them)? Do people judge her for ‘standing by her man’? If it’s true that she put pressure on women to drop complaints against her husband, that’s extremely troubling. Whereas Trump epitomises the power of celebrity culture in a world where people have felt increasingly disempowered and alienated, Hillary represents a complex set of values. The two couldn’t be more different.

According to the above criteria, the most effective way to win votes should be to find out what people want, figure out how to give it to them and communicate convincingly the steps along the way. However, if you stir in all the other factors, and group-think, it’s an extremely complex situation. It will be fascinating to see what else comes out about Trump. It should be impossible for him to become the next President of the US, but, given world affairs and the issues I’ve mentioned, I don’t think it is.

How do you perceive the popularity of Trump? What do you think is going to happen?

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Vicky Newham © 2016