President Trump’s pledge to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea has raised alarm across Asia, been condemned by Democrats as weak and clueless, forced White House aides to counterhe didn’t mean it, and even led a GOP consultant to compare Trump to the Dr. Strangelove, a movie villain, and urge U.S. generals to stop him.
But there is likely to be one slice of America taking Trump’s side in his latest us-versus-them improvisation and thinking, even if he’s holding out the specter of a nuclear confrontation. Those likely to be cheering Trump, as inexplicable as that seems to politically blue America, are those who mobbed his rallies by the tens of thousands and elected him.
It’s too soon for polls parsing reactions to Trump’s threats, although they will soon appear. But that’s the conclusion of post-election analyses of Trump’s psychological appeal, which place his nuclear outburst beside many rants during the campaign that rallied those in his base.
“The remarks are indeed a continuation of Trump’s style—but not the more sober responses of [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis who understand the danger of such confrontations, given the nature of the North Korean and United States presidents, and the horrifying potential use of nuclear weapons,” said Mari Fitzduff, author of Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump,in an email to AlterNet.
Fitzduff, a Brandeis University professor and director of its international Master of Arts Program in Coexistence and Conflict, labeled Trump’s 2016 rallies “identity festivals,” where he promised to reverse America’s decline, to revive past greatness, and surmount disruptions that left many whites struggling and feeling voiceless. Trump’s base wants him to be decisive, she said, whether they agree or not.
“A sizable number of people prefer leaders whom they see as decisive, and prefer displayed strength and certainty, even more than agreeing with the substance of their positions,” Fitzduff said. “What they do not like is people who they see as compromisers, or not knowing their own mind, or even consulting/discussing with others what they should do, or indeed changing their mind re red lines, no matter how sensible that might appear at times to be. Strange as this may seem, research has shown that many people prefer ‘Strong and Wrong’ leaders to ‘Weak and Right’ leaders. (Hence, for many people, Obama was anathema—because he was perceived by them to be weak).”
George Lakoff, the U.C. Berkeley scholar who has written extensively on how liberals and conservatives think differently due to different views of male roles in families, said Trump’s base not only views him as a moral leader—but said that Trump has taken that further and sees the president as embodying the nation.
“Trump constantly lives by the metaphor that the president is the nation,” Lakoff said. “And similarly, he takes countries as being people when he talks about them. So, we will have a knockout punch to ISIS, as if ISIS is a person. And constantly talks about North Korea as if North Korea was a person—just knock them out, destroy them, as if North Korea was not millions of people and can also threaten 25 million people in South Korea. That is just not in their worldview.”
In short, Lakoff said Trump’s supporters think like he does—they support strict fathers who take care of business, are strict disciplinarians and embrace the use of force as necessary.
“You can only understand what your brain allows you to understand,” he said. “If that’s what’s in the circuit in your brain, that’s all you can understand.”
Profiling Trump’s Appeal and Base
Trump’s psychological allure was profiled for a Scientific American magazine feature, Trump’s Appeal: What Psychology Tells Us. What they describe also suggests that his base will embrace his belligerence rather than abhor it.
“It’s easy and common to dismiss those whose political positions we disagree with as fools or knaves-or, more precisely, as fools led by knaves,” wrote Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam “Indeed, the inability of even the most experienced pundits to grasp the reality of Donald Trump’s political ascendency in the 2016 presidential race parallels an unprecedented assault on the candidate and his supporters, which even went so far as to question their very grip on reality.”
So what did Trump critics miss then and are missing now? Foremost, his rallies were identity festivals for what he and his base want the U.S. to be: strong, unapologetic, patriotic and responsive to whites. Their villains are the economic and political establishments, and all foreigners taking advantage and harming people like them. This is not about parsing facts from fictions; it’s as Lakoff said—how they’re wired.
It’s no coincidence these villains include the same people who are ridiculing Trump’s nuclear threats—adults in the worlds of foreign policy, arms control, diplomacy, political leadership (such as Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, saying Trump better not speak unless he means it). The list goes on and on but notably excludes people who voted for him.
The way that Trump bragged about triumphing on trade with China or stopping Mexican immigrants during the campaign is echoed in his threats against North Korea. And only he has the rare guts and gall to speak out. Here’s how Scientific American summarized the psychological appeal of that narrative during the campaign—which holds today.
“Everything coheres. Everything that was used as evidence of [his] pathology—from the rough language and baying at foes to the devotion and reverence for one who violates all the rules of politics—makes sense within the terms of this vision” to his base, they said. “It is a vision realized in its very telling. It is an enactment of Trump’s new America.”
In other words, the very thing experienced people abhor in Trump’s playing with nuclear matches has resonated with his base before—and probably does now. There’s been no shortage of analyses saying Trump’s base will never abandon him.
More concretely, Fitzduff also said many Americans welcome wars.
“Yes. Unfortunately many of us love wars—think about how glued we were to our TV’s when the U.S. invaded Iraq,” she said. “This is particularly so when we believe we can win, and especially when we think it is only people ‘over there’ as has been suggested by [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsay Graham, who will suffer, not us. ‘If thousands die, they are going to die there, they’re not going to die here.’”
“It is very easy to talk a nation into a war, particularly if they have what they see as superior weapons,” Fitzduff said, echoing Trump’s boast about our arms on Wednesday. “Very few Trump supporters, or indeed most of us, understand the result of using nuclear as opposed to more traditional forces, and how different a war it will be. Just like we did not see the bedraggled state of what was going to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya, which we now would like to leave but cannot. The magnitude of a nuclear war cannot be even comprehended by most of us.”
What’s needed is seasoned diplomacy, cooler heads and American restraint, she said. But the values and virtues she describes are not in evidence in Trump himself—and not widely found among his supporters.
“I would search very hard and very urgently for someone in whom the North Korean leader has some trust and who can change his mind about the intentions of the U.S.—if such can be found, given the fate of other nations who have been destabilized by U.S. strategies. Any thought of Kim Jong-Un ‘standing down’ would have to be abandoned,” Fitzduff wrote. “The U.S. and their ‘allies’ need to swallow hard, and show and display both in public, but particularly in private, a modicum of respect, and an empathy to where Kim Jong-Un is coming from in the unfinished Korean war—and thereby possibly avoid a nuclear confrontation. Although Trump will not favor this, he may be persuaded by his military advisors who appear to be aware of the costs of the alternative, and the importance of keeping the President away from the red button. It is salutary to remember that President Trump, in one of his presidential briefings, was genuinely puzzled by why one would not use nuclear weapons if one had them.”
As Lakoff said, people can only think the way their neural pathways are programmed, which is profoundly scary when it comes to using nuclear weapons.