(Bloomberg View) -- Over the past two years, Donald Trump has lied incessantly and brazenly, and trampled all over traditional norms of respectable behavior. Yet his supporters still admire him and, bizarrely, see him as an authentic figure, honestly and honorably fighting for their interests. For many, it’s difficult to fathom.
But more than 50 years ago, an American sociologist and political scientist predicted that extreme social conditions might make it possible for a vulgar, lying demagogue to appeal to a broad group of ordinary people. Three psychologists have now run experiments reproducing the effect in a set of volunteers holding a mock election — demonstrating how Trump’s vulgarity can be a feature, not a flaw, and a key part of his appeal to a huge swath of America that feels abandoned by the economic and political establishment.
As Oliver Hahl of Carnegie Mellon and colleagues note, a survey taken after the 2016 U.S. Election found that Trump supporters don’t believe many of his lies, especially his most egregious ones. When Trump claimed that global warming is a Chinese hoax, most recognized it as false, but they didn’t much care. They saw his language as expressing deeper truths.
As it turns out, the sociologist Seymour Lipset predicted that this kind of disconnect could happen, triggered by what he called a “crisis of legitimacy.” The legitimacy of democracy might be undermined, Lipset envisioned, if a large part of society came to feel abandoned by the political establishment. Or, if a group felt a loss of power as leaders shifted their favor to new social groups. The white working class today — Trump’s base — fits both descriptions, as policies furthering globalization and offshoring of jobs have robbed them of economic opportunity, and immigration and demographic trends have visibly altered American society.
Lipset suggested that a crisis of legitimacy would have psychological consequences — and set the stage for a lying demagogue to be perceived by many people as bravely speaking suppressed truths. In normal conditions, voters shun any candidate who obviously lies and abuses widely shared social norms. But in a crisis, Lipset argued, disenfranchised voters may see such violations as a symbolic protest, and a deliberate poke in the eye to the elites they have come to despise.
This would explain how many Trump supporters, ordinary people, could actually cheer when he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, or mocked Senator John McCain for having been shot down in the Vietnam War. This is not to say that Trump supporters approved of his behavior. Rather, they delighted in the profound irritation of the press and the political establishment.
Hahl and colleagues went further, with some experiments designed to assess how the political landscape can affect people’s perception of lies. They split volunteers into two groups, one of which they manipulated to feel marginalized, neglected by a powerful establishment group. They then presented the groups with two candidates, one of whom blatantly lied and made misogynistic comments. The vulgar behavior repelled the “establishment” group, but actually attracted the marginalized group — irrespective of previous political leanings. Lying helped form a bond of solidarity, by challenging the establishment’s authority to define what was true or correct.
From this perspective, Trump cleverly or by instinct found a way to appeal to the vast left-behind of the white middle classes, and did so in part through antagonism toward elites and disrespect for their norms. Pissing off elites cemented his bond with his base.
It’s depressing that politicians’ unthinking neglect of a large portion of society may have put us into such a dangerous spot. Then again, seeing Trump as the symptom of a crisis brought about by social and political dysfunction can also bring hope. The shock of Trump, or something similar, may have been unavoidable. And Trump's rise might signal the start of a necessary period of painful disruption and chaos, before we find a way to reverse decades of middle class social decay.
Most see Trump as the wrong man. But there may be times when, for a large portion of the voting public, the wrong man is the right man.
Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."
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