By Hal Shorey
Why are so many people in the nation supporting Donald Trump (still)? Ever since the primaries, the majority of the nation's journalists and political pundits have been scratching their heads trying to figure out how Trump has mounted such a formidable campaign, despite the fact that many of his positions, statements, and behaviors likely would have been disqualifying for any other candidate.
Trump keeps it simple and he knows enough about group dynamics and the psychology of fear to turn people in favor of his platform.
His approach is based on human survival instincts and our automatic and often unconscious desire to regulate the amount of anxiety and fear that we experience.
In the field of psychology we look at this in terms of "attachment theory" and the idea that people automatically stay close and want to bond with someone who will offer protection and keep them safe. Based on evolutionary models, attachment theory asserts that thousands of years ago, human children were defenseless and their only hope of survival was to stay close enough to a parent - a "secure base" they could retreat to for emotional comfort and protection from predators. Children would gain confidence to explore and move farther away from their secure base until their anxiety reached a level that motivated them to return to their base for reassurance.
Having descended from our anxious ancestors, contemporary people - today's voter - still regulate their anxiety by having a secure base readily available, which could be a family member, friend, group, or even group leader.
Anxiety and fear are what often draw us to leaders.
Many astute business and political leaders, including Trump, know this basic truth. Trump has made raising people's fear and anxiety an art form. He continuously tells the public that they are under attack by Mexicans trying to steal their jobs, by murderers and rapists, by terrorist organizations, by the liberal media, and, of course, by Washington politicians. He raises fear and anxiety to a fevered pitch. And, then, he says that if you trust in him and let him be your secure base, you will be safe and free to once again explore and pursue your goals without worry.
Trump is a master manipulator of the human anxiety response. He raises anxiety by painting a picture of external threats, and then he lowers it by presenting himself as the protector.
These same forces of fear and anxiety also enable him to create a cohesive group of followers. Organizational psychology tells us that groups will coalesce and come together to the extent that those groups provide an anxiety reducing function. And maybe this is why attacking Trump or criticizing his group of followers just unites them and makes them more determined to win.
Trump is not the first public leader to manipulate followers' fears and anxiety in this way. Even Martin Luther King Jr. through his oratory genius, used external threats to unite a group. The full "I have a dream" speech paints a dire picture of violence, attacks, and persecution. King first activated emotions and sparked fear in his audience by describing these threats. Only then did he describe his "dream," which gave people hope and reduced their anxiety, thereby bonding them both to the group and to him as the leader.
The psychology of fear and anxiety can work in a number of ways. It can be harnessed by a leader like King, who was seeking the moral high ground and social justice, just as well as it can be used by cult leaders like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple. These tactics were even harnessed by Adolph Hitler, who galvanized an entire nation by portraying external threats and convincing an entire population that he would eliminate the threats and restore them to their rightful (and anxiety free) place at the top of the social order.
There are many people in the United States who have felt that their voices have not been heard, that their welfare and way of life is under assault, and that they cannot trust their leaders. Therefore, it is no surprise that someone who can raise the profile of external threat in the United States, and who offers himself as a secure base with the promise to eliminate the public's worries, would be successful in uniting a group of loyal followers.