The Danger of Instinct - by Greer Clem

The Danger of Instinct - by Greer Clem

The public rallying cry that DC is inefficient is nothing new: every political race is run on a plan of action and an opponent's lack thereof. But what happens when we actually succeed in electing someone who will act on instinct? We are discovering exactly that under Donald Trump. 

A study conducted by Diana Mutz, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that the 2016 election wasn't about growing concerns over the economy but instead "was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend. For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country, white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race." Mutz writes that, when a dominant group feels threatened, they go through a number of psychological phases: "First, they get nostalgic and try to protect the status quo however they can. They defend their own group ('all lives matter'), they start behaving in more traditional ways, and they start to feel more negatively toward other groups." The campaign platform of "Make America Great Again" then appealed to this dominance-based nostalgia, comforting those white Americans who wanted to shield themselves from change.

As noted by an article in the Atlantic which discussed this study, these results leave politicians frustrated. Psychological resentment and racial divides are hard to address in a campaign platform, especially without alienating particular groups. I would argue that this is where Trump's impulse met initial success. More qualified but less colorful GOP candidates like Kasich or Bush were less inclined to walk right up to the line of white supremacy. They tried to run on platforms of modest change and conservative values, but Trump supporters wanted more. They were memorializing a time that has passed, and passed for good reason, but wanted a candidate who could promise them that time was not yet over. Without fear of political blowback, and here I want to clarify that Trump is only fearless because he is ignorant, Trump stood up and told them what they wanted to hear: that they were still in control. His immigration argument, which hinges on painting all immigrants as members of MS-13, is further evidence of this. And so it worked. Trump could act on impulse conditioned by white privilege and be met with no consequences. He was in fact rewarded for this behavior by an increasingly bold base of supporters. But impulse in an election and impulse in the presidency are two different beasts entirely: so where does he stand today? 

Trump supporters had felt marginalized under the previous administration and unwilling to adapt to developing societal norms. Under Trump, they feel they are once again the majority and that there is someone in the White House who, though not necessarily stable, nevertheless reflects their values. What's been more upsetting has been the larger response of the Republican party who seem willing to go along with Trump's impulsive behavior because they feel likewise represented. Behind closed doors they made whisper about his brashness and lack of experience but on the national stage they stay silent. The difference between the populous and the politicians is that the politicians should better understand the high price they are paying for Trump's representation. Are they really willing to let our international allies abandon us and our enemies grow bolder all for a temporary security blanket? To sacrifice votes that should be easy because they refuse to abandon his self-serving agenda? Just yesterday, a House race in Ohio was too close to call, despite being in a red district that Trump won by 11 points. Though Republicans outspent democratic candidate Danny O'Connor, even bringing in Trump for a last-minute appearance, the votes are still being tallied with a margin of less than 1%.

Make no mistake, Trump is temporary. He is the pendulum swinging back after going too far forward for society to bear. More significantly, Trump is proving to be a lesson in instinct for both parties. One lesson is tragic and one is inspiring. For Republicans, they anxiously wait for a tweet storm that sends their agenda spiraling and their donors reeling. For Democrats, we are liberated by the possibility of running truly progressive agendas in response to the madness. If Trump can put political decorum aside, so can we - but in a way that resonates with the values of our nation. 

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