Behavior Economics

The Terrifying Danger of Trump’s Rhetoric

A Brief Re-Cap of the Past Thirty Days

It’s been couple of weeks since my last post. I had been making notes for a post on the appeal of Trump’s rhetoric concerning terrorism, but the events of the past week have overtaken it. A couple of weeks ago — it seems so long ago, doesn’t it? —  the news was dominated by terrorist attacks both domestic and foreign:

  • 12 June 2016: 49 Americans slaughtered at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida
  • 28 June 2016: The Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was bombed
  • 1 July 2016: Terrorists killed hostages in Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • 4 July 2016: Suicide bomber detonates outside of the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

This sequence of events was and is overwhelming and unbelievable. As the each terrorist attack occurred, we all focused on ISIS and the next horror they would perpetrate. The talking heads speculated about a big attack on the Fourth of July. The fear of a huge Paris or Brussels style incident was almost palpable.

In the midst of these attacks, on 23 June 2016 the UK went mad and voted to leave the EU!

While the big ISIS inspired attack didn’t happen on the Fourth, our very own police and citizens provided something just as disturbing, upsetting, and concerning. We don’t talk about American exceptionalism in the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid for nothing, do we?

  • 5 July 2016: Police shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana while sitting in his car as his wife pleaded for his life.
  • 6 July 2016: Police shot and killed Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota
  • 7 July 2016: Five police officers were shot and killed and eleven shot and injured in Dallas, Texas

That is a lot of pain, death, and suffering to absorb in just less than a month. As a nation we are suffering from a collective PTSD. Wherever you stand on the issues that these events are based on or spawned, they effect us all. Reactions to such events is predictable, which is both sad and heartening. Sad because we are so easily exploited and heartening because knowing the predictable response gives a chance to resist having it and a prescription for curing it.

Feelings as Facts

We use our feelings as information, meaning that as we are faced with a decision, we check our emotional state. We take stock of which feelings are provoked by the situation. When a situation provokes strong negative reactions, we tend to focus on the worst possibilities. Let that sink in for a minute.

  • I remember seeing the headline that 49 were dead in Orlando and the feeling of the ground dropping out from under me. Fifty was a big number. I was filled with uncertainty, fear, worry, concern. That was a lot of people dead. It just didn’t seem possible.
  • I remember seeing the headline about the police shooting in Dallas. My head spun. I was dizzy. It was unbelievable. What was happening? Would we have rioting like we did in ’68?
  • How did you react to those two events? Do you remember how you felt when you first learned of these two shootings? Please let me know in the comments!

The recent of killings by police, terrorists, and madmen cannot help but produce a cumulative effect of fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness, and hopelessness. Because of these strong negative emotions, we are likely to focus on the worst possibilities, but what are they? What could the worst possibility be? A comment on what you believe could be the worst possibility or what you’ve observed in others would be most enlightening and appreciated.

The Availability Heuristic

That emotional reaction means that those negative emotions are primed and much easier to access than other emotions. These feelings of fear and vulnerability are easily accessed

and, therefore, heavily influence our decisions. If you are my mom, you’ll realize that this phenomenon is called the availability heuristic, and if you aren’t my mom, well then you’re probably off doing something fun and interesting and worthwhile and not wasting your time reading this dribble. Mom, if you’re up to it, put a comment in the comments about what you would rather be doing than reading this, but since you’re my mom, I know you feel obligated.

One familiar outcome is the tendency for tourism to decline in countries that have had a recent terrorist attack. When people are planning vacations and travel and are considering a destination, the first thing they experience when thinking of Egypt, let’s say, is the foreboding of terrorism pops to mind, and you decide to go to Tanzania instead.

Evaluating Probability in Everyday Life

TurkeyTourismEvery decision we make is an evaluation of probability — whoa, dude, buzz kill — but it is true. Unfortunately, you’re not Spock able to do the calculations quickly and silently in your mind. So, how do you do it? Well, it is all unconscious, but we all make a guess about how likely things will turn out the way you’d like.

How do you calculate your probabilities? Think about probability. See? That’s what I mean. It’s unconscious. Our guestimates are based on previous experience, circumstances that we know about, and our emotional reactions to similar or related events.

Pretend that you are planning a vacation, and that you’ve always wanted to visit Turkey. What is the probability of a terrorist attack in Turkey while you are there? What is the probability that you’ll be involved in a terrorist attack? We don’t know. It truly is very small in spite of the recent violence perpetrated in Turkey by ISIS and the Kurds. But, this type of thinking, this type of calculation is hard. People rarely engage in it, even people with strong math skills and training. It is far more likely that you felt the apprehension associated with Turkey because of the Ataturk bombing and other attacks, and decided to visit the Dalmatian Coast, instead. Emotions trump probability because emotions are easy. Emotions occur automatically, unconsciously.

Thinking, including calculating probability, is difficult, effortful, slow, conscious, and intermittent. Emotions are easy, effortless, fast, unconscious, and constant.

Your Favorite Drunk Uncle

RedSkelton2The availability heuristic and the tendency to utilize emotions over probability explains your favorite drunk uncle’s love for Trump. With Trump doing his best Nixon imitation: the silent majority, a secret plan to defeat ISIS, the law-and-order, voters like your favorite drunk uncle may be drawn to him like they were to Nixon during the riots of ’68. Your favorite drunk uncle hears Trump say that we should fight fire with fire or proclaim himself the law-and-order candidate, and his terrified little heart and quaking knees begin to melt and solidify all at once. He feels better. It sounds good.

The attacks activated his fight or flight response. Thinking about the attacks and our vulnerability to them and the difficulty in defending ourselves from them causes him to experience fight or flight. Trump’s rhetoric simultaneously evokes the emotions of fear and vulnerability of the attacks or crimes and offers a meaningless but emotionally satisfying solution. The solution is easy, fast, and effortless. It is seductive.

Trump’s platitudes sound like fight which is far more preferable to the American tough-guy rugged-individualist psyche than flight. When Trump tars Obama and Clinton as not providing sufficient leadership and not being aggressive enough, he is implying — with emotions — that their response is flight. That reaction is not appealing to our gun-based violent might-makes-right culture. It draws people like our favorite drunk uncle to Trump like moths to a flame with the same destructive results since we know Trump’s rhetoric is empty.

8 replies »

  1. Not your Mom, but I understood immediately the availability heuristic. Wonder what that says about me/ oh, yea, psych major and clinician. duh. The people following on Trump’s coattails scare the very devil out of me, and I can not comprehend the US of A under his faulty leadership. frankly I am thinking that emigration is a viable option in the near future. The killings, bombings, etc are all too reminiscent of the 1950’s and 60’s to me and I am afraid for my kids, my grand kids..and all people of compassion. We stand back and wish there were something we could do that would be effective, yet when an opportunity arises that we could act upon we are often too fearful to act. We have become inured to violence (that’s a whole other blog post) and look for someone or something to blame…it’s always the other guys fault you know. Whites deny their responsibilities and favoritism, blacks resent and fear the situation…everyone blames someone other than themselves for what is happening, the schism between us. Somehow blaming, raging, fearfulness and resentments need to be set aside and we have to come together and fight for the rights of all people to be safe from harm. whether it is at the hands of our leaders, our police or the hands of those bent on the total destruction of a society. The big question is HOW? Where do we start? How do we get rid of the apathy?


  2. Hi there. I just found your blog and this is the first post I have read. It’s very good and insightful. (Hi mom – yours, not mine)
    Trump and his Trumpateers scare the poop out of me. Can they not see how demented their so-called future leader is? The United States of Stupid. It was was too easy getting all those puppets to come drivel at his feet. He must have been poisoning the drinking water of the masses. Thank the jellybeans that my momma taught me a little smarts!
    In the beginning, I tried showing them how much nicer the view was from my side. Every one of them had brown smudges on their noses. I was kind and respectful. When they would make an outrageous claim about someone on our side, I would politely ask where I could locate their source so I could study it for myself. Their response? “You put too many commas in that sentence. Your so stupud”. If I hadn’t wet myself from laughing so hard about their improper use of “your”, I might have said something intelligent. Have you ever noticed that you CAN NOT get them to divulge their secret sources? I work hard at being polite and respectful, for a bit anyway. I don’t want to sound or act like one of them. Every once in awhile they cross a line and then all bets are off. I end up channeling the most bad ass sailor who ever existed and I procede to give them a tongue lashing fit for a Queen.

    Major tangent. I apologize. I was broken hearted over more innocent fathers being ripped from the lives of their children and families. Two very good men in a long line of innocent people. I don’t approve of what either cop did and my opinion is they should be indicted, not applauded by the Trumpateers. I also don’t approve of the young man killing the cops. I had been wondering what took so long. You can only push people so far for so long. I can only hope that these seven men didn’t die in vain. I hope the seven deaths will turn the tide.
    Dialog is a good place to start for many who don’t know how to create change but want it. Some of us whites are decent people who feel that we should ALL be treated as equals. A few of us even understand a bit about white privilege and that we have had that advantage since birth. I am in no way proud of it like many are.
    I have taken enough of your time. I would love to hear more from you. Thank you for this awesome post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I have gotten the right wingers to divulge their sources, they’re just the echosphere of Breitbart and World News Daily and Rush Limbaugh and that ilk. The campaign of smearing all politicians as corrupt and self-serving, experts as being distrustful, and science as being wrong has finally paid off with predictable results.

      I’ve had many turning points in my understanding of race and racism in America, but the most significant was moving out of the US 20 years ago to live as a racial, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural minority. The other is having lived in Kenya for four years. It was amazing to live in a population dominated by blacks.

      I, too, am bi-polar and autistic. It gives an interesting spin on life. I certainly see things differently and don’t always do things the way others expect. It has made life interesting to say the least. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

      Have a GREAT day and thanks for the awesome comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Jack!

        Yes, yes, yes. I lived in Italy for just over 2 years and I never saw racism there. Not saying saying it doesn’t exist, but it never saw it. I miss those days and the peace I felt in my heart.
        I am going through some ugliness in my almost dead marriage. I asked for a separation and told him I expected him to remain in the home until I could figure things out and find a source of income that would allow me to finish raising my nephew and care for my mom until she passes, many years from now! I am disabled from surgery gone wrong and I can’t sit at a desk for 8 hours a day. I wouldn’t have expected that of him but my parents have contributed every penny of their retirement money to help us and he has zero gratitude. I had to give you that info so this part makes sense. He is angry. He knows I want out and I am finished. I spent 6 years begging for him to go to marriage counseling or anything that could help and he did nothing. He will now plunge the knife into my back every chance he gets. So, everyone that knows me understands there is one rule at my house that is punishable by death. NEVER, EVER say the “N” word in my home, on my property or in my presence. I loathe the word. I grew up in the South during the sixties and I saw the hurt racism caused and I still see it today. Southerners used to love the excuse about that word being in the dictionary and how it just means someone is a low down person but they can be any color. Wrong answer. Ignorance personified. Hubby is a truck driver and home only on weekends, thank goodness. After he got home two weekends ago, he proceeded to tell me about how some motorist had ruined his day. He used that horrible word 5 times in less than 60 seconds. I screamed at him to shut up and that nut dropped that word in my lap one more time just for giggles. He should consider himself to be quite lucky that I no longer own my handgun. He would be fertilizer by now and I’m not a violent person. If you do read some of my posts, you will be able to understand why I am so passionate about the subject. A good one to explain it would be the one titled, “Bertha’s Legacy, Jamie’s Future”. I could have very easily grown up in a racist home and my mom could have felt justified by it. Instead, she chose not to allow brutality to rule her heart. She is my hero. I can’t imagine being told from a very young age that I had to fear and hate someone. No other choice. Do as your told. I bet if you asked the racists in America why they hate black people, they would only be able to tell you what had been told to them. I bet the vast majority have no actual real life experience that causes them to feel that way. It hurts in my heart and I don’t know how to fix it. I am open to any and all suggestions.
        I am so happy you got to have that experience in Kenya. I bet Kenya has some beautiful, beautiful territory. Is there one thing that stands out above everything else regarding feeling better about the race situation? I so hope I get to travel that part of the world someday.
        I can’t wait to read more of your posts. I’m probably old enough to be your mom so I could hang out with her in the mom section. Lol!
        Thank you very much for responding back to me. It means so much to me.

        Liked by 1 person

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