How the Democrats Can Use Moral Foundations Theory Against Trump
Tom Edsall of the New York Times just published a column giving responses from me and other professors and political strategists to this question: Given the many claims and promises Donald Trump has made which will be impossible to fulfill, how should the Democrats refute them? (E.g., Trump’s claim that he would grow the economy by 6% per year, or end birthright citizenship.) Edsall printed the best parts of my response, but as long as I have a blog where I can post my entire response, here it is:
Your question presupposes that the Democrats should be trying to create better arguments. Yes, they should, but that is not the place to start. One of the basic principles of psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict, like a small rider (conscious verbal reasoning) sitting atop a large elephant (the other 98% of mental processes, which are automatic and intuitive). The elephant is much stronger, and is quite smart in its own way. If the elephant wants to walk to the right, it’s going to, and there’s no point in trying to persuade the rider to steer to the left. In fact, the elephant really runs the show, and the rider’s job is really to help the elephant get where it wants to go. This is why all of us are so brilliant at finding post-hoc justifications for whatever we want to believe. And this is why, in matters of politics and morality, you must speak to the elephant first. Trump did this brilliantly in the Republican primary, and in his convention speech. But how will he do when he appeals to people in the broader electorate?
I think the Democrats need to tell a story about Trump that activates deep and powerful moral intuitions, so that vast numbers of voters find their elephants moving away from Trump. At that point, good arguments will stick.
I think there are two main approaches. The first links to deep moral intuitions about fairness versus cheating and exploitation. Trump presents himself as a successful businessman. But a good businessman creates positive-sum interactions. He leaves a long trail of satisfied customers who want to buy from him again, and a long trail of satisfied partners who want to work with him again. Trump has not done this. He thinks about everything as a zero sum interaction, which he usually wins — and therefore the person who dealt with him loses. I think the Democrats should give voice to a long parade of people — former customers and partners — who deeply regret dealing with Trump. Trump cheats, exploits, deceives. Trump is a con-man, and we are his biggest mark yet. Don’t let him turn us all into suckers.
The second approach is to link to moral intuitions about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These are the moral foundations that authoritarians and ultra-nationalists generally appeal to, and Trump sure did this in his convention speech. But these can be turned against him too. Trump talks about patriotism (a form of loyalty), but he seems to be pals with one of our main adversaries (Putin) while telling our friends in the Baltics that we may not defend them. In these ways he brings shame to America and weakens our stature among our friends. The moral importance of authority is in part that it creates order, and Trump talks a great deal about law and order, yet he is the chaos candidate who will throw America into constant constitutional crises, throw the world into recession, and throw our alliances into disarray. The moral importance of sanctity is that it brings dignity and exaltation to people, places, and institutions that can unite people who worship things in common. The psychology of sacredness evolved as part of our religious nature, but people use the same psychology toward kings, the constitution, national heroes, and, to a decreasing degree, to the American presidency. Trump degrades it all with his crassness, his obscene language, his fear-mongering and his inability to offer soaring rhetoric. What a contrast with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reagan.
So I don’t think the Democrats should focus on raising doubts about his specific promises at this point. They should focus on linking Trump to violations of deeply held moral intuitions. If they can first speak persuasively to voters’ elephants, they will then find it much easier to speak to the reason-based riders, and to raise doubts about the specific things Trump has promised.