The more I read about Brexit in England and Trump in America the more I find myself repeating that old cliche: humans are just not very rational beings.
Most people are influenced more by tribalism than by rationality. And everyone is to some degree a victim of tribalism.
Humans evolved in tribes and lived that way for millions of years. One of the main characteristics of tribalism is to unthinkingly and unquestionably accept the members of your own tribe as moral, intelligent and right about all things. Members of other tribes, The Other, are always immoral, stupid and wrong about everything. In the old tribal days most of us dealt with the Other by trying to kill them. Now-a-days most of us just settle for scorn, disrespect and downright hatred of the other.
The other way tribalism shows up in modern times is when autocrats and dictators use humans propensity to tribalism as a convenient way to manipulate them. And this trick works best when the people you want to manipulate are having hard times. The oldest trick in the world is to tell the downtrodden that you and only you will be able to lead them back to the good old days. And, they say, this will work best if you all get together and destroy all the bad people that have taken the good days away from you, ie Jews, immigrants, Christians, Muslins, Atheists, whatever, it makes little difference which scapegoat is used. When times are hard, it has always been easy for autocrats like Trump and Hitler to tell most people the lies that they want to hear. This is the oldest of all old political tricks.
I’ve been reading a book about how exactly this worked in Germany in the 1930’s. This book is titled The Death of Democracy by Benjamin Carter Hett. It is basically about how Hitler took power in Weimar Germany in 1933. As I’m reading this book I’m continually struck by the similarity between the early 1930s in Germany and our situation right now with Trump in America. And Hett points out this fact all through the book.
One of the most striking points is how similar Hitler’s base was to Trump’s base. For both of these groups, the reality of their lives had become unacceptable. In the Germany of 1933 the German people could not accept the facts of how the first world war had ended and also the fact that they were now in the middle of the great depression. The German people could not accept the reality of their lives, it was just too awful. It was much easier for them to accept the lies that Hitler told them.
The same thing is going on in America with Trumps base. For 40 years the incomes of white working-class Americas did not improve at all. Gradually many of the American working class lost their good paying jobs, their houses, their cars, their lives. And at the same time they begin to realize that educated Americans and those they call the elites looked down on them as some kind of basket of deplorables as Hillary Clinton put it.
It’s not so much that Trump’s base is stupid, it’s much more that they cannot accept their current position in life. It’s much easier for them to accept the fake world of Donald Trump than to accept the real world that they live in.
One of the take aways from this lesson is that humans are just not very rational. They will make up the most stupendous idiocies to make themselves look good and wonderful and to make their lives look OK and to give themselves hope for the future. This is really what is going on in the world of Trump’s base right now, just as it was going on in the early 1930s in Germany.
One similarity between the current world and the early 1930s is the way that both Republicans and Nazis rejected rationality and objectivity and accuracy and science. It was very hard for the German people at the time to accept the realities of their actual world. The realities of their world were determined mostly by the first world war. The first world war had brought them defeat and punishment from the rest of Europe. And it brought extreme poverty and extreme inflation and impossible economic reparations that they would never be able to repay.
The Germans were in economic distress in 1933. Even through the worst of the super-inflation of the early 20s was over, the economy in Germany was not good in 1933. For one thing they were in the midst of the worldwide depression.
This wasn’t true for the entire reign of Hitler. Not too long after Hitler became Chancellor he began his big Industrial push to re-arm Germany. And this did bring on a short period of prosperity, but in 1933, the year that Hitler really assumed power, Germany was in the throes of poverty and hardship for most ordinary people.
And since most of Hitler’s base was suffering extreme poverty, it became much easier for The German people to believe in the lies of Hitler then it was to accept the misery of their lives.
Similarly, in our modern American world it is much easier for Trump’s base to believe Trumps lies than the fact that their lives are economically awful and that any hopes they may have had for a prosperous and happy life are rapidly fading. Trumps base does not want to accept the fact that they have lost all their prosperity and that they are uneducated and that they are at the mercy of those they call the elites. It is much easier for them to believe Trumps myths and his world of lies.
Millions of Germans retreated into lies like the stab in the back and the heroic life all Germans were going to live in the future. All of this was a false world that Hitler built up for them and it was easier for them to accept these lies than it was for them to accept reality.
The same thing is now happening in America, Trumps base accepts his lies not so much because they themselves are stupid but because it is much easier for them to believe Trumps lies than it is for them to accept the world that they live in where they are failures and nothings and deplorables.
These are the wages we pay for forcing people into unacceptable lives. When you push people into horrible lives that they cannot accept, they don’t just accept that they are failures but they twist reality into something that is acceptable to them. The Nazis used excuses like the stabs in the back and the perfidy of the Jews. And the Trump base thinks that Trump is going to make America great again.
For Americans I think this is the main take away of the whole Trump experience. We have to realize that human nature is such that when the world turns against you, you twist the world into something that is acceptable to you. People don’t just say, “oh my gosh you were right all along. I need to change my ways.” Instead they twist reality into something acceptable to them, no matter how ludicrous or irrational it might be. The Trump base are not stupid they are just human beings.
This is how we all react when we come up against something that we cannot change and that we cannot accept. And that means me and the most educated people in academia and the scientific world. There is a wonderful story about a highly educated nuclear physicist who allowed himself to be scammed by what appeared to be a beautiful movie star who said she loved him and just wanted to live a simple life with him, but first she needed a few bucks to get out of a jam. But that’s another story.
The hard take away that we have to accept about the Trump situation is that people are not rational. People do not react rationally when they are told there is no hope for them. They don’t just roll over and die. They twist reality into something that allows them to think that they are OK and that there is hope out there for them.
I always thought that when the working class finally realized that they were getting screwed over by the Republicans they would revolt and vote the republicans out of office. But no, they are punishing not the Republicans but the very people who have tried to give low cost medical care to everyone, and who have tried to make social securety and food stamps and medicare work for everyone.
Yes, this is a very simplistic take on what is happening in America right now. And the situation is much more complicated than this. Yes democratic elites did do their share of screwing the working class over with neoliberal economics and globalism and big finance. And the Democrats can certainly be very hard hearted and indifferent. And they can act in thoroughly stupid ways. All this is true. But let me get into this in detail in a future article.
The image at the top of this page was taken in the
Bosque Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico
along the Rio Grand River.