Trump – Seriously and Literally

The most celebrated piece of political insight into the Trump election win in 2016 was by Salena Zito in the Atlantic who memorably opined that Trumps supporters took him seriously but not literally whereas his Liberal opponents took him literally but not seriously. “How is that even possible” as the current spelling has it, the same words having the inverse effect depending on the brain structure of the hearer?  Well Politics is Moral Psychology, or at any rate as argued in this blog very substantially moral psychology.  In the 2016 campaign Mr Trump changed his policies 140 times; he was aggressive, obnoxious, threatening, often incoherent and mostly contradictory, but it he energised and repelled millions.

Those energised took him seriously and could do so because Trump played to several moral foundations:

moralised anti-Authoritarianism

moralised Authoritarianism

in-group loyalty (nationalism resides here)

moralised anti-free market

The lyrics of the song were often poor but the tune, the melody and rhythm played deeply to a section significant section of the electorate. If you did not have these moral intuitions or had other moral intuitions such as Fairness or Harm Reduction you could not take Trump seriously, so you took him literally – “attack the families of terrorists” was what you heard.  Your neighbour with his moralised authoritarianism ignored those words and heard that America is a moral community, sacred, valued and will be defended.  That is the difference between the tune and the lyrics, seriously and literally.

Recall Clinton’s slogan “Together Stronger”, “Better Stronger” or was it “Together, Together”?  Who now knows but the Democrats spend a billion dollars without knowing that Politics is Moral Psychology and that slogans had better reference a moral foundation because you will lose out to Make America Great Again and its appeal to In-Group Loyalty. The song metaphor can be stretched further, the song can be enjoyed even if we don’t think much of the lyrics or the singer as long as the tune is to our liking.

Interestingly many Conservatives were bewildered by Trump with GW Bush loyalist David Frum asking in puzzlement was there something in political Conservatism that facilitated Trump?  Yes David, political Conservatism is a set of ideologies and values but they can only appeal to our emotions if the supporting moral intuitions are there. Trump played to the core moral intuitions on the right – authority and nationalism.

Of course in the moral foundations model offered in this blog it is stress that pushes us back on our moral foundations and the US has been under stress for some considerable time.  Now there is a reasonable suspicion that Trump did not believe in the song that he sung but was singing something that he thought would please the crowd (or half of it).  However, that is just it – recall the model – moral intuition to emotion to strategic reasoning.  Strategic reasoning hears what it wants to hear, neglects the singer, is attuned to the tune; it wants to believe and does.  America would be made great again in the action of a just, moral and ruthless exercise of authority.  America First and why indeed not if In Group loyalty is a virtue and it surely is to many, or most to some degree as it is key moral foundation.

A feature of US politics is that voter registration is voluntary which implies that those who hear the big music of the moral intuitions probably register to vote and those to whom they are weak or non-existent sit out the elections.  This scenario created fertile soil for Trump to plough, and plough and plant he did.

37% of Americans with a higher degree voted for Trump.  That is Americans most drenched in the liberal vision of education opening the mind, making better people, immunising us against bad and harmful ideas voted for Trump.  Seven years at college but still your brain heard the Trump tune rather than the one your English literature professors had hoped that they had drilled into you.

Most white women voted for Trump, despite his boasting of sexual assault complimented by a range of misogyny.  What other explanation could there be other than that his women supporters saw his moral deficiency against the standards of ordinary morality but this sense was “trumped” (of course) by another moral framework – the moral psychology of Authoritarianism and In Group Loyalty to which Trump addressed himself to with such ferocity and ineloquence?

Ordinary common morality can be overthrown by another form of moral calculation one which without coincidence happens to be the defining feature of American politics that is its bitter hyper partisanship.  Us and Them, for Haidt this coalitional psychology Binds and Blinds.  So Trump can call Hillary Crooked Hillary as the moral inferiority of the other is obvious, so many Republican women could quite happily point to Trump’s failings but equally they could point to epic moral deficiencies in the other lot.  In this moral confusion Trump thrived, and almost certainly as a deliberate strategy.

In the standard model of political analysis Vox’s David Roberts asserted brilliantly and comprehensively that everything mattered and it that is surely correct, but how would a moral psychological perspective have adjusted his forensic examination?

Vox’s David Roberts The insights of Politics as Moral Psychology
As for Brexit he says – almost no one really thought it could happen here, even after we watched it happen there . True but here is an analysis of how it happened in the UK.    Any similarities with the US – one side presses ferociously on moral intuitions and the other on the taxation of college tuition and no great surprise the moral argument defeats the policy argument.
Lots of people on the left have been gripped by existential angst in the wake of the election, convinced that they fundamentally misread their country, that they don’t know America at all. Seriously and literally again.   Indeed they don’t know the rest of America and they don’t know themselves.  They didn’t see Trump operating from moral foundations because no one, especially not even Trump knows that such a thing exists.  11 million French voters just supported an Authoritarian Nationalist for President suggesting that moral intuitionism is a human universal.  If in France voting registration was voluntary the result would have been close.
In one sense, that’s legitimate. I didn’t think my country would elect a crass, xenophobic accused sexual abuser and scam artist for president either. See above there are two types of morality in play. One “Trumps” or dilutes the other.


When a country is divided in half by a deep partisan split, elections are bound to be close. They can fall one way or the other with very small perturbations, as we just saw. Coalitions are moral structures, the other lot are morally deficient and this leads to a cycle of re-enforcement as one side pulls slightly ahead the other side holds its nose and falls in behind. Sanders people to Hillary, moderate Republicans to Trump.
Dems have captured the hearts of minorities, single women, and other growing demographics  and the Republicans White people These coalitions attract and repel and self re-enforce.  This follows from old fashioned coalitional pyschology


As Liam Donovan explains, according to exit polls, Trump only got 1 percent more of the white vote than Romney got The In-Group Loyalty foundation could be an ethnic group, or football team or your hometown.  Trump’s In Group Loyalty appears to have been America.  If some voters read that then that is very powerful.
The WWC is getting all the blame, but the white, college-educated middle and upper class — the actual elite, who have no economic anxiety excuses — are responsible for Trump’s win. They should answer for it. You don’t need economic anxiety when Politics is Moral Psychology but it helps.   The Moral Intuitions are right there in every Dentist.


The (Dems) gambled that Trump’s misogyny and racism would render him unacceptable. The Dems missed the moral appeal of his Authoritarian and Nationalist argument
In the end, though, there was virtually no vote splitting.  About 90 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump (89 percent of Dems voted for Clinton). He did roughly as well as a generic Republican. The GOP came home. Republicans and Democrats are a moral communities that’s why.


Trump would not win because he  celebrated torture or vowing war crimes. Only against the out group though whom Authoritarians and In Group Loyalists don’t have moral sympathy for.


Seriously he is an Authoritarian.

So Trump did not appeal to  the working class.  Even among the white working class, he only really dominated in the South. His appeal was to low-education whites, not to any particular economic class. The standard model of politics – class, economics, tradition does not explain the Trump win.  He did not win the white working class, Hilary took more votes there.  Moral intuitions are distributed across the white working class as they are in the population as a whole.  They sometimes negate and confound economic stressors, sometimes thy exacerbate them.
Of course Clinton spoke to the economic insecurities of working-class whites. She ran on the most progressive economic platform in a half-century She spoke to moral intuitions which underpin the left – fairness and harm reduction and it accounted in substantial part for her numerical victory but no one said so.
Almost all the information that reached voters about Clinton was about scandal — emails, the foundation, pneumonia, etc. Remember many voters only wanted to hear that which supported their existing view – moral intuitions to emotion to strategic reasoning
Some have asked how racial resentment could be to blame when many Trump voters are former Obama voters. Moralised Anti-Authoritarianism could be the suspect here.  Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric played to this moral intuition
The arc of the moral universe is long indeed. It bends toward justice, then it bends back again And back again…it is wobbly because of contending moral intuitions

Roberts does explicitly acknowledge Trumps Authoritarianism and Nationalism but fails to see that these are moral structures playing deeply in our evolved psychology. This is clear when he concludes  the source of his (Trump’s) appeal lay elsewhere.