After not writing for so long, I can’t believe my first blog post is about Donald Trump. I have been asked by several reporters over the past month why his followers are so loyal, so I figured it was probably time for me to add my two cents to the growing list of opinions that have already been offered. Maybe a brain science perspective on loyalty is appropriate given that we all need our head examined for even having this discussion.
First off, it’s important to remember that loyalty is an emotion, no different than love, hate, guilt, happiness or pity. And just like any emotion, it is a result of our brain’s response to certain stimuli. Our mind sees, hears, feels, or senses all sorts of things that trigger very specific emotional reactions in us, typically followed by some correlated behavior. For loyalty, it seeks in others a sense of Trust, a sense of Belonging, and a sense of Purpose. When you examine each of these factors more closely, you will understand why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have the most loyal followers in this year’s US Presidential election.
Ironically, this loyalty will inevitably prove to be their downfall. More on that later.
For Trump followers, Trust is not an issue. They see his wealth - regardless of where it came or comes from - as an affirmation of his competency. They view his bluntness and unfiltered remarks as a better indicator of his honesty than any of his unfounded claims (OK, lies.) They see the consistency of his behavior in the face of criticism, as heroic, knowing that their defense of him will never be betrayed by any backtracking or apology.
A sense of Belonging is a personal connection. One that helps us identify with others, or aspire to be like them. Trump loyalists feel both. He says what they say (or wish they could say), and thinks what they think (or wish they had thought). More than anything else, however, many aspire to be like him. Rich, successful, famous, able to say and do anything he wants, seemingly without any consequence. On top of all that, he makes his supporters feel included. He connects directly with them using social media and has a communication style that doesn’t require facts, clear articulation, or accurate information (which most of us don’t usually have) and allows them to simply follow their gut, their instincts and their ignorance or naivete.
Finally, Trump’s now famous mantra, “Make America Great Again” satisfies loyalty’s need for Purpose. More than electing a President or picking a leader, Trump’s rhetoric taps into his apostles' nostalgia of another time, or of a made-up world that they thought once existed. Some are disenfranchised, some are angry, but most are afraid of a world and a country that is no longer what they remember or what they want it to be. Their religious, social, cultural, and political beliefs have all been challenged or turned upside down and they feel helpless to do anything about it. So, hearing a presidential candidate saying he wants the same things they want and speaks of something more than his own personal gain, resonates deeply.
As far a loyalty is concerned, nothing about the Trump phenomena is surprising to me. In fact, it has been fairly predictable for the reasons I described above. What needs to be put into context, however, is how small that loyal base of support actually is. Trump’s 27% is considered a commanding lead in the GOP polls, while Bernie Sanders 31% is a distant second and practically inconsequential in the Democrat’s race. The numbers are relative right now with one field having so many choices and the other having so few. They both have truly loyal followings that will never grow beyond what they have been from the beginning and currently are today. That cultish loyalty, however, is actually what precludes their base from growing and in the end will spell their demise. Those who have not joined their cause, never will. They have no desire to be affiliated in any way with either candidate or their followers.
It’s true that we want our leaders to be like us, to think like us, and to act the way we would. The number of people who feel that way about Donald Trump is very small. Loyal, but very small. I guess we can all take comfort in that.