“A majority of voters saw Trump as a racist,” FiveThirtyEight‘s Harry Enten tweeted. “They also found him to be one of most moderate prez nominees in a generation. Circle that square.”
For George Lakoff, a Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, this paradox is evidence of something he has been arguing for decades: political “moderates” exist but “There is no consistent political ‘middle.'”
Ah, the middle! The mystical gloryhole that Beltway insiders with elaborate plans to “fix the debt” imagine most voters want to crawl into for the nirvana of tax and “entitlement” reform. It’s a kinky fantasy on par with a Republican Congress that cares about deficits when a Republican is in the White House.
“A moderate conservative has mostly conservative views, but some progressive views,” Lakoff wrote in his post-mortem of the 2016 election “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, And What the Majority Can Do.”
Trump’s “progressive” views included promising to preserve Social Security and Medicare while raging against outsourcing, despite his own company’s record of prodigious outsourcing.
So what what were Trump’s “mostly conservative views,” you and many #NeverTrumpers may be wondering?
Understanding that requires seeing politics the way George Lakoff does.
In the 1990s he began asking himself a series of questions that have perplexed liberals for years. Like: “What does being against abortion have to do with being for owning guns?” or “How can you be pro-life and for the death penalty?”
It all came down to metaphors. America, in our brains, is a family.
“The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different idealizations of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).”
Trump can’t quote William F. Buckley and likely prefers Barry Manilow to Barry Goldwater, but he may be the most brazen “Strict Father” candidate ever. His fixation on “winning” and dominating his opponents reinforces the hierarchical nature of conservative thought. His vile preening may have repulsed your “Nurturant Parent” brain but it offered his voters “self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”
Last summer, when many experts were still wondering how a non-doctrinaire conservative like Trump could win the nomination of a GOP that had gone so far to the right that it has to urinate at 90 degree angle, Lakoff laid out how Trump’s bullying bombast appealed to Evangelicals, Pragmatic Conservatives and Laissez-faire Free Marketeers. He saw Trump exploiting elements of the conservative worldview — including the “country as person metaphor” and simplistic “direct causation” — that the right has spent hundreds of millions of dollars nurturing.
In addition to his mastery of the broad strokes of the right-wing politics of dominance, Trump’s decades of experience selling crap taught him how to use your brain against you, including repetition, framing like “Crooked” Hillary, and “truthful hyperbole.”
Lakoff also explained how Trump could win over people who had voted for Barrack Obama, despite being a birther who represented the exact opposite of Obama’s nuanced, systemic thinking.
“Many union members are strict fathers at home or in their private life,” he wrote. “They believe in ‘traditional family values’ — a conservative code word — and they may identify with winners.”
This brain scientist’s insights into American politics first came into vogue during the George W. Bush era, when he pointed out that approaching voters as logical issue-weighing machines gave Republicans — who employ the same marketing techniques that sell cars and timeshares — a huge advantage.
And he thinks Democrats made that mistake again in 2016, though Lakoff — like pollsters and much of America — didn’t see Trump’s narrow Electoral College win coming.
“They failed to understand unconscious thought and moral worldviews” he wrote. “While hailing science in the case of climate change, they ignored science when it came to their own minds.”
Instead of building upon the progressive frame, Democrats unconsciously aided Trump.
“They kept running ads showing Trump forcefully expressing views that liberals found outrageous,” he wrote. “Trump supporters liked him for forcefully saying things that liberals found outrageous. They were ads paid for by the Clinton campaign that raised Trump’s profile with his potential supporters!”
So how to defeat a master of self-promotion like Trump?
Start by pointing out that Trump is the biggest popular vote loser ever to win the Electoral College.
“Don’t let anyone forget it,” Lakoff suggests. “Keep referring to Trump as the minority president, Mr. Minority and the overall Loser. Constant repetition, with discussion in the media and over social media, questions the legitimacy of the minority president to ignore the values of the majority.”
Trump’s unique status as the most unpopular man ever to enter the White House can chip away at his core “Strict Father” appeal, which explains why pointing it out irritates him so much.
“There are certain things that strict fathers cannot be: A Loser, Corrupt, and especially not a Betrayer of Trust,” Lakoff writes.
Trump’s conflicts of interests and their potential for corruption are also unprecedented in American history and any retreat from his promise to preserve Medicare must be framed as a catastrophic betrayal.
But Lakoff warns Democrats against “showcasing Trump, keeping him in the limelight” and urges them to instead to focus on reinforcing the values of the “American Majority” movement.
“The idea that must be brought across is empathy for those in your in-group, your town.”
Empathy is conservative Kryptonite.
But in order to use it effectively, progressives need to understand that the things that repulsed them most about Trump are what he used to bring out the conservatism in swing voters’ brains.
IMAGE: President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque