Some days, being behind the mic is academic fieldwork. I am professor of communication by day, talk show host by night—technically, afternoons. That’s when my cohost and I interact with commuters, small business owners, retirees, homemakers, and others who listen to talk radio.
Contrary to stereotypes, our listeners are well-informed, some exceptionally so, and genial. A small, impassioned subset are Trump supporters. While their candidate’s success seems to defy all human logic and sensibility, it actually comports with the communication theories I teach in class. My field observations are as follows.
Angered by Politicians’ Betrayal
Trump supporters are angry, but not because they are pathological or xenophobic. They work hard and play by the rules, but for their efforts face wage stagnation and loss of work. One listener described how well-paid master tilers have been replaced by low-wage laborers who speak little English. He’s had to change careers after 30 years in the business.
As David Frum’s insightful piece in The Atlantic explains, these working men and women shoulder the costs of immigration while college-educated Americans reap the benefits. Trump promises a big wall, while other candidates appear poised to reward the rule breakers: illegal immigrants and those who employ them. Trump vows to protect American workers with tariffs on foreign competitors, while other candidates praise the virtues of free trade. Trump supporters feel ignored—worse, betrayed.
To guess from their emails in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, Trump supporters are also very anxious about Islamic extremism and incensed the United States is not taking a stronger leadership role in combatting it. Pictures of the slaughter in San Bernardino and of U.S. sailors on their knees played well into Trump’s hands.
Anger and fear are powerful motivators. Fear of losing something, be it security, employment, or even national prestige, induces psychological reactance, that fierce drive to keep what is ours. Those who know how to harness this fear of loss wield a powerful weapon of influence, according to PhD Robert B. Cialdini.
Pride is another powerful motivator in persuasion. Trump is unambiguously and unapologetically pro-America. “Trump is the only Edmund Burkean conservative in the race… Conserving America,” wrote a listener. While Burke is furiously rolling in his grave at the comparison, the listener is right in this respect: Trump champions the American values of success, boldness, optimism, and pragmatism. After seven years of snide remarks from the Left about America’s intolerance and greed, Trump’s rhetoric is fresh air.
We Love Straight Talk—Unless It Criticizes Us
His supporters all say how much they love Trump’s straight talk and political incorrectness. Wrote one listener, “I work at a Union Shop where almost to a man, vote Democrat every election. Today, those same men like Trump and his straight forward talk. They are Sick and Tired of the status Quo.”
Trump fans’ support for unfiltered speech, however, extends only to speech with which they agree. Straight talk about Trump invokes a different response: “If your sating TRUMP will help HILLARY win the WH,, you are full it,, …I’d read a book any day rather than continue to put up with Ms. Krista’s authoritarian snobbery…. That is not journalism at all, that is her arrogantly trying to foist her views, and HER VIEWS only, on the rest of us!!! Sure surely seems to think she is superior, and can proclaim her opinions as if they reflect how we feel!! !!”
(Yes, this is representative of the pro-Trump emails we receive. Could there be an inverse correlation between Trump support and syntax? More data needed.)
Our listeners who support Trump do not differentiate between politically incorrect and egregiously rude. I’ve asked them more than once, “Does a grown man caught mocking another man’s disability for cheap laughs have the maturity to handle the nuclear codes?” They shrug it off: “He’s just a little rough around the edges like George Patton. Lighten up.” They often call him the “alpha dog.” Apparently that entitles him to hump everyone else.
A Bully Who Fights for Us
Neither words, nor actions shake Trump followers’ support—not marital infidelity, bankruptcies, eminent domain abuse, donations to Democrats, support for special interest subsidies, liberal policy preferences, nothing. One Trump supporter answered every objection I raised with, “I don’t care; he’ll make America great again.”
Finally, I asked, “If I vote for Trump knowing he lacks the character to be president, how am I any different than a Democrat who supports Hillary Clinton for her positions but knows she’s lacks the character for the job?” His answer was, not kidding, “Because Trump will make America great again.” I ended the conservation lest I make a Munich or Jonestown reference.
In fact, some Trump supporters actually consider his unethical and opportunistic behavior as desirable. In their minds, Trump isn’t just a bully; he’s their bully. Jerry Useem recently wrote in The Atlantic how uncouth behavior is often viewed as a sign of leadership. He writes, “High-powered people are more likely to take an extra cookie from a common plate, chew with their mouths open, spread crumbs, stereotype, patronize, interrupt, ignore the feelings of others, invade their personal space, and claim credit for their contributions.”
Success makes some leaders less inhibited. The reverse is also true; norm-violating behavior is often interpreted as leadership ability. When study subjects viewed an actor behaving rudely, they were more likely to predict he could lead than when the actor was being polite.
Jerk behavior that advantages a group also boosts prestige. When an actor snuck coffee for himself and the test subject while the researcher was away, he was deemed a leader. Not so when he poured a cup only for himself or acquired the coffee without stealing it. When Trump was just a boorish real estate mogul and entertainer, he was pouring coffee for himself. Now he’s pouring it for others.
The Trump supporters in our listenership see Sen. Ted Cruz, by comparison, as the guy who won’t or can’t steal the coffee. Even before Trump branded his erstwhile ally “nasty,” Trump fans said they were skeptical of Cruz. He wasn’t tough enough to get the job done. Cruz is the widow hen’s brainy son Eggbert to the likes of Foghorn Leghorn.
Media Exposure Feeds Trump’s Power
The obnoxious behavior has also advantaged Trump because it puts him in the news nearly every day. Repeated exposure to a person increases his influence, according to Cialdini. In one study, test subjects viewed a series of photographs of strangers. They saw some photos more frequently than others.
All of the photos flashed so quickly on the screen that subjects could not recall seeing the photos when they met the individuals. Yet when the test subjects interacted with the strangers, they found themselves liking most individuals whose photographs they’d most seen. “And because greater liking leads to greater social influence,” writes Cialdini in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” “these subjects were also more persuaded by the opinion statements of the individuals whose faces had appeared on the screen most frequently.” If only familiarity bred contempt.
Trump is everywhere, but Trump opponents are not. Trump supporters I’ve spoken with do not read the Wall Street Journal opinion page or publications by movement conservatives. So unless National Review can get a reprint of its recent anti-Trump symposium into Guns & Ammo, it’s probably not going to be read by those who need to read it.
Conservatism Is Less a Concern than Effectiveness
Trump supporters are not particularly conservative. I have yet to hear a Trump follower or Trump himself say anything about limited government, constitutional constraints, rule of law, free markets, federalism, or separation of powers. In fact, several of his proposals, vague as they are, appear to violate the very tenets of conservativism.
That doesn’t matter. One listener told me, “Krista, I have concerns about Trump’s character. He’s flawed. He’s not conservative. But I care about three things: stopping immigration, dealing with the Muslim threat, and stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The other issues don’t matter as much to me. If Trump does half of what he says he’ll do, I’ll be happy.”
That’s an honest cost-benefit analysis if ever there was one. It’s no different than the self-serving calculation Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad made to support Trump over Cruz to keep ethanol dollars rolling in. It’s no different than anyone who supports a politician to gain a subsidy, grant, guaranteed loan, welfare check, or regulatory advantage over the competition.
That Trump supporter is no different than the Bush administration official who told me that limited, constitutionally constrained government was a thing of the past. So rather than try to return power and money to states, localities and the people themselves, Republicans should harness that the power to achieve their own “conservative” ends.
Without principle, there is only power, and politics is merely an effort to get as much as you can for you and yours. Trump is an offensive demagogue whose deft use of communication tactics put him in the lead, yet he and his followers aren’t all that different than some of their more genteel peers.