Fear 101 and Why Trump Won

Many Americans have spent the last couple of days in a state of shock — wondering how exactly it is that we find ourselves here, with a candidate that has defied the odds, the polls and a majority of the American public to become President-elect.

I wish I could say, in good conscience, that we couldn’t have seen this coming. I wish I could chalk this up to an anomaly, or a “rigged system.” But we truly haven’t given Donald Trump enough credit. Had we done so, we would have seen that his win is a result of a stunning constellation of factors, carefully choreographed by a man who capitalized on the American electorate’s biggest weakness: its fear.

Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions and one that — along with pain — plays the biggest role in self-preservation. When we’re children, fear keeps us from trusting strangers, from sleeping peacefully in the dark or from trying to pet a barking dog. As adults, our fears are quite different. A 2016 survey found that Americans’ top five fears are government corruption, a terrorist attack on the United States, not having enough money for the future, personally being a victim of terror and government restrictions on firearms.

Right out of the gate, Donald Trump addressed the fear of government corruption by distancing himself from the establishment candidate — “crooked Hillary” — and reminding us that he is a successful businessman, not a politician. In doing that, he not only placed himself decidedly against the other candidates, but also with the voting public. I’m one of you guys. Already, he addressed the fear that people have of the American government, their disenchantment with and resentment towards an elite that — they feel — doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

Along the way, Trump started giving his opponents catchy yet diminutive nicknames. By doling out these labels, he appealed to our subconscious tendency to order and categorize. This tendency goes back to early humans who had to immediately distinguish friend from foe in order to ensure survival. We are “programmed” to fear ambiguity and the unknown — and in giving nicknames to all of his opponents, a tactic called “essentializing,” Trump did the sifting for us.

He also artfully turned his lack of experience in government, compared to his opponents, to his advantage. When the people who voted for Donald Trump looked at him, they saw potential. A very interesting study out of Harvard Business School found that people prefer potential to achievement when evaluating candidates. Essentially, it showed that Person A’s potential to achieve something is valued more highly than Person B’s past achievement of that very same thing! It’s very likely that Clinton’s experience in government and civil service counted against her, whereas Trump’s novice status was seen as an advantage.

Trump pulled in an audience with his wild and unexpected public persona, complete with nicknames and fluffy words. Initially, he was seen as simply entertaining, not threatening. Over time, it became clear that he was winning support among the electorate at the expense of his more conventional Republican counterparts. Why is this? Well, people tend to perceive rule breakers as being more powerful than rule followers. By violating the norms of behavior in elections, Trump essentially promised those watching: I can do whatever I want — and look, no repercussions.

In his rhetoric, as well, he created a very clear partition: we vs. they. They — the others — aren’t just the political establishment. Trump again exploited the human tendency to fear strangers, or people who look, behave, or believe differently than we do. In his speeches, he often singled out immigrants, Muslims and minorities.

Exit polls have shown, over the last few days, that Trump also managed to build a racial divide in the electorate. He beat Clinton in almost every category among white voters, except for white women with a college degree. Clinton won the black vote by 88%. This left social media abuzz in the wake of the election, with many people disheartened that so many of their peers would vote for someone that they deemed racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist.

However, a national survey of white and black Americans shows that this racial divide isn’t exactly surprising. The survey asked people to indicate what level of discrimination still exists in the U.S., and whether that has changed since the 1950s. Interestingly, the study found that white people felt there was a rise in “anti-white” bias, or reverse racism, and a fall in perceived bias against black people. But that’s not all. The study found that white people treat racial discrimination as a zero-sum game, meaning they feel that any drop in racism against black people comes at a direct cost to white Americans.

There’s a very obvious fear of our changing national landscape and the threats to it. To tap into that fear, Donald Trump only had to make certain promises and use certain words, which triggered a lamentation for the good old days, thus his slogan: Make America Great Again. It didn’t really matter that not very much of what Trump was saying was factual or scientific, or that he often didn’t answer the questions posed to him at all. What people responded to were his mannerisms, his confidence, the words he used.

For those who sought a very different future for America, the important thing is to not respond to this election outcome with fear, to not turn against one another and feed into the frenzy of other-ness. Fear makes us respond irrationally and angrily, and we cannot afford to do that at such a critical juncture in American history. It’s a time to understand and stand behind the ideals that we cherish, to engage each other in honest and logical dialogue, and to come together under these ideals as a united, fearless, nation.

Read Leandra’s take on what Trump winning means for all of us, and check out our list of resources for how you can take action, donate and help. 

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @ClistconfessionIllustration by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Taste of France

    Do not forget the echo chamber of Facebook and social media. Trump didn’t get challenged enough early on about his incompetence. He was spectacle. And once he got the snowball rolling on Twitter (it was his followers who did Facebook because he doesn’t use a computer), his fans ignored all facts and ate up all the lies they were fed. My brother swore to me that Hillary had had dozens of people murdered. That she orchestrated Benghazi. That the emails were full of crimes. None of it true. But it’s on Facebook.

  • I’d like to say that I’m not afraid. But I am extremely saddened. The very fact that people (white people) feel so strongly about their need for power to me is heartbreaking. The more I read about the breakdown in demographics, the more I think that this election has in fact further attested to the reality that America is still very racist. And that those people that think that blacks cannot succeed without whites being hurt is so backwards.

    I watched 13th on Netflix yesterday (to add salt to my wounds) and I was reminded of the claims Trump said, such as “the good old days where we would drag them out in stretchers” (he was referring to an African-American woman in the audience). And those people around cheering and pushing her. THOSE are his supporters.

    As an immigrant to this country, I can’t help lose further faith. I know I’m not supposed to. But frankly, I don’t know if I believe that America ever WAS great, or it ever will. I am utterly heartbroken.

  • Fran

    I agree that perception that elimination of racial discrimination is a zero-sum game is a key factor: the perception that, in order for things to get better for the other group, they have to get worse for my group. And my group is already struggling, we can’t afford to lose more. The perception that we have a certain-sized pie, or a shrinking pie, and that we’re arguing about how to divide it up. We need to re-introduce the ideas that 1) a discrimination-free society means a better atmosphere and better opportunities for everyone, and 2) let’s bake a bigger pie, so everyone can have a better life.

  • Quinn Halman

    No one hates women more than other women. That is what I have taken away. Because when I got inspired when Hillary said she could’ve “stayed home to have teas and bake cookies”, women across the country dropped their teacups and threw cookie dough at the screen. 93% of black women voted for a woman that didn’t look like them while the president that does look like them is being succeeded by the man who didn’t believe he (the president) was born in the USA. But I digress. There cannot be a woman president unless women can show men how we can rally behind one of our own. And sure, there will always be women that oppose LGBTQ+ rights, the right to choose, and so on, but this is said in the same breath Tina Fey wrote “by calling each other bitches it makes it ok for men to call us bitches”. Did we make it ok for Trump to initially call her “crooked”?

    • Sam

      Funny how the “other women are competition” idea has been so thoroughly and deeply ingrained.

  • Skeptical

    Fascinating that many of the supposed ‘tolerant ones’ have been spewing unending hatred, intolerance, rioting and vulgar speech ever since Trump won the election.

    We have seen Ms. Clinton lie and cheat ever since she wrote a false legal brief for the House Watergate Committee and lost her job. Her destruction of Bill’s strumpets and a long, long list of other transgressions, culminating in Benghazi, demonstrate that there are evil women in politics, just as there are evil men who are only interested in money and power, not recognizing their solemn responsibility to serve the public interest.

    The ‘pay to play’ mechanisms of the Clinton Foundation and all associated with it subvert everything we know about checks and balances between the three branches of government.

    As for trying to marginalize those who voted for Trump, it wasn’t racism or yearning for the good old days propelling those voters. It was the complete racism of the Obama Administration, the real, not felt, favoritism given to a small part of the American population, the executive orders without basis and bypassing the legislative process to pursue an agenda, and the fiscal imprudence of inventing paper money and spending on fruitless programs that have made many, many people fed up with how our country has been devolving into self-destruction and immolation.

    • Natty

      Thank you.

    • snakehissken

      Everything you said here is a complete lie, and I do not believe you are a part of our community here at Man Repeller.

      I want anyone who skimmed this comment to note that this person has a problem with “the invention of paper money” at the end. Look, it says it very clearly – “the fiscal imprudence of inventing paper money.”

      THESE are the people who have gotten what they wanted through the election of Donald Trump.

    • Adrianna

      Donald Trump was endorsed by the KKK. Why haven’t you addressed that?

    • Adrianna

      “Fascinating that many of the supposed ‘tolerant ones’ have been spewing unending hatred, intolerance, rioting and vulgar speech ever since Trump won the election.”

      We’re just repeating the words Donald Trump has said himself.

      “…Bill’s strumpets…”

      Is that supposed to be a reference to specific people?

      “demonstrate that there are evil women in politics”

      Why do we hold women to a higher standard?

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      “many, many people fed up with how our country has been devolving into self-destruction and immolation”

      You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. You sowed the wind, and now shall reap the whirlwind. If you were “uncomfortable” before by people talking about the civil rights of minorities in this country, get ready to have those conversations shoved in your face. Hard. In a way, I am glad Trump won because hopefully it will wake people up out of their apathy and organize and mobilize. We need more activists in the streets, not more people taking selfies for Instagram. Trump and the Republicans cannot do or try anything that some good old-fashioned civil disobedience can’t prevent or at least draw attention to. If you thought this was over with the election, Mr. Trump Supporter, you couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s just beginning.

    • Men and women are both capable of evil. However, we cannot ignore the rhetoric in which Donald Trump laid out his administration and candidacy. There is a clip of him in one of his rallies in which he tells his audience (regarding an African-American woman): “in the good old days, cops would react more quickly. People like that would be carried out in stretchers”. You only have to watch 13th to hear it all over again.

      I agree that there are many people suffering in this country, and they feel disenfranchised. However, it would be total ignorance and an insult to a huge population to say that some people have gotten favoritism. If by small people you mean the large corporations like the one of Donald Trump and his establishment, then you are correct. If you’re insinuating that minorities have in any way been favorited, then you should consider opening your eyes and seeing the plight of minorities (and yes, including poor white communities) in this country.

      Donald Trump will do little for those people. He will likely use Bannon (a racist, anti-semitic bigot) and his cabinet to further an agenda of hate and one that continues to bring millions to the pockets of the very few.

  • Autumn

    <3 <3 <3

  • Angie

    One can’t say they voted for Trump because he seeks a “greater America” without agreeing that the only way he lead you to believe that was by openly being racist, a bigot, a misogynist, and (for lack of a better description) a piece of shit.

    Hillary was dishonest in some ways, but Trump has been dishonest plus some.

  • nevvvvave

    I voted for Clinton because to me she was the only competent candidate running and the most realistically able to promote some progressive ideals of mine. However the democratic establishment really needs to take responsibility for their role in her defeat. Rather than trying to pull in Trump’s potential electorate (dissatisfied and decades-ignored working class, among others) they instead mocked and made a spectacle of those peoples’ fears by reducing it exclusively to racism and other forms of intolerance. Obviously the alt-right is an uncomfortably large chunk of his support, but those people alone -about 1/3 of his base-didn’t win him the presidency by a long shot. Millions of people were begging for a candidate that acknowledged their diminished economic possibilities in an honest way. Recall that this same base of people overwhelmingly voted for Obama over Romney 4 years ago bc of this very issue. The democrats have to evolve their understanding of a changing America or else entertain fantasies at their own peril.

  • snakehissken

    I think it’s important to note in this discussion about potential vs experience that this dynamic does NOT hold true for women. Women are judged by what they have done, because they have to prove themselves. The same holds true for men of marginalized minorities. Carly Fiorina got no traction at all for having the same level of experience as Donald Trump. He did cleverly turn Clinton’s experience into a liability, but it’s also a fact that a woman without that much experience couldn’t get a fraction as far as she did.

    When we talk about sexism and misogyny (and yes, racism and all the other isms) in this election, we’re dealing with people who refuse to believe it exists because they do not want to examine their own internalized prejudice. But we know that women are judged more harshly, and we know that women are seen as less likable when they ask for promotions or when they project authority. We know that women are blamed for the mistakes of the men around them, and we know that women are not given credit for their achievements. Yet somehow, we have people swearing up and down that what happened this year had nothing to do with sexism.

    I don’t buy it. None of you should either.

    • Sam

      Congratulations for your fantastic name. Do I call you Snake or Hissken?

      Also this is so true it hurts. Every time a knowledgeable woman shuts down a less knowledgeable man, it’s seen as bullying or being “militant”.

  • Verbal Kint

    I don’t blame Führer Trump supporters I blame all the idiots who didn’t vote at all.

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      Agreed. 46.9 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote. I hope every single protester and angry commenter out there tonight voted and voted for Hillary, because as many problems as I had with her (and I had some problems), she was our last best hope at defeating Trump, and those who walked away from her enabled his win.

  • Vidking

    What a bunch of bunk. It has absolutely nothing to do with fear. Had Hillary laid out a specific vision for where she would take the country she would have won. She didn’t do that. Trump did. Whether he can accomplish anything is another question.

    • snakehissken

      It’s true, outlining her vision clearly on her website and publishing it in a 288 page book available in every bookstore and library pales in comparison to not outlining a plan but insisting that it was tremendous and would make America great again. But it was probably hard to hear HRC’s plans when you only get your news from alt right conspiracy sites and tune out anything that comes out of the mouth of a woman as nonsense.

    • I’m not entirely sure Trump laid out a plan either. Build a wall? How? Having Mexico pay it after Mexico says it won’t? Do you think that won’t cause a huge war with Mexico? He had no plan, and as the news outlets have indicated, he knew very little about what it even entails being a president.

      If you mean plans like “monitor muslims”, “deport illegal immigrants” (that pay taxes and very few are actually criminals), and pave the way for a society that essentially rewards sexual assault and racial and religious discrimination, then I think you need to reconsider what you think is good for this country.

  • Gretel Stroh

    I am paralized by fear right now. Thanks for this article

  • Lisa

    I would also lay a large amount of responsibility at the feet of the media, which felt compelled to create “equivalencies” where they didn’t exist. What’s worse, they compared the wrong things: Hillary’s e-mails vs. Trump’s sexist behavior. There was almost no coverage of his Mafia ties, housing discrimination, treatment of the illegal workers he hired, the 3500 or so lawsuits filed by contractors etc. he had cheated, and other substantive matters to question the “successful businessman” persona he created. (Even his ghostwriter for Art of The Deal said Trump is a sociopath.)

    And let’s not forget the well-oiled and financed Republican smear machine that has been targeting Hillary for 25 years. She really couldn’t get out from under it. Lies repeated take on the ring of truth, and she was always a flawed candidate.

    Another factor is that people still want women to behave in certain ways. If we’re strong, we’re bitches or cu***. If calm and reasonable, we’re “boring”. Hillary’s been under attack so long, it’s not surprising she’s closed off and private. People may have respected her but just didn’t like her.

    Finally, I suspect many Dems voted Libertarian because they assumed she would win and it wouldn’t hurt to register a “protest” vote. Well, obviously we know how that turned out.

    More thoughts on my blog, http://www.olderfatterhappier.com
    Best to you all and keep fighting for human rights,

    • I couldn’t agree more, Lisa. I had hopes, but retrospectively, I don’t think a woman was going to be elected president. Especially not Hillary. Much of America has hated her for years. She was a flawed candidate for sure (I voted for Bernie in the primaries) but I could never understand the comparison of Trump and Hillary. It’s like comparing a root canal surgery with an amputation. Not the same thing at all.

      The media definitely failed to cover Trump. But at the same time, I wonder if that would have made a huge difference? I mean, even when people would say “no that is an incorrect statement” in any debate, we would just bulldoze through it. And now no one is covering Stephen Bannon being appointed Strategist, when his past shows he is racist, anti-semitic, misogynist, and believes in the destruction of the American system. He doesn’t care about the poor people (white or black) in this country. And the media has completely failed to point to any of this.

    • Actually, women in/from Slovenia are told these days “You are just envious because Melanija is beautiful and married well”, by happy Slovenian men, no less. To which I tend to reply … a few things. Something about the beauty of the person I get to wake up with and so on. 🙂

      • Helena

        Did you happen to catch the interview her ex boyfriend gave to ABC? Interesting guy. http://abcnews.go.com/International/boyfriend-donald-trumps-wife-melania-typical-slovenian-girl/story?id=37468388

        • Not this one but a similar one, yes.
          I have to agree she is special: I am 2 years younger and my life (and my friends’ life) was spent preparing for working life (studying, learning, even working as children …) and while we did dream about clothes and pop stars a lot, our reality was quite … real 🙂 I don’t think pink played a role, neither did (too much) make up or glamor. So her and her family’s life was rather an exception, as far as I know.
          I don’t have an opinion on Melania Trump, also no feelings or any other … connection. Most people say she’s nice, I don’t care whether she visits Slovenia or not, speaks Slovene or not (it is none of my business) and as to her looks … well, Michelle Obama is my Queen. 🙂 Which is why it makes me angry to be grouped among envious Slovenian women (meaning we are all uglier, fatter and poorer and of course jealous … so I tend to explain the thing about the beautiful guy I get to wake up with).

  • tunie
  • sketch42

    This was a great article, thanks!

  • Erika Galan
  • There is one thing real, big time narcissists fear, too: being disliked. Being disliked by large portions of one’s own nation/world must suck, if you love yourself so much. It never stops hurting.