Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Tightness that Gave Us Donald Trump

Michele Gelfand, professor at the University of Maryland, and Joshua Conrad Jackson, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill have published an intriguing article in the new web magazine the Conversation about Donald Trump's rise to political prominence. They asked: 
What is “Trump culture,” and where is it coming from?
As it turns out, our group at the University of Maryland has been studying the basis for Trump culture for the last 10 years, something that we call “cultural tightness-looseness.”
They found that political power tends to be more concentrated and authoritarian when a society is facing a crisis, or has a tradition of crisis, conflict or natural disasters. When a community/society is faced with a real or imagined threat, it will move away from diversity and tolerance for alternative ethnic and other groups. The researchers write that international surveys, computer models and archival data have shown that
communities are more likely to survive these threats when they set clear rules for behavior, put strong leaders who can regulate those rules in charge and punish those who deviate from the norm.
 We found that across 33 nations, the countries with the strongest laws and strictest punishments were those that had a history of famine, warfare and natural disasters. 
The same trend is true for individual American states, where states with higher death rates from natural disasters and disease tend to vote Republican. Once should not be surprise to learn that the same countries and states lean towards authoritarian leaders. In a follow-up study, the researchers interviewed a representative sample of 550 Americans to see how threatened they felt and their attitudes towards society - the tightness factor.
Our survey yielded many other results which confirmed a powerful truth: Donald Trump has built a monopoly on threat, and has used it to steel his coalition against anyone who might look different or hold different views. This monopolization of threat has produced leaders like Mussolini and Hitler, and it is a devastating and dangerous political tool.
This is of course not a completely new insight, since fear has always been a reliable tool for aspiring or ruling authoritarians. What is interesting is that they have documented the degree to which Trump has succeeded in "capitalizing on fear" and the reminder that the Trump factor will not go away even if he looses against Hillary Clinton in November.
Trump is just one symptom of a larger principle that echoes across human history: perceptions of threat tighten societies, leading to social coordination at best, and intolerance at worst. 
Donald Trump may not win this November, but as long as Americans feel afraid, Trump culture is here to stay.

For the past half a century, we have lived with the perception that democracy and tolerance are natural and strong features of our world, but they are frail and dependent on a stable and relatively rich environment. Only when there is a strong consensus, such as there was in the West after World War II and during the Cold War, was there a foundation for democracy and relative political tolerance. Globalization, extreme greed and inequality, has ripped apart much of this foundation, making entire societies, nations and economic zones vulnerable to fundamentalist zealots, whether political or religious.

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Amanda Taub: The rise of American authoritarianism, (Vox, March 1, 2016)

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For my take on the sociology and psychology behind the rise of Trump, see my blog

What Whites with Broken Hearts can Learn from the Crow Indians

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