I have just finished reading a fascinating book that helps explain the Trump phenomenon (though not in an encouraging way). It’s called Political Animals, How Our Stone Age Brain Gets In The Way Of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. The thesis is fairly simple, though a bit startling: basically, we humans retain a brain that, despite outward appearances and our professed allegiance to reason, operates in a way suitable to our stone-age, hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Pleistocene (the age that lasted roughly from 2.5 million BCE to about 10,000 years ago). Given the rate of evolutionary change, that means that the mere 10,000 years from the Stone Age to complex civilizations isn’t nearly long enough for us to have evolved brains more suited to our current physical and social environment. As evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it in Shenkman’s book: “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind” (xvi). This means that in political situations, most voters do not behave as rationally as we like to think. All the labor to craft political messages embodying truth and fact make—for the majority of people—very little or no impact. Rather, most voters are moved by events, by the way a candidate looks, by their biases which they stick to with alarming persistence. They also use their brains, which Daniel Kahneman proposes work on basically two systems—the fast-thinking System 1 (mostly instinctive) and the slower-thinking System 2 (reasoning)—in an essentially stone-age way. They make quick judgments (System 1) that completely bypass reasoning or fact or information and rely on instinctive, mostly visual cues.
Shenkman starts out with an analysis, recently done by Christopher Achen, of the election of 1916 in which Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election. In that summer, there were several shark attacks on swimmers at the New Jersey shore. Wilson won the election, but in the two towns—Spring Lake and Beach Haven—where the shark attacks occurred, the President’s support dropped by nine to eleven points. It was the same effect, Shenkman points out, that the Great Depression had on New Jersey voters in 1932. What happened? The huge drop was due to the fact that the voters felt threatened, regardless of the fact that Wilson had nothing whatever to do with it. Just the threat led voters to vote against the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson. And it wasn’t only in 1916 New Jersey. Achen and a colleague then analyzed the Florida vote in Bush v. Gore in 2000, to take into consideration negative weather events like drought and flood, and came up with the same startling pattern: “voters suffering from either floods or droughts registered a strong bias against incumbents.” In 2000, according to Achen, roughly 2.7% of the electorate, or about 2.8 million people “voted against Gore because their states were too dry or too wet” (xxiv). And this pattern was found to operate as far back as 1896: simple events that felt threatening to voters, regardless of whether incumbents could do anything about them or not, were blamed on incumbents. In short, politics in large part involves not what candidates promise to do or have done; it’s about how our stone-age brains are working at the time of an election.
Now we have an election in which a billionaire named Trump is conducting a campaign that has most political observers scratching their heads. How can he be winning people over? How can his simple, and simple-minded message—“We’re going to be great again. We’re going to win, win, win. We’re going to build a wall and keep immigrants out.”—possibly persuade voters that this man is even remotely suitable, not to mention minimally prepared to be the most powerful leader in the world? The answer lies in those stone-age brains. In those instant, System 1 opinions. And lest we be too quick to condemn those who fall for this nonsense as “stupid,” Shenkman makes the important point that it is not ‘stupidity’ but ‘ignorance’ that is the problem. Being ignorant means lacking the information needed to make an informed decision. And why are most Americans ignorant? Because they aren’t interested enough to pay attention—and this, again, has to do with those brains suitable to the stone age.
The Pleistocene, that is, was marked by humans who gathered in groups of 150 individuals, more or less. Why 150? It appears to be the optimum size of a group that the human brain can keep track of (there is a brain-to-network ratio that has been worked out about this). Our brains, like the brains of all primates, evolved their size to be social—to be able to keep track of and relate with and dominate as many other people as possible. That, in modern evolutionary thinking, is why human brains evolved to be so large. The brain size that evolution apparently favored was the size that could keep relatively solid track of 150 individuals. The problem in the modern world is that almost no one lives in a group or village of 150 people anymore. We live in megalopolises that number in the millions, and our concerns extend even further to millions of our allies and essentially the entire globe. But our brains are still operating at the 150-person level. So most of us simply cannot be bothered with all it takes to be well-informed. Instead, we get impressions from photographs, from TV ads or interviews or debates. And what the research shows is that an alarming number of people decide almost instantly about who is suitable and who is not, and once they’ve decided, stick to that first opinion. How fast are these key decisions made? Shenkman cites the research of a political scientist name Todorov who sought to find out. Todorov showed subjects a still photo of a political figure. He discovered, first of all, that it takes just 1/10 of a second to “draw an inference about someone’s traits.” One-tenth of a second. Given more time, subjects just grow more confident in the opinion they’ve come up with. Even more startling, Todorov found that we begin to form opinions about people from a photo in a mere 33 milliseconds, and that “we finish forming an opinion by 167 milliseconds” (62). A millisecond is a thousandth of a second! This is faster than it takes to blink, which takes 300 milliseconds at least. And needless to say, such opinions are formed subconsciously, before a person even knows he’s decided.
So we should not be surprised that Trump supporters like the way he looks (people generally favor candidates with square jaws in times of trouble), or the simple way he sounds either. Because another series of studies shows that people don’t favor the candidate who seems smart or well-informed, but rather the candidate who makes them (the voters) feel smart. That is to say, according to social scientist Howard Gardner, stories are the gold standard for a politician: they “constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal” (135). And the best stories in this regard are simple ones, ones that represent the binary world view (good vs. evil; dark vs. light) of typical 5-year-olds. Why are these stories best? Because everyone can understand them. They make voters feel smart (‘I understand the story and hence the complex problems of the world around me’ is the idea). Ronald Reagan knew this. So, he used the simple name from the popular film Star Wars to name his solution to the nuclear threat everyone feared. Star Wars: the magical shield that would make us invulnerable to nukes. It was classic Good vs. Evil. America vs. the Evil Empire of the Russians. It was a brilliantly simple (and simpleminded) story designed to comfort those who were worried, and make them feel smart. U.S.A., U.S.A, we’re invulnerable, invincible.
Now we have Donald Trump doing something similar. Worried about ISIS? We’ll bomb the shit out of them, not worrying about collateral damage like some politically correct egghead. Worried about immigrants taking your jobs, your country? We’ll build a wall on the border and deport the 11 million who’ve snuck in previously. Worried about your jobs going to China? We’ll just bring ‘em all back by force, threatening the foreigners, demanding the corporations do it or leave. It’s all simple and simple-minded, and those who are disaffected from the political process, from eggheads who are too afraid or too politically correct to “tell it like it is,” flock to his message and defend it and their choice against all contrary information or mistakes. He’s our guy, he’s got the balls to do what he says, he will save us from the evil (pick one: Russians, Muslims, terrorists, Ragheads, Wetbacks, Blacks, Chinks, etc etc.) ones who have taken our country from us.
Stone-age brains. It’s oddly fitting when you think about it. Instead of us bombing the wogs (the North Vietnamese) back to the Stone Age, as General LeMay once put it, we find ourselves—at the apex of the modern world—following a philandering huckster down the path to Armageddon on the strength of our not-so-sophisticated-after-all Pleistocene brains.