Trump Supporters and the Modular Mind
Now that it’s done—Trump is President—the question becomes, how did it happen? How did all those people see his misogyny, sexual lechery, crassness, and willingness to lie and still decide he was the one to lead America into the future? The answer is the modular brain.
Pundits like Bill Maher would have us believe that Trump supporters are simply vile and stupid people, filled with hate and xenophobia. That does not go far to explaining it, though. So often, when a Trump supporter was engaged—quietly, not in a screaming match—they proved to be sympathetic, even appealing, humans. They were striving to understand a confounding world, they listened to those who had another viewpoint, they seemed to just want good things for people. Many had very difficult lives from which they simply sought the hope of better prospects for self or the next generation.
And, many acknowledged Trump’s enormous character flaws. They recognised the sexism and his bestial approach to women, his erratic behaviour, his love of name calling and fudging facts. For liberals, that was simply grist for their established position: it gave them perfect reasons not to vote for him (which they weren’t going to do anyway). But they also thought they should be reasons for others not to vote for him.
And yet none of it mattered because, as Professor Robert Kurzban explains in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, different parts of the brain take over for different tasks. So, when potential supporters assessed Trump as a personality—assessing him the way we assess every person we meet in a social setting—the social part of their brain completely understood that he was a dubious character. There are so many interviews and clips with supporters where we see this.
But when it came to making a political decision, a decision seemingly about much bigger things than personality—we’re talking things like the economy and immigration and international relations—different modules of their brain kicked in.
These are the modules that were concerned in our evolutionary history with basic survival. Getting an advantage over competitors. Securing enough food. Securing a stable community that protected you and which you protected. In evolutionary times, did it matter that the most powerful members of your tribe were crass cave-men who grabbed their crotch and the crotch of their fellow cave-women? No, there was no time to worry about such niceties when survival was paramount. And that, in the eyes of many Americans, is what was on the line: survival.
When survival and prosperity is at stake, what mattered way back then in evolutionary times, and what matters now whether people wish to believe it or not, is power and projected power. Leaders in evolutionary times had to fight and kill or, at the least, dominate. That is the module—or set of modules—of the brain that were engaged to make the political decision to vote for Trump. Not the module about niceness, personality, or abstract values. It was the modules about threats and survival, and it didn’t matter whether those threats were illusory or real.
For people in America lacking prosperity, whose communities had suffered from job and infrastructure losses while they saw foreigners continue to enter their country and chase the dream that had seemed to escape them, Trump was power and he was promise.
America ended up with President Trump because the decision-making modules in millions of brains simply didn’t care that Trump is a repulsive character. He promised them things that they wanted—bring back the coal industry, make America great again, secure borders, kill unfair trade agreements, all vague things without a plan behind them—and he seemed like the sort of powerful man who could make it come true.
Hillary Clinton? She just promised decency, or at least that is what Trump supporters heard. Decency in a time of national upheaval and during a fight for survival—who cares, thought the brains of the Trump supporters?
And that is why there was so much said about Clinton’s emails. People who held decent values in one module of their brain but wanted to vote for Trump according to a different module experienced dissonance. Their brain sought to resolve that disagreement, and did so with confabulation. ‘Oh, I mustn’t like or be voting for Hillary Clinton because of the emails.’
The brain of the evolutionary beast won out, and so now Chief Cave Man Trump is President.