Against Diner–Grilled Cheese Theories Of Donald Trump’s Popularity (Or Anything Else)
If it tastes this good, you don’t wanna look at the nutritional facts
I don’t really know much about food or restaurants per se, but I do know that there’s a one-word explanation for why even simple food prepared in a restaurant often tastes better than it does when you make it for yourself at home: fat.
Restaurants of all sorts can purchase fat in giant tubs. It is not an expensive ingredient. And it makes everything taste delicious. If you like your local diner’s grilled cheese better than your own, then it is probably because they use way more butter. If you are baffled at how that taqueria across town is able to pull off such miraculous tacos, then it may well be that they use an amount of lard that would be illegal in Sweden.
In a situation like this, where you’re like Damn, that’s delicious — how do they do it?, you should default to the explanation that the reason the food tastes so good is that it’s pretty bad for you. That’s obviously not always true, but it’s a pretty useful rule of thumb.
I feel the same way about psychological theories that make me feel good about myself and my groups. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, Donald Trump: You’re familiar with that guy, right? There’s been an ongoing effort, almost a decade old, to “explain” the fact that he has supporters. This has morphed, a bit, into an attempt to “explain” the fact that he still has supporters after all he’s said and done, and that one very memorable time he really and truly attempted to overturn an election he lost. A lot of theories have been offered by a lot of journalists and academics.
I should be clear that I have a great deal of sympathy for writers and editors who are (more or less) forced to produce and/or disseminate these theories — after all, I used to be one of them. When I started at New York magazine in 2014, I was the founding editor of Science of Us, a social-science vertical. Trump took his infamous ride down the golden escalator a bit more than a year after I started, and pretty soon he had become a big enough deal that my team and I felt pressure to apply our own beat to an increasingly surreal political story.
The results were. . . I dunno. I’m not going to self-flagellate about this, but looking back almost a decade later, I’m not sure how much this or that psychological theory can really explain Trump’s appeal in any new, meaningful sense. And yet people are still trying.
A couple weeks ago, The Guardian published a column by George Monbiot in which he took another stab at it. The headline trumpets: “To beat Trump, we need to know why Americans keep voting for him. Psychologists may have the answer.”
I don’t know much about Monbiot or how much experience he has covering psychology, and to be fair, he may not have written this headline. But I would strongly caution him — or anyone, really — against the idea that psychology even may have “the answer” to any sort of complicated, overdetermined question about human civilization. The only exception is theories that are, at this point, too boring to be of any real use explaining a particular event: Humans sure are groupish, for example, or Humans can do terrible things in response to their perception a gross moral violation has occurred, and being in a group whose members feel similarly might exacerbate this dynamic.
But popular psychology isn’t really great at “explaining” an event as specific and multifaceted as Donald Trump’s continuing appeal to a subset of Americans. It does not have a great recent track record claiming things in general.
Let’s at least give Mobiot the benefit of the doubt and examine his claim. Here’s the basic argument:
Some psychologists believe our values tend to cluster around certain poles, described as “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.” People with a strong set of intrinsic values are inclined towards empathy, intimacy and self-acceptance. They tend to be open to challenge and change, interested in universal rights and equality, and protective of other people and the living world.
People at the extrinsic end of the spectrum are more attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. They are strongly motivated by the prospect of individual reward and praise. They are more likely to objectify and exploit other people, to behave rudely and aggressively and to dismiss social and environmental impacts. They have little interest in cooperation or community. People with a strong set of extrinsic values are more likely to suffer from frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, anger and compulsive behaviour.
Okay, so there’s this one group, you see, that is, as compared to this other group, more open to change, more empathetic, less individualistic, more cooperative, and more mentally healthy in general.
You probably see where this is heading: it’s those extrinsically oriented voters who support Trump. Therefore, the intrinsic/extrinsic spectrum is the aforementioned psychological theory that can explain Trump’s continuing appeal. It basically boils down to “Trump voters are more antisocial.”