In addition to who will be our next president, this election will be especially insightful about who we are as a people. The best way to make sense of the rise of Donald Trump and what can be called the Trump phenomenon, says George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is through the lens of the family: whether nurturing or strict.
Our references to America are frequently made in a familial language. We’re the home of the brave, we sit around the kitchen table when figuring ways to balance family budgets, and we send our sons and daughters off to war.
The divide between progressives and conservatives can be best understood if seen in that context, writes Lakoff: The Nurturant Parent family and the Strict Father family.
“On the whole,” he continues, “conservative policies flow from the strict father worldview and this hierarchy.”
In that worldview, there is a hierarchy of domination extending from the transcendental through our societal groups. From the conservative point of view, that is requisite to maintain order in an otherwise chaotic world and universe, the reason conservatives, from Christian to Islamic, put human actions constantly in the moral realm: good v. evil.
Lakoff lists them accordingly: “God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries.
“The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above non-Whites, Christians above non-Christians, Straights above Gays.”
The strict father not only disciplines, he also judges within a strict moral code. If people are struggling, it is because they are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, sloth, and not living up to their “God-given potential.” And if finding success, it’s due to their hard work and a sign of God’s approval.
With his antics, Trump is the Don Rickles of the political theater. He insults and demeans with impunity. He’s good at it, in fact the best. Recall your schoolyard days and the bully who seemed always to win every shouting and sometimes fist-a-cuff matches.
“Insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories,” says Lakoff. Clever and quick wittedness are conflated and confused with intelligence. In a simplistic universe, it works.
That’s the reason a recent ad with a barking Hillary Clinton sent outrage through the progressive community but brought cackles from the right. It was their way of calling her a bitch without saying it.
“Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they (his supporters) feel—with force, aggression, anger, and no shame,” Lakoff points out. “All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their ‘politically incorrect’ views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.
“Whenever you hear the words ‘political correctness, remember this.”
Lakoff posits modern American conservatives can be sorted into three groups: evangelical, pragmatic, and laissez-faire free marketeers. Though Trump is essentially irreligious, many God-fearing evangelicals, as suggested by the polls, find him appealing. That’s not ironic. They see in him the strong, clear-thinking, and robust leader who doesn’t quiver or quaver in the face of criticism. For them, he is God’s tool.
But Trump sends pragmatic and laissez-faire, Chamber of Commerce Republicans up the wall, primarily because he is comfortable using the power of the state to accomplish his higher goals. In that context, Trump isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. But to the everyday Joe and Jane who will never see a fraction of his wealth, he is a self-made man and their model and hero. A veritable Horatio Alger, who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, despite facts to the contrary.
The way we look at the political landscape and the candidates we support or oppose is not an accident. It was shaped by our experiences and continues to be shaped by our relationship to our personal fears. Those dictate whether we are able to see the world in a simplistic dualism—good v. evil—or in an expansive, complex, and uncertain way.
Next week: simplicity v. complexity