Trump in perspective: Us vs. them


Donald Trump's candidacy has a lot in common with the terrorists that helped create it

There is DNA buried deep in our brains that tells us to defend our tribe against other tribes.  We know that because of the long history of inter-tribal warfare going back to our earliest times.  We know that because even today, the best way to get a job interviewer to like you is to find things that you have in common (we are the same tribe!).  That is human nature, and it is easy to play on.

In the world right now, there is a big push away from globalization, based on these kinds of fears.   The Brexit vote was based on fears of outsiders.  The new president of the Philippines (the one who called President Obama a son of a whore) even out-Trumps Trump.  All over the world, there are suddenly major party candidates playing on fears of others which used to be confined to the fringe.

Mr. Trump appeals to us as Christians by playing on fears of those who don’t pray like us (those Muslims).  He appeals to us as Caucasians by playing on fears of those who don’t look like us (those dark-skinned people), and then he throws in the occasional shots at women, gays, etc.  Mr. Trump and Trump Republicans are trying to scare us about four major groups particularly, illegal aliens from Mexico, Muslims and dark-skinned people in general, criminals, and terrorists. 

Here is an example.  On November 22, 2015 Mr. Trump tweeted out a statistic he took off a white supremacist website about black people killing loads of white people.  The numbers aren’t at all true.  The real numbers are just the opposite But the truth doesn’t get Mr. Trump any votes.  He needs to play on our fears, making it seem like dark-skinned barbarian rapists and pillagers are at every door, and he is none too picky about whether the data he uses to do it is real or not.

But the data does not support the narrative.  First of all, economic studies have been done and the effect of immigration, illegal and otherwise, is a net zero to the economy.  For example, if you want work as a migrant farm worker, then yes, immigration is a problem for you.  But if you are a farmer, immigration helps keeps you in business.  And it’s the reason that your side salad at Denny’s doesn’t cost $20. Illegals may not pay income tax, but they pay sales tax. So overall, no net economic effect.

There are about two billion Muslims in the world, suggesting that the percentage of them involved in terrorism is probably a lot less than .01%, so it doesn’t really make sense to fear Muslims in general. Of course those images of terrorists that come on our televisions night after night are scary.  There are people in the world now who are so threatened by our way of life that they are willing to blow themselves up, cut off heads, etc. to try to hurt us.  That is frightening, and sad, but crime statistics overall have steadily been going down across America over the last 25 years.  That at least suggests that these terrorist events are not threatening the average American.

So why is this fear of others suddenly so prominent in our country and all over the world at roughly the same time?  Technology.  A nine-year-old in a poor family in Saudi Arabia can now easily communicate with anyone in the world using a cell phone.  Businesses that used to be American are now truly multi-national, as are most of the largest businesses in the world.  The old walls, the old barriers, are breaking down (yeah I know, except for the one Donald Trump wants to put up--that was too easy). Whereas most of us around the world were raised to identify with our village, our city, the color of skin or our religion, technology and the modern world have moved ahead of that so fast that it has left large numbers of us with fears that are very easy to play on.  There are even attempts, like the European Union, to move from identifying with one particular country to large conglomerates of countries. Egads!

What we are seeing in a Trump presidency is a flight backward, to a time when it was OK to identify out loud with other white people, others who prayed like me, others of my sex, even if that meant saying we were better than the rest.  Damn this newfangled political correctness.

Now, I don’t know what Mr. Trump is like in person, for reals.  He may be a nice guy.  But his candidacy is based on fear and prejudice, how “we” have to show “them.”

So where did all this start?  Ultimately, it started in that little village in Saudi Arabia.  When that nine-year-old goes to his father and says, “How come we don’t have a nice house like I am seeing on my cell phone,” Dad gets frustrated.  He can blame himself, his tribe, his government (never something humans like to do on first pass) or he can blame those damn foreigners who are threatening his way of life (much easier -- I don’t know them, so I can project all my frustrations onto them more easily).  Terrorism is a response to a deep-seated fear of others who don’t look like me or pray like me, just like Trump’s candidacy is.

In the 16th century, a political philosopher named Machiavelli advised that the easiest way to unite your people behind you is to stir up trouble with some out-group, and then blame them for all your people’s frustrations. This works even if you are the real cause of your people’s frustrations. The world saw the worst expression of that tactic in Germany last century.

The major reason so many people are voting for Mr. Trump seems to be that “we” have to show “those damn politicians” that we are not happy with them by voting in someone who isn’t a politician.  We have to show them.  I get that.  There is a big problem in America.  The middle class has been disappearing over the last 50 years, while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, because money has so taken over the reins of power in our government that we are not really a democracy anymore.  We are an oligarchy, with a small number of billionaires and very wealthy organizations essentially making every decision (see Testing Theories of American Politics, Gilens and Page, 2014).  The end result is that the average American feels like he is working harder with less result and little chance to make his or her life better.

Mr. Trump is just like the terrorists in picking the easiest target to blame for our frustrations (those damn Mexicans coming across the border) rather than the correct target (our own government).  It’s part of human nature, but not the best part.

The average American’s frustrations are real; the problem causing it really is happening.  Those frustrations need to be addressed.  But we cannot fix that problem by electing a billionaire.  He will not make things better for the average person at the expense of the people he most deeply identifies with, his fellow billionaires.  He will only make the real problem worse.  The solution is campaign finance reform, and that is something that Donald Trump has no interest in; but it is in the democratic platform this election.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court defeated Citizens United and our chance to take the country back from big money. It’s counter-intuitive because democrats have had the presidency for the last eight years, but if we want change, if we want the average American’s life to get better, our best chance is to vote democratic this season, so that justices are put on the Supreme Court and candidates are put in place that may allow campaign finance reform to happen. When our government is again serving the needs of most people in the country, the way the founders intended, then all our other problems will be much easier to fix, and the average American’s life will get better.

Dr. Karp is a board-certified psychologist and writer. Contact him at, and follow him on YourTango.