Understanding How Trump Won,
In Four Easy Steps
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch on November 19, 2016.
I’ve known Trump was going to win for months. The blue-and-white banners kept metastasizing from lawn to lawn; the red hats jumped from scalp to scalp like head lice in elementary school.
But when I would voice my increasing alarm, certain people (you know who you are) called me paranoid. I frequently heard that “yard signs don’t vote.” And the Electoral College “was in the bag.”
“O-kay,” I’d say, mollified. But only momentarily.
Because here’s what I knew:
1) If you’re going to smooth a bumper sticker onto your car or wear a hat, you’re going to stand in line to cast your ballot. And you’re going to bring your neighbor who needs a ride. That’s because of a psych concept called cognitive dissonance. Basically, humans don’t like holding conflicting beliefs.
Therefore, if you publicly declare yourself to be on the Trump Train, like the guy in the Make America Great Again cap who sat directly across from me at a restaurant and cost me my appetite a week before Election Day, if he didn’t vote, he would have felt like a hypocrite. “Of course I’m going to follow through on my public statement or I wouldn’t have bothered scaring (young) grandmothers at their favorite pizzarias.”
In other words, Trump pushing all those hats, wasn’t just a brilliant business plan. It was psychological warfare.
2) People lie not only to get out of trouble but also to make themselves look better. This is not a recent political phenomenon. Pollsters might have spent a little more time brushing up on things like the Wilder Effect. Decades ago when Douglas Wilder ran for governor in Virginia, pollsters predicted he would win handily to become the first African American to head the commonwealth. (They knew this because of all the white people who made clear they were not prejudiced.) Though Wilder did end up winning, it was only by a baby’s breath.
3) People act against their own self-interests all the time. (Think smoking, bad haircuts and listening to polka music.) So when the Democrats promised to strive for free college, an increased minimum wage, and ObamaCare improvements, working-class Republicans were like, “No thanks, we’re good.” (“But please save us from those egregious death taxes!”)
4) Cable news, which gave Trump open access to the airwaves in order to goose their ratings, not only offered him free advertising but legitimized him as a candidate. Despite changing their tune after they were finally, finally called on this, the damage was done. The media ushered the KKK’s boy into a seat at the table. Then let him commandeer the house.
So, as the talking heads try to figure out how they missed the boat, I’d like to suggest that in the future, they read the signs. Literally. And while they’re at it, I hope they listen, too. To the words of our president-elect and his alt-right advisers. It’s not too late. Yet.