Fear could Trump America

Experience Planner Fred Gulliford talks us through the US Election through the lens of behavioural economics.

I never thought I’d say this, but we can learn something from Donald Trump.

Here is a man with no experience of political office, his credentials questioned, wrestling with multiple accusations of sexual harassment, not to mention corruption and tax evasion. Despite these issues, he now has a genuine chance of succeeding Barack Obama as President of the United States of America.

At Dare, we are reflecting on what has been a surreal election campaign and having a look at how Trump and his election team have used fear-based messaging to great effect.

By any objective assessment Trump has been seen to be economical with the truth, and offended swathes of the electorate and neighbouring countries. Paradoxically, whilst some in the electorate seem to appreciate these observations, his popularity has still seen a genuine surge in the past fortnight leading up to the election.

When no candidate is in the ascendancy, success will be delivered by the party capable of motivating those voters who are undecided, hesitant and susceptible to changing their minds. In this situation being voted to the Presidency is all about being the most compelling to the ‘swing voter’ community in important marginal states.

Trumps’ ‘killer insight’ has been to exploit a fundamental shift in the disposition of the apparently disinterested. The political elite have effectively lost the trust and confidence of large swathes of the American population and Trump’s team have used this to their own benefit. He has spotted that for these people, complex political rhetoric and byzantine policy statements are neither interesting or believable.

The Republican campaign team seems to fully understand the requirement to win the battle for ‘sound bites’ and the inescapable realisation that many voters just cannot be bothered to consider the details nor any objective data. As Winston Churchill once said;

A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has put its boots on.

Whilst his brash sweeping statements may come as a shock to many, they are being heard and repeated far and wide.

In a nutshell, Trump knows election success is always built on one of two storylines — hope or fear. Hope in the promise of new jobs, infrastructure, peace and prosperity. Fear of unemployment, immigration, conflict and economic uncertainty.

Hope often sits somewhere between wishful thinking and dreaming whereas fear, when executed effectively rests upon an underlying truth that can be staggeringly effective at influencing public opinion.

Feelings of fear are easier to provoke than visions of hope. Beating the bad guys is much easier to understand than the requirement to fairly construct a post-industrial society where opportunity and capability compliment each other. As Obama’s office has shown, hope only gets you so far, being able to bring about change to achieve such a future is far more difficult.

By definition the undecided voter tends to be reluctant to organise thinking rationally or indeed consider the nature and structure of complete arguments and inter-relationships. Their responses are far more likely to be intuitive and based on feelings.

It is in this environment where Trump has been able to generate so much support. His campaign has exploited fear to a great extent. While we all might be shocked by his extreme right wing views on immigration, foreign policy and the economy, his increasing popularity can be easily understood by the image of America he conjures up about what life might be like unless we take a hard line on such issues. This ‘pioneer’ mentality sits well within the overarching context of the American Dream — whilst things might not be great at the moment, with a bit of elbow grease and hard work, “We can make America Great Again.”

It is difficult to avoid making comparisons between Trump and Nigel Farage, the orchestrator of the campaign to leave the European Union. Both charismatic leaders, taking a hard line on immigration, demanding greater control over the nation’s border and wanting to ‘protect our nation’s jobs and prosperity’. The kind of fear-based messaging that made the Brexit vote so effective is being utilised by Trump and his campaign team. When the choice is between two options A vs. B — if A is perceived to be scary then B must prevail.

Something that he has done particularly well is appealed to our natural fear of loss. Whilst you can’t escape the fact that ‘taking a punt’ with Trump is a significant risk, he has effectively framed the argument for many who think that such a risk is worth taking as they stand to lose more if he doesn’t win.

Trump’s messages really emphasise the potential losses you might experience if you don’t vote for him. He states how -

Hilary Clinton wants to take away your guns.
Mexicans coming from over the border must be stopped with a wall as we’re losing so much.
Free trade has meant that we’re losing our jobs.
China’s cheap trade practices are the greatest theft in the history of the world.
James Suroweiki — The New Yorker

Underpinning his campaign is the threat of huge loss should he not become the next President. This tactic is exploiting a well known principle from behavioural economics — ‘Loss Aversion’. This is the idea that we will go to great lengths to avoid the loss of something that we already possess as opposed to gaining something new. In fact, research has shown that the pain of losing something is psychologically up to twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something new, thus we are naturally highly ‘loss averse.’

‘Loss aversion’ is not a groundbreaking new idea, it has been used in the advertising industry to produce the same effect for years. In constructing marketing messages, rather than trying to provide a customer with something that they don’t already have, it is often more effective to frame the product offering as something that is protective of your wealth, health and social standing. Therefore, communicating to customers what they are set to lose, not what they are set to gain.

Take for example a marketing message such as:

“Delaying investment by a year could mean you miss out on up to £1000”

is likely to provoke a more powerful response than:

“Invest today and get a pay out that could give you £1000 in a year”.

Accordingly Trump’s messages are focused on winning over the undecided voter by telling them what they are set to ‘lose’ not what they are set to ‘gain’.

Whether Trump wins or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of latching onto a behavioural insight in order to gather widespread support. Clearly highlighting the rights, status and wealth Americans could ‘lose’ to provoke fear and anxiety has been key to his success. Soon enough we will find out if this blatant use of loss aversion will win Trump the election and whether the exploitation of behavioural economics can ‘trump’ (see what we did there?!) the use of hope, optimism and fact.