Trump’s expertise, in this view, lies in his ability to capitalize on the fear of chaos. “Populist movements,” McDermott and Hatemi write, “rely on inflammatory rhetoric to create a tribal ‘us versus them’ condition — this type of environment instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”
The abrupt rise of social media has played a crucial role, they observe:
In many ways, as we have technologically advanced, we have also regressed to more immediate, emotional, and personal forms of political communication. And it is only in understanding the nature of that personal political psychology that we can begin to grapple seriously with the challenges of today, including the consequences of global populism.
In the 2016 campaign, Trump successfully elevated in the national consciousness the perceived threat of undocumented immigrants, a sense of a disordered country and a fear of random criminal assault on the streets of major cities.
In that election, Trump had a great deal to work with: residual anxiety over the 2007-9 recession; battles over the rights of transgender people; rising levels of social and economic inequality; employment losses driven by globalization; rampant automation; the deterioration of traditional family structures; climate change and extreme weather; and the prospect that whites would no longer be the majority.
We face an Age of Discontinuity in world economy and technology. We might succeed in making it an age of great economic growth as well. But the one thing that is certain so far is that it will be a period of change — in technology and in economic policy, in industrial structures and in economic theory, in the knowledge needed to govern and manage, and in economic issues.
While we have been busy finishing the great nineteenth century economic edifice, the foundations have shifted beneath our feet.
While Trump’s focus on disorder and chaos worked to his advantage during the 2016 campaign, there is no guarantee that he will benefit from it when he is an incumbent seeking re-election.
As the 2018 election demonstrated, Trump’s personally chaotic approach to governance, his record of undermining relations with allies and strengthening ties to autocrats; his use of trade policy to heighten market insecurity; his aggression, his recklessness, his incessant lying; and his sneering contemptuous, bullying style, together worked against him and the Republican Party.
Bert Bakker, a professor of communication research at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the panel that awarded the A.P.S.A. prize, emailed me to discuss his views of the significance of the work of Petersen and his colleagues:
The authors set out to explore the psychological underpinnings of the tendency to share hostile political rumors online. The sharing of hostile political rumors has often been attributed to partisan motivations. Supporters of one party share this kind of information to mobilize voters against another political party. Yet, in the paper, Petersen et al. introduce a second motivation to share hostile political rumors and that is what they call ‘chaotic motivations’.
It remains an open question whether those with higher chaotic motivations also turn their “motivations” into action. One could expect that those higher on chaotic motivations are more likely to protest and actually revolt against the political system. Moreover, I could see a role for chaotic motivations in understanding why people support populist politicians. Populist politicians share a message that the elites in, for instance Washington, Paris, Berlin and London, are corrupt, evil and self-centered. Perhaps this rhetoric resonates well with a tendency to like to see the democratic system go down.
The phrase “like to see the democratic system go down” is chilling — and raises the question: How worried should we be about a fundamental threat to democracy from the apparently large numbers of Americans who embrace chaos as a way of expressing their discontent? Might Trump and his loyal supporters seek to bring down the system if he is defeated in 2020? What about later, if the damage he has inflicted on our customs and norms festers, eroding the invisible structures that underpin everything that actually makes America great?
A political leader who thrives on chaos, relishes disorder and governs on the principle of narcissistic self-interest is virtually certain to find defeat intolerable. If voters deny Trump a second term, how many of his most ardent supporters, especially those with a “need for chaos,” will find defeat unbearable?