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George Lakoff’s ultimate Trumpism explainer

Forgive me. My obsession with trying to understand the rise and endurance of Trumpism may be distracting me from other important topics. So for the moment, I’ll just pass along another stab at the ultimate Trumpism explainer, this one by George Lakoff.

I think of Lakoff as a liberal linguist, known for a book titled “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” But to really understand where he is coming from, you need to understand that he says he works in the field of “cognitive brain sciences” and has devoted much of his work understanding how “the various policy positions of conservatives and progressives hang together.”

I’m not going to try to pass along all the elements of Lakoff’s explanation of Trump’s appeal. I’m not even sure I can grasp them all. But he covers the “strict father” stuff that many conservative Americans believe is the proper way to organize a family; the “winning, winning, winning” stuff (for example, the reason Trump wasn’t destroyed by his claim that John McCain wasn’t a hero was that heroes are winners, they don’t get captured), and more elements that come from Lakoff’s blend of the linguistic, the moral, the pragmatic and the ideological, all understood on a sub-rational basis.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Lakoff’s discussion of how Trump’s attack on “political correctness” makes his followers feel:

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class and many are white men who see themselves as superior to immigrants, nonwhites, women, non-Christians, gays — and people who rely on public assistance. In other words, they are what liberals would call “bigots.”

For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the un-American nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness” —  public pressure against their views and against what they see as ‘free speech.’ This has become exaggerated since 9/11, when anti-Muslim feelings became strong. The election of President Barack Hussein Obama created outrage among those conservatives, and they refused to see him as a legitimate American (as in the birther movement), much less as a legitimate authority, especially as his liberal views contradicted almost everything else they believe as conservatives.

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel — with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. 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.

As best I can grasp it, Lakoff is breaking the polyglot mass known as American conservatism into several segments, based on psychological types. His conclusion is that Trump’s shtick offers something satisfying, at a sub-rational level, to a great many of the types. That’s his answer to the question he used as a headline for the article: “Why Trump?”

If you want to read the whole argument, it’s here.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/07/2016 - 04:45 pm.

    And in the end, the key theme of the Republican primary is ending “political correctness”.

    Rudeness, racism, shouting down, physical assault, etc.,–all part of the end of “political correctness”.

    To many, “political correctness” is the sugar coating on the week-old sushi. It lifts up those people and ideas that simply can’t be equal to themselves or their ideas.

    Its how you get religious conservatives to vote for a serial adulterer. Its how you get white supremacists to vote for you. It’s how you get Teamsters to vote for you. It grabs the heart of every resentful person.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/12/2016 - 03:59 pm.

      Mr. Neal Rovick

      Please note that “political correctness” is a term of irony, not a term of literal meaning.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/07/2016 - 06:14 pm.


    is what used to be called a ‘psychologist’.
    I remember his name popping up 40-50 years ago when I was getting my doctorate.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/07/2016 - 06:46 pm.

    Cogent Analysis

    Thanks for lifting up Mr. Lakoff’s work.

    I believe his analysis is spot on,…

    but will, of course, be pushed away as rapidly as possible by “conservatives” and other Trump supporters,…

    because their operating style is the very definition of,…

    “the unexamined life,”…

    that, to Socrates, was “not worth living,”…

    and Mr. Lakoff is strongly implying that they should examine their own lives and motivations.

    They’re far happier and more comfortable when they can just line up in support behind someone who appears to agree with them,…

    and gives the impression he feels the way they do.

    They’re only too happy to let that “strong” leader tell them what to do,…

    just like their daddy did,…

    (and smacked them around, literally or figuratively, if they dared to think for themselves,…

    or make their own decisions).

    Trump is, quite simply, the best “daddy” in this race,…

    (and the one most likely to smack somebody around).

    He will lose support if he starts tying to be nicer.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2016 - 08:25 pm.

    My 2¢

    Lakoff is coming at the Trump phenomenon from a slightly different angle than does Hendrick Hertzberg in Eric’s previous post, but Lakoff is, I think, equally accurate. Among the ironies is that so many of Trump’s supporters would have us believe that they’re strong believers in the sort of free will and independence of mind and spirit which, in their view, “liberals” lack, yet they’re quite willing to dispense with that spiritual and intellectual independence when the right strong man comes along.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/07/2016 - 10:12 pm.

    A salesman

    In the end, he’s a salesman that figured out how to sell to people.

    All the hundreds of crappy and not so crappy things he has sold to the American public–it’s been a lifetime of training.

    And the same old appeal, you can be great again by buying his steaks, his vodka, his vitamins–on and on.

    But I would tend to guess that the same people who felt that their life would take on the klassy veneer of Trump by overpaying for his vitamins or steak, are the same crew that buy into his presidency run.

    I guess it would be an act of compensation for inadequacy.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/08/2016 - 08:47 am.

    Bigots vote too

    Explaining to someone that they are a bigot has never seemed to me to be an effective campaign tactic. And as a liberal, I like to feel that I can be as condescending as anyone, looking down as I do on wrestling fans, and listeners to talk radio, even I in my more lucid moments understand that condescension as a political strategy must be employed with great care.

    The fact is, people are frustrated. This frustration takes many forms and can be labeled in many ways, some of them more pejorative than others, but it’s there and exists across the political spectrum. I am certainly no supporter of Donald Trump, but I do understand and even agree with his criticism that our political system has been sold to an oligarchy of high bidders. And for myself, I am deeply frustrated that the likely candidate of my party seems to be afflicted with a baffling lack of understanding that when a Wall Street bank gave her 650,000 dollars for three speeches, she was being given a bribe.

    These conditions have persisted for years, decades even. In previous elections, the political classes, while vaguely acknowledging the problem of bribery in politics, we were assured that although money was paid in, nothing was given in return, that the bribery was one sided. But sooner or later, what had to happen has happened this year, the excuse that “they all do it”, has been undermined by the appearance of candidates who don’t, undermining perhaps permanently the way things have always been done.

  7. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/18/2016 - 04:25 pm.

    Is Donald obsessed with delusions of power?

    As a book collector, have an old copy of a January, 1931 magazine, “The Mentor World Traveler” which was N.Y. publication; half Atlantic/ half travel magazine capturing the fun and the fanciful for a global audience:

    In “Gossip of the World ‘ column the man of the hour is “Adolf Hitler leader of the National Socialist Labor movement with dreams of freeing his country from the fetters against which he is now struggling”

    “Julius Caesar is my model”, he says.

    The reporter is sold on the man and claims Adolf was then establishing quite a following; even in New York it seems… and the German people
    gave much enthusiasm to this new leader rising; at least for those who felt in some distorted way, they needed such a protector figure to give them what they wanted, whatever were their needs?

    This was a most complimentary review to be sure; graciously reported one could say,…interview set in a wealthy old estate in Munich. Picture shows A.H. appearing as a mild looking fellow with his small hands tucked under his elbows.

    Did remind me a bit of the wanton admiration and enthusiasm of Trump gaining followers like the Pied Piper with all those voters scrambling behind …even the pledge to follow was in the Trump performance at one gathering; a loyalty salute one could say?

    Delusions of power are not a pretty thing to watch.

    So what happens to dissenters if Donald were President? The military would gain a greater funding…more troops to kill and be killed to make us all powerful… but not too well respected in the global arena?

    What a future life to contemplate; our blessed democracy buried in the process?.

    Should we feel pity for the chaos of the Republican party if it can do no better? I don’t know…

    The Donald’s delusions of power expressed so far look pretty grim…hope I’m wrong but that’s how it looks to me…political chaos is not a pretty sight to watch…

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