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Trump and the Democrats are using the ugly psychology of community purity to rile the base

Painting antagonists as moral pollutants is politically advantageous because those who think their values are threatened are very motivated to defend them.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on July 17, 2019.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

It’s become evident that America’s political strife goes beyond disputes about policy, or even ideology. The stakes of the conflict we’re witnessing are nothing less than the definition of the values that make the country what it is. The forces that President Donald Trump and the Democrats who oppose him are harnessing lie at the core of how we create and understand our communities. It’s a political strategy (whether intentional or not) that predates even Grecian democracy and is rooted in the basic psychological features of humankind. And to come to terms with — let alone overcome — what we are experiencing, it’s important to understand this deeper social and psychological phenomenon.

Ironically, Trump’s highly visible attempts to shore up his base through this divisive strategy may cross a threshold for some of his more wavering supporters.

The strategy is one that casts adversaries as dangerously sacrilegious: a threat to all that the community holds to be good and holy. A society can adopt almost anything, secular or religious, as an inviolable value (justice, honor, environmentalism or racial purity). Anyone who is then seen as openly violating the ideals that define the nation becomes so toxic that their very presence in the public eye threatens its well-being.

You could see the tactic of painting opponents as violating national values in how Trump trained his Twitter vitriol on “the squad,” calling Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota not just mistaken and misguided, but also “America hating” and “a Nightmare for America.” Trump is implying that these four congresswomen of color are committed to defiling his vision of what makes America great; he doesn’t “believe the four congresswomen are capable of loving our Country.” If his audience believes AOC and her allies are sacrilegious actors, it means the four women themselves threaten what constitutes America by their very presence. As a result, the only remedy is to remove them from the nation, and accordingly, his followers broke into the now infamous “Send her back!” chant when Trump spoke about Omar, a Somali immigrant, at a rally.


And could see the tactic of painting opponents as impure at the Democratic debate Wednesday night when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., quipped that her first act as president would be to “Clorox the Oval Office.” And just as people committed to Trump’s vision of America connected with his tweet, the live audience at the debate loved the line, while those watching at home made it the third most-tweeted moment of the night.

Sociologists and social psychologists have long been aware of the power that collective values — and perceived threats to those values — have to motivate the members of a community. Inspired by Emile Durkhiem’s 1912 treatment of religion, many social psychologists and anthropologists have argued that stable societies can only exist when people have unified ideas of what is sacred around which they can rally; often referred to as “sacred values” in the literature.

Painting an antagonist as a moral pollutant carries significant political advantages because a group of people who believe that their deeply held values are under threat will become extremely motivated to defend them. Unless everyone works together to defend against those who deliberately flout common morality, the very principles that define the community are called into question. Once a leader, whether Trump or Hammurabi, successfully persuades their followers that an opponent embodies this pollution, all that’s needed to trigger a hostile reaction is a passing reference to them — seeing a member of the squad speaking, say, or seeing a friend or relative retweeting them (“They're even getting to my little cousin”). Trump and his team are aware of this: The Washington Post reported that one person close to the campaign said, “the general assumption with everything Squad-related is this helps shore up our base.”

Moreover, immorality contaminates whatever it touches. Psychologists have found that experimental subjects are hesitant to touch, let alone wear, a sweater they were told belonged to a murderer. They also found that this “moral contagion” also extends to a sweater designed but never touched by an immoral person. In the case of the squad, it extends to whomever a member of the squad endorses, to whichever legislation they propose, and to whatever causes they champion. This isn’t, of course, to say that the president’s attacks are in any way warranted, nor that both sides are equivalent in their behavior, but to demonstrate that this rhetoric can be effective regardless of the truth of the underlying accusations.

Polling data illustrates the effect of moral contagion. One classic political example comes from surveys of voters who became less supportive of the Affordable Care Act when it was described by poll takers as Obamacare, even though the description of the policy was the same. In one CNBC poll, those who said they were opposed to the ACA rose from 37 percent to 42 percent when the law was referred to as Obamacare.

Among Democrats, moral contagion also affects their perception of Trump’s budgets, policies and judicial nominations, tarnishing them by association. In an open letter written in response to Trump’s tweets about the squad and African American Rep. Elijah Cummings and signed by almost 150 African Americans who worked in President Barack Obama’s White House, the mirror image of Trump’s remarks appear: “There is truly nothing more un-American than calling on fellow citizens to leave our country.” And a recognition of the energizing potential of a sacrilegious opponent emerges in their claim that open racism has “provided jet-fuel for our activism.”

In a country as large, diverse and populous as America, different communities will develop their own understandings of what defines the country. When these understandings are seen to be incompatible with one another, political discourse enters the existential territory of threats to sacred values. When that happens, any ounce of charity or the benefit of the doubt evaporates, and finding common ground and reconciliation becomes exceedingly difficult.

However, the strategy can also elicit a backlash from the opposing side. So not only are the targets of Trump’s attacks politicians who embody the values of many Democratic voters, but also the racist way in which he carries out those attacks threatens that community’s tolerant and pluralistic understanding of American values. Trump’s strategy has the consequence of making himself a well-defined villain whose very presence activates the counter-efforts of that community.

Since once someone has chosen a side, it’s hard to sway them— the very people making the attempt are, within that worldview, already seen as sacrilegious — perhaps the only way these minds will be changed is through self-reflection. If that’s the case, all one can do is to hold up a mirror and ask if they like the country they see. Ironically, Trump’s highly visible attempts to shore up his base through this divisive strategy may cross a threshold for some of his more wavering supporters, pushing them toward disillusionment, or even into the opposite camp, by showing them a picture of American values they don’t like.