A time for much thought and new action?

Responding to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.

09 November 2016

The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic together raise serious questions concerning how Psychology as a discipline should respond to the xenophobia, misogyny, and disablism which now occupy a pivotal place in political discourse and action.

We have already seen the UN’s condemnation of the British Government’s failure to uphold the human rights of disabled people in this country ignored while the British Prime Minister’s attacks on the ‘citizens of the world’ at the Tory Party conference were strikingly similar in tone to Stalin’s and Hitler’s anti-Semitic denunciation of the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ in Russian and German society. Added to this the unpleasant anti-terrorist posters on the London Underground, replete with images reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, at the same time as Trump’s campaign has evoked anti-Semitic tropes of Jews controlling big business and foreign policy suggest we are in deep trouble. The increase in racist attacks on Britain’s streets confirm it.  

The challenges facing us can be likened those which faced German academics in the 1930s. Then the profession failed to challenge both the social Darwinist impulses which underpinned German fascism and the social and economic conditions which created the ground for scapegoating and mass irrational behaviour.  The psychologists of the day preferred to prioritise their own social status above challenging the evils about them. The lessons from that time have still not been learnt. Many psychologists today have continued a fruitless search for the individual roots of racism and anti-Semitism under the rubric of the social-cognitive approach, ignoring the bigger picture of the conditions which drive and shape our psychological repertoires. We need to be mindful of those elements of contemporary psychological discourse which may either fuel or hinder the current array of dark social forces. The response of our universities to the crisis in neo-liberalism needs to be factored in to the broad picture and the threat to the old liberal consensus. The social representations of fascism and political repression for example which circulate in the UK and US (which depict fascist and totalitarian politics as a phenomenon associated with foreign dictators from the non-Anglophone world, coming either from the anti-democratic extreme left or right) have produced a false complacency that we here are somehow immune from it. Wilhelm Reich at least understood that we are not, but few psychologists have ventured into that discussion.       

If we are to respond adequately to this crisis we must dispense with the notion that psychology is either above politics or is not political. At the very least we must build alliances across disciplines and with our students and trainees to preserve and defend liberal intellectual values and not be afraid to step into the political arena when it is necessary. Much thought and new action is called for.

 Dr Ron Roberts Kingston University London 

The outcome of the US Presidential Election would seem to have left some people bewildered, shattered and in fear of their future – certainly the global media circus appeared not to have predicted or expected the unexpected. Hence fathoming the unfathomable requires consideration of gender, meritocracy and tradition in a malleable information saturated space.

The apparent future that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were buying into was progressive, outward-facing and inclusive under the leadership of the ‘first woman candidate’ and largely with an expectation of campaign success. The ‘gender agenda’ emphasised making history and was presented as a critical element of Clinton’s campaign – to shatter the glass ceiling without getting cut, target inequality and discrimination and escape a masculine dominated society where guns and the subjugation of women would rule. The apparently neophobic, xenophobic views of insular proportions of US society would be rejected in favour of openness and inclusiveness.

Donald Trump’s campaign supporters were largely cast as villains in a swirling tragedy where the country would be sucked back into the past by those who longed to return to a time of their ‘forefathers’, to tradition, the implicit masculinity of conservative religion and a sense of certainty found in history – the time when men were men, women knew their place and ‘difference’ was intolerable or repressed.  With Trump’s unseemly ‘locker room talk’ advocating sexual molestation, it was perhaps further assumed the female proportion of his vote would be low or entirely lost. 
What appeared to be a less vocal aspect of the Clinton camp was an acknowledgment that meritocracy (cf. gender) could positively enable difference and equity based on qualities, abilities, skills and hence avoid casting a candidate as someone to vote for because she was a woman.  One must therefore question whether in such a political context, the emphasis on the feminine became the campaign. Although standing up for the rights of women, minority groups and LGBT voters (those Trump had marginalised through toxic grandiloquence), Clinton’s charms ultimately received mixed support. 

The denigrating insults slung between Clinton and Trump at the live rallies appeared to heighten in vicious and offensive content and emphasised the less palatable aspects of their presidential proposals. However there was little personal emphasis on turning the mirror inwardly and reflecting on the face that represented the future of America. Although psychologists globally referred to Narcissus, Machiavelli and other characterological considerations, the presence of such qualities in a leader was not an apparent concern.

The media portrayal and wider perception of Trump as a misogynist racist who remains openly against same-sex marriage and abortion (stating a religious rationale) assumed a candidate so abhorrent that this would only reduce voter alignment to his campaign. However, perhaps the most powerful leverage for candidate success was possibly the simplest.  Trust…..and on the flip side, deception. A year before the presidential campaign ended, the top three adjectives voters used to describe Clinton were ‘liar’, ‘dishonest’ and ‘untrustworthy’ and Trump was seen as ‘arrogant’, ‘a blowhard’ (a self-important egomaniac), and an ‘idiot’ (Rainy, The Fiscal Times, 27.08.15). 

Clinton especially was easy game in regard of reported questionable trust. The deceptive legacy of the Clintons has permeated social-political history, whether we recall Bill stating “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” or Hillary recalling “I remember landing under sniper fire” when ‘mis-speaking’ about a trip to Bosnia.  Was a track record of proven deception to dominate any track record of experience in politics and did the unravelling of the Clinton email scandal seal her fate?  The creation of a chink of uncertainty in regard of trust can easily end political careers and cannot be negated in a consideration of Clinton’s political demise in this campaign.  Being perceived as deceptive and untrustworthy opens up that chink and despite both candidates being in receipt of serious assertions of a criminal nature, it appeared that any perception of ‘Crooked Hillary’ trumped her opponent Donald’s alleged historic sexual assaults in regard of duplicity ratings.     

Further concerns surrounding deception across both campaigns were dealt with by ‘fact checking’, with media coverage reminiscent of Kipling’s Kaa from the Jungle Book which were never far from the public consciousness.  Certainly propaganda and the control of information are the ready allies of political dominance and warfare. With references to Wiki-Leaks, ‘Russian’ hackers or opponents who were overtly or covertly undermining campaigns, a cloud of suspicion remained. 
Ultimately the US electorate had a choice - the ‘bombastic’ man who spoke to traditional, masculine ‘values’ and the heritage of old-America or the ‘popular’ woman who stood for equality in a challenging world but had lied and couldn’t be trusted. 
Dr Lynsey Gozna
University of Leicester


Editor's note: We expect to receive numerous responses to the US election. Having just missed the December print edition, we will be happy to consider their publication here in what we hope will be an evolving resource. We also hope these openers will serve as the spark for contributions with a more practical focus: what will happen now? What should happen now? What concrete role can evidence-based psychology play? If you are a member of the British Psychological Society, you can log in to leave your contribution as a comment below. Alternatively, email me on [email protected] with your submission for consideration.