As humans, we are first and foremost programmed to survive. Millions of years of evolution through natural selection have sculpted instincts and intellect aimed at staying alive. Fast, sudden movements instantly capture our attention, and unexpected noises cause us to jump back reflexively. It only takes common sense to see that survival requires a certain degree of sensitivity to threat. A desire to feel safe is part of our hardwiring, and as such, we tend to want people and rules in our lives that are going to help protect us from harm.
For some people, Donald Trump and his policies are seen as that protection. Afraid of the radical Islamic terrorists who are out there plotting attacks? Don’t worry—Donald Trump is going to ban every single Muslim from entering the country. Do you fear the Mexican immigrants coming across the border that you heard were “drug dealers, murderers, and rapists”? Fear not, President Trump is going to build a wall to keep out all the bad guys.
It is clear that those politicians who are best able to exploit our most basic biological traits, like our instinct to survive, are going to occupy a timeless niche in the political environment. The effectiveness of fear mongering in politics is no real secret to anyone anymore. But there were many GOP candidates who were great fear mongers, like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, whose success flailed in comparison to Trump’s. That is because fear mongering alone isn’t enough.
After you succeed in making them afraid, you must also convince them that everything will be A-OK if they have you on their side. First you create the need for a hero, and then you pretend you are that hero. Donald Trump is the candidate who is offering the most extreme measures for protection. He’s strong and the other candidates are weak or “low energy.” It is only he who can save the day.
So an obvious question is, why does Trump’s tactic work on some people but not others? Don’t we all want to feel safe? Why is it that liberals and progressives feel like Trump is the actual danger and not the protector? Neuroscience and psychology research supports one clear explanation: Conservatives are hypersensitive to threat compared to liberals, and thus respond more fearfully.
For example, a 2008 study published in the journal Science found that conservatives have a heightened physiological response to threatening stimuli. Researchers tested this by showing participants threatening images—like spiders on faces or car crashes—while they measured skin electrical conductance, and presented loud bursts of white noise while they measured the strength of their eye blinks. The data showed that those who held conservative values startled more easily and had increased electrical skin conductance, which indicates a heightened state of arousal. Those with liberal views did not seem to be affected by the stimuli.
Additionally, an MRI study published in Current Biology in 2011 found that self-described conservatives had larger amygdalas than those who identified as liberals. The amygdala is the region of the brain that is involved in threat processing. Generally speaking, as the strength of the electrical response of the amygdala increases, so does the sense of fear we feel in response to a stimulus. As a result, stimuli that might seem neutral to most people, like Muslims or Mexicans, might appear threatening to conservatives.
Trump is popular amongst the right because he can tap into irrational fears and amplify them. Then, when threat seems imminent, he offers the most drastic solutions. And when danger is on the doorstep, there’s not much time for rational thinking.
One might be inclined to point out that not all Trump supporters appear to be fearful. In fact, at Trump rallies many of the attendees are angry and aggressive toward anti-Trump protesters. But hostility is a natural response when one feels threatened, and the anger that fuels their behavior stems from deep-rooted anxieties.
It is also important to remember that we aren’t just programmed to survive. We are also hardwired to flourish. It is in our nature to vigorously compete for success. In essence, we are constantly trying to win. It’s part of the mentality that drove so many civilizations to conquer others.
As such, we shouldn’t expect all Trump supporters to be fearful or irrational people. Some are just Americans who acknowledge that all of the countries in the world are contenders in one big game of power, and that most of them are not going to play by the book. Are nations like North Korea, Iran, and Russia always going to follow the rules and act according to what is fair? Absolutely not, and to some it would seem unwise and even flat out foolish for us to do so when everything is at stake.
Trump told a journalist what he’s constantly telling the world: “I always win. Knock on wood. I win. It’s what I do. I beat people. I win.” For many, Trump is a president who is going to do everything in his power to ensure that we get ahead as a nation. He will be tough. He will wheel and deal. And he will definitely play dirty when the situation calls for it. Whatever shady dealings Trump does, he is doing it for us, and we should be thankful to be on the winning team.
The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn’t appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist and science writer. He has written for Scientific American, Psychology Today, Slate, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post. He tweets at @BobbyAzarian.