Monday, February 11, 2019


Picking up from our previous post about approaching the rise of the Trump voter in terms of a social engineering experiment, one of the best indicators of epicyclic thinking is that each adjustment helps explain only one isolated aspect of the situation. In contrast, when introducing a good framework or mental model, most of what we see should suddenly make more sense. This applies not only to what happens but to how it happens.

With that in mind, let's talk about something that has been largely absent from the various think pieces on the subject but which has great explanatory power and which rises naturally from the social engineering framing: catharsis/emotional release.

If we start with the compound hypothesis that conservative movement propaganda and disinformation has driven a significant portion of the population (let's call it 20 to 40% just to have a ballpark) into a highly unpleasant state of stress and cognitive dissonance and that these people gravitate toward and reward anyone who relieves this emotional tension, either through message, affect, or language.

Consider affect for a moment. From the standpoint of someone who has spent the past few years or even decades hearing a relentless gusher of stories about welfare cheats and foreign criminals and persecution of Christians and countless other threats and outrages, a politician like Mitt Romney seems so bizarrely out of touch as to suggest collaboration or some form of mental illness.

For people in the treatment group, politicians like Trump and members of the tea party provide an enormous sense of emotional release because finally the leaders of the party are saying what the subjects see as appropriate things in an appropriate manner. For the most part this seems to be because this new crop of politicians also received the treatment.

I don't want to get too caught up in the finer distinctions between catharsis, emotional release, relief of stress, etc. What matters is that the conservative movement has spent more than a quarter century using distorted news and disinformation to cultivate a base motivated by anxiety bordering on panic and anger bordering on rage. It is easy to see why the leaders believed that having a base this motivated and hostile to the opposition would be to their advantage. It is not so easy to see why they believed they could control it indefinitely.

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