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The Electorate: America Divided

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  • The Anger Won't End
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The Anger Won’t End on Nov. 8

Donald Trump’s supporters won’t want olive branches if he loses. That’s not how anger works.

By Drake Bennett
September 15, 2016
Photographer: Noam Galai/Getty Images 

For connoisseurs of bad vibes, these are days of joy and wonder. In the past decade and a half, an entire academic literature has grown up around the ways that seemingly related moods can pull people in ­different directions. The presidential race has been an unprecedented opportunity to savor the varieties of negative emotion. Let’s examine two of the ­contest’s prevailing sentiments: fear and anger.

On the surface, they have much in common. Both feelings are typically understood to be negative. People describe the two as unpleasant, and we certainly don’t go to a “feel-good” movie expecting to leave fearful or enraged. Both are triggered by perceived threats. And both explain the appeal of Donald Trump, according to supporters and critics alike, with his fiery and foreboding denunciations of illegal immigration, terrorism, crime, and political correctness.

While fear and anger have come to be used interchangeably to describe the mindset of Trump’s base, they are far from equivalent. Traditionally, psychologists have categorized emotions based on whether they impel us toward or away from their object. One widely held theory describes emotions as a suite of programs for the mind, honed by natural selection, that help us do things such as find a mate (love), avoid disease (disgust), concentrate on a problem (interest), or recover from a loss (sadness). Love, interest, and other positive emotions are so-called approach emotions, and negative ones such as disgust are avoidance emotions. Fear fits neatly into this model. It makes you want to flee, and its physiological manifestation—increased heart rate, quick breathing, focused attention—is geared toward exactly that.

Anger is different. Scans of angry brains show activity in the left frontal cortex, the part associated with approach emotions. That makes sense. When you’re angry, you don’t want to run away; you want to get in someone’s face. And unlike disgust or fear, anger feels good—you don’t nurse disgust. “Looking ahead to how you’re going to avenge a perceived harm feels exhilarating,” says Jennifer Lerner, a psychologist and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her research, with Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley, has found that angry people are much more optimistic than fearful people. The angrier you are, the safer you feel from future terrorist attacks, the better you rate your health, the more attractive you believe you are to marital prospects. Indeed, angry people see the future as rosily as happy people do. That’s not true with fear.

Anger also shapes how—and how much—we absorb new information. A 2010 study by Michael MacKuen, Jennifer Wolak, Luke Keele, and George Marcus presented subjects with an article about affirmative action, with links to further reading. People who were angered by the article read half as many pages of additional material as those who were made anxious by it. The irate group’s minds were already made up, so they saw little point in learning more. Anxious subjects not only read more, they also were far more likely to read material that presented viewpoints opposed to theirs.

The drawback of thinking scared, however, is that the thirst for new information is undermined by a tendency to overweight frightening facts, so we end up with a distorted view of the world. Anger has its own biases. It tends to make people see threats through a personal lens. They view ­problems as the handiwork of ill-intentioned individuals, rather than the result of broad economic or societal forces. All things being equal, a candidate would prefer that his supporters be angry, fired up, and insulated against doubt, and have his ­opponents’ supporters be anxious. Anxious voters are open to persuasion—and multiple studies have also found that they’re less motivated to do things like volunteer, donate, and even vote.

This is the through line in Trump’s otherwise erratic presidential campaign. For all the talk of the blue-collar economic fears driving Trump’s campaign, it has run largely on spleen. Trump’s public pronouncements are heavy on threats, challenges, and insults; his supporters have blasted perceived enemies on social media with furious invective; and his rallies have been punctuated by brawls. (As in ice hockey, the fighting seems to be what many fans come for.) The parable Trump tells—about bad leaders who have weakened America and the artful dealmaker who, alone, can fix it—matches the angry mind’s simplified universe of personal blame. His repeated invocation of a “silent majority” parallels anger’s empowerment: His supporters aren’t weak, he tells them, they’re strong. They’re just not loud enough.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with anger in public life. All political movements depend on it. Civil rights protesters were propelled by moral rage, and the original Revolution-era Tea Partiers were good and steamed. But politics does feel particularly angry at the moment. Poll after poll shows a more ideologically segregated country whose inhabitants view their opponents as aliens and their disagreements as irreconcilable. In a world of self-curated Facebook news feeds, everyone is like the subjects in the MacKuen study, reading manifestoes and rants that buttress their worldview and keep the indignation at a titillating simmer.

The thing about emotions is that they can be either personality traits or states dictated by events. Trump seems to be a temperamentally angry person: He punched his second-grade music teacher in the face, he wrote in his 1987 memoir, “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music.” Not all of his followers share his makeup, though, and their mood could change. After all his contradictions and policy reversals, perhaps the only thing we can know about what a Trump presidency would look like is that it would be utterly unpredictable, and the typical human reaction to the utterly unpredictable is apprehension. If significant numbers of Republicans end up deserting their party’s nominee, it will be in part because fear trumped fury.

Still, anger, more than fear, has a kind of momentum, and that bodes ill for the election’s aftermath. The exhilaration and certainty and the bias to see villainy rather than good-faith disagreements—all that builds on itself. “It’s recursive,” Lerner says. An electoral loss will simply be more fuel. If Trump loses, the tens of millions of supporters whose anger he channeled aren’t going to be predisposed to take stock and reexamine their beliefs. They’re not going to be interested in olive branches or compromise, and they’re not going to have any patience for politicians who are. They’re not going to think anything has been decided. That’s how anger works. And it’s something we should all fear.