2016 Elections

The Moral Foundations of Trumpism

The pillars of American political life are shaking.

Something wrong here.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After Yale University economist Robert Shiller this week signed a letter supporting Hillary Clinton, he explained that he normally doesn't engage in politics, but that "the destruction that Trump's campaign tactics have done to the institutions of this nation is a great moral issue."

Morality and politics are complicated, even for Nobel Prize winners from the Ivy League. By many credible accounts, Donald Trump is either an extremely immoral man or an utterly amoral one. He lies habitually. He cheats spouses, partners and contractors. He humiliates women and brags of groping them. He exempts himself from civic duties others follow, bragging about his success in avoiding taxes and reneging on promises made to charities. His sprawling antipathies extend far and wide.

Despite this, tens of millions of Trump supporters consider themselves not only patriotic Americans but moral human beings, and most of their neighbors and families would no doubt concur. It's a conundrum -- good, decent people supporting a moral delinquent who subverts many of their most basic values. At the same time, many Trump supporters rage against a competent, unpopular, political operator whose most prominent flaws, including hiding her official e-mails, would not make a Trump top-10 list. They believe Hillary Clinton is an affront to their morality.

To sort through it, I returned to Jonathan Haidt's powerful 2012 book, "The Righteous Mind." I'm not sure it helped me.

Haidt used moral foundations theory to analyze the evolution of political communities and the differences between liberals and conservatives. The book is rich with evolutionary psychology, anthropology and other academic disciplines, and I apologize for simplifying it. But a key idea is that conservatives and liberals apply different moral frameworks to assess the world.

Specifically, liberals emphasize caring and fairness. Conservatives are committed to their own interpretations of those values while also placing great emphasis on authority, loyalty and sanctity, which liberals tend to discount.

When it comes to authority (the police know best), loyalty (tradition, family, community) and sanctity (traditional marriage), conservatives pretty much run the table, according to Haidt. (A sixth value, concerning liberty and oppression, has multiple liberal and conservative valences.)

These "moral matrices," as Haidt calls them, help us sort through political affinities. But they're highly adaptable. Some people care deeply about helping Syrian refugees. Others care equally deeply about the fate of fetuses in the womb. These caring people usually don't have a political identity in common.

In Nazi Germany, it was "fair" to wreak vengeance on Jews because, in the Nazi imagination, they deserved it. The U.S. is not Germany circa 1938, and the Trump campaign is not a Nazi enterprise. But in 2016 America, the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis support Trump in part out of "loyalty" to their white tribe.

Morality is easily perverted. That's why norms are so important. They help us distinguish between the loyalty of mobsters who commit murder together and the loyalty of parents who raise children together. Norms police behavior; they keep us coloring inside the lines. Once those lines are crossed, norms become more difficult to safeguard and maintain, and society risks losing important moral contours.

Trump's contempt for norms is not new, or exclusively political. He engaged in flagrantly unfair business practices, refusing to pay small contractors for their work because he was rich enough, and bully enough, to cheat them. For decades he trampled both liberal and conservative notions of sanctity. (Is there any corner of the culture war where it's OK to call your daughter "a piece"?)

Trump's pitch is that he must break eggs -- dispense with "political correctness" -- to impose order on a political culture spinning out of control. He'll reassert traditional sexual and racial hierarchies while imposing a gruff authoritarian discipline on national politics and restoring the lost economy of the mid-20th century.

It requires a certain psychological and cultural disposition to find this fantasy appealing. Few Trump voters are latter-day brown shirts, spreading anti-Semitism, or pummeling protesters. Most are simply engaged in a familiar bargain with themselves, in which they regulate their perceptions, and recalibrate their values, to meet larger needs.

Bernie Sanders supporters who once bitterly resented the insider political culture of Hillary Clinton but now support her are perhaps treading similar terrain. Many Sanders supporters are angry, like Trump supporters. They resent elites. They feel threatened by the global economic order. But they don't share the Trumpian fear of domestic cultural change. They are not reactionaries.

"Once you see yourself as part of a group that’s in some sense threatened, your moral compass adjusts accordingly, and things that seem abhorrent to people outside of your group can seem good and true to you," e-mailed Robert Wright, author of "The Moral Animal" and "Nonzero," probing studies of evolutionary psychology and the development of human societies. "Trump promises to vanquish the threat, so he seems good from within the group; he’s judged leniently, while people seen as part of the threat are judged harshly. This is unfortunately how the mind works, and pretty much all of us have exemplified the problem at one point or another. That we don’t realize we’ve exemplified it is just testament to how subtly and effectively the machinery works."

Again, that's true for liberals as much as conservatives. But it's conservatives who feel most threatened these days, as demographic and cultural change tests their racial tolerance, traditional values and very concept of America. It's hardly a coincidence that a white male candidate steeped in racist and sexist language and conduct is running against the first female major-party nominee, or following the first black president. Trump is the embodiment of reaction.

Under cultural threat, conservatives have been making stark departures from longstanding political norms -- suppressing the votes of people who disagree with them, deliberately promoting government waste and dysfunction -- that they might find abhorrent under less stressful circumstances.

Trump arguably represents the most egregious break from political norms yet. He is a wildly dangerous and unstable figure, which is why many fellow Republicans have declared him beyond the pale. For some, denouncing Trump was a political decision. For most, however, it appears to have been made on grounds of national security, morality or both, which required refuting an evolving, adaptive moral narrative spun by conservative allies. 

Win or lose, Trump will receive tens of millions of votes next Tuesday. His tally will be analyzed for its political content. But it will also represent the latest push in moral relativism sweeping conservative America and, as Shiller perceived, threatening vital American institutions.

Once a system has become sufficiently elastic to accommodate, rationalize and even champion a Trump, there's no telling where the boundaries move next. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.