Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
The formation of Western society has been described as a “triumph of cold cognition over hot cognition.” Hot cognition referring to all that is automatic, subconscious, emotional, primitive in an evolutionary sense, and cold cognition referring to the deliberate processes of rationalization. Society exists as an organizational means of suppressing our more primitive urges–the manifestations of hot cognition. The information technology revolution has exacerbated this development, bringing forth a new culture: a culture of obsessive rationalization. Let computers stand in as the embodiment of rationality. Computers are an impressive and revolutionary new development, but humans are not computers. We are not input/output machines. We are smart, but we are also emotional, and subsequently irrational. As Sam Kean said in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “No matter how much we want to believe otherwise, our rational, logical brains aren’t always in charge. We crowned ourselves Homo sapiens, the wise ape, but Homo limbus might have been more apt.”
There has been a recent surge in literature recognizing the underappreciated role emotion plays in our civilized lives. Literature is only literature, and society lags behind in recognizing emotion’s importance. In place of that recognition we see an overcompensation in rationalization: “the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational, calculated ones.” Giddens recognizes the severity of this trend and “stresses that in all societies the maintenance of personal identity and its connection to broader social identities is a primordial requirement for ontological security.” Yet Edward Slingerland, author of Trying Not to Try, provides us a troubling contrast to the suggestion by Giddens: “The ideal person in Western philosophy is not only disembodied but also radically alone.”
Imagine if we were to take Lenski’s evolutionary scope of sociology. We would notice quickly that there are many structures and traditions in place that inhibit a full embrace of our identities as advanced social pack animals. This is not to discredit the accomplishments of cold cognition; cold cognition has given us economies, laws and all their rewards and punishments—it has crafted our civilizations. Cold cognition is our birthright as human beings, unique to our higher development and flexible enough to change priorities when introduced to new circumstances. Cold cognition has crafted the structures that keep our hot cognition in check, the structures that allowed us to rise from hairless apes to members of states. Yet recently American society hasn’t been doing a great job bridging these two cognitive systems. Slingerland cites psychologist Robert Frank’s work on why we cooperate, which argues that powerful emotions are what make us want to cooperate, not rules and regulations. Yet in Western society, we continue to see a dominance of the systems designed to incentivize cold cognition: laws and rationalization.
Many sociologists believe that rationalization has been incorrectly elected to represent progress, while it instead results in a dehumanized society that leaves its members emotionally dissatisfied. With the election of Trump, it would appear we’ve reached a tipping point of that dissatisfaction. So how do we, representing the future of sociology, understand the election of Donald Trump in this context, and how can we reshape our sociologies to fit the times? It will boil down to a rekindled appreciation of the impulses societies are now more than ever failing to recognize and address.
A post-truth society is a society that calls for emotional sociology, because it will be the sociology that accounts for the fact that your subconscious doesn’t care if Donald Trump says something untrue, so long as it makes you feel a certain way. The foundational work has already been done: Marx describing capitalism as toxic to an individual’s ‘species-being’; Weber expressing fears that rationalization would trap man in an “iron cage” of rationality. Hochschild, Kemper, Heise, and others have more recently applied the logic of dual-construction coined by Giddens to the interplay of emotion and sociology: investigating how the expression of emotion shapes sociology while knowing that sociology also shapes the expression of emotion. It is out of these questions we see work like Hochschild’s “Deep Story” of Trump supporters.
Instead of burying herself in books, Hochschild strips herself of facts and moral judgment, packs her bags, and moves to Louisiana for half a decade. Through deep immersion and ethnomethodology, Hochschild investigates the values and emotions of white, heterosexual, middle-class Trump supporters. Hochschild recognized that something irrational must be happening in an event where an irreligious man is loved by white Evangelicals, where a man insults basically every single marginalized group and still gets votes from them, where a man would want to deport over 10 million immigrants and genuinely think he can, where a man with opposite views on various standard Republican positions is elected as the Republican nominee. He identified a powerful deep story that reached people on either end of the political spectrum. The tantalizing thing about emotions is that they are universal, and, no matter where and how you were raised, everyone knows what negative emotions feel like and how powerful they can be.
In the Age of Trump, a world without an agreed upon standard of truth and coherent rationality, we need to start appreciating how people feel and begin to let go of our obsession with how people think. We need to start asking questions like: have we pushed rationality too far? Have we overvalued the role of science and objective truth in society? Could the increasing prevalence of discourse on social constructivism, and its association with a relatively elite audience, help to undermine the status of truth in the public sphere? Should we really be surprised to see a shift away from the concept of objective truth as a buoy in an ocean of the unknown?
Owen Whooley, a member of SKAT (The Science, Knowledge, and Technology Section of the ASA), pondered these things, questioning his own culpability in the election of Trump. He asks, “Did my research, and the research of my like-minded peers, lead us, in some small way, to this point? Can we draw a line, however circuitous and indirect, between decades of critical science studies and the Trump administration’s ‘alternative facts?’ Is the phenomenon of fake news a logical, albeit extreme, destination on a slippery slope we created?” He voices his concerns that his critical research has undermined the legitimacy of objectivity, science, expertise, and subsequently true facts. When Trump cites alternative facts, claiming the economy is crumbling, the inner-city crime rates are rising, and there are violent illegal immigrants pouring over our border, any educated American will tell you it’s shameless bullshit. The issue is that he and his followers don’t care. The facts don’t matter when what is being conveyed is a feeling.
To start with a very broad sociological psychologizing of the voting audience Trump reached, we can start with acknowledging that people innately seek validation, recognition, and identity affirmation. In a world where most of the Trump voting demographic is dismissed as a bunch of lazy, uneducated hillbillies who also feel unrecognized and unrewarded for working their hardest at the American dream, Trump is a breath of fresh air. Trump voices all of these voters’ frowned-upon convictions loud and clear. When Trump expresses their “politically incorrect views” and then has these electoral victories, their views feel respectable and respected. Trump thereby gives these voters a feeling of respect for their identities.
Cities, “blue islands in an ocean of red,” make up less than 4% of American land. Yet, they are densely populated and are the origins of much of popular culture, especially movies and TV. Wong points out that, “Every TV show is about LA or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in. When they did make a show about us, we were jokes…wide-eyed, naive fluffballs.” Wong accuses the city-dwellers (one of which he is now) of justifying the attentional neglect of the red with sentiments along the lines of, “what’s newsworthy about a bunch of toothless hillbillies crying over a flattened trailer?” To these people, Donald Trump served as “a brick chucked through the window of the elites.” So, they voted for Donald Trump, if that’s what a wake-up call meant.
Listening to Trump speak is often difficult and upsetting, but that does not mean there isn’t something we can learn from him. What can we learn from Trump’s idiolect, knowing that his message, or his means of delivering that message, has reached so many Americans? Knowing that all language varieties being equally valid systems of communication does not correlate with their being equally valued in society, what does the success of Trump’s idiolect say about what values society holds now? Let’s start by just listening, as Evan Puschak did in his video essay “How Donald Trump Answers a Question.”
The first thing you’ll notice is that Donald Trump doesn’t speak anything like any of the other presidential candidates. While other candidates’ forms of speech are carefully cultivated, most likely based on the assumption that their words will be picked apart, Donald Trump brings salesman vocabulary and tone to political jargon. Because Trump is so adept at convincingly overemphasizing, exaggerating, and inciting emotion, “he has a huckster’s knack for selling a feeling, even if the idea and facts that underscore it are spurious, racist or just plain incomprehensible.” Trump also doesn’t care much for being intellectually impressive. Of the 200 words Puschak analyzes, only four of the words have more than two syllables. When rated by the Flesch-Kincai reading test, Trump’s speech ranked at a 4th grade reading level. Trump also has a knack for the use of the second person, intimately engaging the audience in a way many politicians don’t. Finally, Trump ensures, even if awkwardly, that his important sentences end with “strong, punchy words.” Interestingly, Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term “Serial Position Effect” to describe the human tendency to remember the first and last words when presented with a series of words. This means that if Trump ends his sentences with scary words, Trump’s scare factor will stick more than anything else he says. I wonder if Trump has a strong background in linguistic cognitive science research, or whether he’s simply learned to fall back on the simplest ways of engaging a listener to compensate for his inability to articulate anything otherwise.
The manipulability and potency of our emotional system isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rekindling our appreciation of our more primitive systems is a good lesson that perhaps needed to be learned the hard way. Trump has learned to hijack this system to a degree unprecedented in the current political sphere. The tragic thing is that Trump, while applying this talent to politics, has, over any other emotion, chosen to mobilize the hate of his followers—hate derived from the cynicism of our time, like the one we see depicted in Hochschild’s deep story.
Maybe I’m overly-optimistic, but I believe that if a candidate ran who could mobilize love in the same way that Trump mobilizes hate, he or she would have won. We desperately need a sociology molded and pushed by love. It might feel like an oversimplification to argue such a striking turn of events originated in a system that can exist on a level as micro as the individual, yet as it said in the Vedic tradition, “as is the smallest, so is the greatest. As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.”
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