To See Why Trump is Winning, Ask This Question

George Lakoff has a long essay out on the topic of why Trump is winning. If you are a fan of Lakoff (ehem!), you will recognize the familiar moral logic of strong father conservatism. In a nutshell, Lakoff draws our attention to a conservative view of the family to explain how Trump’s brash arrogance appeals to some and not to others.  I do not disagree with Lakoff, but I think there might be a more basic way to understand why Trump is winning: by asking a very simple question.

Try this simple exercise.  Start by reading this question:

How should I live?

Now, before you answer this question–ask yourself where you as an individual tend to look for answers to this question: religion or culture? Do you go to church and find there the basic answers to how you should live or do you read a novel or a book of philosophy or a compelling film, for example, and find therein the big answers to the question.

My sense is that how we answer this question for ourselves divides the electorate into two basic groups: (1) people who get the answer to “How should I live?” from some kind of organized religion and (2) people who get the answer to “How should I live?” outside of religion.

It is not a foolproof method, but it does seem to provide a general guideline.

For Republicans who find answers to “How should I live?” in Christianity, a good portion of them initially supported Ted Cruz.  Republican voters guided, by contrast, by more secular and cultural sources tended to be supporters of trump.

As the primary progressed, however, two things happened that changed the dynamic.

First, Cruz supporters switched their focus from “How should I live?” to a more ardent version of this question:

How should my religion make the whole country live?

That is a version of the question that winnows down the pile of Cruz supporters. At the same time, a second development happened: Trump started explicitly telling voters that he answered the question “How should I live?” by consulting the Bible–that he is a big Bible guy.

To many outsiders, Trump’s appeal to voters on the basis that he was religious seemed shallow, fake, phony–and of course it is. Trump is less religious than Leatherface Sawyer on a good day. But Trump’s basic communication to voters that he answers the question by consulting the Bible was enough to assure Christian voters–those not radicalized by Cruz’ more extreme version of the question.

The remaining Trump supporters find answers to the question “How should I live?” in (a) white supremacist discourse and (a) popular get-rich-quick literature–in particular, the version of the get-rich-quick genre found on TV and embodied by Trump.

I have long suspected that one of the reasons Trump is winning is because he has built a coalition that includes one of the most fundamental groups in American culture–one that is almost never identified by political scientists: people who organize their lives according to one or more schemes found in the ‘self-help’ section of the bookstore.  For example, if you have read and consciously live your life by the principles found in George Clason’s 1926 classic The Richest Man in Babylon–you’re a Trump fanatic.


Why is Trump’s support so durable in the face of so many gaffes and offensive statements?

Well, the white supremacists want a racist nativist candidate, so they will never walk away.  The Evangelicals will not abandon Trump because he has told them that he answers the big question by consulting the Bible. The think about Evangelical voters is that they take you at your word and allow for slip ups. All that matters to them is that the candidate keep telling them that he or she goes to the Bible to answer “How should I live?” The candidate can even live in ways flagrantly opposed to their principles and it still holds.

But the last group is the key. For the most part, no matter what Trump does or says, no matter how obnoxious, still seems to feed into the get-rich-quick, devil-may-care ideal type.  The issue is not “political correctness,” but any kind of correctness. All that matters to this group is that Trump embody the maxim that one should live to increase one’s wealth. He does that 24/7.

Curiously, there is has been no real effort to date to show that Trump is a bad role model for the get-rich-quick types.  Trump’s image as a successful deal maker is untarnished.

What’s the opposite of a self-made man in the American imagination?

What’s the opposite of a religious man who answers big questions about his life by consulting the Bible?

What’s the opposite of a white supremacist?

Show Trump to be these opposites–instead of repeatedly pointing out how shocking it is that Trump embodies these ideals–and his support amongst Republicans will likely wain.

“How should I live?” A simple question that plays a big role in the election.



2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Kim Cooper,

    Good article. Are you familiar with Doug Muder’s use of the question, “How should I live”? Here’s the link:

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