One of the many maddening aspects of the success (thus far) of Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination is his supporters’ imperviousness to discussion of Trump’s flaws. Pundits and political opponents alike find themselves in a bind. Ignoring Trump’s outlandish statements allows his calumnies to go unanswered, but responding—even very critically—plays into his hands by giving him air time. Trump appears to have turned the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” into a campaign strategy.
Perhaps the better response would be to ignore him after all. But this raises a practical problem: how? Trump may be a mediocre businessman, but he is a showman par excellence. Even Trump haters find it hard to change the channel.
Trump’s theatrics attract attention from everyone, even people who strongly disapprove of his behavior and pronouncements. But why does Trump’s message resonate with any but a handful of sexists, racists, and xenophobes? Two answers have become conventional.
In one view, there are more sexists, racists, and xenophobes out there than we realized. “More” does not mean a majority—not even a majority of the people voting in Republican primaries—but it does mean many millions of people. If this explanation is correct, then even assuming Trump ultimately fails in his White House quest, our society still has a lot of work to do to spread egalitarian values.
A second view treats Trump’s most outrageous proposals and statements as largely a sideshow. In this view, most Trump supporters find him appealing despite his sexism, racism, and xenophobia, not because of these attitudes. Although comparisons between Trump and Bernie Sanders are often too facile (as Thomas Edsall explained in The New York Times), there is no doubt that their respective better-than-expected performances thus far reflect overlapping economic anxieties in the public at large.
To be sure, if Trumpism and Sandersism arise out of the same populist zeitgeist, one still needs an explanation for why any particular voter would resonate with one rather than the other. Party affiliation could provide part of the answer, but many Trump supporters are not traditional Republicans. One demographic analysis found that Trump’s strongest support comes from “a certain kind of Democrat.” Because the Sanders campaign is a more natural home for Democrats, the decision to support Trump must be based on something different, and thus it appears that his us-versus-them attitude is a substantial part of his appeal.
The true breadth of that appeal, however, remains to be seen. In the balance of this column, I want to consider whether something else also contributes to Trump’s appeal. That something is boredom.
The Social Science of Boredom
When I say that boredom could play a role in garnering support for Trump, I do not simply mean that because Trump is entertaining, people are attracted to him. As I noted above, many of the people who find Trump fascinating are horrified by him. He is fascinating in the way that a car crash is: You can’t look away, and you hate yourself for that fact, but the spectacle certainly doesn’t lead you to want to get into a car crash yourself.
How, then, does boredom explain the Trump phenomenon? Two studies recently highlighted on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain provide intriguing possibilities.
One of these studies found that boredom increases feelings of nostalgia. Another study by the same researchers found that people who were bored were more likely to impose stiffer punishments on “outgroup” criminals than on “ingroup” criminals, while those who were not bored treated both groups the same. In other words, boredom made people more likely to act based on their prejudices.
Donald Trump perfectly encapsulates nostalgia and prejudice against outgroups. He promises to “make America great again,” thus invoking nostalgic feelings for a mythic past. Meanwhile, he derides women, Mexicans, Muslims, and other outgroups. His candidacy appears tailor-made for bored (white, mostly male) Americans.
But wait. If Trump appeals to the bored, shouldn’t the fact that he himself is interesting undermine his own appeal? Wouldn’t bored (white male) Americans be drawn to Trump because he promises nostalgia and prejudice, then find Trump entertaining, and thus cease being bored, whereupon they lose their appetite for the nostalgia and prejudice that drew them to Trump in the first place?
In a word, no. I am not seriously suggesting that Trump’s appeal runs directly through boredom, but neither did the researchers who conducted the studies cited above conclude that boredom directly causes feelings of nostalgia and prejudice.
To see why boredom might still be relevant to Trumpism, we need to unpack the idea of boredom. In the experiments described on the Hidden Brain episode, inactivity was typically the means of inducing boredom, but inactivity is not necessarily boring. People who have been trained to meditate do not find meditation boring, for example. Likewise, sleeping is a form of inactivity, but if you are tired, you welcome sleep. Inactivity can be rejuvenating.
So what exactly is boredom? The researchers who conducted the boredom studies cited above defined it as “an unpleasant affective state that entails a sense of purposelessness.” People who are bored lack the feeling that their lives have meaning—at least while they are bored. To explain their findings the boredom researchers hypothesized that identification with past glory—nostalgia—was one way to achieve meaningfulness. Identification with their own group—and by extension, disadvantaging those outside their group—was another way.
To return to the matter at hand, the fact that Trump is entertaining is somewhat beside the point. If the researchers are correct, Trump appeals to the bored because he fills their lives with meaning.
What lessons should we draw from that arresting conclusion? I am not a political strategist, but if I were providing advice to Trump’s primary opponents or, if it comes to it, general election opponent, I would say this: You do not defeat Trump by simply pointing out that his policies are immoral (e.g., torture), impossible (e.g., make Mexico pay for the wall), and irresponsible (e.g., whip up anti-Muslim prejudice), although they surely are all of those things; you beat Trump by offering people better ways to find meaning in our common national project than nostalgia and prejudice.
In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has begun to use language that aims to do just that. Instead of Trump’s “make America great again” she implores voters to support her and “make America whole again.”
Will it work? Time will tell. In the meantime, one expects the contest to be anything but boring.