Why Filipinos love Donald Trump: A psychologist’s survey

Studies have shown different brain activity responses between conservatives and liberals, sometimes suggesting emotional and energetic responses not based on reason.  Photo: WhiteHouse.gov.

By Lirio Sobrevinas Covey, Ph.D.

On January 20, 2021, a new president, Joseph R Biden, will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. It was, arguably, a close victory; his opponent, the incumbent president, Donald Trump, won nearly half (47.5%) of the popular vote.  At latest count, 72 million Americans had voted for Trump. That figure is only the second largest garnered by a candidate — Biden’s 78 million was the first largest — in the history of U.S. presidential races.  

The enormous share of the total vote that went to Trump surprised many in the commentary class, disappointed Biden supporters, and was regarded as validation of their expected win by Trump supporters.  Major polling had indicated a much larger margin, as many as double-digit figures, of votes going to Biden than Trump.  As well, the continuing increase of COVID rates, in contrast to declines in other countries, was regarded as a measure of government failure to mount an effective federal response, primarily attributed to Trump. Nationwide demonstrations and counter demonstrations protesting the status quo, such as those related to the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights, had occurred close to election day furthering expectations of a Trump loss.   

Why, then, the evident robust level of Trump’s popularity as represented by his 72 million voters?  Another equally intriguing question is:  How is Trump regarded in the FilAm community?

Taking advantage of current interest on this subject, I undertook a small, certainly unscientific, survey of FilAm friends in the New York area prior to and on the day of the election, targeting those who indicated a preference for Trump.  Eliciting answers from my sample of convenience was not difficult, as respondents answered my questions without hesitation, given assurances that their responses would be confidential.  Notably, the answers boiled down to issues of policy, actions, and character.

The Nov. 3 elections saw long lines, like this one in New York City. Photo by Boyet Loverita

On policy – Trump was lauded for his advocacy of law and order, exemplified by his willingness to use police and military to quell the recent riots related to the Black Lives Matter movement; his restriction of immigration by limiting entry at the U.S. border; and most ardently, his anti-abortion position.

On action – he was lauded for his productive stewardship of the economy which had resulted in a healthy stock market, lower unemployment rate, and lower taxes. 

On character —  a favored positive characteristic stood out: He is seen as strong, able to stand up to other global strong men, evidenced by his dominance in relations with the leaders of North Korea and China, with reference to its positive impact on the Philippines, their home country.  Negative character descriptions were many — a unanimous disfavor of his crude manner of speaking, his disrespect of opponents and critics marking him as unpresidential and unstatesmanlike, his unabashed public denigration of persons with disability, and his inability to show empathy for the needy and poor.

Interestingly, such negative assessments of character were regarded as less consequential when pitted against his positive attributes – his presumed accomplishments for the economy, and, more importantly, his pro-life position.

I believe it can be said that the views expressed by my sample of FilAm Trump supporters are quite consistent with the views of the conservative class in the general U.S. electorate.

A second, deeper question is – what mechanisms underlie the felt affiliations of Trump supporters. Much has been written to explain Trump’s enduring appeal to sectors in the American public. Drawing from this literature, here are some dynamics that I consider plausible.  

  1. Misinformation –Trump tends to state only good news about himself and his accomplishments, filling an incomplete knowledge base, whether fact-based or not.  When repeated again and again, these statements can become regarded as truths that will be unstintingly held even when faced with contrary facts.   
  2. Fear arousal – Trump’s statements can insinuate potential danger from groups that are not in the cultural mainstream, for example, minorities and immigrants. Such a practice is more frequently seen among conservatives than liberals. Studies have shown different brain activity responses between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are found to generate more anxiety-related brain activity when presented with disturbing images. Differences in brain structure have also been noted, for example, a larger amygdala, a structure that causes a stronger response to fear and anxiety. These brain responses can generate emotional and energetic responses that are not readily controlled by reason.  
  3. Allegiance to a protector. When fear and anxiety are aroused, then assuaged, by a protector, devotion and fealty to the protector can result.  Negative perceptions of the protector then become easy to ignore and dismiss.
  4. High attentional engagement. Entertainers excel in this ability. Trump’s background as a television star through his highly popular program that lasted for many years – “The Apprentice” — serves him well. Bringing your audience to laughter is a powerful skill; this can generate pleasurable brain sensations and emotions that will make the watcher return, potentially resulting in a visceral connection with the performer.  Such a visceral connection can be invulnerable and resistant to logic and reason. 

Whether these explanations apply to FilAm Trump supporters remains to be explored.

Dr. Lirio Sobrevinas Covey, Ph.D.is a retired Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center.  

© The FilAm 2020

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